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China

Educational System—overview


China has one of the world's largest (in terms of numbers of students) educational systems: a total of approximately 289,859,000 students were enrolled in 1998. Sixty-seven percent of the students were in primary and junior secondary schools, grades one through nine (China Statistical Yearbook). (Unfortunately though, statistics issued by the Chinese government should be used with caution; they best represent trends or the general picture.) These nine grades constitute China's formal basic education. Compulsory education has been very successful at the primary level (first through sixth grades), but not as impressive at the junior secondary level (seventh through ninth grades).

Although the quality of schools varies widely in China, there are standard textbooks and curricula for all subjects at all levels. The textbooks convey a strong nationalist message in content. Teaching style emphasizes the authority of the teacher and demands great amounts of memorization and recitation.

Higher education is merit-based and extremely competitive in China. The overall enrollment in 1998 was 3,409,000 in the formal higher education sector (China Statistical Yearbook 1999) and 74,967,300 in the nonformal sector (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). On average, formal higher education institutions admit about 50 percent of the graduates of general senior secondary schools (Agelasto & Adamson 1998).

Foreign influences on Chinese education manifested themselves through two main channels: foreign missionary schools and the Western-educated Chinese. Missionary education in China dates back to 1818 when British missionaries opened schools in Malacca for the children of overseas Chinese. Starting in the 1840s, missionary schools came under the protection of a series of "unequal treaties" between the Chinese government and the Western powers. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a steady rise in the number of mission schools due to missionaries' growing interests in education and a general advancement of Western powers in China. In many ways, mission schools were a catalyst for the educational reform in modern China.

The reform was initiated in the 1860s as a component of the Self-Strengthening Movement and sponsored by a few high-ranking officials involved in yiwu, (barbarian affairs). From the point of view of the Chinese court in Beijing, there was an urgent need to understand Western culture and Westerners. In 1903 the imperial government issued the Guidelines for Educational Affairs, which established an educational system modeled after that of the Japanese, who had successfully replicated the Western system.

During the Nationalist decade (1928-1937), Chinese education experienced a transition from the earlier Japanese model to the American model, partly because of the return of students from the West, especially the United States, and partly because of China's deteriorating relationship with Japan. China started a public school system patterned after that of the United States and adopted American textbooks in its 1922 educational system.

In addition to help from universities and colleges in the United States, American missionary colleges in China also played an important role in the Americanization of the Chinese educational system. By the 1930s there were 16 Christian colleges and universities in China. Three of them were sponsored by Catholic missions and 13 of them were by Protestants. Academically, they were the first to introduce relatively comprehensive programs in science, technology, and medicine. However, in spite of all their positive attributes and efforts to communicate with the Chinese populace, a huge gap always existed between mission schools and Chinese society at large. The factors that contributed to the distance included the unwillingness of the missionaries to learn Chinese and the unwillingness to address Chinese concerns about national sovereignty and China's cultural heritage.

Missionary institutions not only transformed the life of Chinese youth who enrolled in them, but also smoothed the way for those who desired to study abroad. For students who planned to go abroad to pursue graduate studies, a degree from a western missionary school was invaluable. The pro-Western attitude manifested itself most in universities and colleges in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1927, Western-educated men monopolized nearly all important posts in higher education. Returnees, especially those from the United States, also dominated the diplomatic corps, military forces, and top government positions. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party expelled all missionary schools from China and forbade Chinese from going to the West to study, except for a very few who were allowed to study Western languages for diplomatic purposes. These measures were intended to end all Western influences on Chinese education. Since 1949 there has not been any private school operated exclusively by foreigners in China.

According to the China Statistical Yearbook, by 1998, China had a total population of 1,248,100,000 people. Among those over age 15, an estimated 83.22 percent were literate (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). In 1998, about 139,538,000 Chinese were enrolled in primary school; 63,010,000 were in middle school, among them 9,380,000 were high school students; 3,409,000 were students attending a university; and 198,885 were graduate students (China Statistical Yearbook 1999).

Illiteracy in China still poses a big challenge. Of those age 15 and older, 16.78 percent of Chinese know fewer than the 1,500 characters needed for basic literacy. Illiterate male Chinese make up 9.01 percent of the total male population over age 15, while illiterate female Chinese account for 22.61 percent of the total female population over age 15 (China Statistical Yearbook 1999).

Another problem of educational attainment is the huge discrepancy between urban and rural areas. Generally, almost all urban residents are literate due to better funding of schools and the prohibition of child labor. The majority of Chinese illiterates live in rural area. The lack of teachers and schools, poor funding, and the necessity for children to participate in farm-work contributes to the long-term problem.


The Compulsory Education Law of 1986 mandates six years for primary education and three years of middle school. Compulsory education serves two purposes: to prepare students for employment and to enable them to lay a solid foundation for entering schools of higher level. Although the law says the nine-year compulsory education should be free for all children, schools, often driven by economic necessity, ask parents to pay many fees, such as examination paper fees, school construction fees, water fees, and after-school coaching fees. Sometimes due to the high fees charged by schools, rural parents have to pull their children out of school (Lin 1999).

In order to develop compulsory education nationwide, the Chinese government is assisting economically deprived areas. To further increase state education appropriations, the government established the Hope Project, a back-to-school fund for children in impoverished areas who had discontinued schooling. By the end of 1994, the government had collected more than 350 million yuan (US$42.7 million) in donations, and 1,000,000 children who had been forced to leave school because of their impoverished situation were able to resume their education (Ashmore & Cao 1997).

The academic year in China is comprised of a fall semester and a spring semester. Students have classes five days a week with much homework assigned over the weekend. The school year extends from September to July. The teaching language is Putonghua, (Mandarin Chinese). Occasionally, local dialects are used as the teaching language in remote minority areas; however, the teaching of Mandarin Chinese is strictly enforced and is mostly used alongside local minority languages.

The new orientation of the Chinese economy in the 1980s required many skilled and trained laborers. Private education proved to be a pragmatic solution to meet the challenges of China's burgeoning market economy. Various nongovernmental schools became established in urban areas. They emphasized vocational training and offered courses such as foreign languages, accounting, bookkeeping, home economics, architecture, tailoring, and industrial management. By 1998, the total enrollment in nonformal institutions had reached 74,967,300 students (China Statistical Yearbook 1999).

In 1987 and 1988, the State Education Commission issued a series of documents, including the Provisional Regulations Concerning Educational Institutions Run by Social Forces and Provisional Regulations on the Finance of Educational Institutions Run by Social Forces. With these documents, the government allowed state-owned enterprises and institutions, the democratic parties, popular organizations, economic collectives, and learned societies to set up educational institutions. Private citizens were also allowed to do so with special permission from the educational office at various levels of the government. Foreigners, overseas Chinese, educators, and businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan were invited as well.

The first pre-college private school since the economic reforms was Guangya school in Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province. It opened in June 1992 by Qing Guangya. Three years later there were 20,780 private kindergartens, 3,159 private primary and secondary schools, and 672 private vocational and technical schools. In addition, there were 12,230 private colleges with an average enrollment of 2,400 students. Generally, there have been three types of private schools developed since the 1980s in terms of their funding and operation. The first type was founded and controlled by private investors, including former educators and businessmen. The second type of private schools was set up by Chinese individuals or business firms in collaboration with foreign investors. The third type included those founded and operated by Chinese enterprises and institutions in the tradition of the minban school, which are popularly-run schools supported by village funds in rural areas. Although the majority of minban schools are primary schools, there may be a few middle schools. Many private schools involved government officials or agencies in their administration or boards. In the 1990s, with strong financial support, private schools became much better equipped than most public schools. Computer labs, language labs, indoor gyms, swimming pools, and piano studios have enabled these schools to implement programs that prepared their students for the challenge of the market economy.

Although the future of private institutions remains uncertain, it seems that it is improving. More than ever before, the People's Republic of China is committed to economic reforms. Given the benefits of private universities, they are very likely to prosper in China's drive for modernization.

Although the philosophy of Communism dictates that women should enjoy equal rights with men, in educational life there have been consistently fewer females than males both overall and at each level of education throughout the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Females have consistently constituted a declining proportion of total students as one moves up the educational ladder. The obstacles of gender discrepancies at all levels of education stems in part from deeply embedded cultural sentiments. Female inferiority was enshrined in the Confucian ethic nan zun nu bei (male honorable, female inferior). This concept of female inferiority remains firmly entrenched in the basic social structure of modern Chinese society. Overt institutional discrimination occurs in the admission of females to both secondary and higher education. In the post-Mao Era, technical schools have been particularly active in this area, imposing quotas on the proportion of females enrolled. They argue that while girls mature faster intellectually than boys, they begin to fall behind at the later stage of junior middle school or in senior high school. More importantly, they use employment demands to justify gender discrimination. Since potential employers prefer male recruits, female graduates would have a hard time finding jobs. In addition women are considered less committed and are viewed as having less energy for their work because of their domestic responsibilities. Family attitudes and behavior also present obstacles to female education. Throughout the history of post-1949 China, the family has continued to favor the education of sons over daughters, especially in rural areas where both traditional attitudes and the virilocal family structure have persisted. Girls are often withdrawn from junior high school and even primary school to assist with domestic chores, accounting for their lower participation rates in education (Epstein 1991).

Despite the continuous disproportion of enrollment, female participation in education has increased over the period as a whole. Up to the mid-1980s, women's participation in formal higher education improved rapidly, from 23.4 percent in 1980 to 38.3 percent in 1998 (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). It is important to note, however, that free-market reforms have not always benefited women. Since the mid-1980s, female graduates have faced increasing discrimination in employment, as the centralized job allocation system has been modified to allow for greater autonomy on the part of employers. Because employers now have a choice, many choose to hire males over females to avoid paying maternity benefits. A new law protecting women's rights was passed by the national People's Congress in 1992, specifying that "schools and pertinent departments should ensure that females and males are treated equally when it comes to starting school, progressing from a lower-level school to a higher one, assigning jobs on graduation, awarding academic degrees, and selecting people for overseas study." But this is increasingly difficult to implement since educational institutions have less and less control over the employment of their graduates.

At the end of 1998, China had 55 minority groups with a population of 75,774,500. Although they constitute 6.07 percent of the total population, they are very unequally distributed among the 31 province-level territories. In 10 territories, their share of the total population is less than 1 percent. In 2 other territories, their share is between 10 and 20 percent (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). Because the Communist Party wanted to promote a unified country, it maintained that non-Han populations had the right to preserve their own languages, customs, and religions over a long period of time until all minorities would ultimately "melt together." In the meantime, the government also insisted that minorities were backward in their customs, economy, and political consciousness. Therefore, they needed assistance from the Han people to achieve a developed socialist country.

As a result of these contradictory policies, China has developed one of the oldest and largest programs of state-sponsored affirmative action for ethnic minorities. By 1950 the government had established 45 special minority primary schools and 8 provincial minority secondary schools. The minority students in these schools were provided free education, books, and school supplies and were subsidized for food and housing (Hansen 1990). For the long-term political goal, the government also focused on the education of minority cadres. An important institution to accomplish this goal is minzu xueyuan (special minority institutes), which trained minority cadres to work in minority regions as representatives of the Communist party and government. In college entrance examinations, minorities are given additional points to give them greater access to higher education—20 points are automatically added to their scores if they apply to minority institutes, or 5 points are added if they apply to other schools. Also, in many cases, minority students are allowed to take the examinations in their indigenous languages and later enroll in classes taught in Mandarin. Many prominent universities now have minzu ban (ethnic classes or cohorts). Since the early 1980s, there have also been one-year yuke ban (preparatory courses) for minorities at key universities and minority institutes. These classes, which may be arranged by agreement between minority areas and universities, can serve students who failed to enter a university through the national enrollment system. Minority students also benefit from quotas that set aside a certain percentage of the spaces in classes for them. Furthermore, governments at different levels tried to strengthen the training of local teachers and re-establish bilingual education, particularly among Tibetans, Mongols, and Uygurs. The autonomous governments of minorities are allowed to decide which kinds of schools to establish, the length of schooling, whether a special curriculum is needed, which languages to teach in addition to Chinese, and how to recruit students. The central government also decided that minority students studying in cities should be allocated jobs in their home-counties after graduation in order to ensure that poor and underdeveloped rural minority areas would benefit from minority higher education. In exchange for the preferential policies, minorities are expected to support China's construction by providing more natural resources.

In spite of governmental preferential policies, many minority areas are still characterized by low levels of school enrollment and educational attainment. In 1990, the level of illiteracy of the national minorities as a whole (30.8 percent) is markedly higher than that of all Han combined at 21.5 percent. While minority students continue to do relatively well in terms of opportunities to enter higher education, they are increasingly disadvantaged in their access to the job market upon graduation. Furthermore, both minority men and women are highly disadvantaged in applying to enter graduate school, due to the foreign language requirement. It is not easy for them to reach an adequate level in a foreign language when they must master Chinese in addition to their own language and then learn the foreign language through the medium of Chinese. Nor is there much evidence of affirmative action for minority students at the graduate level. Also, the fact that many minority undergraduates intend to become cadres, rather than academics, contributes to the scarcity of minority graduate students. In 1993, only 3 percent of graduate students were minorities.

The use of instructional technology in China's classrooms remains inadequate. Many schools, particularly in rural area, still rely on blackboard and chalk as their major instructional media. Since the economic reforms in the 1980s, some schools in the cities have acquired limited audio-visual resources. Both key high schools and universities have the advantage of being equipped first due to funding priority from the state. Private schools are better equipped than most public schools due to their generous donors, usually overseas Chinese or the newly rich entrepreneurs. As for Internet access in classrooms, Chinese schools are behind most advanced Western countries. Only very few researchers at key universities, supported by outside funding, have unlimited access to Internet resources. Due to both high cost and the fear of influx of undesired information, the Chinese government hesitates to make the Internet a valuable teaching tool on campuses.

In using both radio and television as instructional media to provide educational opportunities for Chinese mass, however, China is ahead of many countries in the world. Even during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when all schools were closed, Chinese Central People's Broadcast Station started to offer English lessons through radio broadcast in the 1970s. In February 1979 a television university was formed to offer different courses to Chinese citizens. In 1998 there were 45 radio and television universities with a enrollment of 484,400 students (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). Upon passing all required tests in a particular field, students can receive diplomas from the universities. The well-developed network presents lectures and classes in all major cities and regions throughout China. By presenting lectures of top experts in a given field, these radio and television universities provide educational opportunities to a large viewing audience who cannot attend formal college.


Additional topics

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