- Educational Reform in Republican China: The Failure of Educators to Create a Modern Nation
Thomas D. Curran's Educational Reform in Republican China is a highly readable and enjoyable book that is both a measure of his love of history and his tenacity as a human being. Beginning as a dissertation and taking over 20 years to complete, the book gives a sweeping overview of Chinese educational reforms from the late Qing dynasty through the Japanese invasion of China. The author freely admits that his book mirrors the works of other writers who focus on this period (e.g., Marianne Bastid).1 Nonetheless, Curran states that "[b]y concentrating on the many ways by which China's rich educational heritage influenced the history of the reform effort this book breaks new ground" and that "[t]he case is made here that, when gauged by the reformers' own expectations, the reform movement was a distinct failure, and that one of the most important causes of that outcome was the weight of China's educational tradition" (p. 14). Although these assertions are not particularly revelatory, Curran's synthesis of the various reform movements is, nonetheless, insightful.
Curran's synthesis leaves, on the whole, few questions unanswered concerning the ongoing evolution of educational policies during this fascinating period in Chinese history. China's weakened position vis-à-vis the West as evidenced by the West's continuous encroachment on Chinese sovereignty and China's defeat at the hands of its former tributary state, Japan, caused Chinese educational theorists to understand the need for change, and that the impetus for modernization would have to come from a transformed educational system. Curran gives an excellent description of the impact early Western educational theorists Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Johann Friedrich Herbart had on Chinese educational reformers, and the reformers' eventual decision to abandon the Imperial Examination System and to institute Western-style educational programs. But what of the traditional, Confucian system of moral education that was such a major component of the old Imperial Examination System? The technical expertise provided by a Western-style education could not be doubted, but was it applicable to China? Confucian education had tied the central government to the local communities for far more than a millennium. Overwhelmingly, the Chinese populace had bought into the efficacy and validity of this system, and it was very good at promoting and maintaining social harmony and order. Could a Western-style educational system produce the same results for the country?2 [End Page 398]
As Curran points out, it could not. Within the rural areas the traditional educational system was viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a means for social mobility and/or moral enlightenment. By developing a social order that removed hereditary titles of nobility, except at the level of the imperial royal family, and creating meritocratic means for access to governmental positions, Chinese social positions were constantly in flux; yet, the social order, itself, was inherently stable. It was perceived that anyone with ability could succeed, regardless of one's initial social status. Acceptance of this perception permeated China's rural peasantry. As such, they would never unquestioningly accept the new educational reforms, particularly when there was anecdotal evidence to show how the old, Confucian system of education might beneficially impact their lives. It was a steadfast belief in this anecdotal "proof " of the efficacy of the old educational system that the reformers could never overcome. Merely dismissing the peasants as "backward" was not the way to overcome their intransigence toward the new educational policies. As such, educational reforms in the countryside were virtually nonexistent throughout the period. Thus, educational reforms had their greatest success in the cities, but this success, too, was not what the reformers had envisioned. The urban, middle, and upper classes were never able to divorce themselves from the belief that education was the "proper" means for securing...