Foreword: Tao Xingzhi’s Ideas and Thoughts on Education

In: The Transformation of Chinese Traditional Education
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Xie Ailei and Gerard A. Postiglione

This book introduces Tao Xingzhi’s ideas on education. Tao died just before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. However, his influence has persisted especially since China’s economic reform and opening to the outside world began in the 1980s (Zhou 2011; Zhu 2011). Tao Xingzhi was educated during the late Qing Dynasty and early Republican Eras. He was heavily influenced by both Confucius’ teaching and Western educational thought, especially the theories of John Dewey’s ideas on education (Brown 1987; Yao 2002).

Born in She County (歙县) in Anhui to a rural family in 1891, Tao Xingzhi began his education at age six in a sishu (a traditional style private school, 私塾) run by a xiucai (scholar 秀才), who had passed the imperial examination at the county level. At the age of nine, Tao moved with his father to Xiuning (休宁) in today’s Anhui Province and continued his education in a jingguan (the senior level of the traditional style private school 经馆). Like his contemporaries of that time, Tao studied the Confucian classics and prepared himself for entering the guanxue (state schools 官学) and shuyuan (academies 书院) for the imperial examination.

In 1905, the year when the keju (Imperial Examination 科举) was abolished after having been administered in China for nearly a thousand years, many Chinese students entered educational institutions to study knowledge from the West. Tao entered a Christian school run by the China Inland Mission, the former Overseas Missionary Fellowship. This brought him into contact with Western education where he studied English, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. He was set to continue his education at the Guangji Medical School (广济医学堂) in Hangzhou where he intended to study Western medicine to save lives and build a strong nation. However, Tao abruptly left the school when he felt it discriminated against students who were not Christian.

In 1909, he entered the University of Nanking, which had been established by the Methodist Church in 1888. People with degrees from this university were accepted directly into graduate schools in America. Tao studied Western philosophy, literature, natural science, and cultivated a belief in democracy and science, as well as a spirit for revolution. As a politically active student, he served as the chief editor of the Chinese edition of the University of Nanking’s Magazine and published over twenty articles. He promoted the ideas of democracy to his university colleagues. When the Revolution of 1911 established the Chinese Republic, Tao and other intellectuals of his generation aimed to build a strong democratic China that eliminated poverty and backwardness.

When he graduated from Nanking in 1914, Tao chose studied political science at the University of Illinois with the goal of returning to China and working in municipal government. After obtaining a degree in politics, he transferred to Columbia University to earn a degree in education. There, he met John Dewey and learned about progressive education. Tao aimed to make China prosperous by educating its people and in 1917, accepted an invitation from Guo Bingwen, the president of Nanjing Higher Normal School (now the Southeast University) to become a Registrar and Professor of education. Tao championed national educational reforms with important ideas that can be traced back to his early days in Nanjing Higher Normal School.

Tao had reason to believe that education was the key vehicle for saving China through science and democracy. With Cai Yuanpei, Peking University’s first President, Tao created the Chinese Association for Educational Advancement (1917) and served as the organization’s secretary. With his help, the School Decree of 1922 initiated the creation of the first modern education system in China. The following year, he helped set up the National Association for the Mass Education Movement with James Yen and worked to promote literacy in rural China. In 1927, he established Xiaozhuang Normal College (晓庄师范学院).

The political turmoil caused Tao to leave China in 1930 for Japan. After his return in 1931, he resumed a career of promoting education for the masses and initiated the Little Teacher Movement near Shanghai (1931). After Japan’s invasion and occupation of China in the late 1930s and 1940s, Tao came to believe in a more revolutionary solution to China’s ills. His work began to expand beyond the arena of education and he was selected as a member of the standing committee of the All-China Federation of National Salvation Unions (1936). Tao initiated the China Democratic Political League, and was selected as a member of the central committee of the China Democratic League (1945). He also created the Yucai School in Chongqing, a school for gifted orphans. One of the graduates was Li Peng, the premier of China from 1988 to 1998. Tao died of a stroke in Shanghai at the age of fifty-five.

Tao Xingzhi has been influential in education and social reforms in contemporary China (Bin 2004; Dong 1997; Zeng 1988; Zhou 2007). He is also one of the very few figures in whose name a national association has been established to commemorate his life and work. Over twenty articles, the most widely known that are written by him, have been selected for this book. These articles touch on the key aspects of his ideas on education and their implications for recent educational reforms in China. Three aspects of his thinking are worth mentioning.

First, Tao’s writings have important theoretical implications but are also heavily oriented toward policy or practice. Tao was inspired by the revolution of the first two decades of the 1900s, the building of a new democratic republic, and the potential of education to build a new nation. He believed that education should prepare citizens for the newborn nation, cultivate in them a republican consciousness, and equip them with the skills for governing themselves. Tao also saw education as a tool for developing the nation as an entity, and he argued that China’s education system should be reformed systematically in terms of both policies at the national level and teaching at the classroom level. For these reasons, he wrote systematic proposals for developing early childhood education, vocational education, and teacher training. He also wrote detailed plans about how to promote literacy and make universalize education. In proposals on developing a teacher training system for China, Tao wrote in detail about what should be taught in normal schools and how teachers should teach. He also wrote that a universal education system could be achieved by reforming the traditional style private schools and making them accessible to all children. He insisted that more middle schools should be founded in China’s vast rural areas and normal schools could be established to train large numbers of teachers. He wrote in detail about teaching materials for universalizing education. As a firm believer of science in education, he advocated also for the establishment of a central research institute on education, which, he believed, could facilitate the establishment of a universal education system in China. Tao’s writings are highly convincing and practical. His basic aim was to find the best way to educate Chinese people for citizenship in a strong republic.

Second, Tao’s ideas on education and his plans for developing China’s educational system were grounded in the Chinese social and cultural contexts. Although he was heavily influenced by John Dewey, as suggested by his school experience and later career in China, Tao by no means adopted Dewey’s progressivism unaltered. For Tao, the reforms that Dewey proposed for the American education system were only suitable for a developed capitalist nation like the United States. Tao gained inspiration from Dewey but creatively reinvented his ideas on education and society according to the Chinese context. For him, China was an underdeveloped country, and the methods it used to develop its education system should be economical. For example, rather than moving society into schools, as Dewey argued, he pointed out all the things that were available outside schools could be used as educational materials. Friedrich Frobel’s and Montessori’s ideas on education were also beneficial to Tao. However, Tao understood the social reality in China and reexamined the relevance of their ideas to the Chinese social and cultural context. He pointed out that kindergarten education in China at that time was flawed because it copied too directly from systems abroad. Tao was aware that China huge population made it unique from other developed countries. He noted that education should be a lifelong learning process and that informal learning should be important in China. For example, he argued that a university education could be offered in different ways, such as through night universities, morning universities, and distance learning. Influenced by the revolutionary spirit of the early 1900s, Tao was also a believer in both science and democracy, which he thought were necessary for liberating people, as well as being the medicine that could cure Chinese society’s ills. However, he also noticed that in an agricultural country like China, a new education system that was democratic in nature could serve the masses and help them to fulfill their potential. We can see from to his writings, Tao could not be labeled as believer of Confucianism, progressivism, or Marxism; he was himself.

Third, Tao’s ideas on education remain relevant in contemporary China. Although most of Tao’s writings were published six decades ago, his ideas about reforming the Chinese education system still have value as many similar challenges of strengthening rural education and building a strong nation persist. For example, until recently, the teaching practices in many of China’s schools were being criticized for being teacher-centered. As Tao had argued over half a century ago, pedagogy in Chinese schools should involve both teachers and students on an equal basis. Good teaching practices should be learner-centered. The best method of teaching is to teach students how to learn—a philosophy behind the recent reform of the curriculum in China. Tao also stated that teachers should learn and develop professionally through their teaching and contact with students. This idea has is reflected in recent literature about teacher development and policy documents published by different levels of government. Tao believed in the power of education and argued that schools had the power to transform the lives of Chinese people. For this reason, he argued that schools should help students to seek knowledge relevant to their lives and the lives of the all citizens—an aim of the Chinese education system today.

Tao’s unmistakable emphasis on providing equal education opportunities to people from different social groups is especially relevant for China today. He pointed out, in particular, that the establishment of a strong Chinese nation should be based on the education of the rural population. He argued that the education of people in rural areas was of crucial importance in China’s transition from an agricultural to an industrial country. He proposed establishing a compulsory education system in rural areas. Educating the rural masses and improving their literacy would, according to Tao, benefit the nation as a whole. Tao also called for equal opportunities in education for women and people of different ethnicities. For him, the creation of a system that was equal for all minorities was important for the creation of a prosperous and republican China. He insisted, in particular, that ethnic minorities should have the same rights as the majority Han Chinese and that their own writing systems and languages should be used in their schools. He argued that a democratic education system should provide equal chances for men as well as women, the rich as well as the poor, and the old as well as the young.

The Transformation of Chinese Traditional Education

Selected Papers by Tao Xingzhi on Education



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