Mao-era literacy poster
The population of China has become more educated and literate under the Communists. Literacy rates have jumped from around 20 percent when the Communists took over in 1949 to around 91 percent today. But that means that 85 million Chinese still can’t read and write.

In China and Asia, effort rather than talent has traditionally been seen as the key to achievement and success. An old Chinese saying goes: “If there is no dark and dogged will, there will be no shining accomplishments if there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement.”

Low education levels have traditionally been obstacles to China development. In many rural areas people who could read or write and had a middle school education were regarded as wise and educated and people who had a high school education and didn’t do manual labor were considered intellectuals. These conditions continue to exist in the countryside while people in the cities are becoming more educated. These days there are many Chinese with university degrees who have attended university abroad.

Based on the performance of students in top high schools and universities, Chinese students “overwhelmingly” outperformed students in both Japan and South Korea on mathematics, science and English tests. Japan and South Korea usually do very well in international mathematics, science and English tests.

According to the 2010 census, the proportion of college-educated Chinese went up from 3.61 percent in 2000 to 8.93 percent. In 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then the president, announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities and colleges produced 830,000 graduates a year. In May 2010, that number was more than six million and rising.

Websites and Sources: Center on Chinese Education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College ; China Today on Chinese Schools ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Education Wikipedia ; China Education and Research Network (Chinese Government Site) ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC)

Literacy in China

Mao-era literacy poster

Adult literacy rate: 86.5 percent for females; 95.1 percent for males (compared to 34 percent for females and 64 percent for males in India; and 99 percent for males and females in Russia, the United States, Japan and much of Europe).

Literacy in China is defined as being able to read and write 1,500 Chinese characters in rural areas and 2,000 in urban areas — a fraction of the 7,000 to 10,000 required of university graduates. To read a newspaper one needs to know around 3000 characters.

The Communists were able to reduce illiteracy by launching education programs and simplifying Chinese characters. Many of China's illiterates are old people or people who missed the chance to get an education because of the Cultural Revolution when children didn’t have to go to school.

China has developed some novel approaches to combat illiteracy. In the villages of Wiping County in Henan Province in central China, visitors who can not read a few characters on blackboard outside of villages are not allowed in. As a result many illiterates have enrolled in special reading classes offered in the village.

After a 50 year campaign illiteracy was declared nearly wiped out in 2000. The number of illiterate people reached an all time low of 87 million in 2000 (around 9 percent of the population).

Literacy and Language Reform in China

The continuing campaigns to eradicate illiteracy also were a part of basic education. Chinese government statistics indicated that of a total population of nearly 1.1 billion in 1985, about 230 million people were illiterate or semiliterate. The difficulty of mastering written Chinese makes raising the literacy rate particularly difficult. In general, language reform was intended to make written and spoken Chinese easier to learn, which in turn would foster both literacy and linguistic unity and serve as a foundation for a simpler written language. In 1951 the party issued a directive that inaugurated a three-part plan for language reform. The plan sought to establish universal comprehension of a standardized common language, simplify written characters, and introduce, where possible, romanized forms based on the Latin alphabet. In 1956 putonghua was introduced as the language of instruction in schools and in the national broadcast media, and by 1977 it was in use throughout China, particularly in the government and party, and in education. Although in 1987 the government continued to endorse the goal of universalizing putonghua, hundreds of regional and local dialects continued to be spoken, complicating interregional communication. [Source: Library of Congress]

“A second language reform required the simplification of ideographs because ideographs with fewer strokes are easier to learn. In 1964 the Committee for Reforming the Chinese Written Language released an official list of 2,238 simplified characters most basic to the language. Simplification made literacy easier, although people taught only in simplified characters were cut off from the wealth of Chinese literature written in traditional characters. Any idea of replacing ideographic script with romanized script was soon abandoned, however by government and education leaders.

“A third area of change involved the proposal to use the pinyin romanization system more widely. Pinyin (first approved by the National People's Congress in 1958) was encouraged primarily to facilitate the spread of putonghua in regions where other dialects and languages are spoken. By the mid-1980s, however, the use of pinyin was not as widespread as the use of putonghua.

Increasing Illiteracy in China

“Retaining literacy was as much a problem as acquiring it, particularly among the rural population. Literacy rates declined between 1966 and 1976. Political disorder may have contributed to the decline, but the basic problem was that the many Chinese ideographs can be mastered only through rote learning and are often forgotten because of disuse.

Since 2000 illiteracy rates have risen. Between 2000 and 2005 the number illiterate Chinese increased 33 percent from 87 million to 116 million, wiping out progress that had been made over the previous decades. China accounts for roughly 12 percent of the world’s illiterate population. The increase in illiteracy was blamed on increasing numbers or rural poor dropping out of school to find work in the cities and the high cost of rural education.

As signs of progress the government points to higher class enrollment figures in primary and middle schools and the fact that 10 million adults were taught to read and write in adult education. But statistics are misleading. People who are functionally illiterate can often pass tests that are supposed to measure literacy and the way literacy statistics are gathered is a little suspect.

Literary is defined according to an exam taken in the fourth grade. Those that pass the exam. often don’t pursue their education any further. Having no reason to read and write they forget their skills, This is especially true among ethnic minorities.

Illiteracy rates are particularly high among village women. Many village women are too tired from chores to attend literacy classes.

Emphasis on Education in China

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Chinese school in 1901

There is a strong emphasis on education in China and Asia. Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine: "Like other Asians, who traditionally revere scholars, they value learning. They also see education as both the path to success and consistent with their sense of filial piety, the way to bring esteem to their family."

Parents prefer that their children study rather than play. A Chinese skateboarder told the Los Angeles Times, “If you play more, you study less. All Parents worry about that.” One student told Karnow: My parents "are really proud of me. So I have to keep improving, even if there is no room for improvement. I also feel their pressure. Just study, they say. I can't wash the dishes...or take a summer job. Their entire goal is to see me succeed.”

The Chinese education system encourages conformity and is adult driven and super-competitive. Students have traditionally been expected to be diligent, silent and obedient.

The word "jiaolu" is used describe the stress and anxiety of everyday life and pressure to study in China. A survey by the China Youth Daily found that 66 percent of young people felt they were under heavy stress. Only one percent said they were stress free. Parents also feel pressure. Mainland parents and teachers believe in starting education early. Mothers say they wouldn't dare to free their child from cram courses because "everybody else is doing that and nobody wants to be left behind".

Studies have shown that some Chinese children study 10 hours day. The zeal for education has spawned various undesirable effects, such as an increase in the number of student suicides, due to the worry and pressure of achieving high exam results.The suicide note of a 12-year-old girl who killed herself in Shanxi Province read: “Dear parents. I can hardly express my gratitude for bringing me up. But I feel under such pressure. There is too much homework. I have no choice but to die.”

Education and Family in China

Education is seen as a family effort requiring a great deal of sacrifice, time and money. It is not unusual for families to sell their houses and go into massive debt to send their children to university.

Parents watch over their children carefully and guide and direct them. At an early age children are taught to memorize their textbooks. By Kindergarten they are attending a wide range of music, art and calligraphy classes. Some of this is in step with Confucian ideas of “self-perfection” and the Maoist notion of “all-around development,” with emphasis on practice, practice, practice.

One young man who was raised only by his mother in a poor village but managed to get into the medical school at Beijing University told Reuters, that after his father died “relatives and neighbors told me to study hard and that getting into a university is the way out.” The daughter of doctor who was brought up in a poor family told the Los Angeles Times her grandmother told her doctor father when he was a baby, “If you don’t study hard, it is worthless to have you as a son.”

One of the hottest selling books in the early 2000s was “Harvard Girl”. It was written by parents who described how they prepped their little girl, beginning when she was an infant, to succeed at a America’s most prestigious university. The book's success inspired a dozen or so imitations: “Harvard Boy, Cambridge Girl, Our Dumb Little Boy Goes to Cambridge” and “Tokyo University Boy”.

Education in Rural Areas in China

In many rural areas, children only attend primary school if they attend school at all and often stop going after three or four years. Some rural schools do not extend past the third grade. It is not unusual for a district with thousands of school age children to have fewer than a hundred actually in the local school, with only a handful finishing the six grades.

Textbooks are in short supply and have been so heavily used the paper is sometimes cracking and transparent with age. Paper, pens and pencils are also in short supply and children often write on slates with broken pieces of chalk.

Many villages build their own schools and then ask the government for a teacher. Classes are often taught in local languages which are little value in the major cities where most of the jobs are and other languages predominate.

Like parents around the world, poor villagers want their children to succeed in school, but the obstacles just to get them enrolled are enormous. Even though schools are free, the books and clothes required to attend are so expensive they can eat up as much a third of the villager's income.

A family that grows a cash crop may bring in $120 a year after expenses for fertilizer and pesticides while schools charge $75 a year per student for uniforms and books. Since most families average between four and eight children, even with father working odd jobs, there is usually only enough money to send two or three children to school at the most.

In many cases, children go to school and learn to read but fail to improve there lives. Even students that are bright and privileged to attend university find there are no jobs waiting for them when they graduate.

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Future mandarins

Confucianism, Education and Administration

Confucius is credited with organizing China's first educational system and setting up an efficient administration system, based on the careful selection of a bureaucracy that helped the emperor and other leaders rule. Members of the bureaucracy were trained in special schools and chosen for their jobs based on their the proficiency on a civil service exam that tested their knowledge of Confucian texts. Before Confucius's time the only schools in China were ones that taught archery.

Confucius regarded government and education as inseparable. Without good education, he reasoned, it was impossible to find leaders who possess the virtues to run a government. "What has one who is not able to govern himself, to do with governing others?" Confucius asked. Under Confucianism, teachers and scholars were regarded, like oldest males and fathers, as unquestioned authorities.

The basic principal behind Confucian education is that if you work hard, endure and suffer as a young person you will reap rewards later in life. The strategy of Confucian education, used in China for centuries, is to memorize the moral precepts in the hopes that they will rub off and improve the character of the person who memorizes them and makes him or her more moral. Teachers have traditionally been held in high esteem and their power and control has been regarded as almost absolute.

Chinese Civil Service Exams

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Scholar-bureaucrats civil servants who ran the Chinese imperial government are known in the West as Mandarins (a term coined by the British). They were China's best and brightest, and served the emperor in the imperial court and as imperial magistrates and representatives in the hinterlands.

Civil servants were recruited and promoted through a series of examinations. These tests were, theoretically at least, open to anybody and were responsible for a considerable degree pf social mobility. Success could bring privileged status and wealth to even the most humble born.

The Chinese Civil Service Exam was essentially a test of knowledge of Confucian texts. For 2000 years, up until 1905, the heart of the exam was knowledge of the Four Great Books and Five Classics of Confucianism, including Confucius's “Analects, the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning”, and the “Doctrine of the Mean”. Test takers were given a certain amount of time (sometimes six weeks) and they were supposed to write everything they knew. Ideally, the students with the best scores were chosen for the best positions in the bureaucracy.

There were local, provincial and palace exams and they covered a number of topics, including poetry, philosophy, politics and ethics. Passing was said to be more difficult than getting into Harvard. Stephen West, a Chinese literature professor at Berkeley told U.S. News and World Report, "The magnitude of their accomplishments is impressive. It would be as if a Henry Kissinger was a gifted poet. Or if W.H Auden was also a superb government policy specialist."

Preparation for the Civil Service Exams

Preparations for the test usually began around age five when young boys were taught to bow respectfully and recite lines from classical texts. The most promising teenagers were sent to study under masters in the Chinese capital. They were taught poetry, essay writing and Confucian scholarship.

Many students failed the exams. In the year 998, only two students passed the highest, or “jin-shi” test. Scholars sometimes cheated on the civil service exams by writing down answers on a special shirt worn under their robes. There also many stories in Chinese literature of promising students who failed on the test because they were corrupted by women and alcohol.

The notion that the Confucian system was based totally on merit and lacked a hereditary element is not true. Children of merchants, landowners and families with money had an advantage in that their parents could hire tutors to teach them how to properly write Chinese characters and study Confucian texts. Once they attained their position, Confucian gentlemen made sure their sons studied the classic and was prepared for the exams.

Harvard MBA Who Did Poorly in Chinese Schools

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Cheat sheet for civil service exam
Raymond Li of the South China Morning Post interviewed Yu Zhibo, who was a “mainland parents fear, an academic failure for a child. Now 29, the Harvard MBA holder explains how moving to the United States to study let him explore his individuality and find his way, things he said he could not have done at home.” How badly did you do at school? Li asked. Yu said, “Here are two examples: when I was nine, I had to repeat grade three because I did so poorly in my studies after my family moved from Shanghai to Chengdu. Then, when I was at secondary school, my overall scores put me third from the bottom in my class.” [Source: Raymond Li, South China Morning Post, January 16, 2011]

Was that because you did not study hard enough? “I actually studied harder than any other classmate. In order to help me catch up in maths, physics and chemistry, my parents once hired three after-school teachers. But every time I came across a maths formula or the periodic table of elements, I told myself I would not want to see them again in my life. I liked geology and history and excelled at sports. But that counted for little in the way people looked at you.”

How did you feel at the time? “Some of my classmates made fun of me as someone with a well-developed body but no brain. The pressure to perform well in science subjects in order to enter a university became so intense that I felt I could hardly breathe. I was so depressed that I was loath to study and wanted to run away.”

What prompted you to go to the US? “It was a summer trip in 1996; I had the chance to live with an ordinary American family in Oregon for three weeks. What struck me most were small details in daily life. For example, I was driving with the mother one day when she stopped at a stop sign, even though there was no pedestrian in sight. Another time, she told me to pick up a Coke can I threw on the ground and reminded me it wasn't the right thing to do. I was very impressed and wondered how someone from a blue-collar family with not much education could care so much about the environment. Later I realized it must be the way people were taught. On the other hand, nobody asked how I'd scored in maths or chemistry and I got the chance to play a lot. I had such a pleasant three weeks that two years later, I enrolled in an Oregon high school.”

What were the highlights in your studies and work in the U.S.” “I spent three months working on an Oregon farm after graduating from high school. There I had my first taste of the thrill and hardship of an American farmer. Inspired by what my father did in 2002 to promote Chinese literature studies via an international forum, I launched a Greater China Supply Chain Forum at Michigan State University. In 2004, I got my first job at Dell headquarters in Austin, Texas, and went on to study at Harvard. The Harvard offer did not come easy as I had to sit the GMAT three times. Now I'm a senior assistant to Yang Yuanqing, chief executive of Lenovo. The most important thing about studying in the US was that I felt I could decide what I wanted and what I enjoyed.

Advise from Harvard MBA Who Did Poorly in Chinese Schools

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1935 Chinese education film
Raymond Li of the South China Morning Post asked Harvard MBA Yu Zhibo: You have written a book referring to yourself as a boy who lost out at the starting line. Is there a "starting line" in a person's career or life and once you lose out at the beginning you lose all the way? “I do believe there is such a line, but what I don't share with many mainland parents is that there is more than one starting line in your life. For example, you will have a starting line at primary school and another one at secondary school, and even when you are 40 or 50. It depends how you look at your life. I didn't do well at primary and secondary schools, but it doesn't mean I will be at the losing end all my life. Every time you are back on your feet, it's a new starting line.” [Source: Raymond Li, South China Morning Post, January 16, 2011]

What would you tell mainland parents who are anxious about their children's future? “Do not give the children pressure, because it might force them to rebel or go to extremes. Parents should back off a bit to give a good analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of their children in order to nurture what they are good at, instead of forcing them to compete with others in what they are not good at. Secondly, parents should realise that they would take greater comfort in seeing their children do what they enjoy.”

Some say mainland schools are like bird cages. What's your opinion? “I am even more critical than that. I see the mainland education system as a prison. It's like students are being locked up in a jail by their teachers and parents and made to do what they want them to do. Schools are pretty much controlled by the authorities and the public has little say in how they are run. I never felt I was studying for myself, and I believe I'm not the only one who feels this way. It speaks volumes when we see students burn their textbooks upon graduation.”

In response to Uy’s comments Andrew Field, a Shanghai-based professor wrote, “It's nice to see alternative points of view from Chinese people about education in Shanghai or other parts of China. Yu Zhibo's responses are interesting, but I think he's off target. Yu tells Mainland parents to "not give their children pressure" and let them excel in what they are already good at. This strikes me as pretty weak advice, since it isn't the parents alone, but the entire system that puts the pressure on the kids. As I've already mentioned in previous posts, my daughter is in first grade in a local school here in Shanghai. We get phone calls on a regular basis from my daughter's teachers about her performance. There's a lot of social pressure as well, and the teachers themselves are under tremendous pressure to enhance their students' performance. So telling parents to take it easy on their kids is not a real solution. Funny advice from a Harvard MBA...The only solution to changing China's current educational system is to reform the system from the top down so that it doesn't emphasize rote learning and test taking as much, but as anybody here knows, that is not likely to happen any time soon.

Adult Education in China

Because initially only a small percent of the nation's secondary -school graduates were admitted to universities, China found it necessary to develop other ways of meeting the demand for education. Adult education became important in helping China meet its modernization goals.

“Adult, or "nonformal," education is an alternative form of higher education that encompasses radio, television, and correspondence universities, spare-time and part-time universities, factory-run universities for staff and workers, and county-run universities for peasants, many operating primarily during students' off-work hours. These alternative forms of education are economical. They seek to educate both the "delayed generation"--those who lost educational opportunities during the Cultural Revolution--and to raise the cultural, scientific, and general education levels of workers on the job.

Image Sources: Landsberger Posters; Columbia University, University of Washington; Ohio State University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2012

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