Historical Background: Expansion of Public Education
By LIQING TAO, MARGARET BERCI and WAYNE HE
There has always been a close connection between educational reforms and changes in social, economic and political milieu. In China, as in other countries, one political regime after another reformed education to suit their overt and covert aims. To guide inquiry, it is convenient to delineate the discussion of China"spath to the present education system by identifying its changing characteristics through five distinct political phases:
1. The Late Qing Dynasty
2. The Republic
3. The People"s Republic of China -Period of Liberation and Recovery
4. The People"s Republic of China-Period of The Cultural Revolution
5. Post-Mao China
The Late Qing Dynasty
The beginning of a system of formal education in China may be traced back as far as the Shang Dynasty (16-1045 BCE).20 From the onset, education was necessary to attain the coveted positions in civil service which were the key to wealth. The result was the perpetuation of a cultural/social cycle in which the elite were the educated and the educated were the elite. Prior to the Imperial Examination system, most appointments to civil service were based on recommendations from aristocrats and existing officials. By 115 CE, in an attempt to remove the patronage system, the government established a curriculum for the so-called First Generation of examination takers.16 Education under this Imperial Examination system however remained elitist and for the most part existed only to train government officials.
The set curriculum focused on the Six Arts: music, archery, horsemanship, writing arithmetic, history and knowledge of the public and private life rituals and ceremonies. The content was gradually expanded to cover the Five Studies: military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography; in addition to a combination of works that defined the philosophy of Confucianism. The teachings of Confucius, outlined both personal conduct as well as societal and government goals, and were contained in the Four Books: Analects of Confucius, Mencius, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and the Five Classics: The Book of Odes, The Book of Documents, The Book of Rites, The Book of Changes, The Spring and Autumn Annals.10
Confucianism is a form of Humanism; that is, his writings place man at the center of things, and concentrate on human issues. The pedagogical focus is on educating people in the belief, values and practices that govern life within the family and between family and state. Confucianism advocates a strong attachment to one"s extended family while legitimating a subservient relationship of subjects to monarchs.17, 19
The government administered the various levels of these imperial or civil service examinations that came to dominate education. For over two thousand years education operated under a system in which the elite class was supported by a large illiterate base. Used for the selection of public officials, the examination system was not a neutral democratic method of education but a political mechanism for legitimating and reproducing the relations of knowledge and power between society"s elite and the monarch"s subjects. Although during and before the Ming dynasty certain people, called "mean people"could not take the exam, by the early Qing period the law was changed to make it possible for any male adult in China could become a high-ranking government official by passing the examinations. In reality, most of the candidates came from the small, wealthy land-owning gentry, since the process of studying for the examination was time-consuming and costly.29
There were different levels of examinations, each with specific content, requiring various methods of preparation and leading to distinct degree types and social functions. Oddly, these Chinese Imperial examinations are considered to be the first standardized tests based on merit. The exams lasted between 24 to 72 hours and consisted of essay questions that tested the individual"s understanding of the Confucius doctrine. To obtain objectivity in evaluation, candidates were identified by number rather than by name; and in order to further ensure anonymity, examination answers were rewritten by a third person before being evaluated.10 Preparations for these tests were conducted in private institutions set up exclusively for the purpose of examination preparation with their sole goal to "teach to the test" The knowledge base that served as curriculum in these schools was considered to be superior in the world and good pedagogy for the most part was seen to be simply a matter of transferring knowledge
The Chinese reevaluated this belief in social and intellectual superiority after their defeat in the Opium War (1840-1842), and the cessation of Hong Kong to Great Britain. The more liberal minded officials began to recognize the need to look to western influence in education, especially in the areas of science and technology and also saw it as an opportunity for a new approach to education. Originally these modernizers adopted the Japanese patterns of schooling, since that model demonstrated success in combining Western knowledge structures with the preservation of Eastern social and moral values. However, the majority of the Chinese upper class was suspicious of these reforms and feared that they were endangering the national spirit.
The motto became "Chinese learning for the foundation; Western learning for practical use" Confucian texts would continue to be the foundation and would be balanced with Western technology. The system of civil service examinations remained the goal of the education system until, it too, was re-evaluated in the wake of the 1895 the Sino-Japanese War. In 1905 the Qing Dynasty court, mainly in an effort to reduce the illiteracy rate, dismantled the civil service examination system and issued a series of reforms that organized education into a modern system of primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education.