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Education in China

Reform And Revolution

During the twentieth century, classical literati values, dynastic imperial power, and elite gentry status unraveled. Manchu rulers gave up civil examinations as one of their major weapons of cultural control that had for centuries successfully induced literati acceptance of the imperial system. Traditionalists who reformed classical learning after 1898 paid a form of "symbolic compensation" to classical thought by declaring its moral superiority as a reward for its historical failure. The modern Chinese intellectual irrevocably replaced the late imperial literatus in the early republic.

Increasingly, traditional education was dissolved within a westernizing reformist project. Shu Xincheng (1893–1960), an early republican educator and historian, recalled the pressure of the times to change: "The changeover to a new system of education at the end of the Ch'ing appeared on the surface to be a voluntary move by educational circles, but in reality what happened was that foreign relations and domestic pressures were everywhere running up against dead ends. Unless reforms were undertaken, China would have no basis for survival. Education simply happened to be caught up in a situation in which there was no choice" (Borthwick, p. 38).

The floodgates broke wide open after the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War, which was largely fought on Chinese soil. Given the frantic climate of the time, the classical educational system was a convenient scapegoat. Court and provincial officials submitted a common memorial calling for the immediate abolition of the civil examinations at all levels. The civil examinations in particular were perceived as an obstacle to new schools because a classical degree still outweighed new school degrees and prevented realizing the ideal of universal education.

A separate Education Board was established in December 1905 to administer the new schools and oversee the many semiofficial educational associations that emerged at the local and regional levels. The board reflected the increasing influence of Han Chinese officials and served the interests of the modernists in undoing the schooling mechanisms under which classical literacy and essay writing had been achieved.

Still missing, however, was the need to address the role of classical versus vernacular language in school instruction and in written examinations. Full-scale educational reform still required champions of a "literary revolution," who became vocal during the May Fourth period after 1919. Not until the republican Ministry of Education began to move on the vernacular language of education could popular education move from ideal to practical reality.

Many unofficial organizations and groups entered the fray of school reform, which eroded the Manchu court's control over education policy. Through the portal of local education, local official and unofficial elites took over the educational domains of the central bureaucracy. As the imperial court grew weaker, regional and local tiers of power began to create the educational institutions that would accelerate the demise of the dynasty and form the educational pillars of the republic after 1911.

The Education Board established in 1905 was renamed as a "ministry" in the republican period and remained on the side of new schools. The educational institutions of the Republic of China after 1911 were the direct legacy of the late imperial reforms. Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) created the examination bureau as part of the republic's 1920s "five-power constitution," which echoed traditional institutions. The twentieth-century examination life, which was associated with university and public school entrance examinations in China and later in Taiwan, is the cultural heir of the imperial examination regime.

Despite important continuities, the affinity between longstanding expectations of traditional Chinese families and the dynasty's objective political institutions was ripped apart. Increasingly reformed on Western and Japanese models, new schools in China precipitated a generalized down-classing of traditional education and the classical curriculum. Many conservative families failed to convert their inherited educational and literary cultural resources into new academic degrees for their children. A revolutionary transformation in student dispositions accompanied the radical change in the conditions of recruitment of public officials after 1905.

Reform of education and examinations in China after 1900 was tied to newly defined goals of Western-style change that superseded conservative imperial goals for reproducing dynastic power, granting gentry prestige, and affirming classical orthodoxy. The ideal of national unity replaced dynastic solidarity. The sprawling, multiethnic Manchu empire became a struggling Han Chinese republican state that was later re-fashioned as a multiethnic communist nation.


Bastid, Marianne. Educational Reform in Early Twentieth-Century China. Translated by Paul J. Bailey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan China Center, 1988.

Borthwick, Sally. Education and Social Change in China: The Beginnings of the Modern Era. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.

De Bary, William Theodore, and John W. Chaffee, eds. Neo-Confucian Education: The Formative Stage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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

Keenan, Barry. Imperial China's Last Classical Academies: Social Change in the Lower Yangzi, 1864–1911. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Ko, Dorothy. Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Lee, Thomas H. C. Education in Traditional China: A History. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1999.

Meskill, John. Academies in Ming China: A Historical Essay. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982.

Rawski, Evelyn Sakakida. Education and Popular Literacy in Ch'ing China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979.

Walton, Linda. Academies and Society in Southern Sung China. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999.

Benjamin A. Elman

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