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Education in China

Educational Ideals In Late Traditional China

Teachers in late imperial times aimed at training a highly literate elite and socializing the far less literate, or even illiterate, common people by means of exhortations and rituals. This concept never hardened into a tidy formula, given the dissatisfactions with the educational status quo that have characterized Chinese history. Wang Yangming (1472–1529) and his followers, for example, opened schools for commoners on a wider scale than ever before. The line between elites and commoners could also be blurred by political turmoil. When emperors feared that heterodox popular religions were spreading, they often conflated learning with indoctrination from above. Many literati accused Wang Yangming and his followers of heterodoxy and deceiving the people.

Separate from official studies, schools of learning among literati included poetry societies, private academies, or lineages of teachings associated with local classical, medical, or state-craft traditions. Medical and statecraft traditions were tied to the teachings of a master, who bequeathed his teachings to his immediate disciples. In the absence of public schools in Ming China (1368–1644), education in lineage schools, charity and temple schools, or at home transmitted the classical or technical training needed by young men to pass local civil or military examinations or practice their local trades.

In Ming times, the "Learning of the Way" (Neo-Confucianism) tradition became an empirewide orthodoxy. Its followers created an imperial curriculum that was strengthened by the civil examinations. Although moralistic predispositions were favored in civil examinations, alternative and dissenting learning proliferated. Natural studies, particularly medical learning, was also a legitimate focus of private study when literati sought alternatives to official careers. The wider scope of civil policy questions dating from the early fifteenth century often reflected the dynasty's interest in astrology, calendrical precision, mathematical harmonics, and natural anomalies.

Learning was guided by examples of past worthies and sages and encouraged by good companions and teachers. In traditional schools, the prestige of learning led to more regimentation than many literati might have wished, but this was tempered by numerous local traditions of learning outside the state. Members of literary schools held that because literature and governing were not separate, writers should avoid religious vocabulary, colloquial phrases, or popular novels. Knowledge of numbers using the abacus in tax-related economic transactions, debates about "hot" and "cold" medical therapies to deal with epidemics, and the astronomical expertise for reform of the calendar were also widespread.

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