China has a long and rich cultural tradition in which education has played a major role. Throughout the imperial period (221 bc- ad 1912), only the educated held positions of social and political leadership. In 124 bc the first university was established for training prospective bureaucrats in Confucian learning and the Chinese classics. Historically, however, few Chinese have been able to take the time to learn the complex language and its associated literature. It is estimated that as late as 1949 only 20 per cent of China’s population was literate. To the Chinese Communists, this illiteracy was a stumbling block for the promotion of their political programmes. Therefore, the Communists combined political propaganda with educational development. However, in 1990 27 per cent of adults were still illiterate; but by 2005 the level of literacy among adults was estimated to be 87.3 per cent. In 1999–2000, 2.1 per cent of gross national product was spent on education.
One of the most ambitious programmes of the Communist Party has been the establishment of universal public education for such a large population. In the first two years of the new government (1949-1951) more than 60 million peasants enrolled in “winter schools”, or sessions, established to take advantage of the slack season for agricultural workers. Mao declared that a dominant goal of education was to reduce the sense of class distinction. This was to be accomplished by reducing the social gaps between manual and mental labour; between the city and countryside; and between the worker in the factory and the peasant on the land.
The most radical developments in education in China, however, took place between 1966 and 1978. During the Cultural Revolution, virtually all classrooms in China were closed. The 131 million youths who had been enrolled in primary and secondary school remained out of school; many became involved in Mao’s efforts to shake up the new elite of China by the presence of youthful critics reviewing governmental programmes and policies.
Primary and secondary schools began to reopen in 1968 and 1969, but all institutions of higher education remained closed until the early 1970s. Government policies towards education changed dramatically during this period. The traditional 13 years of kindergarten to 12th grade were reduced to a nine- or ten-year plan for primary and secondary (or middle) school. Colleges that had traditionally had a four- or five-year curriculum adopted a three-year programme, and part of this time was mandated as productive labour in support of the school or the course of study being pursued. A two-year period of manual labour also became essential for most secondary school graduates who wished to go on to college.
Following Mao’s death in 1976, a major review of these policies began. As a result, and because of the increased interest in the development of science in Chinese education, curricula again came to resemble those of the pre-Cultural Revolution years.
Programmes for primary and secondary schooling were gradually readjusted to encompass 12 years of study, and high school graduates were no longer required to go to the countryside for two years of labour before competing for college positions.
A significant change in the educational system has been the reinstitution of standardized college-entrance exams. These exams were a regular part of the mechanism for upward mobility in China prior to the Cultural Revolution. During the experimentation of those years, anti-traditionalists were able to eliminate the entrance exams by arguing that they favoured an elite who had an intellectual tradition in their families. When colleges reopened from 1970 to 1972, admission was granted to many candidates because of their political leanings, party activities, and peer-group support. This method of selection ceased in 1977, as the Chinese launched their new campaign for the Four Modernizations. The government’s stated goals for rapid modernization in agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology required high levels of training. Such educational programmes by necessity had to be based on theoretical and formal skills more than on political attitudes and the spirit of revolution.
By 1998–1999 about 145 million pupils were enrolled in primary schools, and about 90.7 million students were enrolled in secondary schools; enrolments in 1949 had been about 24 million in primary schools and 1,250,000 in secondary schools, though this figure represented only 2 per cent of the corresponding age group. State education incurs a small fee. An estimated 12.1 million students were enrolled in China’s more than 1,000 institutions of higher learning in 2001–2002. Chinese higher education is now characterized by the “key-point system”. Under this system the most promising students are placed in selected key-point schools, which specialize in training an academic elite. Students finishing secondary schools may also attend junior colleges and a variety of technical and vocational schools. Among the most prominent of the 270 or so universities in China are Beijing University (1898); Hangzhou University (1952); Fudan University (1905), in Shanghai; and the University of Science and Technology of China (1958), in Hefei. All higher education in China is free. "China" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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