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History & Background

By 2000 B.C., Chinese education had developed to the level of institutions specifically established for the purpose of learning. From 800 to 400 B.C. China had both guoxue (government schools) and xiangxue (local schools). Education in traditional China was dominated by the keju (civil service examination system), which began developing around 400 A.D. and reached its height during the Tang Dynasty (618-896). Essentially, the keju was a search program based on the Confucian notion of meritocracy. This civil service examination system remained almost the exclusive avenue to government positions for China's educated elite for more than 1,000 years.

Historically, formal education was a privilege of the rich. Mastering classical Chinese, which consisted of different written and spoken versions and lacked an alphabet, required time and resources most Chinese could not afford. As a result, for much of its history, China had an extremely high rate of illiteracy (80 percent). The result was a nation of mass illiteracy dominated by a bureaucratic elite highly educated in the Confucian classical tradition. The earliest modern government schools were created to provide education in subjects of Western strength such as the sciences, engineering, and military development to address Western incursion and to maintain the integrity of China's own culture and polity. The aim of these schools was to modernize technologically by imitating the West, while maintaining all traditional aspects of Chinese culture. These schools were never integrated into the civil service examination system.

In 1898, Emperor Guang Xu, supported by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, well-known reformers, issued a series of decrees to initiate sweeping reforms in Chinese education. The measures included the establishment of a system of modern schools accessible to a greater majority of the population, abolition of the rigid examination system for the selection of government officials, and the introduction of short and practical essay examinations.

Between 1901 and 1905, the Qing court issued a new series of education reform decrees. The old academies that had supported the civil service examinations were reorganized. A modern school system was built on their foundations with primary, secondary, and college levels reflective of Western models. Schools throughout China were organized into three major stages and seven levels. Elementary education was composed of kindergarten, lower elementary, and higher elementary; secondary education consisted of middle school; and higher education was divided into preparatory school, specialized college, and university. The Qing Court also instructed provincial, prefectural, and county governments to open new schools and start a compulsory education program. The civil examination system (keju) was officially abolished in 1905, marking the end of the trademark of traditional Chinese education.

Six years later, China's dynastic tradition also came to an end when the new Nationalist Republic replaced it. With this political metamorphosis, China's educational system experienced further transformations. The search for modern nationhood and economic prosperity created the first golden age of education in modern China. Education in China enjoyed a rare interval of uninterrupted growth as the Beijing government enthusiastically pursued educational development in both the public and private sectors as an essential component of the Nationalists' nation-building program. In 1912 and 1913 the Republican government issued Regulations Concerning Public and Private Schools and Regulations Concerning Private Universities; these documents laid out the criteria for private schools and stipulated proper application and registration procedures, while calling for financial investment in education nationwide.

The eruption of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and rapid Japanese conquest of coastal areas in the months immediately following changed the educational situation dramatically. As a result of military operations, 70 percent of Chinese cultural institutions were destroyed. By November 1, 1937, no less than 24 institutions of higher learning had been bombed or demolished by the Japanese. Seventy-seven of China's institutions of higher learning were either closed down or literally uprooted and moved many hundreds of miles into the interior. Not all the students could follow their respective universities. As a result, the retaining rate of their original student bodies for these institutions ranged from 25 to 75 percent. The subsequent civil war (1946-1949) between the Nationalists and the Communists continued to subject China to a state of political turmoil in which education suffered drastically as a result.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the new Communist government pursued the movement to "learn from the Soviet Union" with all the enthusiasm that had characterized the Western imitation process in earlier decades. The entire national educational system was first reorganized to conform to the Soviet model in 1952-53. American-style liberal arts colleges were abolished, with arts and science facilities separated from the larger universities to form the core of Soviet style zonghexing (comprehensive) universities; about 12 of these were formed, in more or less even distribution around the country. The remaining disciplines of the old universities were reorganized into separate technical colleges or merged with existing specialized institutes. Also following the Soviet example, nationally unified teaching plans, syllabi, materials, and textbooks were introduced for every academic specialty or major.

The Great Leap Forward of 1958 introduced educational reforms as part of a comprehensive new strategy of mass mobilization for economic development. To end the continuing influence of such pre-revolutionary ideas as "education can only be led by experts" and "the separation of mental and manual labor," as well as to strengthen party leadership, the Ministry of Education (MOE) issued a directive on September 19, 1958, launching the educational reforms. It called universities to fill both academic and administrative leadership positions with party members. Productive labor became part of the curriculum in all schools at all levels. More specifically, the half-work/half-study schools were founded to meet the task of rapidly universalizing education for the masses, since these schools could be run on a self-supporting basis without financial aid from the state. The party directives also stipulated that no professional educational staff was necessary; anyone who could teach would suffice.

The Cultural Revolution further broke the power of the existing educational bureaucracy, the professional academics, and any party leaders who supported them. This represented a final abolition of the obstacles the Chinese intellectual establishment had always imposed against radical reform of the educational system as a whole. It ended the authority of education professionals, which led to a general lowering of academic standards, particularly in higher education. As a result of the experimentation in that area, the content of college curricula on the average was reduced by half. The policy of sending city youth to rural areas to be "re-educated by peasants" also produced many millions of dissatisfied young people who failed to adapt to the rural lifestyle.

After the death of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping's reform period began with a major national education conference in April 1978, which abandoned the Cultural Revolution's goals of class struggle and adopted modernization as the main goal for educational development. The nation witnessed a remarkable new era of rapid reconstruction and expansion of all levels of education, especially higher education. In both the formal and nonformal sectors, one of the goals of the reforms was that a college-level education was to be a prerequisite for all officials, including county-level leaders. This is a goal yet to be accomplished in the twenty-first century, but it is already underway in the political reintegration of China's intellectuals within the ruling class.

The scene in higher education in the PRC has changed rapidly since the 1990s. With the increasing drive to modernize China by integrating free-market forces, the government has introduced radical new reforms to privatize education. The most recent reforms include introduction of student fees, abolition of guaranteed job assignment after graduation, localization of institutions, and the development of private educational institutions.

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Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceChina - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education