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Traditional Education in Asia and Modern


In East Asia, Japan was the first country to embark on modern educational reform. In the wake of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the government sent out a group of distinguished officials to tour many countries in Europe and America, hoping to gain firsthand knowledge about social, political, and educational systems in the modern West. The educational measures introduced by the Meiji government included creation of the ministry of education, compulsory elementary education (extended also to women), and establishment of a national university—Tokyo University—started in a renovated state school formerly devoted to Confucian learning.

By comparison, as the first country that confronted the Western powers in East Asia, China lagged behind Japan in initiating educational reform. In its struggle against the Western challenge, the reigning Qing dynasty established a few translation schools and sent out a few groups of students abroad, but throughout most of the nineteenth century China apparently lacked the desire to adopt more comprehensive educational reforms. It was not until 1895, after its shattering defeat by Japan in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), that the dynasty, as well as Chinese educators, began to realize the importance of modern education. In the aftermath of the war, China witnessed a short-lived political reform, which resulted, among other things, in the founding of a modern university in 1898—the Metropolitan University—now Beijing University. As a large number of its students went abroad, most to Japan because of its proximity, to receive a modern education, the country also embarked on a rapid course of educational reform. In 1905 the thousand-year-old civil service examination was abolished, paving the way for the establishment of a modern educational system. Accompanying this change was an unprecedented opportunity for Chinese women to receive formal schooling.

All in all, the structure of modern education took root in most of Asia from the late nineteenth century on. Over time, it evolved into a uniform system across the continent and bore a striking resemblance to that of the modern West. Meanwhile, it demonstrates in its ideals and practices the diverse influences of the religious and cultural traditions and political ideologies of the region.


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Dore, Ronald P. Education in Tokugawa Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

Elman, Benjamin A., and Alexander Woodside, eds. Education and Society in Late Imperial China, 1600–1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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Q. Edward Wang

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Dysprosium to Electrophoresis - Electrophoretic TheoryTraditional Education in Asia and Modern - South Asia, East Asia, Modernization, Bibliography