In 1899, Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“The schoolhouse is an unoccupied room in a private house, an ancestral, or other temple, or any other available place borrowed for the purpose. Renting a place for a school seems to be almost or quite unknown. The teacher does his own cooking, or if he is unequal to this task, he is assisted by one of his pupils, perhaps his own son, whom he often brings with him, albeit, as already mentioned, there is classical authority against having a son taught by a father. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

“The furniture required for each pupil is provided by his parents, and consists simply of a table and a stool or bench. The four “precious articles” required in literature are the ink-slab with a little well to hold the water required to rub up the ink, the ink-cake, the brush for writing, and paper.

The cost of Chinese books being practically prohibitory to teachers who are poor, they are sometimes driven to copy them, as was the habit of the monks in the middle ages. The writer is well acquainted with a schoolmaster who spent the spare time of several years in copying a work in eight octavo volumes, involving the notation of somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 characters, to the great injury of his health and of his eyesight.

“As the Chinese child has no Saturdays, no Sundays, no recesses, no variety of study, and no promotion from grade to grade, nor from one school to another, it is probable that he has enough schooling such as it is. As every scholar is a class by himself, the absence of one does not interfere with the study of another. Even if two lads happen to be reciting in the same place, they have no more connection with each other than any other two pupils. Of such a thing as classification the teacher has never heard, and the irregular attendance of the scholars would, he tells you, prevent it, even were it otherwise possible. Owing to the time required to hear so many recitations, an ordinary school does not contain more than eight or ten pupils, and twenty are regarded as beyond one teacher’s capacity.

School Year in 19th Century China

Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The Chinese school year is coincident with the calendar year, though the school does not begin until after the middle of the first moon, some time in February. There is a vacation at the wheat harvest in June, and another and longer one at the autumnal harvest in September and October. The school is furthermore dismissed ten or twenty days before the new year. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Should the master not have been reëngaged he is likely to do very little teaching during the last moon of the year, as he is much more interested in arranging for the future than in piecing out the almost dead present. The attendance of the scholars, too, is in any case irregular and capricious, amply justifying the saying: Once entered at the twelfth month’s door, The teacher rules his boys no more.”

“If Chinese pupils are to be pitied in the dog-days, the same is even more true of the dead of winter, when the thermometer hovers between the freezing-point and zero. The village school will very likely have either no fire at all, or only such as is made by a pile of kindling or a bundle of stalks lit on the earth floor, modifying the temperature but for a few moments, and filling the room with acrid smoke for an hour. Even should there be a little brazier with a rudimentary charcoal fire, it is next to useless, and is mainly for the behoof of the master. The pupils will be found (if they can afford such luxuries) enveloped in long winter hoods, sitting all day in a state of semi-congelation.

School Day in 19th Century China

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The scholars in a Chinese school are expected to be on hand at an early hour, and by sunrise they are, perhaps, howling vigourously away. When it is time for the morning meal they return to their homes, and as soon as it is finished, again return. About noon they are released for dinner, after which they go back as before to school. If the weather is hot, every one else—men, women, and children—is indulging in the afternoon siesta, but the scholars are in their places as usual, although they may be suffered to doze at their desks as well as they can, for half the rest of the day. In this way the discipline of the school is supposed to be maintained, and some allowance made at the same time for poor human nature. Were they allowed to take a regular nap at home, the teacher fears with excellent reason that he would see no more of them for the day. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“They generally do not leave the schoolhouse until it is too dark to distinguish one character from another. When at length the scholars are released, it is not for a healthful walk, much less for a romp, but to return to their homes in an orderly and becoming manner, like so many grown Confucianists. In some schools the scholars are expected to come back in the evening to their tasks, as if the long and wearisome day were not sufficient for them, and this is, perhaps, universally the case in the advanced schools where composition is studied.

“A sufficient reason for spending all his time in the schoolroom is the fact that it is practically impossible for a Chinese child to do any studying amid the distractions of a Chinese household. Even for adult scholars it is almost always difficult to do so. At his home the pupil has no mental stimulus of any sort, no books, magazines or papers, and even if he had them, his barren studies at school would not have fitted him to comprehend such literature.

Village Teachers in 19th Century China

Smith wrote: “We have already alluded to the great oversupply of teachers of schools. Many of them, owing to their lack of adaptation to their environment, are chronically on the verge of starvation. It is a venerable maxim that poverty and pride go side by side, and nowhere does this saying find more forcible exemplification than in the case of a poor Chinese scholar. He has nothing, he can do nothing, and in most cases he is unwilling to do anything. In short, viewed from the standpoint of political economy, he is good for nothing. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“One specimen of this class the writer once saw, who had been set at work by a benevolent foreigner molding coal balls, an employment which doubtless appeared to him and to the spectators as the substantial equivalent of the chain-gang, and yet, to the surprise of his employer, he accepted it rather than starve. A certain scholar of this description was so poor that he was obliged to send his family back to her mother’s house, to save them from starvation. The wife, being a skillful needle-woman, was employed at good wages in a foreign family, but when her husband heard of it he was very angry, not because he was unwilling to have her associate with foreigners, who he was kind enough to say were very respectable, but because it was very unsuitable that she, the wife of a scholar, should work for hire! The wife had the sense and spirit to reply that, if these were his views, it might be well for him to provide his family with something to eat, to which he replied with the characteristic and ultimate argument for refractory wives, namely, a sound beating!

“When one of these helpless and impecunious scholars calls upon a foreigner whom he has met only once, or perhaps never even seen, he will not improbably begin by quoting a wilderness of classical learning to display his great—albeit unrecognized—abilities. He tells you that among the five relations of prince and minister, husband and wife, father and son, brother to brother, and friend to friend, his relationship to you is of the latter type. That it would do violence to his conception of the duties of this relation, if he did not let you know of his exigencies. He shows you his thin trousers and other garments concealed under his scholar’s long gown, and frankly volunteers that any contribution, large or small, prompted by such friendship as ours to him will be most acceptable.

“While the conditions of the life of the village scholar are thus unfavourable for his success in earning a living, they are not more favourable to his own intellectual development. The chief, if not the exclusive sources of his mental alimentation have been the Chinese Classics. These are in many respects remarkable products of the human mind. Their negative excellencies, in the absence of anything calculated to corrupt the morals, are great. To the lofty standard of morality which they fix, may be ascribed in great measure their unbounded and perennial influence, an influence which has no doubt powerfully tended to the preservation of the empire. Apart from the incalculable influence which they have exerted on the countless millions of China for many ages, there are many passages which in and of themselves are remarkable.

“But taken as a whole, the most friendly critic finds it impossible to avoid the conviction, which forces itself upon him at every page, that regarded as the sole text-books for a great nation they are fatally defective. They are too desultory, and too limited in their range. Epigrammatic moral maxims, scraps of biography, nodules of a sort of political economy, bits of history, rules of etiquette, and a great variety of other subjects, are commingled without plan, symmetry, or progress of thought. The chief defects, as already suggested, are the triviality of many of the subjects, the limitation in range, and the inadequacy of treatment. When the Confucian Analects are compared, for example, with the Memorabilia of Xenephon, when the Doctrine of the Mean is placed by the side of the writings of Aristotle and Plato, and the bald notation of the Spring and Autumn Annals by the side of the history of Thucydides, when the Book of Odes is contrasted with the Iliad, the Odyssey, or even the Æneid, it is impossible not to marvel at the measure of success which has attended the use of such materials in China.

“Should serious illness prevent the teacher from beginning his duties at all, the engagement is cancelled; but if he enters upon them, and is then disabled, the full tuition is exacted from every scholar, just as if the engagement had been completed.

“The wish of the school patron is to get as much work as he can out of the teacher for the money paid him. The endeavour of the teacher is to get as much money as he can, and to do as little work as he must. For this reason he is always glad to have the names added after the school list has been made out, because that will increase his receipts. The patrons frequently object to this, because they think their own children will be neglected, and unless all the patrons consent the addition cannot be made. They also dislike to have the teacher bring a son or a nephew with him, lest the slender salary should be insufficient for the food of both. In that event the master might abandon the school before the year is over, as sometimes occurs, but such teachers find it difficult to secure another school the following year.

What Is Expected of a Chinese Village Teacher

Smith wrote: “If the teacher is a man of any reputation, he has a multitude of acquaintances, fellow students, any of whom may happen to call upon him at the schoolhouse, where he lives. Chinese etiquette requires that certain attentions should be paid to visitors of this sort, and while it is perfectly understood that school routine ought not to be broken in upon by unnecessary interruptions, as a matter of fact in most schools these interruptions are a serious nuisance, to which the teacher often cannot and oftener will not put a stop. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The system here described, by which the whole time of the master is supposed to be devoted to instructing his pupils, makes no allowances for any absences whatever. Yet there are few human beings blessed with such perfect health, and having such an entire freedom from all relations to the external world, as to be able to conduct a school of this kind month after month, with no interruptions.

“It frequently happens that the teacher is himself one of the literary army who attends the examinations in hope of a degree. If this is the case, his absences for this purpose will often prove a serious interruption to the routine of the school. Some patrons appear to consider that this disadvantage is balanced by the glory which would accrue to their school in case its master were to take his degree while in their service. Moreover, aside from the regular vacations at the feast times and harvests, every teacher is sure to be called home from time to time by some emergency in his own family, or in his village, or among his numerous friends. Under these circumstances he provides a substitute if he happens to find it convenient to do so. Such are nicknamed “remote-cousin-preceptors” (su-pai lao-shih), and are not likely to be treated with much respect. When the teacher is absent for a day, instead of dismissing the school, he perhaps leaves it theoretically in the charge of one of the older scholars. The inevitable consequence is, that at such times the work of the school is reduced not merely to zero, but to forty degrees below zero. The scholars simply bar the front door, and amuse themselves in using the teacher’s ferule for a bat, and the Trimetrical Classic, or the Confucian Analects, for a ball. The demoralization attending such lawlessness is evidently most injurious to the efficiency of the school.

“The irregularities of the master’s attendance are more than matched by those of his scholars. The pressure of domestic duties is such that many poorer families on one pretence or another are constantly taking their children out of school. To-day the pupil must rake up fuel, next week he must lead the animal that draws the seed drill, a month later he is taken for two or three days to visit some relatives. Not long after there is in the village, or perhaps in some neighbouring village, a theatrical entertainment, but in either case the whole school expects a vacation to go and see the sport. As already remarked when describing theatricals, if this vacation were denied they would take it themselves. Besides interruptions of this sort, there are the spring and autumn harvests, when the school is dismissed for two months and perhaps for three, and the New Year vacation, which lasts from the middle of the twelfth moon to the latter part of the first moon. But, extensive as are these intermissions of study, the dog-days are not among them, and the poor pupils go droning on through all the heat of summer.

“The object of the teacher is to compel his pupils, first to Remember, secondly, to Remember, thirdly and evermore to Remember. For every scholar, as we have seen, is theoretically a candidate for the district examinations, where he must write upon themes selected from any one of a great variety of books. He must, therefore, be prepared to recall at a moment’s notice, not only the passage itself, but also its connections, and the explanations of the commentary, as a prerequisite for even attempting an essay.

Students in 19th Century Chinese Village Schools

Smith wrote:“The necessity of confining one’s attention to study alone, leads to the selection of one or more of the sons of a family as the recipient of an education. The one who is chosen is clothed in the best style which his family circumstances will allow, his little cue neatly tied with a red string, and he is provided, as we have seen, with a copy of the Hundred Surnames and of the Trimetrical Classic. This young Confucianist is the bud and prototype of the adult scholar. His twin brother, who has not been chosen to this high calling, roams about the village all summer in the costume of the garden of Eden, gathering fuel, swimming in the village mud-hole, busy when he must be busy, idle when he can be idle. He may be incomparably more useful to his family than the other, but so far as education goes he is only a “wild” lad. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“If the student is quick and bright, and gives good promise of distinguishing himself, he stands an excellent chance of being spoiled by thoughtless praises. “That boy,” remarks a bystander to a stranger, and in the lad’s hearing, “is only thirteen years old, but he has read all the Four Books, and all of the Book of Poetry, etc. By the time he is twenty, he is sure to become a graduate.” When questioned as to his attainments, the lad replies without any of that pertness and forwardness which too often characterize Western youth, but, as he has been taught to do, in a bashful and modest manner, and in a way to win at once the good opinion of the stranger. His manner leaves nothing to be desired, but in reality he is the victim of the most dangerous of all flatteries, the inferiority of what is around him. In order to hold his relative position, it is necessary, as already pointed out, to bestow the most unwearied attention on his books. His brothers are all day in the fields, or learning a trade, or are assistants to some one engaged in business, as the case may be, but he is doing nothing, absolutely and literally nothing, but study.

“So much confinement, and such close application from the very earliest years, can scarcely fail to show their effects in his physical constitution. His brother hoes the ground, bare-headed throughout the blistering heats of July, but such exposure to the sun would soon give him the headache. His brother works with more or less energy all day long (with intermittent sequence), but were he compelled to do the same the result would not improbably be that he would soon begin to spit blood. That he is physically by no means so strong as he once was, is undeniable. He has very little opportunity to learn anything of practical affairs, and still less disposition. The fact that a student has no time to devote to ordinary affairs is not so much the reason of his ignorance, as is the fact that for him to do common things is not respectable. Among the four classes of mankind, scholars rank first, farmers, labourers, and merchants being at a great remove.

“The two things that a pupil is sure to learn in a Chinese school are obedience, and the habit of concentrating his attention upon whatever he is reading, to the entire disregard of surrounding distractions. So far as they go these are valuable acquirements, although they can scarcely be termed an education.

“Every pupil is naturally anxious to get into the class of scholars, and this he does as soon as he gives all his time to study; for whether he is a real scholar or not, he plainly belongs to neither of the other classes. We are told in the Confucian Analects that the master said, “The accomplished scholar is not a utensil.” The commentators tell us that this means that whereas a utensil can only be put to one use, the accomplished scholar can be used in all varieties of ways, ad omnia paratus, as Dr. Legge paraphrases it. This expression is sometimes quoted in banter, as if in excuse for the general incapacity of the Chinese literary man—he is not a utensil. The scholar, even the village scholar, not only does not plow and reap, but he does not in any way assist those who perform these necessary acts. He does not harness an animal, nor feed him, nor drive a cart, nor light a fire, nor bring water—in short, so far as physical exertion goes, he does as nearly as possible nothing at all. “The scholar is not a utensil,” he seems to be thinking all day long, and every day of his life, until one wishes that at times he would be a utensil, that he might sometimes be of use. He will not even move a bench, nor make any motion that looks like labour. Almost the only exception to this general incapacity, is an exception for which we should hardly be prepared; it is a knowledge, in many cases of the art of cooking, in so far as it is necessary for the practice of the scholar, who often teaches in a village other than his home, where he generally lives by himself in the schoolhouse.

Curriculum in 19th Chinese Village Schools

Smith wrote: “Chinese education is based upon the wisdom of the ancients, and of those ancients Confucius is held to be the chief. It is natural, therefore, that upon the beginning of a school there should be special respect paid to the Great Sage who is regarded as the patron of learning. Usages vary so much that no generalizations are ever safe in China, but it is a singular fact that instead of the altar, incense, candles, and formal prayers to Confucius, which in some parts of the empire are in use at the beginning of a year’s school, in the province of Confucius himself the ceremonies are for the most part much simpler. At the feast to the teacher by the patrons, the scholars are introduced and make two obeisances, one meant for Confucius, and the other for the present preceptor. In this case there is not only no image of the Sage, but no written character to represent him. And even this modest ceremony is far from universal. A teacher of twenty-five or thirty years’ experience declared that he had never seen this performed but once. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Another little book, to which the Chinese pupil is early introduced, is the list of Chinese surnames, more than 400 in number, and all to be learned by a dead lift of memory. The characters are arranged in quartettes, and when a Chinese tells another his own surname, it is common to repeat all four, whereupon his auditor recalls which of the several names having the same sound it may be. In some parts of the empire the “Thousand Character Classic” follows the Trimetrical Classic, while in other parts its use seems to be quite unknown. It comprises, as the name implies, a thousand characters, not one of which is repeated. It is common to use these characters instead of ordinal numbers to designate seats in the examination halls, so that it is desirable that scholars should be familiar with the book.

“After the scholar has mastered the smaller ones, he passes on to the “Four Books,” the Confucian Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the works of Mencius. The order in which these books are taken up varies in different places, but, as already observed, the method of study is as nearly as possible invariable. Book after book is stored away in the abdomen (in which the intellectual faculties are supposed to be situated), and if the pupil is furnished with the clew of half a sentence, he can unravel from memory, as required, yards, rods, furlongs or miles of learning.

“After the Four Books, follow in varying order the Poetical Classic, the Book of History, the Book of Changes, and the historical work of Confucius, known as the Spring and Autumn Annals. To commit to memory all these volumes, must in any case be the labour of many years. Usage varies in different localities, but it is very common to find scholars who have memorized the whole of the Four Books, and perhaps two of the later Classics—the Odes and the History—before they have heard any explanations even of the Trimetrical Classic, with which their education began. During all these years, the pupil has been in a condition of mental daze, which is denoted by a Chinese character, the component parts of which signify a pig in the weeds (mêng). His entrance upon study is called “lifting the darkness” (ch‘i mêng), and to teach the beginner is to “instruct darkness.” These expressive phrases correspond to a fixed reality. Of those who have committed to memory all the books named, some of the brightest have no doubt picked up here and there, and as it were by accident, an idea.

“There is very little which is really intellectual in any part of the early schooling of an ordinary Chinese boy. As a rule, the teacher does not concern himself with his pupils further than to drag them over a specified course, or at least to attempt to do so. The parents of the lad are equally indifferent, or even more so. If the father himself can read, he remembers that he learned to do so by a long and thorny road, and he thinks it proper that his son should traverse it likewise. If the father can not read, he at least recognizes the fact that he knows nothing at all about the matter, and that it is not his business to interfere. The teacher is hired to teach—let him do it. As for visiting the school to see what progress his son is making, he never heard of such a thing, and he would not do it if he had heard of it. The teacher would say in his manner if not in his words, “What business have you here?”

Instruction in 19th Century Chinese Village Schools

In 1899, Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “When the little pupil at the age of perhaps seven or eight takes his seat in the school for the first time, neither the sound nor the meaning of a single character is known to him. The teacher reads over the line, and the lad repeats the sounds, constantly corrected until he can pronounce them properly. He thus learns to associate a particular sound with a certain shape. A line or two is assigned to each scholar, and after the pronunciation of the characters has been ascertained, his “study” consists in bellowing the words in as high a key as possible. Every Chinese regards this shouting as an indispensable part of the child’s education. If he is not shouting how can the teacher be sure that he is studying? and as studying and shouting are the same thing, when he is shouting there is nothing more to be desired. Moreover, by this means the master, who is supposed to keep track of the babel of sound, is instantly able to detect any mispronunciation and correct it in the bud. When the scholar can repeat the whole of his task without missing a single character, his lesson is “learned,” and he then stands with his back to the teacher—to make sure that he does not see the book—and recites, or “backs,” it at railway speed. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Every educator is aware of the extreme difficulty of preventing children from reading the English language with an unnatural tone. To prevent the formation of a vicious habit of this sort is as difficult as to prevent the growth of weeds, and to eradicate such habits once formed is often next to impossible. In the case of Chinese pupils, these vices in their most extreme form are well-nigh inevitable. The attention of the scholar is fixed exclusively upon two things,—the repetition of the characters in the same order as they occur in the book, and the repetition of them at the highest attainable rate of speed. Sense and expression are not merely ignored, for the words represent ideas which have never once dawned upon the Chinese pupil’s mind. His sole thought is to make a recitation. If he is really master of the passage which he recites, he falls at once into a loud hum, like that of a peg-top or a buzz, like that of a circular saw, and to extract either from the buzz or from the hum any sound as of human speech—no matter how familiar the auditor may be with the passage recited—is extremely difficult and frequently impossible.

“But if the passage has been only imperfectly committed, and the pupil is brought to a standstill for the lack of characters to repeat, he does not pause to collect his thoughts, for he has no thoughts to collect—has in fact no thoughts to speak of. What he has, is a dim recollection of certain sounds, and in order to recall those which he has forgotten, he keeps on repeating the last word, or phrase, or sentence, or page, until association regains the missing link. Then he plunges forward again, as before.

“Let us suppose, for example, that the words to be recited are the following, from the Confucian Analects, relating to the habits of the master: “He did not partake of wine and dried meat bought in the market. He was never without ginger when he ate. He did not eat much.” The young scholar, whose acquaintance with this chapter is imperfect, nevertheless dashes on somewhat as follows: “He did not partake—he did not partake—partake—partake—partake—partake of wine and dried meat bought in—bought in—bought in the market—market—the market—the market. He was never without ginger—when—ginger—when-ginger—when he ate-he ate-he ate-he-ate-ate-he did not eat-eat-eat-eat-eat without ginger when he ate-he did not eat-did not eat much.”

“This is the method of all Chinese instruction. The consequence of so much roaring on the part of the scholars is that every Chinese school seems to an inexperienced foreigner like a bedlam. No foreign child could learn, and no foreign teacher could teach, amid such a babel of sound, in which it is impossible for the instructor to know whether the pupils are repeating the sounds which are given to them, or not. As the effect of the unnatural and irrational strain of such incessant screaming upon their voices, it is not uncommon to find Chinese scholars who are so hoarse that they cannot pronounce a loud word.

Teaching the Trimetrical Classic

Smith wrote: “The first little book which the scholar has put into his hands, is probably the “Trimetrical Classic,” so called from its arrangement in double lines of three characters above and three below, to a total number of more than 1,000. It was composed eight centuries and a half ago by a preceptor for his private school, and perhaps there are few compositions which have ever been so thoroughly ground into the memory of so many millions of the human race as this. Yet of the inconceivable myriads who have studied it, few have had the smallest idea by whom it has written, or when. Dr. Williams has called attention to the remarkable fact that the very opening sentence of this initial text-book in Chinese education, contains one of the most disputed doctrines in the ancient heathen world: “Men at their birth, are by nature radically good; in their natures they approximate, but in practice differ widely.” After two lines showing the modifying effects of instruction, and the importance of attention, the mother of Mencius is cited as an expert in object lessons for her famous son. The student is next reminded that “just was the life of Tou, of Yen; five sons he reared, all famous men.” [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The author then reverts to his main theme, and devotes several strenuous sentences to emphasizing the necessity for instruction in youth, “since gems unwrought can never be useful, and untaught persons will never know the proprieties.” After a further citation of wonderful examples in Chinese history, accompanied with due moralizing, there follow more than sixty lines of a characteristically Chinese mosaic. The little pupil is enlightened on the progressive nature of numbers; the designations of the heavenly bodies; the “three relations” between prince and minister, father and son, man and wife; the four seasons; the four directions; the five elements; the five cardinal virtues; the six kinds of grain; the six domestic animals; the seven passions; the eight kinds of music; the nine degrees of relationship and the ten moral duties.

“Having swallowed this formidable list of categories, the scholar is treated to a general summary of the classical books which he is to study as he advances. When he has mastered all the works adjudged “Classic,” he is told that he must go on to those of philosophers and sages, as in the bill of particulars contained in the Trimetrical Classic. His special attention is invited to history, which suggests a catalogue of the numerous Chinese dynastic periods with the names, or rather the styles, of a few of the important founders of dynasties. The list is brought down to the first emperor of the present dynasty, where it abruptly stops at the year 1644. A pupil who wishes to know the titles of the later emperors of the Ch‘ing Dynasty can be accommodated when the same shall have been overthrown, and therefore has become a suitable object of historical study. The pupil is urged to ponder these records of history till he understands things ancient and modern as if they were before his eyes, and to make them his morning study and his evening task.

“The concluding section contains more of human interest than any of the preceding parts, since we are told that the great Confucius once learned something from a mere child; that the ancient students had no books, but copied their lessons on reeds and slips of bamboo; that to vanquish the body they hung themselves by the hair from a beam, or drove an awl into the thigh; that one read by the light of glow-worms, and that another tied his book to a cow’s horn. Among the prodigies of diligence were two, who, “though girls, were intelligent and well informed.” The closing lines strive to stimulate the ambition of the beginner, not only by the tales of antiquity, but by the faithfulness of the dog at night, and the diligence of the silk-worm and the bee. “If men neglect to learn, they are inferior to insects.” But “he who learns in youth, and acts when of mature age, extends his influence to the prince, benefits the people, makes his name renowned, renders illustrious his parents, reflects glory upon his ancestors and enriches his posterity.” If every Chinese lad does not eventually become a prodigy of learning, it is certainly not the fault of the author of this remarkable compendium, the incalculable influence of which must be the justification of so extended a synopsis.

Writing Characters in 19th Chinese Villages Schools

Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The task of learning to write Chinese characters is a very serious one, in comparison with which it is scarcely unfair to characterize the mastery of the art of writing any European language, as a mere pastime. The correct notation of characters is, moreover, not less important than the correct recognition of them, for success in some of the examinations is made to depend as much upon caligraphy as upon style. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The characters which the teacher selects for the writing exercises of his pupils, have no relation, strange as it may seem, to anything which he is studying. These characters may at first be taken from little books of rhymes arranged for the purpose, containing characters at once simple and common. The next step is to change to books containing selections from the T‘ang Dynasty poets, an appreciation of which involves acquaintance with tones and rhyme, of which the pupil, as yet, knows nothing. The characters which he now learns to write he has very likely never seen before, and they do not at all assist his other studies. The only item of which notice is taken, is whether the characters are well or ill-formed. Review there is none.

“The reason for choosing T‘ang Dynasty poetry for writing lessons, instead of characters or sentences which are a part of the current lesson, is that it is customary to use the poetry, and is not customary to use anything else, and that to do so would expose himself to ridicule. Besides this, poetry makes complete sense by itself (if the pupil could only comprehend it) while isolated characters do not. The consequence of this method of instruction is that hundreds of thousands of pupils leave school knowing very little about characters, and much of what they do know is wrong. The method of teaching characters explains in part what seems at first almost unaccountable, that so few ordinary persons know characters accurately. It is an inevitable incident of the system, that to write some of the commonest characters, referring to objects used in daily life, is quite beyond the power of a man who has been for years at school, for he has never seen them either written or printed. Thus in taking an inventory of household property, there is not one chance in ten that the characters will be written correctly, for they do not occur in the Classics, nor in T‘ang Dynasty poetry. Not only so, but it is altogether probable that an average graduate of the village school cannot indite a common letter, or set down a page of any miscellaneous characters, without writing something wrong.

“The standard dictionary of Chinese, is that compiled two centuries ago in the K‘ang Hsi period, and is alleged to contain 44,449 characters, but of these an immense number are obsolete and synonomous, and only serve the purpose of bewildering the student. Within the past two generations the Chinese language has undergone a remarkable development, owing to the contact of China with her neighbours. All the modern sciences have obtruded themselves, but there is no interest in the coördination of these new increments to their language on the part of Chinese scholars, to whom K‘ang Hsi’s lexicon is amply sufficient.

“In order to attain success in Chinese composition, it is necessary to be acquainted with the force of every character, as a means to which, access to this standard dictionary, would seem to be indispensable. Yet, though invaluable, it is not in the possession of one scholar in fifty. Its place is generally taken by a small compendium, analogous to what we should call a pocket-manual, in which the characters are arranged according to the sound, and not according to the radicals, as in K‘ang Hsi.

“Pupils are seldom taught the 214 radicals, and many persons who have spent years at school have no idea how to use K‘ang Hsi’s dictionary, when it is put into their hands. Within a circle of eight or ten villages, there may be only a single copy, and if it is necessary to obtain more accurate information than is to be had in the pocket-dictionary, the inquirer must go to the village where there is a copy of K‘ang Hsi, and “borrow light” there. But such an extreme measure is seldom considered necessary. The incessant study of the Classics has made all the characters in them familiar. Those who write essays can compose them with the aid of these characters only, and as for miscellaneous characters—that is, those not found in the Classics—why should one care for them? A good edition of K‘ang Hsi, with clear type and no false characters, might cost, if new, as much as the village schoolmaster would receive for his whole year’s work.

Studying Math in 19th Chinese Villages Schools

Smith wrote: “We have already adverted to some of the principal defects in the routine of Chinese schools, but there is another which should not be omitted. There is scarcely a man, woman or child in China, who will not spend a considerable fraction of life in handling brass cash, in larger or smaller quantities. It is a matter of great importance to each individual, to be able to reckon, if not rapidly, at least correctly, so as to save trouble, and what is to them of far more importance, money. It seems almost incredible that for instruction in this most necessary of arts, there is no provision whatever. To add, to subtract, to divide, to multiply, to know what to do with decimal fractions, these are daily necessities of every one in China, and yet these are things that no one teaches. Such processes, like0 the art of bookkeeping in Western lands fifty years ago, must be learned by practical experience in shops and places of business. The village schoolmaster not only does not teach the use of the abacus, or reckoning board, but it is by no means certain that he understands it himself. Imagine a place in England or in the United States where the schoolboy is taught nothing of the rules of arithmetic at school, and where he is obliged, if he desires such knowledge, to learn the simple rules of addition, etc., from one person, those for compound numbers from another person, not improbably in a distant village, the measurement of land from yet a third individual, no one of them being able to give him all the help he requires. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The Chinese reckoning board is no doubt a very ingenious contrivance for facilitating computation, but it is nevertheless a very clumsy one. It has the fatal defect of leaving no trace of the processes through which the results have been reached, so that if any mistake occurs, it is necessary to repeat them all, on the reiterative principle of the House that Jack Built, until the answer is, or is supposed to be correct. That all the complicated accounts of a great commercial people like the Chinese, should be settled only through such a medium, seems indeed singular. An expert arrives at his conclusions with surprising celerity, but even those who are familiar with ordinary reckoning, become puzzled the moment that a problem is presented to them beyond the scope of the ordinary rules. If one adult receives a pound of grain every ten days, and a child half as much, what amount should be allotted to 227 adults and 143 children, for a month and a half? Over a problem as simple as this, we have seen a group of Chinese, some of whom had pretensions to classical scholarship, wrestle for half an hour, and after all no two of them reached the same conclusion. Indeed the greater their learning, the less fitted do the Chinese seem to be, in a mathematical way, to struggle with their environment.

Punishment of Students in 19th Century China

Smith wrote:“One of the earliest lines in the Trimetrical Classic declares that “to rear without instruction, is a father’s fault”; “to teach without severity, shows a teacher’s indolence.” It is common for boys to run away, sometimes to great distances, because they have been punished at school. The writer was told by a man in middle life that when he was a lad he had been beaten by a preceptor of the same surname, because that teacher had himself been beaten as a child by the pupil’s grandfather, the grudge being thus carried on to the third generation! The ferule always lies upon the teacher’s desk, and serves also as a tally. Whenever a scholar goes out, he takes this with him, and is supposed to be influenced by the legend upon one side, “go out reverentially,” and upon the other, “enter respectfully.” Two pupils are not allowed to go out at the same time. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The most flagrant offence which a pupil can commit is the persistent failure to learn his task within the allotted time. For this misdemeanour he is constantly punished, and often to the extent of hundreds of blows. Considering how little correction is ever administered to Chinese children at home, and how slight are the attempts at anything resembling family government, it is surprising to what extreme lengths teachers are allowed to carry discipline. Bad scholars, and stupid ones—for a stupid scholar is always considered as a bad one—are not infrequently punished every day, and are sometimes covered with the marks of their beatings, to an extent which suggests rather a runaway slave than a scholar. As the pupil dodges about, with the hope of escaping some of the blows, he is not unlikely to receive them upon his head, even if they were not intended for it. In a case of this sort, a pupil was so much injured as to be thrown into fits, and such instances can scarcely be uncommon. As a general thing, no further notice appears to be taken of the matter by the parent than to see the master and ascertain the special occasion of his severity. The family of the pupil is naturally anxious that the pupil shall come to something, and is ready to assume as an axiomatic truth that the only road to any form of success in life is by the acquisition of an education. This can be accomplished only by the aid of the teacher, and therefore the rules laid down by him are to be implicitly followed, at whatever expense to the feelings of either father or son.

“In one case within the writer’s knowledge, a father was determined that his son should obtain sufficient education to fit him to take charge of a small business. The son, on the other hand, was resolved to return to his fork and manure basket, and the teacher was invited to further the plans of the boy’s father. When the time came to begin his education at school, the lad absolutely declined to go, and like most Chinese parents in similar circumstances, the father was perfectly unable to force him to do what he did not wish to do. The only available plan was to have the boy tied hand and foot, placed in a basket slung to a pole, and carried by two men, like a pig. In this condition he was deposited at the schoolhouse, where he was chained to two chairs, and not allowed to leave the building. He was set the usual task in the Trimetrical Classic, to which, however, he paid no attention whatever, although beaten as often as the teacher could spare the time. The boy not only did not study, but he employed all his strength in wailing over his hard lot. This state of things continued for several days, at the end of which time it was apparent, even to the boy’s father, that, as the proverb says: “You cannot help a dead dog over a wall;” and the lad was henceforth suffered to betake himself to those agricultural operations for which alone he was fitted.

“Different teachers of course differ greatly in their use of punishment, but whatever the nature of the severities employed, a genuine Confucianist would much rather increase the rigour of discipline than relax it. To his mind the method which he employs appears to be the only one which is fitted to accomplish the end in view. The course of study, the method of study, and the capacity of the pupil, are all fixed quantities; the only variable one is the amount of diligence which the scholar can be persuaded or driven to put forth. Hence the ideal Chinese teacher is sometimes a perfect literary Pharaoh.

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Text Sources: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894, The Project Gutenberg

Last updated August 2022

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