Ancient Chinese education began with classic works, namely, the Four Books and the Five Classics (Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects, and Mencius; Classic of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, I Ching, and Spring and Autumn Annals), regarded as cardinal texts that one had to learn, in order to understand the authentic thought of Confucianism. Beginning from the time of the Xia dynasty (2070-1600 BC), it was traditional for ancient kings and emperors to select well-educated officials to assist them in administering their kingdoms.
The civil service examination system for selecting officials was established by Emperor Yang (569-618 AD) of the Sui dynasty (581-618). It was further refined by Emperor Taizong (598-649) of the Tang dynasty (618-907). It was not until the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) that the civil service examination system was dismantled by Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), and replaced by a more western education system. Since the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese education system has been modeled on the Russian system, with perhaps more spoon-feeding and rote-learning than in some other countries.
The History of Ancient Education
In primitive society, knowledge was passed on orally by elders to their children. As hieroglyphic writings emerged 3,000 years or so ago, professional institutions emerged aiming to teach knowledge. These were called chengjun, the predecessors of schools.
The Establishment of Schools
Formal schools were established during the Xia dynasty (2070 BC-1600 BC). They were called Xiao during the Xia, Xiang during the Shang dynasty (1600 BC-1046 BC) and Xu during the early Zhou dynasty (1046 BC-221 BC).
Xu were divided into East Xu and West Xu. East of the capital of the Zhou kingdom stood the East Xu. These were the precursors of college, where the children of nobility were educated. West of the capital stood the West Xu. These were the precursors of elementary schools, where the children of ordinary citizens studied. The East Xu only recruited children of the nobility, and were just a dream for children of the ordinary people.
With the expansion of productive forces and the prosperity of culture during the Zhou dynasty (1046-221 BC), more and more schools were established. During the Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BC) slave society was at its peak. Schools were divided into state schools and village schools.
State schools were established just for children of the nobility; and consisted of elementary schools and higher-level colleges. Village schools, also known as local schools, were divided into four levels: shu, xiang, xu and xiao. Generally speaking, students who studied well in shu could enter the next level and proceed upwards. If determined and persistent, they even stood a chance of studying in college.
Jixia Academy was established in the State of Qi, in 360 BC during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). The king at the time sought out able men (including Mencius, Hsun Tzu, Zou Yan and Lu Zhonglian) across his kingdom to lecture regularly on various topics, leading to 100 schools of thought contending with each other.
After the unification of the Qin Empire (221-206 BC) in 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor of China, who reigned from 259-210 BC) forbade private schools of any form in his kingdom, so that he could exert strict control over the common people. Following the advice of Li Si, secretary of the Qin Empire (221 BC-206 BC), Qin Shi Huang ordered the promulgation of legalist education. He forbade the common people to read privately or collect Confucian classics, and he even gave orders to burn books and to bury Confucian scholars alive.
Emperor Wu (156-87 BC) of the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) established government-sponsored imperial colleges, and teachers were selected from among learned and accomplished officials, who were called boshi (present-day doctors). The chief boshi was given the title pushe in the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) and jijiu in the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD). Students from the imperial colleges were called boshi disciples. The number of boshi disciples (roughly equivalent to present-day college students) reached over 30,000 during the Shundi Emperor's (115-144 AD) reign.
Emperor Wen, Cao Pi (the son of Cao Cao), who reigned from 220 to 226 AD, developed further the imperial college system in Luoyang in 224. The Imperial Academy was established by Emperor Wu (Sima Yan reigning from 236 to 290) during the Western Jin dynasty (265-317), and it was explicitly stipulated by Emperor Hui (259-307) that only children of 5th-rank officials or higher were allowed to study in the Imperial Academy. The Confucian Academy was established by Emperor Wen (422-453) in 438 AD, in a suburb of Jiankang (presently Nanjing of Jiangsu Province), followed by the Metaphysics Academy, History Academy and Literature Academy.
Classification of Ancient Chinese Education
Generally speaking, ancient Chinese education was divided into official school education and private school education. These supplemented each other to train talent for the ruling classes.
Ancient Official School Education
Ancient official school education refers to a whole set of education systems sponsored by central and local governments of slave and feudal societies. It aimed to train talent of various kinds for the ruling classes, whose rise and fall was related to social and political developments in ancient China.
Legend has it that official school education emerged during the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). According to historical documents, however, central official school education was only initiated in the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD), and it waxed and waned during the Wei (220-265), Jin (265-420), and Northern and Southern (420-589) dynasties, owing to changes in the political situation. It was not until the Tang dynasty (618-907) that the central official school education reached its peak under the advocacy and encouragement of the ruling classes. Official school education was run down from the time of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), and during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) existed in name only, as an instrument of the national examination system.
Central Official Schools
The highest institutions of learning were called Taixue (Imperial Colleges) or Guozijian (Imperial Academies).
The ruling classes emphasized development of official schools during the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC), especially of Taixue. There were only 50 boshi disciples when Emperor Wu established Taixue in 124 BC, rising during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) to 3,000 during Emperor Chengdi’s reign and 30,000 during Emperor Zhidi’s (138-146) reign.
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).
Guozijian were established by Emperor Yang in the Sui Dynasty (581-618), and served as educational institutions until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
In addition, a number of professional academies were established by government to train specialized talent for the ruling classes, such as the History Academy of the Northern and Southern 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
Ancient local official schools started with Shujun Academy established by Wen Ong (156-101 BC) in the Shu Prefecture (presently Sichuan Province) during Emperor Jingdi's (188-141 BC) reign of the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD). Other prefectures across the country soon opened their own schools.
The local official school system was completely established in the 1st year of Emperor Pingdi's reign (9 BC-6 AD) during the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD), but it was in decline during the Wei (220-265), Jin (265-420), and Northern and Southern (420-589) dynasties, owing to unceasing wars.
Local official schools developed on an unprecedented scale during the early Tang dynasty (618-907), and were inherited and developed on a larger scale during the Song (960-1279), Liao (916-1125), Jin (265-420), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
Ancient Private School Education
Over against the ancient official school education, ancient private school education also played an important part in the educational history of China. It was first initiated by Confucius in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and exercised a great influence on the Chinese people.
The Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and Warring States Period (475-221 BC) were periods of transition from a slave society to a feudal society, during which education went through dramatic changes along with the prevailing economic and political situations. Ancient private schools emerged under such circumstances. Scholars served different rulers and created various schools, among which the most famous included the Confucian School, Mohist School, Taoist School and Legalist School, leading to the phenomenon of 100 schools contending with one another to dominate the realm of thought.
Confucius (551-479 BC), the founder of the Confucius School, gave lectures on ethics in Qufu (Shandong Province) during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), and Mo-tse (468-376 BC), the founder of the Mohist School, discoursed on politics in Jixia Academy of Linzi (in Shandong Province) during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). They both had a substantial influence on traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucius.
As mentioned above, however, Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC) forbade private schools, burned books and even buried Confucian scholars alive.
Emperor Wu (156-87 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 private schools were permitted during his reign.
Private schools overwhelmed official ones during 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 talent. The study of Confucian classics emphasized textual research of names and objects, later known to the world as sinology.
Although official school education was on the wane, private school education prospered during the Wei (220-265), Jin (265-420), and Northern and Southern (420-589) dynasties. Private education broke out of the mold of traditional Confucianism, and it also included metaphysics, Buddhism, Taoism and technology.
Private schools existed throughout rural and urban areas during the Tang dynasty (618-907), and 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: academies sponsored by country gentlemen and sishu (predecessors 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 giving a broad overview of the methods of formative education.
Civil Service Examination System - Ke Ju
The civil service examination system for selecting government officials was established and came into force during the Sui dynasty (581-618). It not only served as an education system, but as the standard of selection for talented people across the nation.
The system comprised an examination convened by local governments, plus the final imperial examination (palace examination) held by emperors. Scholars passing the county-level examination were called Xiucai, and the first-ranked Xiucai received the title of Anshou. Scholars passing the provincial-level examination were called Juren, and the first- and second-ranked Juren received the titles of Jieyuan and Huiyuan respectively. The first-ranked scholar in the palace examination received the title of Zhuangyuan, the second Bangyan and the third Tanhua. All scholars who passed the examination were conferred different official positions according to their results.
The system was improved during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Some scholars from poor and humble families held office at court, greatly easing the class discrepancies in society. During the Tang dynasty (618-907), the national examination system played a substantial role in training qualified officials and promoting cultural prosperity, and it was adopted as a legacy by subsequent feudal rulers.
During the Song dynasty (960-1279), it was a national policy to emphasize literature and restrict military force. The Song emperors inherited the national examination system and ordered the establishment of many famous academies throughout the kingdom, such as Bailudong, Yuelu, Yingtianfu, and Songyang (see below). These academies perfectly combined educational activity and academic research, and led to the publication of many famous books, including Three-Character Scripture, One Hundred Family Names, One Thousand Character Primers and Golden Treasury of Quatrains and Octaves.
Unlike during the Song dynasty (960-1279), the Mongolian ruling classes of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) took strict control over academies, for fear that the Han people might unite and rebel. The rulers of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties exerted more control over the thoughts of the common people. During this time the national examination system became ossified, and scholars were even persecuted due to ‘heretical ideologies’.
Ancient Chinese Academies
The ancient academies emerged during the Song dynasty (960-1279) and waned during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). They were an important educational institution in ancient China. Many ancient academies have been well-preserved as historical sites up to today, and below are some famous ones for your reference.
Built in 940 and expanded by Zhu Xi (1130-1200) during the Song dynasty (960-1279), Bailudong Academy was the cradle of neo-Confucianism. It has become a famous attraction on Mount Lu in Jiangxi Province, owing to its picturesque location at the foot of the Five Old Man Peaks of Mount Lu, about 30 kilometers from Jiujiang.
Yuelu Academy has a history of over 1,000 years. It was built in 976 AD, the 9th year of the Kaibao Period of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), having been used as Hunan Higher Education Academy since 903. In 1926, Yuelu Academy was renamed Hunan University. It's located in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, in the Yuelushan Mountain Scenic Area. Read more on Yuelu Academy. Read more on Yuelu Academy
Yingtianfu Academy was built by a merchant, Yang Que, during the Five Dynasties Period (907-960). It was the top 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 is at the foot of Songshan Mountain, 3 kilometers north of 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 any of these ancient Chinese academies.