I found an article in China News today which strikes an interesting counterpoint to social norms here in the UK. I won’t be reproducing the picture which accompanied the article, for legal reasons which will become obvious...
The story concerns a kindergarten in Dongwan, not far from Guangzhou, where the reporter watched as a couple of dozen children aged between 3 and 6 played outside under the supervision of their teachers. To the reporter, the most striking - and to me, as a pretty average Westerner, somewhat disquieting - aspect of the scene was that the boys were mostly totally unclothed, the girls only slightly more modestly dressed. “Quite a few local residents were watching from beyond the railings,” writes the reporter, “while some took pictures on their mobile phones.” One family head was said to have reservations over whether having both sexes running about together naked was a good idea, and also wondered whether being unclothed and having water fights in what was a chilly wind was healthy. The head teacher responded to this by saying that the children were having a PE lesson, and that going naked was in effect sunbathing, which is good for their skeletal development and helps to ward off contagious viral diseases such as hand, foot and mouth (of which there have been several fatal outbreaks in China in recent years).
While the teachers were quite blase about the whole thing, some of the residents were less sanguine: “These kind of influences aren’t all that good. Yes, they’re all little kids, but the bigger ones are going on seven, and to have them running about naked, playing chase together, can’t be good for their development.” One mother of a two-year-old girl was of the opinion that it was “really quite indecent,” as she covered her daughter’s eyes and added: “my little treasure mustn’t watch!” Another onlooker, afraid her grandson would catch cold, was trying to get him to wrap up.
When interviewed by the reporter, the head of the kindergarten explained that going outside naked to get the benefit of the sunshine was part of their curriculum, adding that “it’s very popular overseas.” She recognized that the girls had to have a modicum of clothing for the sake of decency, but was happy with the boys being totally unclothed. If parents were unhappy, they could ask for their child to be excused.
Another point that came up after a little bit of investigative reporting was that many kindergartens in the city didn’t provide separate toilets for boys and girls, to the disquiet of parents, and that the inevitable observations had led to some embarrassing “mummy, why...?”-style questions.
The reporter interviewed a professional psychological consultant, who was of the opinion that it was better to give even young children like these an idea of sexual differences, so as to avoid confusion over gender identities later in life, rather than lumping them all in together with no apparent differentiation.
China does in fact have basic national regulations on toilet provision in kindergartens, with a requirement that boys are provided with urinals and girls with traditional squat-down toilets, but there’s no law to say that the two need be in separate rooms. Guangdong province, though, goes further and requires that boys and girls be separated. Other cities, such as Nanjing and Kunming, have instituted regulations requiring that new-build schools have to provide separate toilets.
But what about the elephant in the room? The one aspect of the story which I think is very telling is that there’s not even a hint that letting children run around stark b*llock naked in full view of the local adults is in any way asking for accusations of child abuse and paedophilia. The thought of allowing adults to take snaps of bare children over the railings has become so loaded that it’s positively chilling from a twenty-first-century Western viewpoint. But the professional child-development experts interviewed for the original piece in the Guangzhou Daily don’t allude to it in any way. After a full twenty minutes of pondering why this might be, a couple of thoughts spring to mind.
China doesn’t have the equivalent of the UK’s red-top morale-outrage banner headline, whipping up widespread fears of child abductors on every street-corner. I can’t recall ever coming across a story in the Chinese media that would fall under the category of ‘child sex abuse’ or ‘child sexual abduction’, and after a quick check on the Chinese version of Wikipedia (no research expense spared here) it seems that there are no pages corresponding to either of these broad categories.
This, of course, isn’t to say that there are no child abusers in China. Far from it. I’ve seen horrific examples of children forced to beg, bawling their eyes out, with what will be awful consequences for their mental health later in life (if they have a later in life...), or being dragged around by adults who are clearly incapable of looking after them. There are countless examples in the Chinese press of children being abducted to work as slaves, beaten by parents, forced into prostitution and so on, but the UK’s standard model of the stranger at the school gates isn’t something I’ve come across. Maybe there are simply too many awful things happening to children in China already for people to worry about bogeymen.