Reform the People: Changing Attitudes Towards Popular Education in Early Twentieth-Century China

Reform the People: Changing Attitudes Towards Popular Education in Early Twentieth-Century China

Reform the People: Changing Attitudes Towards Popular Education in Early Twentieth-Century China

Reform the People: Changing Attitudes Towards Popular Education in Early Twentieth-Century China

Excerpt

In 1900 Chinese officials and intellectuals felt a deep sense of crisis. For many of them, China's defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895 and the 'scramble for concessions' in 1897-8 seemed to portend the partition of China among the western powers. China's potential fate was compared with that of luckless Poland. In 1898 Yan Fu's translation of T.Huxley Evolution and Ethics appeared, introducing into the Chinese vocabulary terms such as 'survival of the fittest' (yousheng liebai), 'natural selection' (tian ze), and 'struggle for existence' (jing cun). Anguished cries of alarm could be heard warning of the eventual dispersal and even extinction of the Chinese race unless fundamental reforms were implemented. For a brief period in 1898 the reformers were able to gain the support of the Guangxu Emperor and a number of reform edicts were issued calling for institutional change, the promotion of industry and commerce, and the establishment of modern schools. A conservative backlash, led by the Emperor's aunt, the Empress-Dowager Cixi, quickly followed. The Guangxu Emperor was made a virtual prisoner, reformers such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao were forced to flee the country with prices on their heads, and the reform edicts were cancelled. The worst fears of the reformers were confirmed in 1900 when the court actively encouraged and supported the anti-foreign Boxer uprising, which led to the occupation of Beijing by the powers and yet more humiliating demands made of the Chinese government.

By 1901 even Cixi recognised the need for change and the court embarked on a series of reforms designed to strengthen the country and secure the position of the Qing monarchy. Constitutional reform included plans for the convening of a national assembly and the establishment of provincial and district assemblies. Military modernisation was promoted in order to create a well-equipped national army. Educational reform comprised plans to create a national hierarchical system of schools and the abolition of the traditional civil service examinations.

This latter reform, like all the others, failed to prevent the downfall of the dynasty and its replacement by a republic in 1911-12, but it did nevertheless represent a wider change in attitudes towards education that spanned the last years of the Qing dynasty and early years of the Republic, and, as such, constitutes an important element in China's modernisation process, a process defined recently as one 'by which societies have been and are being transformed under the impact of the scientific and technological revolution'. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Chinese officials and scholars had focused on the military and technological efficiency of the West as the key factor explaining her strength. By the end of the . . .

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