- Education and Society in Post-Mao China by Edward Vickers and Zeng Xiaodong
A recent habit for me as a junior researcher with an interest in Chinese education is starting reference reading from Vickers and Zeng's monograph Education and Society in Post-Mao China, when I seek to gain "reasonably comprehensive," "historically informed," and "critical" overview (p. x), commentary and understanding of specific aspects of Chinese education in certain periods over the past four decades. This is neither exaggeration nor courtesy.
As the authors state in the introduction, the aim of this volume is to provide a "coherent narrative" of the entire system rather than some "discrete snapshots" (p. 9), echoing and extending the classic work of Pepper (1996) and Thøgersen (2002) to a more recent period. This aim is achieved by adopting two perspectives. Firstly, although focusing on the era since Chairman Mao's death in 1976, discussions in the book are based on a much broader historical context, throughout from the late Qing Dynasty to the period of Mao. This strong historical emphasis makes up for "the strange neglect of history in so much analysis of education in contemporary China" (p. 10) and facilitates a holistic understanding of the present via the lens of continuity and discontinuity. Secondly, the contemporary experience of China is compared with that of other populous developing countries like India, with the post-war [End Page 339] experiences of other East Asian models like Taiwan and with Japan's Meiji restoration experience. Different reference points highlight both problematic and favorable aspects of Chinese educational development. Hence, the "comparative allusion to the educational histories of other societies" (p. 10) in this book leads to an in-depth articulation of the Chinese characteristics in education and a critical reflection on the claims of China's uniqueness.
While this book is confined to formal education, it ambitiously covers a range of themes such as schooling and curriculum, finance and management, teaching profession, evaluation and assessment, marketization, and internalization throughout the phases of early childhood, primary and secondary education, vocational and technical education, and higher education. Within these themes and phases, the authors investigate policy changes in the interplays and dynamics of society, politics, economy and demography, the implications for the educational provision and resulting pressure and tension (e.g., public-private hybridization and urban-rural gap), and the ways in which officials, educators and institutions have reacted to the changes. Nevertheless, as the authors admit, they omit or concentrate less on systematic discussions about some equally important topics including adult education, the education of minorities and the diversity of grassroots or local experiences of education. In addition, readers from the fields such as gender education and pedagogy may expect more devoted space for relevant topics. Notwithstanding, the historical-comparative perspective as adopted in this book illustrates an approach to deciphering the complexities of this giant system which has experienced sudden and radical changes over a relatively short period.
Various sources, both in English and Chinese, are drawn on to facilitate the elaboration of investigated themes, including primary data, secondary literature about education as well as economics and politics, and anecdotes derived from authors' experiences. With respect to previous studies, the authors identify and illustrate four overlapping perspectives that have shaped the scholarly debate on Chinese education, namely, the official/orthodox perspective, the anti-globalist perspective, the practice-oriented perspective, and the critical perspective. While the authors do not restrict their analysis to research drawing on any perspectives, they explicitly align themselves with the last. These perspectives are articulated in the introduction to set up the scaffold of discussion and revisited in the conclusion to further the final critiques. The clarification constructs a framework to categorize an array of competing discourses, their underlying political and ideological rationales, and the approaches to legitimacy production. Additionally, it enables readers to reflectively navigate divergent scholarly interpretations of specific policies and practices. [End Page 340]
In spite of the wide scope, there are at least...