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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Asian Miscellany (2)—Education in Modern China

[a] Develop Physical Education in Farming Villages RF
My second post in "Asian Miscellany" is driven by deadline—and many of them will follow in the coming weeks and months, since I have signed contracts to deliver a whole passel of encyclopedic material to various publishers before a self-imposed deadline of December 20th. As I explained in the introduction, this series of posts allows me to try out a few ideas that I plan eventually to include in various encyclopedias or on-line sites that have asked for my input. They are not the same as the pieces that will eventually be published, but constitute more of a "long draft," meant to work through a few ideas as I work on brief essays that often mandate strict "word counts" of 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. 

For today's post, I have been asked to write about education in modern the space of only 1,000 words. I "spend" a little more verbiage than that here, but not much. If you want to read more on the subject, I have an entire chapter on education and acculturation in China in China (2010), from the publisher's "Asia in Focus" series. It should be available at your local library.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children
 Education in Modern China
Some Reflections

[b] Teacher RF
“Education” in every society—no matter how formal or relaxed the standards—requires children to move beyond the confines of the family units in which they were raised and acquire skills valued by adults in the larger society. In a land as vast as China, with its multiple dialects and starkly varying geography, this is a formidable task. Add to that the fact that China today has some 400 million students. This is a number that far surpasses the total population of the United States, and it hints at the sheer magnitude of the challenge faced by families, localities, and governments (both regional and national) in educating the population in the twenty-first century. The greatest challenges are structural, linguistic, and, or course, curricular.

Educational Structure

Nine years of education are compulsory in China today. That is followed by competitive examinations for advanced secondary (what Americans call “high school” and university educations. The 2000 census figures showed a literacy rate in China of just over 85 percent, but literacy is defined at such a modest level (1,500 Chinese characters in rural areas and 2,000) in urban ones) as to be unhelpful in gauging functional literacy. Because of the sheer size of China’s population, that still means that well over 100 million people fall below these minimal rates. Some government forecasts show the literacy rate climbing toward 99 percent by 2015, but the task remains challenging. Chinese education has taken enormous steps in the last few decades, and since the educational chaos of the Cultural Revolution, yet the system still faces formidable challenges, as we will see below.

Language and Region

The language of education in China is Mandarin, and this is also true of education in Taiwan and most Chinese instruction in Southeast Asia and abroad. Nationwide Mandarin instruction was perhaps the most important step taken by various Chinese governments in the twentieth century toward creating an integrated educational experience for citizens in China. Mandarin is a dialect of northeastern China, especially of China’s capital (with one brief break) since the late-thirteenth century. In traditional China, scholars from all over the territory would speak Mandarin in official business, and the practice (no small feat) was extended in the twentieth century to the entire population.

China is made up of several distinctive regions, each with its own geographical, historical, and linguistic, and cultural peculiarities. Language patterns vary enormously from area to area, and in earlier eras even people from adjacent market towns sometimes had trouble understanding one another. An old saying in China goes something like this: “Walk 10 miles, and speech becomes fuzzy; travel 50 miles, and nothing can be understood.”

When China’s twentieth century government planners set to work, this was their greatest challenge. How to create a nation of people, all of whom could speak and understand a single dialect (Mandarin), even while acknowledging that the language of “home” would always figure in daily life—this was the problem. Although it cannot be said to be solved, the Chinese education system has made enormous strides in creating a single, shared Mandarin dialect, spoken from Xinjiang province in the northwest to Fujian province in the southeast. From first grade until schooling is completed, classes are taught in Mandarin. Movies, television shows, and most “national media” use Mandarin, as well. Today, almost everyone educated in schools since 1950 has had a passable education in Mandarin, and virtually everyone educated since 1980 has acquired solid fluency in the dialect. Through educational reforms, it has become the standard language of China.

Regional dialects figure in social life and local business culture, but they have little role to play in the educational system. The curriculum is standardized. The books students read during their academic years are determined by the Ministry of Education. They are produced based on general requirements—down to the actual Chinese characters to be taught at each grade level—throughout China. The system today has more room for local interpretation of the Ministry’s requirements than in the past, but there is still a high degree of standardization. This is best explained as follows. In Hunan (south), Shandong (east), and Shanxi (Midwest), the first story in , for example, the language arts readers used during the first semester of second grade will all be different. The local educational authorities will choose from an array of textbooks that companies have created. The characters used, and required for memorization and composition, are exactly the same throughout the country, however.

Everyone will learn the same “words,” even though the stories they read will be different.

[c] Students RF
The current Chinese educational system provides six years of primary school and six years of secondary school, taking a student through the equivalent of “elementary school,” “junior high school,” and “senior high school.” There is also a state-organized university system, with key campuses (and extremely competitive admissions) at Beijing University, Qinghua University in Beijing, Fudan University in Shanghai, Nankai University in Tianjin, and Zhongshan University in Guangdong. There are tens of other elite universities, hundreds of regional ones, and thousands of educational institutions that—public and private—combine technical skills and post-secondary education. There are many parallels to the higher education systems found in the United States, but it would be a mistake to carry the analogy too far.

Two subjects—language/culture (语文; yuwen) and mathematics (数学; shuxue)—dominate the educational landscape from first grade through high school graduation. To be certain, other subjects are integrated into the curriculum and comprise dominant strands of instruction. These include English, science, and social studies at the primary level, and philosophy, history, geography, chemistry, and physics at the higher levels. There are only two subjects, however, for which an anxious parent can buy a complete review of important primary school themes in preparation for the fateful exams that will send the best scorers to elite schools: language arts and mathematics. The first day of school begins with them and the last day of school, many years later, will end with them.

Mathematical education in China is focused and workmanlike. There is an assumption built into the curriculum that everyone can “do math,” and that the skills can be acquired by any educated person. It is often remarked that Chinese (and other countries’) students advance far more quickly in mathematics than American students. It is a fact almost beyond dispute, and the reason lies in relentless focus and persistence.

The same focus and persistence can be seen in language/culture study. After learning the pinyin system of “Romanizing” Chinese sounds (文=wen), students begin a process of learning to read and write Chinese characters at a rate that will have them reading at formidable levels by the sixth grade. Students begin by learning to recognize 400 Chinese characters in the first semester of first grade, and to write 100 of them. This variable pace continues well into one’s education, and it is only quite late in the process that people are able to write almost everything they can read or say. This is a very far cry from education in Western languages, and the point needs to be emphasized. Knowing how to say something in (Mandarin) Chinese is only loosely connected to know how to write it. Only in the roughest manner can a character be “sounded out.”

***  ***

The educational process in China, from first grade forward, is a delicate balancing act between reading and writing, “home” language and “national” language. As we have seen throughout this essay, even the formidable problems of “content” in Chinese educational materials (how to treat the Cultural Revolution or World War II?) pales in comparison to the enormity of the challenge of learning to read and write in a vast country with an enormously complex language.

Again, for a full chapter on this topic, please see my book China (ABC-Clio, 2010). Parts of it can be accessed (click on the link, above) on Google Books. It should also be available in your local library (or have them order it).  RL for RSQ.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children 

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