The Chinese system of education has a rich and unique past. This post will discuss briefly some of the traits of this ancient system that has had a strong influence on many educational systems in Asia.
Chinese education in the past and perhaps still so in the present relies heavily on memorization. This is seen in the development of the written language. The written language of Chinese does not have an alphabet as we think of an alphabet in the English language. Rather, there are over 50,000 different characters that need to be memorized to read. This is a massive undertaking in which it is common for many if not most people to never know all the characters. The only tool for learning to read is to attempt to memorize enough of the commonly used characters, which would be mind-blowing to English speakers.
The heavy emphasis in memorization allowed for the preservation of manners and customs. The criticism of this, at least to some, was that innovation was often excluded. However, this was not always the case as the Chinese invented numerous things such as paper and gun powder. Critics will concede that the Chinese invented many things but that they often did not exploit some of these innovations. For example, gunpowder was ignored for several centuries before being used for fireworks and finally as a weapon. Imagine if it took the United States several centuries to figure out the uses for the Atom Bomb.
Teaching and Examinations
Students were taught by a teacher who was located at a temple or his home. Education was divided into three stages. Stage one focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic. At this stage, the student would copy what the teacher said or wrote. There was little focus on the expression of the individual.
Stage two involved the translation of textbooks and lessons in composition. Here students learned to express themselves somewhat. In stage three, students learned how to write essays and this was perhaps the time in which they learned to share their thoughts in writing. For a long time in its history. China did not have high schools as we define them in the West.
China is famous for its complex system of examinations. Passing the exams was considered the equivalent of earning a degree at a university during modern times. There were three levels of exams with an optional fourth level. The first exam, if a person passed, was called “Budding Intellect.” This was not an easy exam because the pass rate was 1%.
The next two levels of exams were given every three years. Level 2 was called “Deserving of Promotion” and people who passed this could reach higher levels in the government bureaucracy. Level three was called “Fit for Office” and allowed those who passed even better government positions.
The final level was reserved for government officials of the highest positions and was called “Forest of Pencils.” To even take this exam a person had to be a member of the royal academy. Passes this examination was highly prestigious and perhaps almost impossible.
The examination system of China wasn’t abolished until the early 20th century. This long time of services indicates the staying power of this style of assessment. Success in these exams commanded an impressive amount of memorizing that few can obtain. Naturally, when individuals have success in the current system they are not motivated to change it. This may explain why this system refused to change for so long because so many had had success with it.
The Chinese model of education is one in which memorizing and obedience were highly valued. Whether this was right or wrong is s second manner. What is clear is that this system of education served the country for centuries despite whatever flaws this approach may have.