History of the Educational System of China
Updated: 2019-08-27 09:10:07
(China TEFL Net)
It shall be convenient, for the purpose of the present essay, to divide the history of the educational system of China into five major periods:
Pre-1840 (Imperial Education) 1840-1949 (Opium War - P.R.C.) 1949-1966 (P.R.C. - Cultural Revolution) 1966-1976 (Cultural Revolution) 1976-present (Post-Mao Reforms) Pre-1840. The roots of a system of formal education in China can be traced back at least as far as the 16th century B.C. later Shang Dynasty (1523-1027 B.C.) Throughout this period education was the privilege of the elite few, and for the most part existed for no other purpose than to produce government officials. Early on, the curriculum centered on the so-called “Six Arts”: Rites, Music, Archery, Chairot-Riding, History, and Mathematics However, based on the teachings of Confucius (551-479 B.C.) during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770-221 B.C.), the curriculum gradually gave way one based on The Four Books and The Five Classics These works outlined theprinciples of society and government, as well as codes for personal conduct, and collectively define Confucian philosophy, which exerted a fundamental influence on virtually all aspects of life, and certainly on education, at least until the Liberation and ascent to power by the Communists in 1949.
A system that educated an elite class was established and steadfastly maintained, perpetuating subsequent generations of an educated elite resting incongruously on a base of mass illiteracy. This is not to say that the government actively provided for any form of “public education.” Instead, the imperial government had an active hand in education only inasmuch as it administered the various levels of the imperial or civil service examinations, which were used for the selection of imperial officers. The exams themselved consisted of essay questions that tested the candidate's understanding of Confucius' teachings. The students could prepare for these examinations by enrolling in the private instutions of higher education of the say, the shuyuan, which existed for no other reason than to prepare students for the civil service examinations.
1840-1949. Throughout the thousands of years of imperial rule, even as one dynasty gave way to the next, the Chinese were steadfast in their belief that socially and intellectually they had no peers, especially as compared with Western cultures. They had a highly developed culture, and with the “four inventions” (gunpower, the compass, movable type and paper), they felt also that they had a rich technological tradition. However, with the humiliating defeat at the hands of the British in the Opium War (1840-1842), the Chinese were forced to grudgingly re-evaluate their dominance, at least in the area of science and technology. Following the defeat in the Opium War and the ensuing cessation of Hong Kong to Great Britian, Western education gradually began to take root in China, for the most part through schools founded by Christian missionaries. While the majority of Chinese gentry looked upon these developments with a sense of humiliation and extreme suspicion, a few more pragmatic and liberal-minded officials saw the opportunity for a balanced approach to education, where Confucian classics would continue to form the core, augmented by a component of Western technology.
Against a backdrop of massive illiteracy, the system of civil service examinations continued to be the only route to officialdom. However, with the defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the Chinese finally became convinced that their own future would rest, at least in part, on the acceptance of certain aspects of Western-style education. (Indeed, Japan had already been successful in adapting Western education to a non-Western society.) In 1905 the civil service examination system was dismantled, and a series of reform measures were issued by the Qing Dynasty court calling for the old academies to be reorganized into a modern system of primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education, to be based on Western models.
Shortly thereafter, in 1911, the Qing Dynasty itself was overthrown in the bourgeois revolution, and a Republican form of government was established. By this time, there were already European, American and Japanese educational models on Chinese soil. Because of Japan's successful adaptation, their system was tried first, implemented by a large number of Japanese-trained Chinese scholars. During the chaotic warlord period of the early 1920s, this gradually gave way to a system more closely patterned on American models. Even before this, however, especially during the “May Fourth Period” of 1915-1920, there were intense debates and disputes over the cloning of Western-style educational systems in a country trying to find a new identity after millennia of dynastic rule. Of course, it is inaccurate to say that the debates were centered only on educational matters; they were largely political, inspired in part by the Russian revolution and the subsequent takeover by the Marxist government. In turn, the Chinese Communist Party was born in 1921, with its own ideas about the “correct” form of education in China.
All sides in the debate agreed that a system was needed that could provide for the technological needs of the country without sacrificing its Chinese identity, and at the same time could be expanded so as to reach the masses in a predominately rural society. During this period a number of experiments were attempted, including the short-lived Hunan Self-Study University established by Mao Zedong and friends in 1921. One of the prime objectives of this experimental university was to bring higher education to those who otherwise could not afford it. With the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s, this and other experiments and debates were suspended until after the Liberation in 1949.
1949-1966. Shortly after the Liberation by the Chinese Communists, a new educational system was imported: the Soviet Model. This was done with even less concern for the special features of the Chinese environment than was the case following the Sino-Japanese War. As before, the motivation was driven by technological needs, and the Soviet Union was now held as the new prototype for success. However, the Soviet model did very little to address the problem of mass illiteracy. By 1956, it was still the case that fewer than one-half of primary and secondary aged children were in school.
Most of the energy during this period was devoted to the development and restructuring higher education. As a result of this restructuring, the number of comprehensive universities diminished in number, while the number of specialized colleges showed a significant increase. In to the restructuring efforts, the Ministry of Higher Education was given a stronger role in overseeing the administration of the comprehensive and polytechnical universities, as well as the teacher-training institutions. Unfortunately, by 1961, the failed policies of the Great Leap Forward, a spate of natural disasters, and the breaking of relations with the Soviet Union thwarted further progress along these lines. Even before this, the Anti-Rightest Campaign in 1957 (which came on the heels of the Hundred Flowers Movement), had alienated the intellectuals, many of whom had been instrumental in bringing about the sought-after educational reforms.
With the Soviet model no longer the paradigm, the government resumed earlier attempts at a balance between Confucian and Western-style education. Mao's “walking on two legs” ( liangtiaotui zoulu ) exhortation, took its form as a two-track educational system:
vocational and work-study schooling, and regular university, college and college preparatory schooling. This two-track system developed fairly smoothly, until the breakout of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
1966-1976. The two-tiered system of education was seen by many as one that would continueto produce an echelon of elite few, with the masses having to settle for something less (viz. the first track), if even that. Increasingly it became felt that the administrators in the “regular” schools were the culprits, that they were perpetuating a system in such a way that could only be viewed as self-serving. On May 25, 1966, the party secretary of the philosophy department at Peking University, Nie Yuanzi and six other colleagues hung a “big character poster” critical of the university's administration. This event was covered extensively in the national media, and the Cultural Revolution was under way.
Political struggles against administrators quickly spread to schools across the country. The government's first formal response was the commissioning of “workteams” by Liu Shaoqi to oversee, and in many cases contain the revolutionary activities. Different workteams responded in a variety, some siding strongly with the revolutionary students, others more inclined to protect theadministrations. However, by mid-June of 1966, Chairman Mao overtly questioned Liu's handling of the Cultural Revolution and soon withdrew the workteams. This was seen by the students as a clear sanction for their revolutionary efforts, and the Cultural Revolution on the campuses escalated accordingly. On August 8, 1966, at the eleventh plenum of the eight Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, the scope and strategy of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was defined, and once again it was proclaimed that education had been controlled by bourgeois intellectuals, and that the creation of a new system more closely based on Mao's teachings was needed.
During the next three years, campuses were controlled in turn by propoganda teams of Red Guards, soldiers from the People's Liberation Army, and finally workers and peasants. Acute factionalism often brought about a complete cessation of classes. The primary schools were the least affected by the Cultural Revolution, and by Fall of 1967 most had reopened for normal operation. However, primary education was, for the most part, shortened from six years to five or even four years. The secondary schools (including junior and senior secondary) likewise shortened their programs, from six years to as few as three years. The curriculum was reconstituted so as to conform with practical needs, resulting in the elimination of coursework in such subjects as history, geography or literature. Even such core science subjects as physics and chemistry gave way to courses in industrial skills. These reform measures can be traced directly to the Communist Party Central Committee (or various sub-committees), rather than to the Ministry of Education, as this latter organ ceased to function from 1967 through 1974.
The concept of key school was abolished, with enrollments in primary and secondary schools based on proximity. In June of 1966, the system of university entrance examinations was halted. However, few colleges and universities admitted new students until the early 1970s, and selection of students was based on political virtue. Those from families of workers, peasants or soldiers were deemed the most “virtuous,” and were among the first admitted. This has generated the label of worker-peasant-soldier student ( gong-nong-bing xueyuan ) for those students entering college during the early 1970s. It is interesting to note here that even those not of worker-peasant-soldier origen could be “reclassified” as such but subjecting themselves to reeducation in a rural area or factory after finishing junior or senior secondary school.
In all, the period of the Cultural Revolution was a very disruptive one for Chinese society in general and its education in particular. The educational infrastructure was decimated as a result of the revolutional struggles, and students suffered because of a vastly watered-down or non-existent curricula. Perhaps the only gain (again at the expense of quality) was the delivery of elementary education to an unprecedented percentage of school-aged children, largely because agricultural collectivization allowed for the creation of large numbers of “commune schools,” overseen directly by the collective rather than by higher-level agencies.
1976-Present. With the fall of the “Gang of Four” ( si ren bang ) (and the ascension to power by twice rehabilited Deng Xiaoping, the educational policies reverted to those that had been initiated during the early 1960s. The guiding principle was to bring about educational reforms to realize the “Four Modernizations,” viz., significant advances in the areas of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology, but in keeping with the “Four Cardinal Principles:” the socialist road, the people's democratic dictatorship, the Chinese Communist Party leadership, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought.
The process of regularization in the schools was resumed, whereby academic standards were reintroducedat all academic levels, thereby placing an emphasis on quality as opposed to quantity in the delivery of education. In most cases, a 6-3-3 system (six years primary, three years junior secondary, and three years senior secondary) was reestablished. The designation of key schools once again was used to single out schools whose mission was to minister to the special needs of the educational elite. At the same time, it was proposed to expand the system of vocational and work-study schools in order to provide a meaningful educational track for those not meeting the standards for college, or college preparatory studies. This invited old debates on populist versus elitist education. Partly in response to these concerns, the central decision makers promulgating a compulsory nine-year (elementary and junior secondary) education policy (see the discussion on “The Decision on Reforming the Educational System,” below).
The impact of regularization on the schools led to a number of closings and mergings, especially among the primary schools. In the rural sparsely populated areas, this resulted in declining enrollments. In fact, in most provinces, enrollments in elementary schools were higher in 1978 than in either 1985 or 1992. A second contributing factor to declining enrollments can be traced to the agricultural decollectivization, begun in 1978. This provided for a remuneration system based on output, and so for some families, education for their children, as opposed to working at home, was not always the most advantageous choice.
At the secondary level, the educational reforms induced a stratification into four types of secondary schools:
Keypoint middle schools ( zhongdeng zhongdian xuexiao ) Non-key general or ordinary middle schools ( Putong xuexiao ) Specialized technical secondary schools ( zhongdeng zhuanye xuexiao ) Vocational schools ( zhiye zhongxue ) In spite of the need for technically trained manpower for the economic reconstruction of China, theacceptance of technical and vocational secondary schools was slow, at least initially. The perception lingered that these educational streams were only for those not able to pass muster in the traditional streams. In 1978, enrollment in technical and vocational programs comprised only 5% of the total enrollment. However, by 1994, of the junior secondary graduates that continued their schooling, 44.1% entered key and general senior secondary schools (a total of 2,434,000 students), whereas 55.9% entered specialized technical or vocational schools (a total of 3,079,000 students).
One of the first changes in higher education after the end of the Cultural Revolution was the restoration of the national unified college entrance exams in 1977. Further reform borrowed heavily from two important documents of the early 1960s: the “Decision on Unifying Management in the Higher Education System,” and the “Sixty Articles of Higher Education.” Very briefly stated, the former document was a regularization decree inasmuch as it called for the setting of academic standards, and empowered the Ministry of Education as the final authority and facilitator. The second document was a resolution that the institutions of higher education were to train the experts needed for socialist construction, and that the teachers would be relatively uncumbered by political constraints as they went about their business of dispensing their expertise. The definitive reformulation of these earlier decrees came in 1985 with the “Decision of the Reform of the Education System.” This has been the guiding document of reform, not only for higher education, but for all levels of education during the post-Mao years. Its main points are outlined below:
To bring about the Four Modernizations. To increase state funding for education. To insure that the education system shall supply a sufficient number of highly qualified personnel. To institute a 9-year compulsory education policy. To expand the system oftechnical and vocational education. To give provisions for reform of higher education, e.g., To change the system of job-assignments to graduates. To grant the colleges and universities more decision-making powers. To strengthen educational leadership. To establish a State Education Commission (SEC). (This had a higher status than the previous Ministry of Education, roughly equivalent to that of the State Economic Commission. To establish the president of a college or university, or the principal of a school as the chief executive officer of the unit. Perhaps ironically, the Chinese higher educational system was still structured after the Soviet models prevalent during the 1950s. The arts and sciences were still taught at the comprehensive universities (zonghe daxue) (whereas separate institutions were responsible for other fields. The major disciplines offered were still very narrow, an intentional feature since the colleges and universities were primarily responsible for job assignment of their graduates. Since then, the curriculum has broadened somewhat to more closely that in American colleges and universities. At the same time the job assignment role of the universities continues to be phased out.
Recently the National People's Congress passed the Education Law of the People's Republic of China, and on September 1, 1995 it bacame effective. This Law codified many of the previous policies and decrees, especially those of 1985 mentioned above. The Law shows a clear committment to a universal education, as well as to one that will produce both scholar/scientists and skilled laborers. Only time will be the final arbiter as to whether China has found a workable formula for its educational system, with its Western coutours trying to conform to a patently non-Western environment. However, China is irreversibly part of the international community, and developments in China's educational system will have an increasingly profound influence on the other systemsof the world, just as so many of them have influenced the present Chinese system of education.
Source: China Daily
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