This paper examines how the definition and interpretation of the concept gewu zhizhi 格物致知 (investigating things and extending knowledge), evolved along with Chinese intellectual efforts to construct the framework for Chinese learning which, in turn, had a profound impact on the development of educational curricula in different historical periods. In Confucian philosophy, “practicality” appears ambivalent, as it can refer to moral cultivation in daily life or knowledge in the material world. Such ambivalence, embodied in the evolution of the concept of gewu zhizhi, can be interpreted as a Chinese search for a well-rounded curriculum in education. Within this framework, this paper traces the origin of the concept in The Great Learning, and investigates how it was developed to refer specifically to natural studies and then to scientific knowledge introduced into China in the late Qing period. This historical reflection on Chinese education points to the shared humanistic values in the Confucian approach to education and in the Renaissance ideal of a liberal education. It calls for a search for a common humanity in rethinking the content and aim of a modern Chinese education.
In order to analyze the impact of human capital theory on contemporary Chinese education, this paper first draws a conceptual outline of how this theory was introduced and interpreted to suit the Chinese quest for modernization. The study then adopts a comparative historical approach to the points of similarity between Neo-Confucian educational ideas and those of British humanism in an earlier transitional period that has some parallels. The aim of this comparison is to connect the ideas of Neo-Confucians and humanist educators to Ronald Dore’s concept of the role of education and his insights on the diploma disease. Within this core framework, this paper exposes the problems that have come from a melding of the examination tradition and the notion of human capital. It suggests that a revival of another aspect of Chinese tradition—education for fostering one’s humanity—may help balance contemporary Chinese education and restore it to health.