History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


The Educational Revolution Begins in China

With the communist victory and the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the party begins an educational campaign dedicated to expanding the nation's literate and educated masses. Prior to 1949, China faced a stark literacy rate of only 15 to 25 percent, as well as lacking educational facilities with minimal national curricular goals. But as the Chinese moved into the 1950s under a new leadership and social vision, a national agenda to expand the rate of literacy and provide education for the majority of Chinese youth was underway.

Today, the educational system in China functions as a primary institutional body for instilling values and skills for the masses of Chinese citizens. Chinese schooling accounts for six years of primary education, three years of lower middle school, three years of upper middle school, and four years of university-level studies. Schools have been established in both rural and urban sectors of the nation. While urban schools are fully funded by the state, rural schools are more dependent on local funds and support. With the revitalization of Chinese education in the late 1940s, several central or "key" urban schools were afforded the highest quality instructors, educational technology, equipment, and students. This approach put tremendous pressure on urban administrators to improve the quality of education provided within their school sites, and likewise, increased the number of students passing rigorous university admission tests. For those students who did not gain access to higher education, significant efforts were made to provide quality vocational education.

While education is a priority in China, it is also highly competitive. Scholastic achievement is stressed throughout the nation's schools, which are highly rigorous institutions with strict hierarchical restrictions towards secondary studies. In this case, all Chinese youth are provided access to primary education, but subsequent middle school and university study is much less accessible. Only about one-third of all primary school students in China receive access to middle school education and less than one tenth of one percent have the opportunity to study at the university level.

On a cultural and social level, students have enacted a significant history in 20th century China. With the rise of the New Culture Movement beginning in the first decade of the republic, young Chinese intellectuals began to critique nearly all aspects of Chinese culture and ethics. This questioning was guided by a staunch commitment to individual liberty and equality. By 1920, students in Peking protested the Versailles Peace Conference decision that Japan should maintain possession of Germany's rights to Shantung. Thousands of students took to the streets as protests ensued in most of the major cities in China. The nation was eventually forced to refrain from signing the Treaty of Versailles, and student influences had clearly set a new revolutionary path for the nation which would culminate in the communist victory of China in 1949. Under the communist government, students also maintained a significant voice and influence. In the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong turned to students and youth activists to revitalize revolutionary values and lay the groundwork for a new generation of Chinese young people dedicated to communist ideals. By the end of the century, student visions and calls for democratization and reform led to mass demonstrations galvanized at Tian'anmen Square, Beijing, in 1989.


Collier's Encyclopedia, Volume 6, 1996.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 16, 1995.

Prepared by Alison Kreider (UCLA)

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