Dynamics of culture and the implications for education in China

Liu Fengshu

Institute for Educational Research, University of Oslo, Norway

The dynamics of culture requires that culture must be consciously and constantly reinterpreted and renovated in order to gain vitality. The paper argues that formal education as the official site of cultural transmission forms a natural intersection with culture which functions as its regulating system. Whether, and to what extent, a culture needs adaptation can often be examined by scrutinizing the intersection. To this end, the paper attempts to scrutinize the intersection between education and culture in China by displaying some of the major themes in the interaction between the two.


Globalisation and its attendant processes have created what Castells (1999) described as “the space of flows”, whereby a virtual culture is emerging that permeates the economical, political and social lives of all nations and regions of the world. The push towardhomogenization, which comes with globalization and which promotes a detachment from tradition and threatens the loss of cultural root, is accompanied by a counter consciousness—an acknowledgement of the necessity to promote cultural uniqueness (Reed, 2001). The uniqueness, and for that reason, the survival of a culture in the powerful global transformation depends on the vigor and rigor of adaptation in the process of its transmission because the dynamics of culture requires that culture must be constantly and consciously reinterpreted and renovated in order to gain vitality.

This paper argues that formal education as the official site of cultural transmission forms a natural intersection with culture which functions as its regulating system.  Whether, and to what extent, a culture is functioning or malfunctioning can often be examined by analysing the intersection between formal education and culture. To this end, the paper presents a description of the intersection between education and culture in China by displaying some of the major themes found in the interaction between the two.

The paper consists of two main parts. The first part describes the dynamics of culture its relationship with education as seen through the model of an intersection between the two. The second part attempts to make a scrutiny of the intersection between formal education and culture in China. Finally, concluding remarks will be based on the synthesis of the two main parts and some lessons are expected to be drawn from the exposition.


Dynamics of Culture and the Intersection between Culture and Education

According to D’Andrade (1984), two major schools have appeared in history concerning the term “culture”—the behaviourist paradigm and the cognitive paradigm. The dispute between the two paradigms echoes what Alexander (1994) named as the initial dichotomy that has governed the analysis of action and order since scientific consideration of societies began. The dichotomy consists of the mechanistic conception of action and the subjective approach to action, which in turn is reflected in the difference between positivism and the interpretative social science. The positivist approach holds that human beings operate on the basis of external causes, with the same cause having the same effect on everyone. Human behavior is produced by a mechanism that responds automatically and predictably to the stimuli of its environment. Consequently, we can and should learn about people by observing their behavior, what we see in external reality, instead of what happens in internal, subjective reality. In contrast, the subjective, interpretative approach believes that human action is motivated by something inside the person such as feelings, perception and sensibility. How people act is a function of how they interpret social reality and they act according to the subjective order which is a framework internalised in the mind. Human action acquires meaning among people who share a meaning system that permits them to interpret it as a socially relevant sign or action  (Neuman, 2000). As a result, the subjective, interpretative approach holds that we can study social reality only through understanding people’s ideas.

Accordingly, the behaviorist paradigm and the cognitive paradigm arrived at strikingly different conceptualisations of culture. In the former tradition, which was among the dominating ones before 1955, observable behavior, rather than mind analysis, was seen as the only fit subject of study. Culture was seen as patterns of behavior, actions and customs (D’Andrade, 1984). Contrastingly, the cognitive paradigm argues that culture consists of notbehavior, or even patterns of behavior, but rather of a “shared organization of ideas” or “learned systems of symbolically encoded meaning” which is historically transmitted and traditionally inherited (Geertz, 1973, p. 89). According to Spiro (1984), cultural and non-cultural propositions differ in two important dimensions. First, cultural propositions are traditional; they are developed in the historical experience of social groups, and as a social heritage.  Second, cultural propositions are encoded in collective, rather than private, signs. Here culture for humans is seen as an information-holding system with functions similar to those of cellular DNA which provides individual cells with the information needed for self-regulation and specialized growth (D’Andrade, 1984).

Many other theorists in the cognitive tradition have made influential conceptualisations of culture, thus contributing to the dominance of this paradigm over the behaviorist paradigm (e.g., see Geertz, 1973; Holland & Quinn, 1987; Keesing, 1976; Spiro 1984; Spindler, 1997; Spradley & McCurdy, 1997). However, in spite of the fact that the cognitive approach brought about a revolution in the understanding of culture, this paradigm is not free from evident limitations of its own. As a result, a conception somewhat combining the two paradigms can be discerned in many scholars nowadays.

The conflict between culture as patterns of behaviour, and culture as systems of ideas seems to have been resolved when many social scientists now agree that culture is also a form of practice, i.e., what people do as well as what people think (e.g., see Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner & Cain, 1998; Levinson, 2000). Such a modified understanding of the term is only natural because behavior and ideas can rarely be isolated from each other. Likewise, one can always study what ideas lead to what actions. For example, one can hardly expect someone who has never heard of Father Christmas to prepare for a stocking and hang it on the Christmas tree for presents. Similarly, when certain patterns of behaviour exist, a cultural tendency can be applied.   For instance, frequently found unpunctuality among African students is attributed to “African time”. When asked, a student from Zambia explained,” We grew up in a context where people believe we, human beings, should control time, not to be controlled by time.” Evidently, in studying culture, both people’s behavior and their ideas provide rich resources and constitute fascinating realms. Or, in Henze’s (1992) words, “culture is both internal and external” (p.6).

Another point worth noticing is that some definitions of culture in both the cognitive and the behaviorist approaches seem to somewhat convey the notion that culture is fixed and static once formed. However, just as Rossman, Corbett and Firestone (1988) contended, culture is not only static, but it is also dynamic. Therefore, there is another dimension of culture that seems to deserve more emphasis in the conceptualisation of culture, even if it is not totally lacking in the above-mentioned paradigms. That is the dynamic quality of a culture.

To give this quality of culture due respect, we must address not only the past but also the now of a culture. In fact, the now is not contradicting the past; rather, the two are relative to each other because they exist in a constant continuity. The “now” we are experiencing will become “history” when viewed by the future generations. For, what is shared knowledge and common practice today will be passed on to later generations just as traditional culture was passed on to the contemporary generations. Therefore, the now shoulders the double task as both the agency to succeed and the conveyor of culture. It is for this reason that Boulding (1988) believes that everyone lives in the 200-year present, the so-called elastic moment, which she explained means that on any day there is a person living who is 100 years old and there is a baby that is born who will live for 100 years. In this respect, we all live in the 200-year present (p.3).

Therefore, it is of great importance to emphasize the now of a culture because, to a great extent, it can be said that the very survival of a culture depends on how well it is transmitted by the contemporary generations. To this end, it is crucial to bear in mind that the dynamics of a culture demands ongoing transference within a changing society; “It must be constantly re-interpreted and modified” (Henze, 1992, p.6).  Many scholars agree that cultural meanings are constantly produced, rather that statistically and uniformly transmitted (e.g., see Eisenhart, 2000; Holland, et al., 1998; Wolcott, 1991). A culture gains vitality and, for that reason, enhances the chance of survival in the powerful homogenizing processes of globalization only when it is creatively interpreted and reconstructed in such a way that it best serves the purpose of a nation to adapt to its environment while retaining some historical cohesion and continuity.

It is here that education is called to task, because theories of education largely seek to address questions of the above-mentioned concern (Levinson, 2000). Or according to Mead  (2000), education has always played an important role in the process of enculturation. Cultural acquisition and, therefore cultural transmission, can take place through informal, non-formal and formal education, as defined by LaBelle (1984). However, it is through formal education in schools where cultural transmission is undertaken.   Schools have been acknowledged as official sites for the interpretation and transmission of values and knowledge, as Levinson (2000) and Reed (2000) both point out.  For the purpose of this paper education refers to formal education.

For the above-mentioned reasons, it is self-evident that education and culture are closely interwoven and interdependent. While transmitting culture and being regulated by it, education always occurs in a specific cultural context. This means:

What we resolve to do in school only makes sense when considered in the broader context of what society intends to accomplish through its educational investment in the young. How one conceives of education, we have finally come to recognize, is a function of how one conceives of the culture and its aims, professed and otherwise. (Bruner, 1996, p. IX).

Thus, there is an evident intersection between culture and education. It is here that we can see how culture as a regulating system influences processes of teaching and learning and how these processes in turn reinforce culture. Such an intersection is illustrated through the model in Figure1.

There are three areas in this model. A represents culture, B stands for formal education, and C is the common area, the intersection between A and B. It is self-evident that the size and content of the intersection differs from one educational system to another. Nevertheless, it is presumed to be universally true that the vitality of a culture and the success of an educational system largely depend on if this interchange is organized in such a way that it best enhances the contemporary and future development of the nation. It is in section C that the interaction between education and culture is takes place. Educational agencies are supposed to be constantly reinterpreting and reproducing culture out of the storehouse of tradition, the A area, and adapt it to the demands of the development of education, the B area. In this sense, time and space can render any elements in the cultural system obsolete or re-recognize its value. It is of great importance to turn the intersection into a “dynamic interchange” so that it serves as the organ by means of which both education and culture breathe in order to survive and develop. For this reason, it is imperative that the intersection should be consciously and constantly scrutinized to make sure that it is not malfunctioning.

Time and Space

Figure 1:  The Intersection between Culture and Education


Culture and Education In China

The following section of the paper will present a description of the intersection between education and culture in China (see Figure 2). It can by no means serve as a panoramic picture of Chinese culture and education, China being evidently complex in both. However, it is hoped that it will be able to give a general idea about the major motifs discerned in the interplaying of the two areas. For this purpose, we shall look at Chinese education through some of the main threads in the tapestry of Chinese culture: Chinese moral education, the widespread respect for learning, the belief in hard work and determination, the examination system, and the reliance on book knowledge and memorization.

Time and Space

Figure 2: The Intersection between Education and Culture in China

Moral Education in China

Moral education has always taken a prominent position in the Chinese educational system. This may be viewed in light of the phenomenon that Chinese culture is oriented toward morality (Woo, 1991). To appreciate the world-view and moral ideals of the Chinese people, Confucianism is the first school to be understood. Some of the Confucian moral propositions are echoed and reinforced by Buddhism and Daoism and modified but succeeded by the Communist Party of China.

Moral education for the Confucian school of thinkers is both necessary and obtainable. This can be seen in the logic of the Confucian ideal society as shown in Figure 3:

Figure 3

Figure 3: Logic of the Confucian Ideal Society

Confucianism came into being as a result of Confucius’ wish to advocate the “rectification of names”, which he explained as “ Let the ruler be ruler, the minister minister, the father father, the son son” (Confucius’ Analects, XIII, 3; Confucius Analects, XII, 11). Born in 551 B.C., Confucius saw the decline of the Zhou Dynasty and lived in a world of social and cultural decay in the Spring and Autumn period (722—484 B.C.) and the period of the Warring States (403—221 B.C.). His recipe for a society racked with social unrest was the restoration of the practices of a time when he believed all had lived justly and simply under a benign kingship in the Western Zhou Dynasty. Such a society is regulated by moral behavior based on benevolence and propriety. This may serve to explain why as Lee (1991) pointed out, the individual’s moral and spiritual growth is at the basis of Confucian thinking on education, a message enshrined in the works of the Confucian tradition, such as the Four Books and the Five Classics. The focus on self-cultivation was aptly summarized by Confucius in The Great Learning, as quoted by Durant (1935):

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their own selves were cultivated. Their own selves being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy. (pp. 667-8)

Confucian education thus starts with the cultivation of oneself as the foundation for an ideal world. Therefore, it is the obligation of the ruler as well as the ruled to cultivate virtue. For, according to Confucianism, the ruler rules by appealing to people’s inner virtue rather than by statute. “The rule of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star which commands the homage of the multitude of stars without leaving its place” (Confucius Analects II, 1).

Therefore, personal moral perfection and the joy experienced from that accomplishment is considered by Confucianism, and thereby, by the Chinese tradition as a whole, as the primary purpose and goal of education (Lee, 2000).

The above-mentioned conviction is reinforced by the Confucian idea that moral perfection is not only necessary but also obtainable. This is because there is a common belief among the Confucian thinkers in the potential for goodness, hence educability, in human nature, as has been pointed out by numerous authors (e.g., see Cleverley, 1991; Doan, 1991; Lee, 1999; Lee, 2000; Smith 1991). 

Though Confucius did not elaborate on human nature, his belief that everyone is educable serves as a sound proof for his recognition of goodness in human nature. The first sentence in the Three-Character Classics, which is a summary of Confucius’ thought, states, “Men, one and all, in infancy are virtuous at heart. Their natures are much the same, the practice wide apart” (Giles, 1972).  Confucius is known for having believed that there is a sage in everyone.

Two of Confucius’ most distinguished followers, Mencius and Xunzi, held opposing views on human nature. The former believed that human beings are virtuous because benevolence and righteousness are inherent in one’s nature; but since goodness only exists in the state of germs, following and guarding it from going astray is the sole concern of learning (Mencius, VI, A, 11). Unlike Mencius, Xunzi argued that human beings are born evil, but fortunately, virtue can be acquired through human efforts in learning (Chai, 1965). Interestingly, despite of their contrary opinions as regards human nature, both appeals to education for moral perfection. For the former, education is to preserve the goodness one is born with, whereas for the latter, learning serves to rectify the evil nature and transform it into virtue.

The belief in the morally transforming power of learning is not limited to Confucianism. Rather, it is in this belief that the three main traditional schools of thought echo each other. While Buddhism and Daoism differ greatly from Confucianism in their philosophy and practice, they both also advocate learning for self-perfection. According to Lee (2000), Lao-tse, the founder of Taoism believed that the main evil that had befallen society was its quest for materialistic betterment. Therefore, Daoism calls on humans to forsake physical prowess, to acquire spiritual strength, and to abandon material wealth in order to have a harmonious and peaceful relationship with the greatest source of sustenance—nature. It is well known that Buddhism is much concerned with conducting goodness, a fact that bespeaks its emphasis on moral cultivation. Besides, the pursuit of truth in monastic isolation as a means of enlightenment is a spiritual enjoyment for the Buddhists. ChuHsi (1130—1200), probably the most influential Confucian thinker of Neo-Confucianism, owed much to Buddhist influence. He taught that the pursuit of knowledge was ultimately for personal moral perfection, rather than for extrinsic rewards (Lee, 1999).

Because of the influence of the above traditions, education and moral cultivation has never been separated in China. Instead, they are closely interwoven. Therefore, as noted by Smith (1991), “the school, be it for children of age three or for postdoctoral students, is a place where values, morals and ethical priorities will be learned” (p. 5). This prescribes the teacher’s role. Just as Stafford (1997) said, “if Chinese education is expected to be moral, then Chinese teachers are equally expected to be both transmitters and living examples of this morality. School children are similarly expected to live up to the upright example of their teachers, in some way to become them” (p. 61).  Han Yu, one of the most outstanding scholars and educators in the Tang Dynasty, defined a teacher like this, “ What is a teacher? A teacher is the one who shows you the way of being human, teaches you knowledge and enlightens you while you’re confused.” That is why teachers are honoured with the title “the engineers of the human soul” in China. At the same time, students are also required to behave as civilized persons respecting teachers and conforming to other moral standards prescribed for them.

It is a general Chinese belief that moral education is important for both the individual and the society. To traditional Chinese rulers, education with its moralizing function was seen as an instrument for governing and ruling. Perhaps the man who most frankly recognized the utility of moral education concerning social control was Emperor Yongzheng in the Ching Dynasty who is said to have asked whether ordinary people know that after human mind and thoughts are rectified and social customs amended, the one who benefits the most is the ruler himself.

Just as Cleverley (1991) points out, this pattern of thinking has not been discarded in China today but has been integrated with Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. A government document by the State Education Commission of the People’s Republic of China (1993) re-states the aims of education in China is “ …to train builders of the country and successors to the socialist cause who are developed morally, intellectually and physically.”  A more recent document shows that moral education in China is understood as covering a very broad category:

Moral education includes political, ideological, moral and psychological quality education. The basic task in primary and secondary education is to foster the students into citizens with ardent love for the motherland, social ethics, civilized behavior and observation of laws. Besides, moral education should guide the students to build up the correct world outlook and value codes about life, constantly enhance their socialist consciousness so as to lay a solid foundation for them to become a rising generation having lofty ideals, moral integrity, knowledge and culture, and disciplines. (China Education and Research Network, 2000)

This may shed some light on the term moral-political education given to Chinese moral education by Price (1992). As he argues, in a sense, one can say that China’s schools have always been dominated by moral-political teaching, which occupies a significant place in the school curriculum. As a percentage of total teaching time for all subjects, politics occupied 6.7% in 1950; 4.4% in 1954; 7.1% in 1958; 6.2% in 1963; 7.2% in 1978; and 6.9% in 1981 (Price, 1992, p. 217). While there may have been a reduction of time for politics in the curriculum in recent years, we can confidently say that a continuity of the tradition is evidently present in today’s China.

Widespread Respect for Learning

It is widely acknowledged that there is a widely diffused respect for learning in China. It is hardly overstated when Smith (1991) remarked:

So ingrained in the psychology of the Chinese is the value of education that it is often characterized as the true religion of the people…In the west, the foundation of civilization, at least since the early Middle Ages, has been religion; in China, education has played this part in the people’s moral and ethical lives and has continuously been the ballast for social evolution. (p. 9)

Three main factors seem to have contributed to this circumstance. First, as can be seen from the preceding part of the paper, the significance of education stands out in the Confucian tradition. This is because for Confucianism an individual’s moral development and perfection which is regarded as the basis of an ideal society can only be achieved through education. Therefore, the term “learning” pervades the whole literature of Confucian works. In fact, one of the Four Books is entitled The Great Learning. In addition, Confucius’ whole life was an example of ceaseless learning as a result of which he was able to follow his heart’s desire without worrying about being wrong at the age of 70 (Confucius Analects, II, 4). The Three Character Classics begins with an emphasis on the function of education:

         To feed the body, not the mind—fathers, on you the blame!

         Instruction without severity, the idle teacher’s shame.

         If a child does not learn, this is not as it should be.

         How, with a youth of idleness, can age escape the blight?

         (Giles, 1972, p. 26)

During the latter years of the Tang Dynasty, Han Yu, a Confucian philosopher, stated the view that structured education could make the wise person wiser and assist in reducing crime, for only the unwise desire the life of criminality. He greatly emphasized the value of the educational experience as a purifier of the soul and spirit (Smith, 1991).

The Confucian influence is far and wide. Just as has been observed by some scholars, countries with a Confucian tradition such as Japan and Korea have all manifested a widespread belief that education is of paramount importance in one’s life (Lee, 1999).

Secondly, the Chinese love learning because they commonly believe that learning can be a spiritual enjoyment (Lee, 2000; Yao, 2000). That is, learning has an intrinsic value like that of music or art and it can purify the soul and cultivate the character by displaying a world where one is away from the madding crowds and enters the great spiritual palace of peace and harmony. Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism all recognize the personal spiritual satisfaction that flows from the enlightenment and transcendence as a result of learning.

Referring to the joy of learning, Confucius once said, “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?” Similarly, a Buddhist might say, “ Is it not pleasant to learn and get enlightened?” And, a Daoist might say, “ Is it not pleasant to learn and pursue the Great Way and enjoy the process of learning?”  That’s why teachers in China are called gardeners who cultivate children with the sunlight and rainfalls of knowledge.

Thirdly, it is especially true to the Chinese that education can mean social and economic mobility. Education promises to pay immensely. The following has been a common belief all the time in China, as quoted by Cleverly (1995):

                  To enrich your family, no need to buy good land:

                  Books hold a thousand measures of grain.

                  For any easy life, no need to build a mansion:

                  In books are found houses of gold.

                  Going out, be not vexed at absence of followers:

                  In books carriages and horses form a crowd.

                  Marrying, be not vexed by the lack of a good go-between:

                  In books there are girls with faces of jade.

                  A boy who wants to become a somebody

                  Devotes himself to the classics, faces the window, and reads.

                  (p. 18)

And last but not least, nowadays education becomes more important than ever to the Chinese people not only because of the aforesaid factors but also because in many cases it is a prerequisite for employment, hence, the means of making a living.

Hard Work and Determination = Success

The enthusiasm for education found in the Chinese has no doubt been encouraged by the Confucian idea that everyone is educable and by the fact that numerous people have succeeded in climbing the social ladder by means of education. Traditionally, obtaining a higher social status through education was not only a sweet dream but it was realizable. Since the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, with the urgent need to select the most competent men for public services, the number of persons who rose from obscurity greatly increased. For example, the percentage of persons of obscure origin mentioned in historical records rose from 6% in 722-693 B.C. to 44% in 512-483 B.C. during the Spring and Autumn period, and from 57% in 463-434 B.C. to 74% in 283-254 B.C. during the Warring States period (Hsu, 1965). In short, the possibility of upward social mobility through educational success was evident ever since the above-mentioned time. From this the Chinese learned an important message. That is, educational success is obtainable for everyone, nevertheless, hard work and strong will is the key. Numerous Chinese people have been inspired by the tradition concerning the belief in effort and strong will necessary for one’s educational achievement. The following is among the most frequently quoted by the Chinese intellectuals:

When Heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on a man, it will exercise his mind (determination) with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the path of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent. (Mencius VIB, 15)

Few Chinese would deny that “No force can steal the determination of even the humblest man” (Creel 1951, p.101). Chinese children grow up listening to countless stories about people who can serve as examples of determination and hard work. They read about life stories of great scientists and other successful scholars home and abroad. They are told that Sun Jing and Su In, both well-known ancient scholars, tortured themselves in order to keep awake while reading. The former tied his hair to a beam and the latter kept pricking himself with an awl. They come to believe that as long as you work hard enough and long enough, you can even grind a huge iron bar into a tiny needle, as shown by the famous story about the old grandmother trying to make a needle out of an iron bar. This shows that hard work and determination are still deeply cherished qualities in China.  Educators and parents regard them as admirable virtues. Students who are not working hard are made to feel ashamed of themselves, because it is commonly believed that one fails academically not because one is slow but because one is not determined and diligent enough. Perhaps that is why one can hardly enter a classroom in China without seeing proverbs on the wall urging one to work hard. As one Chinese proverb states, “Diligence is the road to knowledge and determination is the boat by which one navigates on the ocean of learning.”

The Examination System

The present national public examination for higher education in China has its prototype in the Imperial Civil Service Exam System which lasted from the Han Dynasty (201B.C.—8 AD) to 1905. The Imperial Civil Service Exam by definition was intended to recruit educated people for government service. To a great extent it can be said that the exam system effectively served the feudal emperors in two aspects. That is, it served simultaneously to recruit loyal civil servants of a standard type and to guarantee a thorough indoctrination of the Confucian ideology among the educated class, which was the model for the whole population. Therefore, killing two birds with one stone was achieved by means of limiting the syllabus to Confucian classics and by prescribing the standards of style to be used in the exam answers (Zhu, 1991). The examination system as such relied heavily on memorization, recitation, and analysis of the Confucian classics. Exam success called for an excellent memory, knowledge of the Classics, and their approved annotations. It is a common understanding that the conditioning through the imperial exam made it difficult for the Chinese educated class to respond creatively to the ideas and problems which followed Western penetration in the 19th century. Consequently, it was finally accepted early in the 20th century that the Four Books and the Five Classics proved an insufficient basis for modern government and so the imperial civil service exam was abolished in 1905.

The exam system was extremely competitive. According to historical record, only one or two in 100 could hope to pass the final palace exam which usually 10,000 or more candidates would attend who had managed to pass all the preceding exams before they were qualified for the final one (Cleverley, 1991, p. 18). Just because it was highly competitive and hard earned in addition to the immense benefits the success promised, the national exam throughout China’s long history has been regarded not only as a major national event but also, even more, one of the four greatest episodes in one’s life: Sweet rain after a long drought; Meeting an old friend in a strange place; The wedding night in the nuptial chamber; the sight of one’s name on the golden placard (the official announcement of success in the exam).

In spite of various complaints against the imperial civil service exam which led to its abolishment in 1905, the validity of the national public exam did not perish. The Kuomintang Party passed an Exam Law in 1933 applying to those seeking government posts after SunYat-sen, the first provisional president of the Republic of China, publicly praised the exam system as the oldest and best of its kind in the world. After the Chinese Communist Party gained power in 1949, exams persisted for entry to particular educational institutions with testing being introduced nationally in 1952. Following a break from 1966 to 1976, the Cultural Revolution period, the exam for entry to tertiary education was restored in 1977, becoming the educational event of the year (Cleverley, 1991).

The present Chinese examination system no doubt serves a broader purpose than merely recruiting educated personnel for civil service as in history. It has been used as a sifting net to pick out various professionals of the future. Nevertheless, as a legacy of the Imperial Civil Service Exam, it clearly mirrors its prototype in a number of ways. For example, as usual, it is still highly competitive notwithstanding the fact that there has been a fast increase in higher education in China recently. The selective nature of the system is reflected by the sharply reduced entrance rates at higher levels of education. According to theChina Statistical Yearbook(1995), in 1993-94, while net enrolment of the school-age children in primary schools reached 98%, 86% of primary school graduates entered junior middle schools, 46% of junior middle school graduates made it to senior middle schools of various kinds, and only 4.5% of senior middle school graduates were admitted to regular higher education institutions. This means that only 1.8% of a given cohort eventually make it to universities. According to the UNESCO Statistical Yearbook (1995), only 2% of China’s population aged 25 and over have received postsecondary education. The Chinese Education Statistical Yearbook (1999) shows that the gross enrolment ratio of Chinese higher education reached 10.5% in 1999. But, selectivity persists.

Apart from the social and economic mobility higher education promises, the importance of passing the national public exam is reinforced by the fact that a tertiary educational certificate is a precondition for most employments in urban areas now. These factors combined shed light on why Chinese education is determined by and centered on an exam. It can serve as strong evidence to prove that “exams decide the curricula” (Brock-Utne 2000, p.129). Public exam records are treated as the most important or even the only indicators of the quality of schools by the community. Students’ exam scores are the greatest concern to the students, teachers and parents. According to Gao (1997), in Guangzhou, there is a reward system for schools, leaders and teachers, as well as a punishment system depending on how they performed on the exam. In fact, similar practices are prevalent all over the country. As a result, in order for the students to do well on the exam, teaching and learning especially at a senior middle school level is totally aimed towards passing the exam which will take place three years later. Teachers are going out of their way to figure out what kind of exam questions might appear in the coming exam and spend time gathering examples for students. The students in turn are plunged into the sea of exercises of a fixed type. Thus, repeatedly doing exercises and memorizing them takes up almost all of a student’s time. The number of exam-type items a student must do for physics range from 1000 to 2000 during the last year of secondary schooling (Gao, 1997). However, physics is merely one of the examined subjects. The pressure of the exam has rendered thousands of teenagers to mechanical doers of exercises and deprived them of many other activities. Nearly all students complain school is mentally boring and physically exhausting. July, when the yearly national tertiary entry exam takes place, is named “the dark July” by the students.

Another consequence is that the exam culture in China has trickled down to the bottom level of education. The issue concerning the burden on primary and secondary students has caused heated discussion among educators and parents in recent years. However, just as Holmes and Mclean (1989) pointed out, it seems unlikely that the selective Chinese exam system will be abolished. The retention is virtually sure to mean that the content of secondary school education will almost certainly be dominated by exam requirements.

Book Knowledge and Memorization 

There has been a shared complaint among many scholars in the east as well as in the west, although there have also been contrasting views (e.g., see Biggs, 1999), that the products of the Chinese educational system tend to have a sound command of theoretical knowledge but display a relatively low empirical capability compared with western students. A close scrutiny of the Chinese tradition seems to show that the content and process of learning can be roughly summarized as book knowledge and memorization. Learning for most Chinese people is equal to reading books. Memorizing what is written in books is the most secure way to study. Learning means to accumulation of knowledge and reproduction of other people’s knowledge; rather than construction of meaning from experience, as has been observed by some scholars (e.g., Bradley & Bradley, 1984; Samuelowicz, 1987). Researchers attempting to explore this have arrived at different conclusions as to the determining factors. But all seem to have turn to the Chinese culture for inspiration. Generally speaking, there are four main determinant: the Chinese language, Confucianism, authoritarianism, and the exam system.

The Confucian school of thinkers strongly stressed the importance of learning. However, as King (1992) reasonably points out, the Confucian school only emphasized what is written in the classics concerning personal moral perfection, neglecting knowledge relating to production and professional and technical skills. Although the importance of science and technology and the importance of developing students’ abilities to solve practical problems are now widely recognized, the power of Confucianism still has its impact on science education in China today. Bountiful evidence shows that emphasis is placed on mastery of a well-structured body of theoretical knowledge. Therefore, how to build up such a body of knowledge is still the first consideration of curriculum developers and teachers. In a sense, the development of practical skills takes up a mere symbolic place in the curriculum. For example, in the time scheme for the school physics course in the national syllabus, the total teaching hours of senior middle school is 340, but there are only 27 hours for student experiments (Gao, 1997). Science learning has become solely book learning. This is to a great extent determined by the exam system which mainly tests students on their book knowledge using fixed types of questions, as mentioned earlier. The Chinese national public exam for entry into tertiary education is mainly a paper-and-pen test examining the students’ memorization of textbooks. This is again reminiscent of the traditional Imperial Civil Service Exam which was based on the Four Books and the Five Classics and which required heavy memorization in order to achieve success.

According to cultural determinism (Spiro, 1984), language as an integral part of a culture determines to a great extent, the way people think and act. The relationship between language and ideology is often referred to as linguistic determinism. As Gadamer (1977) puts it, “language is not only an object in our hand, it is the reservoir of tradition and the medium in and through which we exist and perceive our world” (p.29).  Russell (as cited in Smith, 1991) proposed that the use of ideograms is one of the major features that give the Chinese their distinctive character. The Chinese language does not have an alphabetical system whereby letters are put in a certain juxtaposition to form a word. The characters are pictorial-based rather than sound oriented. The written Chinese is such that, as Smith (1991) remarked:

Acquiring a strong language base requires sheer memorization of literally thousands of characters. No shortcut exists in this process…Consequently, in China the children who become part of the school system must follow the most fundamental of all ways to learn the language—memorization. (p.15)

In addition to the above-mentioned factors, strict adherence to the current book knowledge only and memorization process may have much to do with the obedient character which seems common among the Chinese culture. Such a mental state is to a great extent tempered by the authoritarianism characteristic of the Chinese government. China has been a centralized state for thousands of years ever since Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor in Qin Dynasty unified China in 221 B.C., with some short interruptions only. Ever from then on the Emperor became the highest authority that had the right to reward or punish, to kill or to pardon. As has been indicated earlier in this paper, the hierarchical structure which characterized such a society was maintained largely through the exam system which helped to achieve a uniformed ideology, to which the Chinese have come be accustomed (Pye, 1992).  As a result, the Chinese tend to believe in authorities. Furthermore, written text tends to be taken as unquestionable truth. This was reinforced during the reign of Chairman Mao, who believed that the political ideals of a given society are its educational ideals and its political mission is its educational mission. And as Whyte (1991) points out, “In Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, society is conceived of as a single, well-regulated factory controlled by a plan. There is one correct way for society to be organized. It is a fundamental responsibility of rulers to proclaim and enforce that correct way” (p.260).

Therefore, paternalism or authoritarianism relies on obedient behavior of the people for ruling.  Obedience, when it comes to learning, translates itself into a firm belief in book knowledge and memorization.

Conclusions and Implications

Culture as a particular phenomenon has its own law of development. The first part of the paper deals with how dynamics of culture is understood. A brief review of the conceptualisations of culture in the behaviourist paradigm and the cognitive paradigm shows that these contrasting approaches both seem to somewhat convey the notion that culture is fixed and static once formed. This article follows a third view that holds that culture is not only static but also dynamic. A culture needs to be consciously and constantly reinterpreted and modified in order to gain vitality. This is especially true if a culture is to survive globalization that threatens to push the world toward cultural homogenisation.

Renovating the existing culture may mean that cultural transmission involves doing away with malfunctioning elements, integrating strong points from other cultures, or reviving or further emphasizing those elements in traditional culture that serve as energizing forces for educational development. To this end, it is crucial that various elements of a culture be examined so as to identify those that may not be functioning in a synergetic direction with the current purpose of education, for which culture serves as a regulating system.

As has been demonstrated in Part One, since culture and formal education are closely interwoven and interdependent, the intersection between culture and education (as illustrated through Figure 1) constitutes a realm where various cultural elements can be scrutinized in order to discern the aspects in need of renovation.  Therefore, the analysis of such an intersection between culture and education in China is expected to expose both the strength and weaknesses in the educational system as seen in its cultural context.

The scrutiny of the intersection between culture and education in China indicates that certain cultural elements discerned in the educational processes might be malfunctioning and need renovation.  Therefore, while acknowledging the evident strong points in the Chinese culture, I would like to direct the attention of policy makers and educators to the following questions.

Can learning still be a spiritual enjoyment under the great pressure of exam? What does the trade-off imply as regards the purpose of education? To what extent is learning that relies on book knowledge and memorization at odds with its current mission to develop the students as powerful learners who would have the largest and most flexible capacity to learn (Cheng, 200l)? What inspiration should we get from the following words by a famous educationalist and philosopher?

From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school.  (Dewey, 1990, p. 66)

Is moral education functioning as it is supposed to be when it is confused with political ideology indoctrination? What implications do the following facts have for our moral education, and education in general? Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, juvenile delinquency and youth criminality increased significantly in China. In 1980, for example, 61.2% of all criminals were youths and juveniles; by 1989, it had increased to 74.1% (Epstein, 2000, pp. 83-4). This is a part of a larger trend where crime increased markedly. According to Epstein, the total crime committed by 14-to-18-years-old increased from 7% in 1980 to about 20% in 1989. From 1988 to 1993, 1.2 million cases of cadre corruption were acknowledged by the Chinese press, with 170,000 cases being reported for 1993 (Epstein, 2000).

This article’s conceptualization of culture and the depiction of the intersection between culture and education should provide some theoretical grounds for policy formation and practice in China. One potentially promising response would be to start with the examination system that has to a great extent rendered learning book knowledge and memorization. The quality of national educational systems is increasingly being compared internationally (Carnoy & Rhoten, 2002). This makes it necessary for policy makers and educators to become aware of the parameters and standards for testing from a global perspective in order to enhance the competitiveness of the products of the educational system. Although there has been much talking about the defects of the existing exam system, which has even led to some new policies concerning exams and curriculum, it is obvious that at the classroom level, educational delivery in most Chinese schools remains largely the same. Book knowledge and memorization are still playing a great role, largely due to the nature of the exams and the pressure on teachers and students related to the ramifications of exam results, as explained in Part Two.  This means that it is also important that supervision and inspection should follow trans-national and national policies to local practices. Research should follow up to analyse trends and to provide empirical grounds for effective solutions. Meanwhile, studies should be organized on international educational parameters and on how to integrate national and international aspects in the Chinese culture that serves as a regulating mechanism for China’s formal education.

Continuing professional education for teachers should focus more on up-to-date approaches to teaching. Rather than using exam results as parameters to assess teaching quality, teachers should be encouraged and rewarded (for example, by means of material as well as spiritual rewards) for renovating teaching methods to aim at cultivating students’ practical ability and flexible capacity to learn.

With regard to moral education, rather than overemphasizing political indoctrination and confusing it with moral education, individual self-cultivation, as advocated by Daoism and Buddhism as well as Confucianism, should be integrated to a greater extent in moral cultivation. This approach might function as a corrective to violations of modernity, as Reed (2001) advocates, as well as a rectification of the failure in moral education caused by political ideology indoctrination that tends to engulf the individual’s moral cultivation.

Furthermore, now that renovating the culture may mean absorbing nutrition from other cultures, policy makers should consider deliberate efforts or programs to raise awareness on impacts of global interdependence. For example, to learn from other cultures, higher educational institutions should open up for foreign students and arrange for more strategic cultural exchange between China and other countries. For the same purpose, global perspectives should be reviewed and adequately incorporated in the curriculum of both schools and teacher education. Continuing professional development for policy makers and educators should include critical comparative analysis of educational policies and practices in other cultures. 

So far, this article has, based on the understanding of cultural dynamics, attempted to analyse the intersection between culture and education in China with the hope to expose both the strength and weaknesses of various cultural elements interacting with formal education. It has also tried to make some suggestions for educational policy making and practices in China. Nevertheless, no simple answer can be found to the problems that beset any educational system with the challenges and difficulties presented by a changing culture and situation. After all, it is the responsibility of educational agencies, as official media of cultural transmission, to consciously and constantly reinterpret and reconstruct various cultural elements and adapt them to the advancement of educational development of a nation. At least one point is clear that policy makers and educators should bear in mind. That is, the dynamics of culture dictates that a culture gains vitality only when it is consciously and constantly reinterpreted and modified in such a way that it best serves the purpose of a nation to adapt to its environment while retaining some historical cohesion and continuity.


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