China Ancient Education

The ancient Chinese education starts from classic works, namely, the Four Books and the Five Classics (Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects, Mencius, Classic of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, I Ching and Spring and Autumn Annals), which are regarded as the cardinal texts that one must learn to understand the authentic thought of Confucianism. It has been a tradition for ancient kings and emperors to select well-educated officials to help assist them in administering their kingdoms since the Xia Dynasty (2070 BC-1600 BC).

The civil service examination system was established by the Yang Emperor (569-618) of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) to select qualified officials, which was perfected by the Taizong Emperor (599-649) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It was not until the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that the civil service examination system was demolished by Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), and it was replaced with the Western education system. Since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, the Chinese education system has been modeled on the Russian education system, a spoon-feeding type of education.

The History of Ancient Education

Knowledge was taught orally by the elders to the young in the primitive society. As the hieroglyphic writings emerged 3,000 years ago or so, the professional institution aiming at teaching knowledge emerged, and it was called Chengjun, the predecessor of school.

The Establishment of School

The formal school has been set up since the Xia Dynasty (2070 BC-1600 BC). It was called Xiao in the Xia Dynasty (2070 BC-1600 BC), Xiang in the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1046 BC) and Xu in the early Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-221 BC). Xu was divided into the East Xu and the West Xu. In the east of the capital of the Zhou Kingdom stood the East Xu, and it was the precursor of college, where the children of the nobility were educated; in the west of the capital was the West Xu, and it was the precursor of elementary school, where the children of the common people studied. The East Xu only recruited the children of the nobility, and it was just a dream for the children of the common people.

With the expansion of productive forces and the prosperity of culture, more and more schools were established in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-221 BC). The Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-771 BC) was at the peak time of slave society, during which the school was divided into the State School and the Village School. The State School was established just for the children of the nobility, consisting of a higher-level college and an elementary school. Also known as the local school, the Village School was divided into four levels: Shu, Xiang, Xu and Xiao. Generally speaking, the students who studied well in Shu could enter the next higher school such as Xiang, Xu and Xiao, and they also had a chance to study in college if they made determined and persistent efforts.

Jixia Academy was established in the State of Qi in 360 BC of the Warring States Period (475 BC-221 BC), whose king sought out able men (including Mencius, Hsun Tzu, Zou Yan and Lu Zhonglian) across his kingdom to give lectures regularly on various topics, leading to the phenomenon of 100 schools of thought contending with one another.

After the great unification of the Qin Empire (221 BC-206 BC) in 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor of China reigning from 259 BC-210 BC) forbade private schools of any form in his kingdom to exert strict control over the common people, and also ordered law-oriented education to be carried out under the advice of Li Si, secretary of the Qin Empire (221 BC-206 BC). Qin Shi Huang (259 BC-210 BC) forbade the common people to privately read and collect Confucian classics, and he even gave orders to burn books and bury Confucian scholars alive.

Imperial Colleges

The Wu Emperor (156 BC-87 BC) of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) established government-sponsored imperial colleges, and the teachers were well-selected from the learned and accomplished officials, who were called Boshi (tantamount to present-day doctors) by the historians. The chief Boshi was entitled Pushe in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) and Jijiu in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), and the students from the imperial colleges were called Boshi disciples. The number of Boshi disciples (tantamount to present-day college students) reached over 30,000 during the Shundi Emperor's (115-144) reign in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

The Wen Emperor, Cao Pi (son of Cao Cao), reigning from 187 to 226, perfected the imperial college system in Luoyang in the 5th year (224) of the Huangchu Period in the Wei Dynasty (220-265). The Imperial Academy was established by the Wu Emperor (Sima Yan reigning from 236 to 290) in the Western Jin Dynasty (265-317), and it was explicitly stipulated by the Hui Emperor (259-307) that only the children of the 5th rank officials or higher were allowed to study in the Imperial Academy. The Confucian Academy was also established in the suburb of Jiankang (presently Nanjing of Jiangsu Province) by the Wen Emperor (522-566) in the 15th year (438) of the Yuanjia Period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), followed by the Metaphysics Academy, History Academy and Literature Academy.

Classification of Ancient Chinese Education

Generally speaking, the ancient Chinese education was divided into official school education and private school education, and they supplemented each other to train talents for the ruling class.

Ancient Official School Education

The ancient official school education referred to a whole set of education systems sponsored by the central and the local governments of the slave and feudal societies, and it aimed at training talents of various kinds for the ruling class, whose rises and falls were geared to the social and political development of ancient China.

The legend went that the official school education emerged during the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-771 BC); however, the central official school education was initiated in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) according to historical documents, and it waxed and waned during the Wei (220-265), Jin (265-420), and Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589)owing to changes of the political situation. It was not until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that the central official school education reached its peak time under the advocation and encouragement of the ruling class. The official school education had been run down since the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), and it existed in name only because it was used as an instrument of the national examination system in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Central Official School

The institution of the highest learning was called Taixue (Imperial College) or Guozijian (Imperial Academy). The ruling class highly emphasized developing official schools in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 BC), especially in Taixue.

There were only 50 Boshi disciples when the Wu Emperor established Taixue in 124 BC, and the number of these reached 3,000 during the Chengdi Emperor's reign and 30,000 during the Zhidi Emperor's (138-146) reign in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 BC). Guozijian was established by the Yang Emperor in the Sui Dynasty (581-618), which served as an educational administrative institution until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
In addition, a number of professional academies were also established by the government to train specialized talents for the ruling class, such as the History Academy of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), the Calligraphy Academy of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Law Academy of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and the Painting Academy of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Local Official Schools

The ancient local official school started with the Shujun Academy which was established by Wen Ong (156 BC-101 BC) in the Shu Prefecture (presently Sichuan Province) during the Jingdi Emperor's (188 BC-141 BC) reign of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD), which was followed by the other prefectures across the country. The local official school system was completely established and set up in the 1st year of the Pingdi Emperor's (9 BC-6 AD) reign in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD), but it was on the decline during the Wei (220-265), Jin (265-420), Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) owing to unceasing wars.

The local official schools developed on an unprecedented scale in the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), which had been on the wane since the Turmoil of Anshi (755-763), and it was inherited and developed in a larger scale during the Song (960-1279), the Liao (916-1125), the Jin (265-420), the Yuan (1271-1368), the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Ancient Private School Education

Opposite to the ancient official school education, the ancient private school education also played an important part in the education history of China, and it was first initiated by Confucius in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC) and had a great influence on the Chinese people.

The Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC) and Warring States Period (475 BC-221 BC) were a transition period from the slave society to the feudal society, during which education went through dramatic changes with the economic and political situations, and the ancient private schools emerged under such circumstances. Scholars served for different kinds of rulers and created various schools, among which the most famous ones included the Confucian School, Mohist School, Taoist School and Legalist School, leading to the phenomenon of 100 schools contending with one another for dominating the realm of thought.

The founder of Confucius School, Confucius (551 BC-479 BC) gave lectures on ethics in Qufu (in Shandong Province) during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC), and Mo-tse (468 BC-376 BC), the founder of Mohist School, discoursed on politics in Jixia Academy of Linzi (in Shandong Province) during the Warring States Period (475 BC-221 BC). They both had a substantial influence on the traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucius.

By taking the advice of Li Si (secretary of the Qin Empire, the master of legalist school), Qin Shi Huang forbade private schools and denied the function of education, and he even burned books and buried Confucian scholars alive during his reign.

The Wu Emperor (156 BC-87 BC) of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) carried out a policy of proscribing all non-Confucian schools of thought and espousing Confucianism as the orthodox state ideology, but the private schools were permitted during his reign.

The private schools overwhelmed the official ones in the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), and a number of Confucian-classics masters, such as Ma Rong and Zheng Xuan, recruited disciples widely and trained lots of talents. The study of Confucian classics emphasized the textual research of names and objects, which was later known to the world as sinology.

Though the official school education was on the wane, the private school education was very prosperous in the Wei (220-265), Jin (265-420), Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-5890), whose teaching contents broke out of the mold of traditional Confucianism, and it also included metaphysics, Buddhism, Taoism and technology.

The private schools covered the rural and urban areas in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the Confucian masters were represented by Yan Shigu (581-645) and Kong Yingda (574-648). The private schools took two forms in the Song (960-1279), the Yuan (1271-1368), the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties: the academy sponsored by country gentlemen and Sishu (the predecessor of present private elementary schools) run by scholars. Methods of Teaching Kids written by Yi Jun (1783-1854) from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was a monograph on formative education, which gave a broad overview of the methods of formative education.

Civil Service Examination System - Ke Ju

The civil service examination system for selecting government official candidates was established and came into force in the Sui Dynasty (581-618), which not only served as an education system, but it was the standard of selection for talented people across the nation.

The civil service examination was generally composed of an examination held by local governments and the final imperial examination (palace examination) held by emperors. The scholars passing the county-level examination were called Xiucai, and the first ranked Xiucai received the title of Anshou. The scholars passing the provincial-level examination were called Juren, and the first and the second ranked Juren received the titles of Jieyuan and Huiyuan respectively. The first ranked scholar received the title of Zhuangyuan, the second one Bangyan and the third one Tanhua in the palace examination. All the scholars passing the examination were conferred different official positions accordingly.

It became more perfected in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), through which a number of scholars from poor and humble families held office at court, greatly easing the class contradictions in the society. It turned out that the national examination system played a substantial role in training qualified officials and promoting cultural prosperity in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and it was inherited by the following feudal rulers as a heritage.

It was a national policy to emphasize literature and restrict military forces in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and the emperors inherited the national examination system and ordered the establishment of many famous academies throughout the Song Kingdom, highlighted by Bailudong Academy on Lushan Mountain of Jiangxi Province, Yuelu Academy in Changsha of Hunan Province, Yingtianfu Academy in Shangqiu of Henan Province, Songyang Academy in Kaifeng of Henan Province, and Songyang Academy in Henan Province. These academies perfectly combined educational activities and academic researches as one, from which many famous books were compiled, including Three-Character Scripture, One Hundred Family Names, One Thousand Character Primers and Golden Treasury of Quatrains and Octaves.

Unlike the education system of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the ruling class (Mongolians) of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) took strict control over academies in fear that the ruling class (mainly the Han people) might gather together to rebel. The rulers of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) exerted more control over the thoughts of the common people, during which the national examination system had become ossified, and the scholars were even persecuted due to their heretical ideologies.

Historical Relics of Ancient Chinese Education

The ancient academies emerged from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), prevailed in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and waned in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and it was an important educational organization form in ancient China. Many ancient academies have been well-retained as historical relics up to now, and here are some famous ones below for your reference.

Bailudong Academy

Built in 940 and expanded by Zhu Xi (1130-1200) in the Song Dynasty(960-1279), Bailudong Academy is the cradle of Neo-Confucianism, and it has become a famous attractiont in Mount Lu in Jiangxi Province owing to its picturesque landscape.

The academy is located at the foot of the Five Old Man Peaks of Mout Lu, about 30 kilometers away from Jiujiang.

Yuelu Academy

Yuelu Academy has a long history of over 1,000 years, and it was built in the 9th year (976) of the Kaibao Period of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), which was used as Hunan Higher Education Academy in 903. Yuelu Academy has been renamed Hunan University since 1926, and it's located at Yuelushan Mountain Scenic Area, west Xiangjiang River, Changsha of Hunan Province. Read more on Yuelu Academy

Yingtianfu Academy

Yingtianfu Academy was built by a merchant, Yang Que, from the Five Dynasties Period (907-960), which was the highest academy during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Now Yingtianfu Academy is part of the famous cultural landscape near Shangqiu Ancient Town, in Shangqiu of Henan Province.

Songyang Academy

Songyang Academy is located at the foot of Songshan Mountain, 3 kilometers north to Dengfeng Town, in Central China's Henan Province. The academy was built during the North Wei Dynasty over 1,500 years ago.

In addition, Jiangnan Gongyuan (Jiangnan Examination Hall) in Nanjing and Beijing Guozijian (Imperial Academy) are famous historical heritages of ancient Chinese education, and China Highlights can tailor-make a private tour to these ancient academies of China.