Citizenship Education in Chinese Schools

By Chen, Yangguang; Reid, Ivan | Research in Education, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Citizenship Education in Chinese Schools


Chen, Yangguang, Reid, Ivan, Research in Education


Education for citizenship has become a key concern of educational policy and debate in economically advanced countries as well as in developing countries. The question of what constitutes education for citizenship in different nations is critical in both national and international contexts. China is no exception as it emerges from its most recent era of self-enforced isolation, and much can be drawn from China's transformation from the classical idea of its people being subjects of an absolute monarchy claiming divine right to rule in an authoritarian and arbitrary way to the modern democratic concept of citizenship of a country where people enjoy essential equality as human beings and the fundamental freedoms of conscience, religion, opinion, expression and the right to vote.

In China 'citizenship' and citizenship education have their roots in the late nineteenth century. Their history can be divided into three major periods: that of social transformation prior to 1949, the period of socialist construction between 1949 and 1978, and the period of innovation from 1978 to the present. This article critically reviews historical developments in the field of Citizenship Education in schools, illustrates some of the issues in contemporary developments, and puts forward some suggestions for future development.

A historical review

Citizenship Education in China has experienced numerous difficulties of self-- identity but its development eventually reached a stage where it was based on similar understandings to its Western counterparts.

The period 1848-1949

In the eighteenth century China was still subject to the Ching empire while Britain, having become the strongest capitalist economy in Europe, expanded towards the East and covertly shipped opium to China in order to plunder the country's silver. Opium imports grew rapidly. In the first forty years of the nineteenth century shipments increased from 4,000 chests to over 40,000 chests a year. Opium is a kind of poisonous narcotic. A frequent smoker will become addicted to the drug: he becomes physically weak and loses the ability to labour. By 1835 there were over 2 million opium smokers in China. This seriously affected the social production and the constitution of the people. Even in the Ching army there were opium-smoking soldiers, and its fighting capacity was reduced. As the smuggling of opium increased, the yearly revenue from exports of domestic products, such as silk, tea, etc., failed to match the market price of opium.

It was in the period of Emperor Dao Guang of the Ching dynasty that proposals to prohibit opium smoking were put forward by some patriotic officials. By the end of 1839 opium smoking and opium trading were banned under the direction of Lin Ze-xu, a senior official in the Ching regime. This move irritated the British colonists, and an `opium war' was launched in the following year. Owing to the compromise and capitulation policy of the Ching government, the efforts of the people in the coastal areas to defy the British were defeated. In 1842 the Ching government was forced to sign the first treaty in modern Chinese history, the Sino-British Treaty of Nanking. It stipulated that Hong Kong should be ceded to Britain, that Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Nanjing and Shanghai should be opened to foreign trade, and that China had to pay indemnities of 21 million silver dollars. Following this, the troops of the `eight-country joint force' (Britain, the United States, France, Russia, Holland, Spain and Portugal) penetrated deep into China, which was gradually reduced to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society.

Reinforced by the external pressure, and influenced constantly by Western civilisation, ideology and educational values, the new-style schools of the late nineteenth century were established and began to offer a course named Character Cultivation. It consisted of some elements of civic education but was modified within the tenets of feudalism.

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