Defining education policies has been an uphill battle for the country's administrators
Long road to literacy

By Rosanne Lin, Shanghai Star. 2002-07-11
An emblem drawing features a carp makes its way up a waterfall, hoping to become a dragon — signifying a student's desire to succeed to a higher level.

The Soviet Model, which was adopted following Liberation,focused on meeting technological needs through higher education,which did little to improve the literacy rate

ACCORDING to records, at the time of Liberation in 1949, approximately 80 per cent of the population of China was illiterate or half-illiterate; the total school enrollment accounted for only 4.76 per cent of the country's people.

Since then, developments in education can only be described as extraordinary. By the end of 1997, China's level of illiteracy was recorded at 12 per cent for the total population and less than 6 per cent among the young and middle-aged.

However, the road to literacy has not been an easy one for the country. China has struggled with both periods of social upheaval and the difficulties in defining a system, able to meet the unique needs of Chinese society.

To meet the latter demand, leaders and scholars have utilized features form both Western models - evident in the growing phenomenon of bilingual daycare and kindergarten schools - and Soviet models - reflected in modern sports schools where promising young athletes receive both academic and sports training their families could otherwise not afford.

Ancient roots

David Surowski of Kansas State University, in his essay the "History of the Educational System of China", traces the roots of a formal education system in China back at least 3,500 years to the later Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century - 11th century BC). He explains that this system, developed solely to produce an elite class of government officials, continued throughout ancient China's history, preparing students for imperial examinations and perpetuating the civil service - the foundation of dynastic rule.

Surowski points out that Christian missionaries first attempted to introduce Western-style education to China in the mid-1800s, yet failed to draw significant attention until the defeat of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the Opium War (1840-1842), when pragmatic officials called for the introduction of Western technological curriculum to a system which had previously focused exclusively on Confucian studies.

The final downfall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic in 1911 marked an important turning point in educational planning as leaders and scholars began to search for a system that could provide for the technological needs of the country without sacrificing its Chinese identity, while expanding to reach the masses in a predominately rural society. However, with the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s and the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalist, debates on education were suspended until after 1949.

Struggle for success

As Surowski points out the Soviet Model, which was adopted following Liberation, focused on meeting technological needs through higher education, which did little to improve the literacy rate.

Under this model, the government made diligent efforts to restructure universities and colleges - at the expense of primary and secondary level schooling - only to be thwarted by the Anti-Rightest Campaign of 1957, policy failures and a spate of natural disasters.

In the wake of these failures, leaders resumed earlier attempts at balancing Confucian and Western-style education, developing a two-track educational system: vocational and work-study schooling, and regular university, college and college preparatory schooling.

According to Surowski, this two-track system developed fairly smoothly, until the breakout of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), when people became suspicious of the system, seeing the approach as one that would again produce a privileged elite.

Surowski writes: "On May 25, 1966, the party secretary of the philosophy department at Peking University, Nie Yuanzi, and six other colleagues hung a 'big character poster' critical of the university's administration. ... the 'cultural revolution' was under way."

These years saw the education system thrown into chaos. The administration of campuses was unstable and classes were often cancelled, the university entrance examination system was halted, and few new students were admitted until the early 1970s.

According to Surowski, amazingly one area of education did witness gains during this period. Although primary and secondary programmes were shortened and curriculum reconstituted, abolishing even physics and chemistry classes, an unprecedented number of school aged-children finally received basic instruction due to the creation of many "commune schools" under the agricultural collectivisation policies. For the first time, poor rural children were learning to read and write.

With social stability regained in 1976, educational policies from the early 1960s were reintroduced. The guiding principle of the reform was the "Four Modernizations" - advances in agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. Academic standards were reintroduced, and the national unified college entrance exams were restored in 1977.

The Chinese higher educational system continued to draw on features of Soviet models, arts and sciences were still taught at the comprehensive universities, while separate institutions concentrated on other fields. Colleges and universities were primarily responsible for job assignment of their graduates. However, since these reforms, Western influences have lead to a broadening of curriculum and the phasing-out of the job assignment role of the universities.

China's education system continues to initiate reforms that will bring quality education to the greatest number of people - one-quarter of the world's population.

Copyright by Shanghai Star.