Literacy Movements in Modern China

  • Charles W. Hayford


On October 1, 1949, a few years after Mrs. Ning made this remark, Mao Zedong stood on the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing and announced that China had “stood up”: “The era in which the Chinese people were regarded as uncivilized is now ended. We shall emerge in the world as a nation with advanced culture.” Mrs. Ning just wanted to know what happened.1


Chinese Character Literacy Movement Popular Education Literacy Campaign Comparative Education Review 
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  1. 1.
    This chapter is drawn from a piece of ongoing research done in collaboration with a group of former colleagues and friends at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The group, to whom I give my grateful thanks, includes Thomas H. C. Lee, David Faure, Bernard Luk, Alice Ng and Tarn Yueh-him, who are preparing a volume tentatively titled The Changing Significance of Literacy in China, 1960-1937. This research-in-progress is reported in “Oral History Research (Hong Kong History, Customs, Culture),” Chinese University of Hong Kong Bulletin 4 (1984), pp. 14-21. They have not seen the present article, however. That volume will include many more extensive references to Chinese and Japanese language sources, which have therefore been avoided in the present essay. Readers who wish such references should consult my own Y. C. James Yen and Rural Reconstruction in China (Columbia University Press, forthcoming); Evelyn Sakakida Rawski, Education and Popular Literacy in Ch’ing [Qing] China (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979).Google Scholar
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  4. 2.
    Ida Pruitt, Daughter of Han (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945; Stanford, 1967), p. 244; Gan Yuyuan Xiangcun minzhongjiaoyu (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1934), pp. 47-49, quoted in Rawski, Education and Popular Literacy, p. 21.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    John King Fairbank, The United States and China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 43.Google Scholar
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    Alexander Woodside, “Some Mid-Qing Theorists of Popular Schools: Their Innovations, Inhibitions, and Attitudes Toward the Poor,” Modern China 9.1 (January 1983), p. 20.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The most sophisticated study is Ho Ping-ti, The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962)Google Scholar
  8. See also Miyazaki Ichisada, China’s Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China (Tokyo, 1963; tr. Conrad Shirokauer, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976).Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    A well-informed observer in the late nineteenth-century said that it is “far from being the fact that every Chinese village has its school, but it is doubtless true that every village would like to have one, for there is the most profound reverence for ‘instruction’.” Arthur H. Smith, Village Life in China (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1893), p. 73.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    There has been dissatisfaction with recent efforts to define literacy. The concept of “functional literacy,” as used in the world debates since the Second World War, writes a skeptical British sociologist, is a “wooly and elusive notion,” and “in lieu of a comprehensive and coherent account of the role of literacy and illiteracy in society, we have nothing more than a jumble of ad hoc and largely mistaken assumptions about literacy’s economic, social, and political dimensions.” Kenneth Levine, “Functional Literacy: Fond Illusions and False Economies,” Harvard Educational Review 52.3 (August 1982), p. 249.Google Scholar
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    Lam Lay-young, “The Jih yung suan fa: An Elementary Accounting Textbook of the Thirteenth Century,” in Nathan Sivin, ed., Science and Technology in East Asia (New York: Science History Publications, 1977).Google Scholar
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    For a more detailed discussion of these points, see the various articles in David Johnson, Andrew J. Nathan, and Evelyn Rawski, ed., Popular Culture in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).Google Scholar
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    Rawski, Education and Popular Literacy, pp. 45-52. An analysis of a crucial transitional period is given in Thomas H. C. Lee’s important article, “Life in the Schools of Sung China,” Journal of Asian Studies 37.1 (November 1977), pp. 45–60.Google Scholar
  14. See also Francis W. Paar, ed., Ch’ien Tzu Wen [Qianzi wen]: The Thousand Character Classic, A Pnmer (NY: Frederick Ungar, 1963), and Herbert Giles, tr., San Tzu Ching [Sanzi jing]: Elementary Chinese (Reprint, NY: Frederick Ungar, 1963). Incidently, a check in my local Chinatown bookstore shows all three books stocked in current editions.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
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    Charlotte Beahan, “Nationalism and Feminism in Modern China,” Modern China 1.4 (October 1975), p. 387.Google Scholar
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    The most thorough discussion of this period is John Paul Bailey, “Popular Education in China, 1904-1919: New Ideas and Developments” (unpublished PhD thesis, University of British Columbia, 1982). See also: John DeFrancis, Nationalism and Language Reform in China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950).Google Scholar
  18. 21.
    Ernest P. Young, The Presidency of Yuan Shih-k’ai: Liberalism and Dictatorship in Early Republican China (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1977), pp. 195–199; Bailey, Popular Education, pp. 176-178.Google Scholar
  19. 23.
    Sidney Gamble, Peking: A Social Survey (New York: George H. Doran, 1921), pp. 147–156, has information on the libraries in Beijing which were meant to be emulated in the rest of the country. A recent story reported that by the end of 1985, eighty percent of the counties will have their own public libraries. “New Library Services See Nationwide Craze,” China Daily, October 24, 1985, p. 1.Google Scholar
  20. 24.
    Fu Sinian (later an eminent linguist and supporter of the Guomindang), quoted in C. T. Hsia, Modern Chinese Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), p. 10; John DeFrancis, Nationalism and Language Reform, p. 70.Google Scholar
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    John DeFrancis, “China’s Literary Renaissance: A Reassessment,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Schofors 17.4 (December 1985), pp. 52–63.Google Scholar
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    T. H. Lee, “The Popular Education Movement in China,” Chinese Recorder 51.1 (January 1920), pp. 44–49Google Scholar
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    Paul Monroe, China: A Nation in Evolution (New York: Macmillan, 1927), p. 284.Google Scholar
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    Shirley Godley Garrett, Social Reformers in Urban China: The Chinese Y.M.C.A. 1896-1926 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970) gives a lively and analytical description of these activities.Google Scholar
  26. John Hersey’s The Call (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1985) is a fictionalized but basically accurate account of these campaigns. James Yen appears in the novel as “Johnny Wu.” This campaign technique had an influence outside China, when the concept was taken up as a model by UNESCO in its early years after the Second World War. The first of the UNESCO Monographs on Fundamental Education noted that “it was against the background of James Yen’s statement, and not as the result of pure theory, that the UNESCO delgates adopted the term ‘fundamental education.’ ” Fundamental Education: A Description and a Program (Paris: UNESCO, 1949), p. 9.Google Scholar
  27. 31.
    Yen, “The Campaign Against Illiteracy,” China Mission Year Book, 1923, pp. 205-215. For Mao’s participation, see Linda Shaffer, Mao and the Workers: The Hunan Labor Movement, 1920-1923 (White Plains: M. E. Sharpe, 1982), p. 59.Google Scholar
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    Shaffer, Mao and the Workers pp. 57-61, 86-88. Yun Daiying, quoted in Hayford, Yen and Rural Reconstruction; “Textbooks of China’s Early Labor Movement,” China Reconstructs 24.1 (January 1975), pp. 33-35. See also Cyrus Peake Nationalism and Education in Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), Appendix I, pp. 159–193, “A Digest of Textbooks used in the Mass Education Movement and the Most Popular Textbooks Used in the Primary and Middle Schools of China from 1905 to 1929.” The Thousand Character Primer was translated for students of Chinese by Walter Simon of the School of Oriental and African Languages as 1200 Basic Chinese Characters (London: Lund, 1944, Humphries, 1957).Google Scholar
  29. 34.
    Barry Keenan, John Dewey in China (Cambridge, Mass.: East Asian Research Center, 1979).Google Scholar
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    Roy M. Hofheinz, Jr., “The Ecology of Chinese Communist Success: Rural Influence Patterns, 1923-1945,” in A. Doak Barnett, ed., Chinese Communist Politics in Action (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969), pp. 40–43.Google Scholar
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    David Holm, “Folk Art as Propaganda: The Yangge Movement in Yan’an,” in Bonnie S. McDöugall, ed., Popular Literature and Performing Arts in the People’s Republic of China 1949-1979 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 3–35.Google Scholar
  32. Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World (New York: Harper, 1949) conveys the excitement of the time; see especially Chapter 17, “A Beggar Writer,” and Chapter 22, “Class Society in the Classroom.”.Google Scholar
  33. 43.
    Jane L. Price, Cadres, Commanders, and Commissars: The Training of The Chinese Communist Leadership, 1920-1945 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1976).Google Scholar
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    Chairman Lin Boqu et al., “Border Region Government Directive on Promoting the Study of Model Schools and On Experimentation with Popular Management Primary Schools (April 18, 1944),” translated in Chinese Education 4.4 (Winter 1971), pp. 272–273.Google Scholar
  35. 47.
    Lo Mai, “Promote The Mass Education Movement on a Large Scale,” (Statement in the General Meeting on Education in the Shen-Gan-Ning Border Region, November 15, 1944), translated by Ellen Widmer in Chinese Education 4.4 (Winter 1971), p. 317.Google Scholar
  36. 49.
    H. S. Bhola, Campaigning for Literacy p. 80, as quoted in Robert Amove, “A Comparison of the Chinese and Indian Education Systems,” Comparative Education Review 28.3 (August 1984), pp. 381–382.Google Scholar
  37. 51.
    “Vow Against Illiteracy” (Xinhua report from Paris), China Daily March 22, 1985, p. 1. Moreover, in the chastened opinion of another outside education expert, the worldwide experience calls for statistical skepticism, for “national literacy statistics are the least trustworthy, and probably the most inflated, of all published educational statistics.” Philip H. Coombs, The World Crisis in Education: The View From the Eighties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 268.Google Scholar
  38. 52.
    Dwight Perkins and Shahid Yusuf, Rural Development in China (Baltimore: Published for the World Bank by The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), p. 172.Google Scholar
  39. 53.
    Fei, Chinese Village Close-Up (Beijing: New World Press, 1983), p. 241. Some estimates based on field observation put the rates as low as twenty to forty percent, with at most half the population capable of reading a novel. Perry Link, “Fiction and the Reading Public in Guangzhou and Other Chinese Cities, 1979-1980,” in Jeffrey C. Kinkley, ed., After Mao: Chinese Literature and Society, 1978-1981 (Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, 1985), pp. 250, 312 n. 47.Google Scholar
  40. 55.
    Billie L. C. Lo, “Primary Education in China: A Two-Track System for Dual Tasks,” in Ruth Hayhoe, ed., Contemporary Chinese Education (White Plains: M. E. Sharpe, 1984), pp. 47–64.Google Scholar
  41. 56.
    Jonathan Unger, Education Under Mao: Class and Competition in Canton Schools, 1960-1980 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 16–17.Google Scholar
  42. 58.
    Leo Orleans, Professional Manpower and Education in Communist China (Washington: National Science Foundation, 1961), p. 49.Google Scholar
  43. For a more detailed description see Theodore Chen, Chinese Education Since 1949, (New York: Pergamon Press, 1983), Chapter Three, “The New Educational Agenda.”.Google Scholar
  44. 59.
    Jean Robinson, “Decentralization, Money, and Power: The Case of People-run Schools in China,” Comparative Education Review 40.1 (Winter 1986), pp. 53–86.Google Scholar
  45. 60.
    George Jan, “Mass Education in the Communes,” in Stewart Fräser, ed., Education and Communism in China, cited in DeFrancis, The Chinese Language, p. 209. For Wanrong, see also Lin Feng, “All Out Effort in Cultural Revolution” from New China News Agency, June 1, 1960, in Stewart Fräser, ed., Chinese Communist Education (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967), p. 377.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles W. Hayford
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of HistoryNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA

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