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Underemployment and the Changing Role of Intellectuals in Republican China by Thomas D. Curran Statistics on the career mobility of modern educated youth in Republican China are fragmentary at best. Those that are available (for example, surveys of graduates from Republican era modern schools) do, however, suggest that school graduates were not experiencing the kind of upward mobility that many expected: and that conclusion is supported by a great deal of impressionistic evidence indicating that intellectual 1 underemployment had by the 1920s become a widespread phenomenon an4'a serious problem. Concern over underemployment among China's modern educated youth did in fact prompt many observers of the Chinese scene in the 1920s and 1930s to speculate about its causes. The thrust of their analyses was generally aimed in two directions. First, the educational system was itself blamed for its failure to meet the genuine needs of China's economy. Since China's economy was still underdeveloped , modern education inspired by Western models was considered to be essentially irrelevant to China's needs. The result was that students were being trained for jobs that did not exist. The second point of their analyses was aimed at the intelligentsia itself. Many critics felt that China's intellectuals were the authors of their own misfortune, for despite the evidence of a changing opportunity structure they still clung stubbornly to an outdated vision of status, prestige and bureaucratic service. Harboring inflated and unrealistic career expectations, China's modern educated youth avoided careers in engineering or •anufacturing, hoping instead to land academic or official positions that bore the customary high status associated with mental labor. The problem of underemployment also prompted observers to reconsider their views as to the true nature of the intelligentisia as a class and the role it should properly play in China. Often their assessment of the nature of the contemporary intelligentisia was colored by their interpretation of the functions the literati served in imperial times. Indeed, many writers in the 1920's and 1930's took a dim view of the traditiona! 11terati, seeing it as a selfserving appendage of the ruling class which served an oppressive government in order to secure an elevated position from which to pursue wealth, bureaucratic power and local advantages. As a class, the literati were seen as weak, dependent upon imperial patronage, and lacking the courage to try to establish themselves as an autonomous force in Chinese politics. Hence, as 20th century thinkers struggled to define a new role for China's intellectuals 59 their views were frequently influenced by their own hopes that the modern intelligentsia would depart from the traditiona! 11terati mold and assume a new kind of leadership role; and in as much as they perceived that the modern-educated retained features characteristic of the literati, many observers expressed a profound sense of disappointment. The following is a brief review of some of the writings of scholars and educators of the Republican period who were concerned both about the opportunity structure faced by China's modern educated and the fate of the intellectuals as a class. It is hoped that through the eyes of such observers we may gain a clearer perception both of the changing character of the Republican era intelligentsia and of the role that 20th century social critics believed intellectuals ought to play in the modernization of China. The noted educational reformer T'ao Hsing-chih bore a distinctly hostile attitude toward the gentry of imperial times, condemning them in bitter terms for their willingness to aid in the perpetuation of imperial power at the expense of the masses. By serving as imperial officials, he felt, 1i terati had succumbed to the temptations of wealth and influence while contrlbuting to the maintenance of a political structure built upon the exploitation of the common people. Knowledge was of use to them only as a means to secure wealth and position. Meanwhile, at the local level, since they possessed no practical way to earn a living, literati who failed to s~cure official position had no options other than to become "local bullies, evil gentry, shysters, pettifoggers or teachers."(l] The introduction of modern education, T' ao maintained, had done...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5065
Print ISSN
1521-5385
Pages
pp. 59-76
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-25
Open Access
No
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