To enrich your family, there is no need to buy good land:
Books hold a thousand measures of grain.
For an easy life, there is no need to build mansion:
In books are found houses of gold.
When you go out, do not be upset if no one follows you:
In books there will be a crowd of horses and carriages.
If you wish to marry, don't be upset if you don't have a go-between:
In books there are girls with faces like jade.
A young man who wishes to be somebody
will devote his time to the Classics.
He will face the window and read.
The Song Emperor, Renzong


Mencius

INTRODUCTION

The historical importance of education in Chinese culture is derived from the teachings of Confucius and philosophers of the middle and late Chou eras. Fundamentally, these philosophies taught that social harmony could be achieved only if humans were free from deprivation and given proper education. Confucius taught that all people possessed the same potential, and that education was the corrective means to curb any tendencies to stray from ethical behavior.

From the very first, Confucius made education available to students from all classes. Education in China has thus been a equalizing force from ancient times. It became the means by which individuals from even the humblest backgrounds could rise to great heights. Through the ethics of Confucius which informed the traditional curriculum, it was also a powerful mechanism for implementing the ethical and social norms of Chinese society.

We know with some certainty that a state system of education was founded during the Han Period the emperor Wu-ti in 124BCE. Students who were admitted to the T'ai hsueh or Great Academy were destined for careers in the civil service after they passed the internal exams and were competitively selected for various positions. Initially only fifty-five students were admitted to the Great Academy. By 8 BCE, the Academy had an enrollment of three thousand students. During the Han Dynasty (202BCE-220CE) provincial schools were established and the Confucian tradition of education was spread across China.

As the Academy developed the connection between scholarship and the personality cult of Confucius also became established. The connection between Confucius and the official Chinese educational system thus became permanently linked right into the present time.

The curriculum at the Great Academy was based on the Confucian Five Classics and classes were taught by professors of the Five Classics who were known as po-shih. The basis of Chinese education did not change throughout the imperial history till the reign of the last Ch'ing emperors. During the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1912) both state and private schools were developed and students were able to buy places into these schools.

In contrast to western education, particularly in regard to the model of higher education in Medieval and Renaissance universities where students were encouraged to engage in disputation, traditional Chinese education consisted primarily of rote learning and memorization of the Classics. This formula became standardized by the seventh century CE. Candidates for the Civil Service Imperial Exams were required to memorize a vast amount of classical material and were never required to demonstrate the ability to either theorize or challenge a particular premise. The purpose of the scholar class after all was:
the creation of bureaucratic generalists familiar with an accepted ethical outlook and body of knowledge, not with the growth of knowledge or with academic specialization.1

The very democratic nature of Chinese education--i.e., that it offered a path of upward mobility to anyone who could survive the rigors of study and examinations--was established from the first by Confucius himself. A traditional saying attributed to him states that "those who work with their heads will rule, while those who work with their hands will serve." To that end, education thus became a strategy for survival in a country where poverty and hardship had challenged the lives of millions for countless millennia.

_____________________ 1John Merson, The Genius That Was China: East and West in the Making of the Modern World, (Overlook Press, 1990) p. 86.

Confucian and Chinese Education Home Page
Confucianism
Imperial Exam System
Chinese Science and Technology