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History and Culture in China’s Education

Education in China has a long and well developed history. Confucius was much more than a Chinese philosopher. He was a great scholar and a pivotal figure in the formation of the Chinese education system. According to the website Cultural China, all of Chinese education was based on The Four Books and The Five Classics.

The Four Books is an abbreviation for The Books of the Four Philosophers attributed to four great Confucian philosophers. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties the Four Books were made the core of the official curriculum for the imperial examination, which endowed them with the superior status in China.

The Five Classics refer to The Book of Songs (Sh Jng), The Classic of History (Sh Jng), The Classic of Rites (L J), The Book of Changes (I Ching), and The Spring and Autumn Annals (Chn Qi), all of which are said to be compiled or revised by Confucius.

The Four Books and Five Classics have far-reaching influence on Chinese culture and also exert profound influence on the mentalities of Chinese people.1

Traditionally, education was for boys, and was accessible almost exclusively to boys from wealthy families. They learned laws and customs as they prepared for the government civil service examination that when successfully completed would be the key to a position as a government official, a position of honor and wealth. Eventually education became available to girls, but it was still limited to those girls of wealthy family backgrounds.

Values of the Past

Most Chinese lived by a simple set of values, rooted in their deep ties to Confucianism rather than directives from the Communist Party.

Generally speaking, the Chinese people live a life distinct from other peoples in that they pursue such qualities as conformity to nature, harmony, and plain living as opposed to conquest of nature, individuality and material luxury. In connection with their ethics, the Chinese people’s lifestyle is characterized by two considerations: harmony between humans and nature, and harmony among humans.2

These influences are visible throughout Chinese culture: in art, music, and education. They are as distinctly Chinese as baseball and apple pie are considered distinctly American. Culture permeates all areas of life, and the Chinese people have four specific areas on which they focus. These include painting, calligraphy, exercise and music. To take part in these activities and practice them is considered “a tempering of the character.3

Values of Today

China is also a society in which the government seeks to influence and mold the morals and thinking of the people. Family is important, but it is the government which seeks to pervade the moral and character instruction which every citizen receives.

Zhu Yuan, a writer for China Daily, shares some perspectives on selfishness after reading a book written by a Chinese PLA general. Yuan presents both the traditional and evolving modern view of this trait. He writes, “Selfishness used to be always associated with bourgeois, which was a label of bad ideology at the time. Now it is an individual problem. Someone may be very selfish, but you can have nothing to do with that person if you just keep away from him or her. Westerners may consider it as nothing unusual, but for Chinese, who have experienced the change from too much political concern for selfishness to the general respect for individualism, it represents the progress of Chinese society from an ideology-dominated one to an increasingly pluralistic one.”

He goes on to write ” this does not mean that the cultivation of moral norms is unnecessary in our lives. Instead, as the traditional Chinese moral principles emphasize, education needs to cultivate people’s sense of justice, sense of shame, sense of right manners and sense of right and wrong. People always need to be told where to toe the line with regard to the standards and mores of society.”4 The birth of individuality is a new concept in a nation of people who view themselves in light of their family associations and responsibilities.

Synovate, a global market research company, conducted a study on media and consumer values which seems to indicate that individualism has gone beyond the traditional Western concept more associated with self-reliance or projecting outwardly ones’ own unique identity, to a kind of individualism that is much more self-centered, inwardly focused and about personal gratification.

The study, entitled Media Atlas: China, surveyed 68,000 Chinese consumers across 66 cities and rural areas in the Chinese mainland from December 2009 to June 2010. The results were divided into five tiers which represent five levels of economic development across China. Tier 1 represents the most developed areas; Tier 5 is the lesser developed small cities. Rural areas are villages close to cities represented in the Tiers 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Influence of Digital and Media Era

Researchers also did studies on media and technology and how that is affecting the social landscape of China.

The Synovate, Media Atlas: China, research shows television dominates the media landscape, with almost complete saturation in viewing across the country. Mobile phone usage is close behind, with 95% of people in Tier 1 cities and 85% in rural areas using this device which doubles as a medium for information. Newspapers, magazines and radio tend to be consumed more by those in larger cities while close to half of the people in Tier 1 to 4 cities enjoy life in the digital space.

In terms of perceptions toward different media, most Chinese consumers (62%) say they cannot live without television, followed by 52% who cannot live without their mobile phone.

Similar to many developed markets, the younger generations spend their lives in front of three screens: mobile phone (from 99% of those in Tier 1 cities to 79% in rural areas use this), television (88% in Tier 1 versus 96% in rural areas), and the Internet (83% in Tier 1 versus 43% in rural areas).

In contrast to the general population where television and mobile phones are most important, the younger generations see the Internet as king. Sixty-four percent of those aged 15 to 24 indicate they cannot live without the Internet. Most youth (68%) say they plan to use the Internet more often, and over 70% feel the Internet gives them more useful information in addition to being the best source of entertainment.5

These insights by Synovate provide a springboard for determining an effective and accurate means of reaching the Chinese people, whatever the purpose. No longer are organizations bound to print material. The electronic age is now king and efforts must be driven by that framework. No longer is the question, “What is the title of that book?” but rather, “Do you have an app for that?”

Another factor that needs to be taken into consideration is that China has leap-frogged many technologies in most fields of daily life. Most who will read this paper and are designing programs for China at one time or another in their lives had a VCR player or a landline phone. Many of those who will receive the educational programs that those who read this paper might design have never had either a VCR or landline and have gone straight to more advanced technologies. While this is a reality, another reality is that there remain significant regions of China where a wall painted black is used as a blackboard and they have yet to discover dustless chalk.

Influence of the One-Child Policy

Another factor is the one-child per family policy, which has affected family life, parenting and education to a great degree. The current generation of Chinese is growing up as “only child” children. Within a given household, the 4-2-1 syndrome is all too common: “four doting grandparents, two overindulgent parents, all investing their hopes and ambitions on ‘an emerging generation of spoiled, lazy, selfish, self-centered children.'”6

This policy has triggered the “little emperors and empresses” dilemma. Joshua Zhong recalls his own childhood, when he and his young sister would willingly help their parents simply because it was their duty. He notes that today’s situation is the exact oppositeparents and grandparents have abdicated their traditional authority and instead cater to the every need, want and whim of their one child.

This attitude stems from several struggles. “Being deprived of all the freedom, material enjoyment and knowledge of outside world as kids under Maoist rule, the parents today are determined to pour all their energy, time and resources into creating for their only child a ‘comfort zone,’ where all material needs and wants will be met unconditionally.”7

Zhong goes on to explain that “Unfortunately, the overall result is just the opposite of many parents’ expectations. The comfort zone, in most cases, has become a perfect place to spoil a child. Parents’ unstructured devotion towards their young children is becoming their constant headache as their children grow bigger and their demands increase. If you go to China and talk with parents who have only one child, you will hear the same descriptions being repeated over and over again; self-centered, disobedient, lazy, bossy, dependent, and materialistic.8

Later in life, when the time comes for college entrance exams, the weight of their family’s honor rests on the heads of these only children.

Fewer than 20 percent of high school graduates pass the annual exam. The remainder of these young adults has no choice but to pick up something that they are not interested in or prepared to do. Remember that these kids have ‘great’ expectations for themselves and from their parents.

Many parents are living their dreams vicariously through their children. As a result, depression and loneliness are common among these spoiled and frustrated emperors and empresses who are not sure of their own identity and destiny in the face of a not so ‘care-free” reality.9

Media leaders as well as educators have reacted to concerns about children’s social competence by concentrating their efforts on enhancing children’s social development. Producers adapting Sesame Street for Chinese audiences have noted the changed makeup of modern Chinese families and have created special segments that coach children in the skills they need to enter social groups, cooperate, and get along with playmates.10

This new reality has begun to shift the government’s staunch hold on the one-child policy as well. Recently, the government has moved “to allow newlywed couples, who are the only children of their parents, to give birth to two children. By doing so, the government hopes to reintroduce the belief that a sibling contributes to making someone a better, less selfish person, and as a result, contributing to the overall social stability.”11

Influence of Faith in China

Religiously, China is a complex nation. Its official stance is that of an atheist country, which all of their official documents affirm, but realistically, China is far from that. “Across China, religious belief has blossomed and flourished far outpacing the government’s framework to control it with a profusion of charismatic movements and a revival in traditional Chinese religions.”12

Interestingly, China’s government is placing increased value on character and moral education, which are often associated with “leftist” tendencies and religion in the view of Chinese officials. Increased violence, suicide, anxiety, and depression among students, along with indifference toward common courtesies toward others were evidence of a lapse in moral character in China.

The effects of events in China’s recent history, particularly surrounding the campaigns of the Cultural Revolution, left China with a value vacuum. I remember an American journalist friend in Beijing in the 1980s, who had been raised Catholic and was now a self-proclaimed atheist, asking over and over again, “Where do the Chinese get their values?”

As the general public in China has over the last 15 years became more aware of the moral vacuum, and as officials began to see the risks to stability that result from a society without a moral compass, more and more discussions were launched on the editorial pages of Chinese newspapers asking the same question my journalist friend was asking 25 years ago: “Where do we Chinese get our values?”

In 2004, the government began to move toward inserting character and morality education into the curriculum. According to an article in China Daily, the government took the stance of encouraging moral education for its youth.

Chinese officials “listed the young people’s moral and spiritual education in the future development strategy.” Premier Wen Jiabao ” pledged efforts to ‘vigorously promote national spirit centered on patriotism and intensify the ideological and moral education of young people in particular.'”

“Traditional Chinese morals such as ‘courtesy, righteousness and shame,’ once under public satire as a result of ‘leftist’ political movements, should become important spiritual sources of a modern society . Zhao proposed the preceding moral doctrines be incorporated in the curriculum of primary and middle schools.”

“‘Moral education should cater to the interests and tastes of the young people so as to exert an imperceptible influence on them,’ said Prof. Ge. Xing Yongfu, a professor of Capital Normal University, said the public spirit of ‘independence, fairness, tolerance, understanding, compassion and justice, the fundamental accomplishment for citizens in a modern society, cannot be fostered solely through classroom-tutoring.’ He advocated for enthusiastic and active participation in group and social activities, stressing, ‘that is where the public spirit begins to evolve.'”13

While China has seen the need and begun to act on it, the challenge to us as believers in Christ is to present a true hope for the modern society for which Professor Xing calls. As believers we see the call for “independence, fairness, tolerance, understanding, compassion and justice” as a call for the introduction to China of a Christian worldview. We know that a life changed by Christ results in a person of character who lives out these traits.

In years past, in the field of moral education, there seemed few robust options challenging Christianity, in large part due to the campaigns of the past which sought to discredit and wipe out traditional Chinese value systems from the moral fabric of her people.

As China seeks to fill the moral void, Christian educators cannot simply rest in knowing that Christ is the answer to fill that void. Given the significant efforts being made by the government to support Buddhism in what scholars say is an attempt to counter balance the explosion of Christianity, combined with the Chinese people’s pragmatic approach to life that places the higher value of the result than on the process, it is imperative that a clear distinction be made that not just any path to moral character is a true and lasting hope.

Today as Confucianism, Buddhism, and other traditional beliefs begin to make more and more of a comeback in China, many Chinese and foreign workers alike are ill-equipped to intellectually make clear distinctions between faith in Christ and traditional Chinese moral codes for the general Chinese audience.


1Cultural China. (2011) History-Classics: The Four Books and Five Classics. Retrieved from http://history.cultural-china.com/en/37History4610.html

2ChinatownConnection.com (2011) Chinese CultureChinese Society Traditions Chinese People Lifestyle, Daniele Lee. Retrieved from http://www.chinatownconnection.com/chinese-people-lifestyle.htm


4Yuan, Zhu, (2010, September 8) Selfishness no longer a big problem, China Daily. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2010-09/08/content_11271478.htm

5Synovate. (2010, April 23) Synovate launches Media Atlas China: The most comprehensive syndicated media study revealing the lifestyle, spending, and media habits of Chinese consumers [press release]; Author. Retrieved from http://www.synovate.com/news/article/2010/04/synovate-launches-media-atlas-china-the-most-comprehensive-syndicated-media-study-revealing-the-lifestyle-spending-and-media-habits-of-chinese-consumers.html

6Freeman, Nancy K. PhD. (1998) Look to the East- Gain A New Perspective, Understand Cultural Differences, Appreciate Cultural Diversity; Early Childhood Education Journal via PBS, Precious Children. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/kcts/preciouschildren/earlyed/read_east.html

7Zhong, Joshua. (2001, September) China’s Little Emperors and Empresses: One Child Families and Consequences, Retrieved from http://www.chinesechildren.org/Newsletter%5CWindow%20to%20China/WTC_09_2001.pdf



10Freeman, Nancy K. PhD. (1998) Look to the East- Gain A New Perspective, Understand Cultural Differences, Appreciate Cultural Diversity; Early Childhood Education Journal via PBS, Precious Children. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/kcts/preciouschildren/earlyed/read_east.html

11Zhong, Joshua. (2001, September) China’s Little Emperors and Empresses: One Child Families and Consequences, Retrieved from http://www.chinesechildren.org/Newsletter%5CWindow%20to%20China/WTC_09_2001.pdf

12Lim, Louisa, (2010, July 18) Chinese turn to religion to fill a spiritual vacuum, NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128544048

13China Daily, (2004, March 14) Moral education urged for Chinese youth. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-03/14/content_314622.htm

Myron Youngman is the President and Founder of The Kaifa Group, Inc. which fosters development in the areas of education, culture, and commerce. His experience includes university lecturing on mainland Chinese culture, cultural anthropology, international business, and other related courses.

Excerpted from “Teacher Education in China: A Context Study,” The Kaifa Group Inc., March 2011. Used with permission

Image credit: Around West Gate of Peking University by Jens Schott Knudsen, on Flickr

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Brenda Reid

Brenda Reid is a researcher for The Kaifa Group, an educator and freelance writer. Her recent research and writing has focused on the areas of quality teacher training, educational excellence for all learners, youth and families. View Full Bio

Myron Youngman

Myron Youngman is the President and Founder of The Kaifa Group, Inc. which fosters development in the areas of education, culture, and commerce. His experience includes university lecturing on mainland Chinese culture, cultural anthropology, international business, and other related courses.View Full Bio