Education in China
Culture And Education
Classical literacy—the ability to write elegant essays and poetry—was the crowning achievement for educated men and increasingly for elite women in the seventeenth century. This learning process began with rote memorization during childhood, continued with youthful reading, and concluded with mature writing. Literati believed that the memory was strongest at an early age, while mature understanding was a gradual achievement that derived from mastering the literary language and its moral and historical content.
Educated men, and some women, became members of a "writing elite" whose essays would mark them as classically trained. The educated man was able to write his way to fame, fortune, and power, and even if unsuccessful in his quest for an official career, he could still publish essays, poetry, novels, medical handbooks, and other works. The limitation, control, and selection of the "writing elite," not the enlargement of the "reading public," was the dynasty's goal in selecting officials.
Local lineages translated their social and economic strength into educational success, which in turn correlated with their control of local cultural resources. Lineages required classically literate and highly placed leaders who moved easily in elite circles and could mediate on behalf of the kin group with officials. Economic surpluses produced by wealthy lineages, particularly in prosperous areas, enabled members of rich segments to receive a better classical education, which via success on state examinations allowed access to political and economic prestige outside the lineage.
Dominant lineages and merchant families maintained their local status through their schools, medical traditions, and academies. Elite education stressed classical erudition, historical knowledge, medical expertise, literary style, and poetry. The well-publicized rituals for properly writing classical Chinese included cultural paraphernalia long associated with literati culture: the writing brush, ink stick, inkstone, stone monuments, fine silk, and special paper.
Although muted in practice, elites achieved a degree of cultural and linguistic uniformity through a classical education. The classical curriculum represented a cultural repertoire of linguistic signs and conceptual categories that ensured elite political power and social status. Education in dynastic schools and private academies was a fundamental factor in determining cultural consensus and conditioning the forms of reasoning and rhetoric that prevailed in elite written texts of the period.
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