Development of Social Work Education in China: Background, Current Status, and Prospects

By Li, Yingsheng; Han, Wen-Jui et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Development of Social Work Education in China: Background, Current Status, and Prospects


Li, Yingsheng, Han, Wen-Jui, Huang, Chien-Chung, Journal of Social Work Education


SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION in China dates back to the 1920s; however, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the government suspended social work education in China for almost 36 years. During this time, the highest leadership in China assumed that no social problems would exist within a socialist system, and the country followed the Soviet Union's lead in abandoning social work education. In the late 1980s, market-based economic reforms began to reveal critical social problems associated with the vast number of vulnerable citizens, and these threatened China's social order and cohesion. As a result, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the State Council revived social work education in China (for a good review of the history, see Law & Gu, 2008). Further awakened by a series of significant events related to China's at-risk populations since the turn of the 21st century and spurred on by the devastating Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, universities and colleges have rapidly begun developing and implementing new social work education programs across the country.

At present, nearly 500,000 people in the civil administration system in China are engaged in social work practices and service delivery. The overwhelming majority, however, have not received any social work professional training. In addition, millions of personnel work in social service delivery systems, such as social security, health, education, the Communist Youth Union, the Women's Federation, nonprofit foundations, organizations for people with disabilities, criminal justice, and community services, but again, the vast majority of them have never received any formal social work training. These professional workers possess rich field experiences that we cannot overlook, yet they are in desperate need of formal social work education.

Before moving on, we must emphasize the distinction between the need for and the demand for social work educational development in contemporary China. China's central government recognizes the country's great need for social workers and is thus creating a supply of social workers to address this need. Government policies to date have concentrated on the need for but have not catalyzed the demand for professional social workers. Because the profession disappeared from the country for almost 40 years, the public is generally not aware of social work as a profession. No public education programs or policies have been put in place to encourage local governments and third-sector organizations to hire social workers.

In this paper, we examine the development of social work education in China, the forces that drive the restoration and rebuilding of social work education, its present state, and the challenges of establishing infrastructure for social work education in a short time frame. We also present future prospects and directions for China's social work education in the coming years.

The Developmental Stages of Social Work Education in China

Social work education in China was initiated during the 1920s when social scientists in the country came into contact with an influx of Western scholarship and religious groups together with Chinese scholars who once studied in Europe and America under the Chinese Scholar Initiative. Yanjing University established the first department of sociology in 1922, aiming to train social service professionals. Later, in 1925, the department changed its name to the Department of Sociology and Social Services. Between 1925 and 1949, eight other universities (Hujiang University, Soochow University, Zhejiang University, Jinling University, Jinling Female Institute, Fudan University, Jinan University, and Tsinghua University) launched specialty courses related to social service and social work (Yuan, 1997). Between 1920 and 1949, the social work profession was influenced by scholars trained in Western society; thus, much of the philosophy, principles, and practices underpinning social work in China during that time stemmed from Western training and development, which emphasized human rights and social services. …

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