Will the leadership of Chinese education follow the footsteps of American education? A brief historical and socio-political analysis.

AuthorYang, James Z.


For thousands of years China has kept itself a closed, isolated, and mysterious country with respect to its culture, education, and economy. The world knew nothing more than a vague impression of its traditional imperial system and notorious communist dictatorial structure. After Deng Xiaoping's 1978 reformation, China started to open its doors to Western influence and American ideas. The economic and cultural export from Western countries together with a willingness of citizens to reform the Chinese government has resulted in the current economic expansion and prosperity of China. China has become, without dispute, one of the economic super-powers based upon its population, geographic size, and gross domestic product (GDP). The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing attests to China's ever increasing openness, economic expansion, and national pride. Increasingly, China makes its presence known on the stage of international affairs for its own benefit. It is clear at this point that the Chinese economic system has changed to a mixed social-market economy instead of purely a command economy; yet at the same time the Chinese government is still a communist dictatorial government.

In this mixed or hybrid economic-political system, where does Chinese education stand? How do we predict the direction of the Chinese education system? Will national education fix itself within a Chinese traditional education agenda; move toward a Western or principally US culturally-influenced system; or remain under the communist government's umbrella of control and surveillance?

This article analyzes both past and contemporary Chinese education, walks us through the Chinese education pathway, and tries to determine and anticipate the direction of the current Chinese education system. Our logic and argument are derived from historical aspects of Chinese education, the contemporary political atmosphere, educational philosophy, and curricular and leadership studies in education. Leadership, as we define it here, is "everything that consciously seeks to accomplish educational projects" and their varied ends, either aesthetically, economically or ideologically (Hodgkinson, 1991, p. 17). The questions we seek to answer are: Will the leadership of Chinese education follow in the footsteps of Western countries, and particularly America (U.S.), in purpose, organization, policy and practice? What can or should be done to assist in this matter?

Chinese Education of the Distant and Recent Past

Confucius' Impact on Chinese Education

In Chinese traditional values, "Wan ban jie Xia pin, Wei you du shu gao" means that educated people are above every other human being in social standing. In the Song Dynasty of China, the Emperor Zheng Zong wrote a famous poem called "The Exhortation of Study" in order to encourage Chinese people to achieve self-actualization through studying hard. The poem mentions, "There are golden houses in books; there are pretty girls in books; there are myriads of grain in books; and there are crowds of horses and carriages in books." Therefore, in ancient China, even the poor could appreciate the value of education. For thousands of years, education was almost the only way in which people could climb to the elite classes.

What is Traditional Chinese Education and Why Is It Influential?

China has a long history of being an emperor-run country. Before the first unification of the entire country in BC 221, China was in an era of warring states that fought for power over each other--it was a time of great chaos. Among the different philosophers who flourished during this era, Confucius (551-479 BC) was the most influential. One of his codes was "Jun Jun, Chen Chen, fu fu, zi zi." Actually, this was his societal organization code meaning: "the ruler rules as he should; the minister manages as he should; the father acts as he should; and the son behaves as he should" (Waley, 1996, p. 59). According to Fairbank & Goldman (2006), Confucius thought "if everyone performs his own role, then the social order would be sustained" (p. 51). Confucius' other code was about proper behavior and a moral standard--"li" for acceptable conduct for a superior class to rule the country, "yi" for loyalty from subordinates, "lian" for no corruption, and "chi" for awareness of shame. His philosophy and thought is mostly regarding how to rule, how to keep order, and how to behave in order to be a moral person.

Confucius' teaching supported a class hierarchy and made clear distinctions between members of society. Therefore, his philosophy and thought was regarded as the doctrine for the ruling class for thousands of years. Only scholars or educated people who subscribed to Confucius' philosophy and standards could serve as the ruling class or civil officials. Although Confucius put his priorities in the order of proper ritual first, humaneness second, and learning third; he and Mencius (370-290 BC)--another Confucius-like philosopher--claimed that all human beings are born with a good nature and all can be led to the right path through education, especially if they worked hard enough.

As an education master, Confucius practiced learning and teaching as a way to knowledge, a constructive strategy which he described as: "a student, who studies but does not think, is lost; a student, who thinks but does not study, is in great danger" (Waley, The Analects, p. 19). This maxim emphasized that there was a deep interaction between study and thinking. In Confucius' view, study involves active thinking rather than the passive acceptance of knowledge; and in turn, positive thinking is a beneficial way to improve a student's study. It is said that Confucius had three thousands students, and his philosophy was carried on by his devoted disciples generation after generation.

Since the Han dynasty, Confucianism had been acclaimed by emperors and scholars as a secular religion. In the Tang dynasty, the kingdom's founders established a civil service examination system (keju) based on Confucius' philosophy. Regardless of social status (rich or poor), only scholars or educated people who passed official examinations could serve for the ruling class as civil officials. However, only a minority of scholars were able to pass the examination the first time they took it. Innumerable scholars and educated people devoted their lives to pursuing the civil service examination. The examination system produced a scholar-official class in China. The traditional Chinese elite level consisted of scholar-officials. The Scholar-officials dominated traditional Chinese politics and culture for thousands of years. "The examination was thus an organic component of a total social system, serving a multiplicity of interests, including many shared by the state and the [cultural] elite" (Thomas, 2005, p.75).

In addition, the examination system enforced the Chinese tradition of private schools that Confucius created. In order to deal with the examination, a large number of private schools (si shu) and academic schools (shu yuan) existed in Chinese rural areas and cities. Based on Confucius' philosophy that "I instruct regardless of kind" (Palmer, 2001, p.2), most scholars who desired to pass the examination were taught by classic tutors in private academic schools. The Confucius-Mencius idea that human beings are born with a good nature and that all can be educated made the ordinary people and even the poor have a dream for a better life based on the values of these philosophical teachings. This is a traditional Chinese education based on a traditional Chinese culture.

John Dewey's Impact on Chinese Education

The curriculum of ancient or traditional Chinese education was mostly based in the liberal arts focusing on Confucius' philosophy and thought in addition to some poetry and literature. Mathematics, science, physical arts, and technical skills were either not considered as legitimate curricular topics for formal education, an outside or different activity from strictly defined formal education, or forbidden from consideration as a valid part of formal education. Students studied and learned about Confucius or neo-Confucian teachings, wrote compositions with rigid style, and took the civil service examination only for the purpose of securing positions as government officials. Science and technology were never formally studied or encouraged. Confucian and neo-Confucian (li xue) teachings became rigid doctrines so that everyone proceeding afterward had to follow and obey. No one could surpass this rigidity.

Buddhism within the Sui-Tang Dynasties, and Christianity in later stages of imperial China, were, once in a while, imported to China, but these teachings never became dominant. After the Tang Dynasty, China no longer had the flourishing or diversity of philosophy and expanded liberal studies. China's focus became more and more inward. A strong imperial country gradually declined. More significantly, Chinese culture and tradition isolated the Chinese nation from the outside world so that China became increasingly narrow-minded and self-centered. The Chinese Empire lagged behind the Western world in ideology, creativity, and international perspective. For instance, in 1644, the Manchurian troops took over all of China; while simultaneously the British were struggling to confine the monarchy's power and to establish capitalism. In 1764, James Hargreaves's "Spinning Jenny" revolutionized the textile industry. By contrast, Chinese under the Manchuria Qing Dynasty were blindly drunk with traditional Chinese culture and the physical/geographic boundaries of the country. Finally, in 1842, the Qing Dynasty was defeated by British troops in the First Opium War. This encounter provides evidence that China was slow to develop compared to the industrial countries of Europe.

The ending of the imperial era was accompanied by Chinese education reform. For a long period of time Chinese...

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