Social Education 59(1), 1995, pp. 31-37
National Council for the Social Studies
Chinese Education in the Modern Era
When western-style schools emerged in the 19th century, China was in a state of turmoil. Under the weak Manchu Dynasty, much of the country was controlled by regional war lords. Europeans were meanwhile making economic inroads in the southeast. After the traders came the missionaries, who were the first to set up western-style schools.
Impressed by the new kind of education, the Chinese moved to reform their educational system. The first design for a national school system appeared in the early 20th century. The Imperial Examination System was discontinued in 1906. The new system was a combination of Chinese thought and some western knowledge.
Political turmoil in the country had an adverse impact on its educational development. After the Manchu Dynasty was overthrown in 1912, the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) under Sun Yat-sen was unable to unify the country. While a new system, heavily influenced by the work of the American educator John Dewey, was put into effect, education was not universal.
After Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925, further disorder was precipitated by the struggle between the Kuomintang and the Communists. Education remained available only to those who lived in cities and to children of families who could afford to do without the services of a son or daughter while he or she was in school.
After the Communist Revolution in 1949, schools were reorganized on a Soviet model. At the university level, texts from the USSR dominated education until the late 1950's. Between the late 1950's and the mid 1960's, Chinese universities tried to go their own way. However, this attempt was cut short by the Cultural Revolution, which was inaugurated in 1966.
In Communist China, entrance to higher education was based on an exam system not unlike the traditional Imperial Exam. Students from cities and students from more privileged families (e.g., those of high-ranking party officials) had the best chance simply because of better access to books and quality schooling. The number of places in universities was extremely limited and, therefore, the competition was fierce. Those who were able to go on to a university became assured of a good job after graduation, and they automatically became part of an intellectual elite.
The Cultural Revolution
In the middle of the 1960's, Mao Zedong, the leader of the People's Republic of China (PRC), concluded that the new generation was lacking in revolutionary fervor. In particular, members of the growing intelligentsia-educators and students-were increasingly isolated from the countryside where the revolution had had its roots. In an effort to revitalize the revolution and discourage the growing class distinctions, Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution. He authorized the rebellion of students against authority in general, and teachers in particular.
In the new policy, admission to universities was no longer based on examination but on recommendation. While this often resulted in worthy students being admitted, it also allowed for the admission of a large number of unqualified students. The quality of education declined as qualified professors were harassed and political activities took precedence over studies. The degrees which were granted during the period from 1966 to 1976 were justifiably looked upon later as inferior.
During this period, many universities closed. Between 1966 and 1968, many former students just wandered around the countryside. By 1968, some students and teachers were being assigned to work in rice fields or on road gangs in remote regions of China. Some, however, simply stayed at home. Groups known as Red Guards grew out of the enthusiasm for cultural purging. Made up of young people and given names associated with the Communist Revolution, e.g., Red Flag, Red Star, these groups became the self-appointed censors of society, harassing those with "bourgeois tendencies," such as former capitalists and their relatives.
By the mid-1970's, it was evident that this anti-intellectual policy was having devastating effects on China's society and economy. It was impossible to turn out nuclear physicists or space programs without universities. A change of direction took place in 1976, when Deng Xiao Ping initiated the "Open Door Policy," which effectively ended the Cultural Revolution.
By 1978, the admission exam system had been reinstated and new schools were opening. Many students who had been unable to enter the university during the Cultural Revolution now wanted to catch up. Some students had been able to keep abreast of their studies, and so needed only a couple of months of review in order to pass the entrance exams. Others had to study for several years in order to make up their deficiencies. Consequently, for several years after 1978, there was a greater than normal number of students taking university entrance exams, and the competition for the limited number of university spots was extremely fierce (only 2% of the applicants could hope for places; today about 6% gain entry to universities and colleges).
The turmoil in the educational system caused by the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath had a major impact on the individual careers of many educators and persons seeking education. The following case studies of persons interviewed by the authors during a recent trip to China illustrate the far-reaching effects of the turn of political events (the names given are pseudonyms).
Hu Weiguo was born in a village in Hubei province in April 1964. His parents were both workers. Mr. Hu's life was not an easy one. His village was in the epicenter of an earthquake which devastated the region in the mid-1970's. During the quake, Mr. Hu's house collapsed and he was trapped under the rubble. Mr. Hu also recalls serious food shortages during his childhood, including a time when he was seven years old, when, for about three months, all his mother could find for the family to eat was sweet potatoes.
In spite of these hardships, Mr. Hu excelled academically. He was identified as bright quite early and sent to key schools. These schools prepared him well, and he confidently took the exam after secondary school. He said he was not particularly nervous before the exam, because he had no doubt that he would pass it. However, he is well aware of the importance of these exams. When he introduced us to students who were preparing for upcoming exams, he cautioned us not to take too much of their time. As he put it, "These exams will determine their lives." His scores on the exams qualified him to attend Beijing Normal University-the number three school in China and the leading teachers' university.
Mr. Hu graduated in 1989, and went to work in an office of a major university. His job is to prepare for delegations like ours, arranging transportation and housing. He was invaluable on our trip, being the principal interpreter, as well as organizing the logistics of the trip.
He is married, and in 1992 earned about 300 yuan a month ($44.50) from the state plus a "bonus" from the university. About five yuan of this pays for his one-bedroom apartment on the university campus. This university is the danwei ("the iron rice bowquot;) or "work unit" which provides the couple with housing.
Mr. Hu is a prime candidate for study abroad. He could make considerably more money working for a joint venture company or even for himself. However, as a result of the Tiananmen protests, all persons desiring to go abroad must first work for a state organization for five years. Mr. Hu would like the option to study abroad. However, he has been working at the university for only four years.
Hu Weiguo is well aware of the difference an education can make. His brother, still living in the village, is a factory worker earning about 100 yuan a month. He will most likely work his entire life at this same job. On the other hand, the language ability, education and experience of Mr. Hu will undoubtedly provide him with many options for the future.
Born in 1946 in Shanghai and orphaned, Ms. Lin was adopted by the well-to-do family of a banker. She entered primary school in 1951, and after the 6th grade passed the test to get into middle school. She studied math, algebra, language, history and science. After 1949, Chinese education was based on a Russian model with rote learning emphasized. This included the memorization of Communist government publications. There was also an emphasis on social service. All students had to spend much of their day doing socially significant things. For example, during this period Mao launched an attack on the four pests (Chinese causes always involve numbers)-sparrows, rodents, flies and locusts-which were devastating crops. Students were enlisted during school hours to participate in their eradication. One of Lin Xiaohua's classmates died falling off a roof trying to attract and destroy sparrows.
Students also raised pigs and produced other types of food in an effort to relieve the food shortages which were a problem by 1958. Because the school day was given over to such activities, students had to go back to the classroom in the evening to study.
Lin Xiaohua graduated from high school in 1964. She took the entrance exam for college but because she belonged to a family that was considered elite, she was not allowed to apply. By this time, the "bourgeoisie" was being harassed. By 1966, the Cultural Revolution had been launched, and exams were cancelled.
Entry into college was now possible only by recommendation, and members of the "bourgeoisie" could not get a recommendation. College entrants were recruited exclusively from worker and peasant families. Unable to get the recommendation, Lin Xiaohua stayed at home. Very soon, squads of Red Guards began to harass her family. They would enter the house without warning, turn it upside down, destroy things, and humiliate members of the family. All of their clothing and possessions were confiscated. The government allowed each person 12 yuan a month. Even though prices were low, an average family with an income of only 40 yuan a month was barely able to survive.
Shortly after the Cultural Revolution began, her adoptive family was thrown out of its house and moved into a cement room about half the size of a one-car garage. She stayed there with her father until his death. She still lives there although in the past few years additions have been made. There is still no kitchen or bathroom.
From 1966 on, Lin Xiaohua was self-taught. She married in 1974. She and her husband still live in the same apartment, though he is a construction worker and has been away for two years on a job assignment outside of Shanghai. She has never been able to resume her schooling, and earns a precarious living as a free-lance writer. When we asked her what she saw for herself in the future, she simply said "no hope."
Deng Lili is from a village outside of Beijing. Her father was a peasant who worked for a factory during the "Anti-Japanese War" (World War II), and who moved to Beijing along with the factory. Deng Lili remained in the village with her grandparents. Her grandfather was the principal of a local school. When her grandmother died, Deng Lili moved to Beijing, where she went to a key high school. Her test scores were high, and she was selected by the State Education Commission to study foreign languages. The government was interested in training some of China's best and brightest to become fluent in languages that would be needed to compete in the international arena.
Deng Lili was not excited about the prospect because she had hoped to study science. However, her parents convinced her that it was a great opportunity and so she agreed. She was sent abroad to study a European language.
In 1966, the Cultural Revolution erupted and in 1967 the State Education Commission brought the students back from other countries where they were studying languages as a part of this program. They were ensconced in the Friendship Hotel in Beijing. Unlike the comfortably furnished and well decorated Friendship Hotel that we stayed in, they were housed in rooms with no furniture and bare walls. Most of them waited there with no assignments. Sometimes they were used on various projects, but, for the most part, they remained idle. In the winter of 1968, they were sent en masse to the countryside to work in the frozen water of the rice fields.
By the late 1970's, the political climate had changed and the students were assigned to teach in various parts of the country. Deng Lili was one of the few chosen to stay in Beijing, where she was assigned to teach in an elementary school. Another of the students, Chang Feilong, who had been with her group and whom she eventually married, was assigned to a school outside of Beijing. Eventually, he was reassigned to Beijing, and they were married in 1971. In 1973, her husband was moved to one of China's major universities. In 1977 Deng Lili followed.
Until the 1980's, China had no degree system. In 1980, Deng Lili's husband took a qualifying exam for study abroad, and went to the United States. She also passed the qualifying exam, and went to a university in the United States. In the late 1980's, both Deng Lili and her husband, Chang Feilong, had published books and articles and had become important figures in Chinese academia. Deng Lili became a professor in her university's development center. Subsequently, she was asked, because of her fluency in English, to work in the University's foreign affairs section. She agreed, albeit reluctantly.
In the early 1990's Deng Lili's husband received a fellowship at a major U.S. university. That same year, Deng Lili was invited by a major U.S. university to participate in an international study of the relationship between economic development and education. She was not permitted to go because her husband was out of the country. Ironically, she and her husband had talked about immigrating to the U.S. but had decided that they did not want to leave their families and their country. They both felt that China needed them and people like them.
Deng Lili does not feel that she is unique. She has worked hard and been very lucky. She has received silver medals, attended a Key School and been sent abroad to study. But at the same time, she has suffered. She was sent to work in the countryside, and prevented from pursuing the career she desired. Moreover, she has been separated from her family repeatedly, and has not been allowed to take advantage of opportunities abroad, even though these would have benefited her and her university.
In spite of all this, Deng Lili feels a strong bond with China, her university and her students. She joined her students in the 1991 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, not only because she shared their views, but because she wanted to watch over them. Her view is that the demonstrations began because people were offended by Communist Party members who misused their power and influence. The students were demanding an end to corruption in the party and she supported them.
Huang Xiangli grew up in Beijing with a father who was an engineer, and a mother who was a doctor. Her parents were sent to the provinces to work with peasants, and they sent her back to Beijing to live with her grandmother.
Huang Xiangli received her degree in languages in the mid-1970's. She was fortunate because only a few years earlier, during the height of the Cultural Revolution, when universities were virtually non-functional, this would not have been possible. However, in the early 1970s, students were once again admitted to universities on the basis of recommendations rather than exams. Students were actively recruited from the worker, peasant, and soldier populations of the country. During this period, students in universities spent half of their time working in fields and factories, as actual work was stressed over theory. Students organized themselves to put in extra hours after work and classes in an effort to master their fields.
After her graduation, Huang Xiangli taught in middle school for eight years. By this time the examination system had been reinstated, and she took a competitive exam which qualified her for admittance to graduate school. She was the only person in her university graduating class to go on to graduate school. She believes that this success vindicated her original degree, which was considered inferior because students during the period were not chosen by exam, and because the education was so undermined by the political and social activism of the period. Ultimately, Huang Xiangli received her Masters in History of Western Education. In 1985, she took another exam and began work on her Ph.D. in the History of Chinese Education. In 1987, she went to Penn State for one year as a visiting scholar. She then wrote her dissertation on American missionaries and their effect on Chinese education. She received her Ph.D. in 1989, and is currently teaching at Beijing Normal University and doing research on education.
The Structure of Chinese Education
At the inception of the PRC, about 80% of Chinese people were illiterate, and only 20% of school age children were in school. By 1982, illiteracy had been cut back to 23.6% and in 1986, the People's Congress passed the Universal and Compulsory Education Law. According to this law, all children in China must receive nine years of schooling. This includes six years of elementary school and three years of junior high school. These schools are completely funded by the state. The curriculum is determined by China's State Department of Education.
The goal of nine years of compulsory education appears to have been achieved in cities; however, in many areas of the countryside, there are gaps. In some of the most remote regions where there are very few students, "teaching centers" have been established. Such a center is generally a one-room school to which students sometimes have to walk two hours each way. In some areas there are boarding facilities, but these are too expensive to be generally practical. Satellite TV is also being used to deliver education to remote regions. Courses for teacher training and adult education have been especially designed for this type of transmission.
Overall, elementary education has been the easiest part of the Compulsory Education Law to implement. Statistics for 1992 indicate that 97.7 % of elementary aged children are enrolled in primary schools. Girls and handicapped children make up most of the 2% which is not enrolled. In some rural areas it is still considered a waste to educate women. There are also difficulties in popularizing junior high education, especially in rural areas. About 26% of students leaving primary school do not go on to junior high school, and during the three years of junior high there is about a 5% drop-out rate (1990 statistics).
Senior High Schools
In the 1980's, there was an attempt to reform high school education by developing two types of senior high schools, academic and vocational. Vocational high schools are designed to train students for specific jobs. In urban areas, these vocational schools might be devoted to publishing or restaurant management, while in the countryside they relate to household and agricultural management. Even students who wish to become primary teachers attend special vocational teacher schools.
In Beijing, the aim is for 55% of senior high school students to study in these vocational high schools. After graduation, these students go on to jobs in their fields and do not enter a college or university. However, it is not impossible for a student to go from a vocational school to a university. Any student may take the university entrance examinations. The major obstacle for the vocational school graduate would be that the curriculum of the vocational school is not geared to the study of material tested in the national entrance exam.
Secondary Academic Schools
In both middle and high school, students have three components to their education: compulsory courses, electives, and extracurricular courses. Compulsory courses include math, Chinese, English, and history. Hours devoted to the various courses depend on the "importance" of the course. For example, five hours a week might be devoted to math, not necessarily once a day for five days. Chinese would also require perhaps five hours and the time would be divided between grammar and writing. In Shanghai, for example, a two-hour writing assignment is required every two weeks. Five hours of English a week are required, while history might require two to three. Science (physical science, chemistry, biology, physics) might be up to eight hours depending on the grade level. Electives include courses like cooking, sewing, typing, minor equipment repairs, etc.
Secondary Vocational Schools
Before the Cultural Revolution, most Chinese education was aimed at moving students toward a college or university education. The curriculum was entirely academic. Because very few university places were actually available, most students were never able to go to college. Students left secondary school without any real skills or training for the workplace or for living on the land. In the 1980's, the concept of vocational schools was developed to offer education that was more relevant to the workplace. After junior high school, students are given the opportunity to enter one of a variety of specialized senior high schools. Admission is based on test scores. The highest scorers go to academic schools if they choose. Others are matched with schools based on their interests and their scores. Beijing hopes that it will ultimately have 50% of senior high school students in vocational schools.
In the rural areas, a program called Prairie Fire grew out of a 1985 UNESCO conference, which was attended by Asian and African countries. UNESCO recommended that to strengthen rural education, traditional teaching content should be combined with a more localized curriculum. For example, there is increased emphasis on local geography, economy and customs, along with instruction on manual skills and health. In addition, courses in production techniques are teamed with extracurricular activities that encourage the application of new agricultural technology: field management techniques, and the introduction of new crop strains, insecticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.
Students in China are assigned to elementary and junior high schools based on where they live. The result is that Chinese schools are generally neighborhood schools. However, there are special schools called Key Schools, which admit students on the basis of test scores. At the end of elementary school and again at the end of junior high school, students take exams. On the basis of these exams, they can gain admittance to Key Schools, which are academically rigorous and give the student the best shot at university entrance. While Key Schools appear to exist in different parts of China, they do not appear to be universal.
While education policy guidelines are produced at the state level, there appears to be a great deal of local autonomy. Most of the academic courses in schools across the country are driven by the national college entrance exams. Even this, however, is not absolutely uniform. In Shanghai, for example, there has been a separate exam since 1993 for entry to Shanghai universities. Students may take the national exam as well in order to gain entrance to their (non-Shanghai) universities. But anyone wishing to go to a Shanghai institution must take the Shanghai exam. Shanghai also seems to have a local option in the matter of Key Schools. While there have been Key Schools in Shanghai in the past, these have recently been turned into neighborhood schools. The fact that they are still perceived as being superior to other schools is causing problems because people feel they are being denied an equal opportunity.
Higher Education: Universities/Colleges
To enter a college or university, it is necessary for a high school student to take a national exam, which is given over a three-day period in July. On the basis of the results of this exam, a student is placed in a university. When placing students, the student's scores and his or her interests are taken into consideration. The best students are assigned to the best schools. For example, the top students wishing to be teachers are assigned to Beijing Normal University. Once a student has been admitted to a university, all his or her expenses are paid by the state. However, there is a growing movement to allow some students to be self-supporting. These students fall into three categories: Those who had good academic records but did not score well on the exams, those who are interested in majors only offered to self-supporting students, and those who plan to study abroad.
In July 1992, some 3 million students sat for the 3-day exam. Of these, only about one in five gained admission to a college or university. While admission is based on test scores (the best scorers are assigned to the best schools), there is also an element of choice. Based on scores and academic interests, the student submits a list of preferred institutions. On this basis, the State Education Commission matches the student with a college and a program. Often students do not get their first choice, or even their second or third. Occasionally a student ends up in a place he or she does not want to be, studying something he or she does not care about. However, the value of the education and the ultimate diploma are unquestioned, and the student will probably complete the course. After graduation, the government will assign the graduate to a position.
At one time, the only choice was to accept the government assignment. Today, however, there are other choices in the rapidly growing private sector. A student we met who had graduated from a teaching college did not want to be a teacher, so she was working as a clerk in a shop and following leads for jobs in joint-venture enterprises (companies owned jointly by the government and a private company). State assignments currently have more security. They usually come with housing and medical care. However, in the future this may change, and the pay is generally not as attractive as the pay offered in joint-venture companies. A third choice is private enterprise. A student can go out on his own. This is being done all over Beijing and other major cities, but it is a risky choice and, as yet, not the most popular one.
Study abroad is also a viable alternative. However, since the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and their suppression, the government requires that a student must first put five years of service into a state-owned enterprise. This has kept many capable students grumbling at home. Many of them see the Chinese students who did not return to China after June 4, 1989 as responsible for their situation. Even university professors are finding their travel restricted, especially if their husband/wife is already abroad.
Until recently a college education was paid for entirely by the government. If a person failed to make the exam grade cut, the government did not pay and the student did not go to college. There appear to be other options on the horizon now. For example, in Shanghai, starting in 1987, self-supporting students were allowed to enroll in colleges. Most of them had marks 10 or 20 points below the bottom line. This practice will continue. In addition, beginning in the fall of 1992, about 1,100 students who passed the national college entrance exam were "allowed" to pay for a college education. Many such students were attracted by majors offered only to self-supporting students. These majors include foreign languages, international trade and computer sciences.
The self-supporting student is eligible for scholarship help and a government interest-free loan. The cost of tuition in 1990 was 1,800 yuan. There is a feeling that self-supporting students will help to improve college education. Colleges will be more sensitive to market forces when developing their curriculum.
The government, until recently, assigned graduates to jobs upon graduation. Consequently, where a person went to school made a great deal of difference. Graduates from the most prestigious schools got the best jobs. However, this system is being dismantled, because jobs are now available in the private sector. In addition to state organizations and industries, students can also choose among joint-venture companies or even self-employment. Consequently, the government is moving to a partial job assignment: that is to say, some jobs are still being assigned (resulting from a combination of student request and government need). As the opportunities for non-assigned jobs increase, the government will find itself having to compete more and more to lure the best and the brightest into government service.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the Chinese school system became disfunctional. Many colleges closed down and students in those which were still operative spent more time in social and political action than on their studies. When the 1987 "Open Door Policy" began to reemphasize education, there were not enough trained teachers to go around, and people were assigned to teaching posts with only minimal training. Even today, only a degree from a secondary high school is necessary in order to teach in a preschool or primary school. This is especially apparent in the more remote areas of the country. Once in place, however, teachers are required to continue their training through in-service programs and adult education courses.
In some provinces, for example Shandong, Satellite Television Education (STE) is also being used. In the Shandong city of Tai'an, located in a mountainous area, the educational department of the city has set up a ground station in every village and a relay station in every municipal district so as to provide an STE network for both the city and the surrounding rural area. It currently has 125 ground stations, and 1,200 video-playing sites, and has six education relay stations under construction. In addition, schools which can teach broadcasting are also being established.
Staffing the schools in major cities has been successful, but finding enough teachers to handle the rural schools is still a problem. In some of the more remote regions, efforts are being made to encourage local students to train as teachers for their own regions. In order to supplement rural teaching staffs, local farmers and technicians with particular kinds of expertise are enlisted to teach classes on relevant local topics such as crop management, pesticides, etc.
In order to become a teacher at the pre-school or elementary level, a person has to complete junior high school successfully, and then attend three years of vocational teacher's school. To qualify as a teacher at the senior high level, a person has to complete senior high school and study for two to three years at a teacher's college or teacher's vocational senior school.
Teacher's universities, such as Beijing Normal University, train teachers for the teacher's colleges as well as for their own institutions. Most university teachers were trained in the universities in which they teach. For example, of the graduates of BNU, 40% go to teacher training colleges and institutes, and 60% go to other institutes. Virtually none of them go to the secondary level.
Teaching Loads and Conditions
Generally teachers have a teaching load of between twelve and eighteen hours a week, or two to three hours a day. They also have other duties, such as being in charge of a class and organizing extracurricular and social activities, totaling about 30 hours of teaching duties a week per teacher.
Teachers are ranked and paid accordingly. In Shanghai, for example, there are four levels of secondary school teachers. The top rank is the senior teacher, who has the same pay level as an associate professor in a university or a senior supervisor in a factory. The first rank teacher is next, with pay equal to a lecturer in a university or an engineer in a factory. Below these are the second rank and third rank teachers.
While teachers get the same base pay scale as factory workers with similar levels of expertise, the teachers' pay is not ultimately as good because, while they may both make the same base pay, the workers' bonuses are paid on a sliding scale (more if production is up). Teachers' bonuses are fixed. However, there is extra income available in the form of stipends for years of experience and for extra duties. Extra duties might include being "head of a class," which means that the teacher is responsible for overseeing the entire educational program of each student in a class, and communicating with each child's parents.
This is a jigsaw cooperative group activity.
1. Students are divided into groups of five. Number each person in each group one to five. Students then regroup according to number. Give each group sections of this article to read and discuss.
a.Ones: background, modern education and cultural revolution.
b.Twos: compulsory education, senior high school and key schools.
c.Threes: local autonomy, higher education, and teacher training.
d.Fours: illiteracy, dropout rate, teaching load and conditions.
e.Fives: Secondary and vocational institutions, and universities and colleges.
2. The responsibility of each group is to read and discuss these sections in order to deliver this information to the original group. Each person then goes back to the original group and teaches what he/she has learned.
1. Each student fills out a form about his/her educational goals and background.
a.Mother's education (high school, college, graduate school)
Father's education (high school, college, graduate school)
c.Parents' educational goals for you
d. Your place of residence: rural, suburban, urban
e. Your educational goals: high school, college, graduate school
f. What will you being doing at age 30?
g. Do you expect to be married at age 30?
h. How many children do you expect to have?
2. Read the information about education in China and the case studies. Have the students discuss or fill out a similar form for one or each of the case studies.
3. Tell the students:
"Imagine that you are able to transport yourself into the body of a person in China who is exactly your age. This person has all of the abilities that you have. The only difference is that this person is living in China instead of the United States.
"a.Fill out this form for your new persona [see form above].
"b.Based on this information, write a short essay about your Chinese life. Include all the information on the form and imagine that you are at a critical point. You are anticipating taking an exam (either the exam at 9th grade which will determine whether you go on to an academic high school or a vocational school, or the exam at the end of 12th grade which will determine whether or not you will go on to the university). How do you feel about this? What are your choices? How will the results of this exam affect your future?"
After this is done, have the students compare and contrast the two either in written form or discussion. How are educational expectations different in the U.S. and China?
China's Long Educational History
China has a long record of formal education and meritocratic examination that can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (16th century B.C.). By the Sui Dynasty (618-519 B.C.), a set of examinations had been developed at the Imperial level. Success in these exams made a person eligible for a position in the government civil service. Students worked on an individual basis with tutors to master the information needed to pass the exams, which were based on a comprehensive study of traditional literature-Confucius, Mencius, etc.
The exams were administered in the capital over a three-day period under the strictest control. There were several levels. The level passed determined the eligibility for civil service positions. The highest-level exam was administered by the Emperor himself. Even passing the exams, and thus being qualified for government posts, did not guarantee that a person would be offered a position. Many successful graduates spent their lives as tutors or scribes, and did not attain much financial independence or security. However, a large measure of respect went with success in the exams.
The examination system assured a steady stream of competent bureaucrats. It also produced a culturally conservative group of scholars. The material which had to be mastered to pass the exams emphasized tradition and was based on memorization, not on interpretation or application of skills. There was no reward or interest in new knowledge or in science as we know it. Innovation was eschewed not only by the exam system itself, but by the philosophy of Confucius, whose precepts were the foundation for the entire cultural fabric of Chinese society.
The Imperial Examination System was finally discontinued in 1906, after the challenge posed by the expansion of the West, combined with the increasing western influence in China, persuaded the Chinese of the need for thorough reform of all their institutions.
Deanna T. Bartels teaches at Crittenden Middle School, Mountain View, California.
Felicia C. Eppley teaches at Lamar High School, Houston, Texas. The authors wrote this article following a Fulbright Hays Study Trip to China in 1992.