Educational Reform in Republican China: The Failure of Educators to Create a Modern Nation

Author: Curran, Thomas D.
This study examines the history of modern education in Republican China and analyzes its interaction with China’s traditional educational heritage. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Chinese government introduced a new, national system of education, hoping that doing so would produce for China the human resources it needed to save itself from foreign encroachment. The new structure, however, was designed in accordance to foreign models that were hardly suited to conditions in China, and it had to compete with a strong indigenous educational tradition that was intimately associated with important features of Chinese social structure.

Ultimately, when evaluated in the reformers’ own hopes and expectations the new schools were a failure. Often referred to as the “foreign eight-legged essay,” they contributed to the destruction of a system of schooling that had helped to integrate traditional Chinese society by providing, at minimum, an avenue for upward mobility that most people considered fair and an introduction to an intellectual and literary heritage that all Chinese could claim as their own. Meanwhile, they introduced both a new set of values that many people considered alien, and a new set of neither institutions that produced the skilled manpower that the reformers sought nor the channel for upward mobility that elite aspirants wanted. By reforming the schools, instead of saving China, the reformers contributed to the disintegration for which the Republican Period is aptly remembered.


“This is an absolutely excellent piece of sustained historical research, which gives many new insights into problems of education and social development during the Nationalist period in China. A wealth of historical sources have been drawn upon with many thoughtful critical links to the relevant work of other scholars … this book will be highly regarded in the academic community and will be given very positive reviews in the Sinological literature.” – Professor Ruth Hayhoe, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education for the University of Toronto

“This book argues persuasively that China’s adoption of European and American educational models in the 19th and 20th centuries contributed to the social disintegration that was so much a feature of the Republican period (1911–1949) … Dr. Curran’s work is solidly grounded in comprehensive research in Chinese education periodicals from the first half of the 20th century, as well as memoirs of educators and activists in education reform movements. The study is also informed by a wealth of recent works by historians from both China and Western countries. This book will be an important resource for those interested in the history of Chinese education as well as the broader question o the development of China’s intellectual class from the 19th through the 20th centuries.” – Professor Bradley Kent Geisert, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College

“Professor Curran’s study presents a survey of education in China during the modern period, with 'modern' broadly defined. One of the book’s advantages is that it provides a full background in traditional education for the reform effort that is its main subject. This background is most useful … One of the most appealing features of this study is the variety of individual experiences and anecdotes the author has included, which put his points in human terms. Another of the book’s strengths is that it traces the influence of ideas from abroad through Japan to China in a pattern repeated for a number of cultural changes during China’s modernization process. Professor Curran also surveys and cites a host of materials that have informed his own research. This excellent feature makes the book very useful as a resource on Chinese education throughout many years of modern history, but especially during the Republican era.” – Edward S. Krebs, Independent Scholar and author of Shifu: Soul of Chinese Anarchism (Rowman and Littlefield, 1998)

"Curran's thesis leaves, on the whole, few questions unanswered concerning the ongoing evolution of educational policies during this fascinating period in Chinese history."Prof. Judith Liu, University of San Diego for China Review International

Table of Contents

1. China’s Traditional Educational System and Its Impact on Society
2. The Coming of Educational Reform: Tampering with Tradition
3. Searching for a Way Out: The Introduction of Developmentalist Pedagogy
4. A New Curriculum: The Marriage between Pragmatism and Ethics
5. Modern Schools and Their Local Reception
6. Modern Education and the Occupational Mobility Structure
7. The Vocational Education Movement
Conclusion: The Foreign Eight-Legged Essay