2 minute read

Education in China

Education, Society, And Examinations

After 1000, Chinese appealed to meritocratic ideals in which social prestige and political appointment depended on written examinations to establish public credentials. Elite status was corroborated by examination, which in turn produced new literati social groups that endured from 1400 to the twentieth century. Classical learning became the empirewide examination curriculum, which reached into counties and villages for the first time.

After the Ming fell, civil examinations were reinstituted by the succeeding Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911). As before, examinations were regularly held in 140 prefectures and about 1,300 counties. Medieval examinations had been held only in the capital, while from 1000 to 1350, regular examinations only occurred in the provincial and imperial capitals. Qing emperors granted the examination system a central educational position in Chinese government and society until 1905, when the civil examinations were abolished.

Education restructured the complex relations between social status, political power, and cultural prestige. A classical education based on nontechnical moral and political theory was as suitable for selection of elites in China as humanism and a classical education were for elites in early modern Europe. The examination life, like death and taxes, became a fixture of elite education and popular culture.

Examinations represented the focal point through which imperial interests, family strategies, and individual hopes and aspirations were directed. In the absence of alternative careers of comparable social status and political prestige, the goal of becoming an official took priority. Once set in place, the civil service recruitment system achieved for education a degree of empirewide standardization and local importance unprecedented in the premodern world. Moreover, the education ethos carried over into the domains of medicine, law, fiscal policy, and military affairs.

Several centuries before Europe, the imperial Chinese state committed itself financially to supporting an empirewide school network. Despite their initial success, dynastic schools were eventually absorbed into the examination system and remained schools in name only. Because the classical curriculum was routinized, dynastic schools became way stations, or "testing centers," for students to prepare for civil examinations.

Training in both vernacular and classical literacy was left to families. Dynastic schools in China never entertained goals of mass education that the Maoists would later call for. Rulers recognized elite education based on the classics as an essential task of government to recruit talent. Chinese elites perceived a classical education as the correct measure of their moral and social worth. Both believed that ancient wisdom, properly generalized and inculcated, tempered men as leaders and prepared them for wielding political power.

Rulers and elites equated social and political order with moral and political indoctrination through education. High-minded officials also appealed for the autonomy of education as an antidote to the warping of classical goals by the cutthroat examination process. Private academies frequently became centers for dissenting views. Such academies also served as important educational venues for literati who preferred teaching and lecturing to pass on their classical learning. Compared to some five hundred Song and four hundred Yuan dynasty private academies, the Ming overall had in place from one to two thousand academies by its end. The Qing had upwards of four thousand empirewide.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Dysprosium to Electrophoresis - Electrophoretic TheoryEducation in China - Educational Ideals In Late Traditional China, Education, Society, And Examinations, Political Uses Of Education