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Chinese Ancient Education

As we know, China has a long history. The traditional education played an important role in the Chinese development. Usually, the ancient emperors took education as a tool to strengthen their domination. This article will introduce how education developed in each period, contributions of women and important education thoughts.   

What is the history of Chinese ancient education?

The “Private School Thriving” in the Spring and Autumn Period

In the Spring and Autumn Period, private schools prevailed and many scholars of different schools of thought spread their teaching in this way. Confucius, the great educator, devoted all his life to the private school system and taught many students. It was said that over three thousand disciples followed him, among whom there were 72 sages who went on to broaden the acceptance of the philosophy set out by their master Confucianism.


Besides that, other school such as Taoism was also taught widely which led afterwards to 'a hundred schools of thought' in the Warring States Period. During the succeeding years, private schools continued to exist although there were times when state education became fashionable.

The “Recommendation through Observation policy” in the Han Dynasty

ancient books

During the reign of Emperor Han Wudi, the government introduced an education system called 'taixue'. Usually the students were provided with a free diet and mainly studied from the classical Confucian books. After hard work of studying, scholar would sit for their examinations that rarely happen. Following examinations, those with good marks would directly be given official titles.

In the Han Dynasty there had been no special system for testing a person's ability, and the most prevalent method was merely through observation.Officials would see who was intelligent or who they favor and recommend that individual to their superior. This obviously restricted the source of talented people. On the contrary, this system could only lead to nepotism and corruption.

The “Nine Grades of Rank in the Regime System policy” in the Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties

The Nine Grades of Rank in the Regime System employed officials by the following method: in each state and county there was official acting as 'Zhongzheng' with authority to decide how people were ranked in the local areas according to ability. By ranking appliers for official positions in this way, the government was able to make a choice of the best people for various posts. Although it had no relationship originally with family background, the 'Zhongzheng' was himself invariably a member of the upper classes and he would often show partiality to families of dignitaries and other upper class people.

Origin of Imperial Examination in Sui Dynasty

It was during the Sui Dynasty that the separate states were unified into a whole. To enforce the centralization of power, the emperor realized the need for a strong, well educated civil service, one that employed the best talents in the land. Although it was immature at the outset, it inter-wove learning, examination and administration closely. This system proved to be fairer and more far-reaching than former ones.

Imperial Examination
Radiation of Imperial Examination in the Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty adopted the personnel selection system and gradually refined it. The main subjects of the examinations were writing and study of classical books, which were the most popular. The prime ministers, named 'jinshi', were good at writing.

The candidates almost always came from two sources. These were students of official schools and also intelligent people in their local county, who were entitled 'juren' when they achieved the necessary qualifications to take the central government examinations held each spring.

The form and content of the exams varied from one another. The junior testing knowledge is in details, concentrating on small knowledge points. Therefore, the need to be able to recite the work was important. While the tests for 'jinshi' were not so easy - they required a talent for literature.

Candidates who passed the highest imperial examination held by the Board of Rites would have a promising future. The most successful scholar was then granted the title of 'zhuang yuan', the second 'bang yan', and the third 'tan hua'. However, there would be a final hurdle to cross - a test of another department 'the Board of Civil Office'. Then the tester will give those excellent people position according to their abilities. To become successful, candidates sometimes also needed the recommendation and instruction of a notable person with authority.

During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian, she asked questions of candidates herself in the imperial hall. This was the beginning of the interview examination. She also created the form of Wushu examination in subjects such as the use of fire arms.

The innovations in ancient Chinese education system in Song dynasty

In the Song Dynasty, the examination for 'jin shi' was still fashionable. Most of the prime ministers of high rank also had to pass the exam in this subject though they are in preponderant. Meanwhile, regardless of form and content, the system underwent great innovation. At least three aspects had been reformed. 

Firstly the accepted number was broadened. Secondly, the frequency of exams was limited to a fixed 'once every three years'. Thirdly, so far as content was concerned, the earlier examinations laid much stress on the ancient classical texts.

Zhuang Yuan

Finally, to prevent the practice of favoritism, examinees' names were closely covered on their papers which were then exchanged among different local examiners. This did indeed greatly reduce the incidence of cheating.

 Full-Bloom in the Ming Dynasty

With the coming of the Ming Dynasty, the imperial examination system reached its period of full bloom. Great attention was given to the administrative procedures and the tests became more rigorous. The provincial and metropolitan examiners tested only 'eight-legged' essays and people easily realized that the quality of that sort of essay was the key to achieving a pass. They were required to write in a fixed style with a fixed word count - it had to be eight paragraphs, while imitating the tone of the classics. .

Declination in the Qing Dynasty

Since the Qing Dynasty was dominated by the Manchu ethnic group, they gave their people priority over the Han people. It is difficult to become officials for the Han people. There is an interesting novel 'Fan Jin Zhong Ju' is quite a typical victim of the declining system. The hero Fan Jin took tried many times to a pass the provincial examination. Never want to give up, he was in his fifties when his efforts were finally rewarded. When he got the news that he had finally ranked on the list of successful candidates, he was in a delirium with great joy!

What is the Imperial Examination?

The system of the Imperial Examination in Chinese became the method by which to select talented people for future positions in civil service. It was put into practice during the Sui Dynasty and lasted more than 1,300 years until the last examination during the Qing Dynasty.

The imperial examinations comprised two parts namely an arts exam and the wushu exam. The arts examination included subjects such as composition and study of books. The wushu examination was used for selecting military officials, however, the wushu examination was not as importance as the arts examination.

In the ancient society, class consciousness was strong and many people from lower classes would had have little chance to reach high office, not to mention having any position in the official court. However, once the 'keju' evaluation system was introduced, children from poor families had opportunities to attend the government exams, and this enabled them to bring honor to their families. There was also a special examination for smart little children - 'tongziju', which is similar in many ways to today's special classes for gifted children. Thus regardless of parentage, or age, nearly all males were eligible to realize their self-development.

Despite the significant effect of promoting Confucian culture and education, it also influenced education systems in many other countries like Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and similarities can be found in the personnel selection methods employed in France, America and Britain. Today's education system is surely its successor.

What are China ancient academies?

China Ancient Academy also called Shu Yuan is Chinese unique ancient education institution. It was born roughly in Tang Dynasty and thrived in Song Dynasty and popularized in Ming and throughout Qing Dynasties. The function of this kind of school was to cultivate talented people, to encourage a devotion to learning, as well as to spread culture. Actually, ancient Chinese academy is the earliest to carry out the higher education. Many students of these academies could act as officials when they passed the graduation exams held by government, therefore, it largely played the role of raising the elite of society and the leader of the country.

What are school systems of ancient Chinese education?

During the Zhou Dynasty, there were five national schools in the capital city. The schools mainly taught the Six Arts: rites, music, archery, charactering, calligraphy, and mathematics. According to the Book of Rituals, at age twelve, boys learned arts related to ritual and when older, archery and chariot driving. Girls learned ritual, correct deportment, silk production and weaving.
Later, during the Ch'in dynasty, a hierarchy of officials was set up to provide central control over the outlying areas of the empire. During the Han Dynasty, boys were thought ready at age seven to start learning basic skills in reading, writing and calculation. In 124 BC, the Emperor Wudi established the Imperial Academy, the courses of which were the Five Classics of Confucius. In the Three Kingdoms and the Southern and Northern Dynasties in China, only the rich and powerful would be selected.

What are three oral texts used to teach children?

The Thousand Character Classic, a Chinese poem originating in the 6th century AD, was used for more than a millennium as a primer for teaching Chinese characters to children. The poem was sung in the same way that children learning the Latin alphabet may use the "alphabet song".

Later, children also learn the Hundred Family Surnames, a rhyming poem in lines of eight characters composed in the early Song Dynasty which actually listed more than four hundred of the common surnames in ancient China.

From around the 13th century AD until the latter part of the 19th century, the Three Character Classic, which is an embodiment of Confucian thought suitable for teaching to young children, served as a child's first formal education at home.

Empress Wu

What is the special affection made by Empress Wu on education?

Empress Wu challenged the rules of Confucius when she became the Empress to rule China. During her reign, she elevated the position of women. The court scholars were asked to write biographies of famous women of China and rest of the world.

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