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date: 25 June 2017

Schools and Learning in Imperial China

Abstract and Keywords

From the consolidation of the Han empire (206 bce–220 ce), through the collapse of the Qing (1644–1911), ideas about education associated with Confucius (c. 551–479 bce) and his followers dominated both the content and the institutions of learning. In China, as in all societies, the transmission of culture across generations depended on learning values and skills within the family. Beyond the bonds of kinship, more advanced knowledge was acquired through teacher-student relationships, idealized along with family in the Confucian Analects. Both modes of learning retained their importance even after the development of formal educational institutions controlled by the state. The key innovation in this regard was the imperial civil service examination system, beginning in the 7th century ce. The single most important educational institution during the middle and later imperial periods (c. 900–1900), the influence of the examination system far eclipsed that of any individual school or schools. The examinations tested candidates on a variety of topics, ranging from knowledge of the Confucian classics, to poetry and philosophy, to politics and history. Passing the examination led to appointment as a government official, the favored career for ambitious young males (not females, who were expected to remain in the home as wives and mothers). Beyond the Imperial University and other schools in the capital and regional centers, schools founded by families, lineages, and clans, as well as by independent scholars and local government officials, provided instruction geared to passing the examinations. From the Song period (960–1279) onwards, the development of printing technology and the growth of commercial publishing greatly enhanced access to education. While it expanded opportunities for many, competition remained fierce, and examination success, elusive.