[Editor’s Note: This is the 8th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]
Between 3000-2500 BCE, the period during which the Semitic alphabet arose in the West, the Chinese developed a very different writing system in the East, one that better suited their spoken language. It consisted of logograms, characters that corresponded to a single morpheme, or sound, meaning they needed a large number of characters to express the different words. By 1400 BCE, the script included some 2,500 to 3,000 characters, most of which can still be read today.
Until recently, Chinese character writing was more prevalent than alphabetic writing systems, where words are composed of letters that each have different sounds. It’s interesting to note that, until the 18th century, over half the world’s books were written in Chinese. These included historical accounts, works of speculative thought, novels, and writings about government and law.
By 2000 BCE, education in China had developed into a system of institutions created specifically for the purpose of learning, and by 800-400 BCE, China had both guoxue (government schools) and xiangxue (local schools). However, traditional Chinese education was dominated by the keju (civil service examination system), which developed around 400 CE and peaked during the Tang Dynasty (618-896). The keju was a search program based on the Confucian idea of meritocracy, and it remained the almost exclusive avenue to government positions for China’s educated elite for over 1,000 years.
As with most other ancient cultures, formal education in China was a privilege of the rich, though for different reasons. Classical Chinese both lacked an alphabet and consisted of different written and spoken forms, which required time and resources most Chinese couldn’t afford. As a result, for much of its history, China had an almost 80% rate of illiteracy, creating a country of uneducated masses dominated by a bureaucratic elite highly trained in the Confucian classical tradition.
In the 19th century, the earliest modern government schools were formed to provide education in Western subjects such as the sciences, engineering, and military development. This was an intentional step to modernize Chinese technology and thereby address Western incursion, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of China’s own traditional culture and polity. These schools remained separate, though, from the civil service examination system.
In 1898, Emperor Guang Xu issued a series of decrees to initiate sweeping reforms in Chinese education. The measures included setting up a system of modern schools accessible to a greater majority of the population, abolishing the rigid examination system for government officials, and the introduction of short and practical essay examinations.
The system was modified a number of additional times under different leaders until it became the state-run system dominated by the Communist Party we see today.
Next week: The Olmecs and the Maya
To read part 1: Introduction, click here.
To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.
To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.
To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.
To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.
To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.
To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.
 Olson, David R. (nd.) “Chinese Writing.” Brittanica.com. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chinese-writing.
 na. (2022). “China: History & Background.” stateuniversity.com. Retrieved from https://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/269/China-HISTORY-BACKGROUND.html.