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
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
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.
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