Skip to main content
 Previous Next
  • Zoom In (+)
  • Zoom Out (-)
  • Rotate CW (r)
  • Rotate CCW (R)
  • Overview (h)
Education Reform in China
Tenney, Charles Daniel

An address delivered to the Dartmouth students, March 2, 1907, by President Charles D. Tenney, LL.D., Director of Chinese Government Students
RETURNING to my Alma Mater for the first time since my graduation, fills my mind with strange emotions. I dreamed of life here as you are doing and longed to take some effective part in the work of the world. In all my dreams it never occurred to me, when I bid farewell to Dartmouth in 1878, that I should return to Hanover in the character of a Chinese official. On this my first visit to the old College, I feel that I owe it to you to give a brief account of myself, especially as circumstances have led me a little out of the usual track followed by Dartmouth men.
I went to China in the year 1882, intending to devote my life to missionary work, and with several companions traveled into the interior, a journey of ten days through the mountains, into the plateau of central Shansi, to establish a new mission there. After three years I became profoundly dissatisfied with the conditions of the missionary work, and decided that my duty lay in the line of education. After some correspondence I obtained my release from the service of the Missionary Society, and going to the Metropolitan Province I organized there an independent school of Western learning for Chinese boys and young men. In the state of China at that time this was regarded by many as a very dubious undertaking, but after a hard struggle I made it successful. At that time I had no intention of entering the service of the Chinese government, and was much surprised one day to receive an invitation to call at the Yamen of the Viceroy Li Hung Chang, who was at that time the highest and most powerful official of China. The Viceroy proposed to me that I should arrange to have my school carried on by assistant teachers for half of each day, so that I might act as tutor to his children and grandchildren. I did this for about six years, spending half of my time at the Viceregal Yamen, where I divided with a teacher of Chinese literature the responsibility of training the younger members of the Li family. It was of great advantage to me to have this connection with the Viceroy, as I gradually formed the acquaintance of a large circle of the leading officials of China in a way not usually possible for a foreigner; and I was able to exert some influence in the direction of the reform and modernizing of the empire.
In 1896 the spirit of reform had worked so far that I was asked by the government to close my private school, or rather merge it into a government school with a wider scope. The times were not yet ripe for the establishment of elementary and secondary schools in the interior, and I therefore organized a college and technical school called the Peiyang University with a preparatory department to do the elementary work that should be done in the primary and secondary schools. Since that time I have been in the service of the Chinese government, and a member of the Chinese reform party. It has not all been plain sailing. While I have had the cordial support of the liberal and progressive, I had unqualified hatred of the conservative and reactionary. During the reactionary period from 1898 to 1900 very careful management was necessary to preserve the university from destruction. At one time students and teachers had to be armed and had to be on guard day and night to repel the attacks of the fanatics. When the reactionaries got possession of the government and forts of Tientsin, and commenced to bombard the university and the European concession with Krupp guns, educational work had to be suspended and the students scattered. Soon North China was overrun with foreign soldiers, and after the allies had captured the walled city of Tientsin and expelled the Chinese officials, at the desire both of the Chinese and of the foreign military authorities I took the position of Chinese secretary under the provisional military government that was established. It was necessary to have one who understood the language and the people to act as an intermediary to guard the people from injustice and the military governors from misunderstanding.
As soon as the state of the country allowed I returned to my educational work, reorganized the university and (what I regard of greater importance) had the privilege of assisting in the organizing of lower schools throughout the interior of the Metropolitan Province. A modern school system is now completely organized throughout China. It is not yet highly efficient owing to the lack of a sufficient number of well-trained teachers, but every year and every month will see progress in real efficiency.
To understand educational reform in China you must understand something of the old system that is in process of reforming.
China is not a country where education has been neglected. On the contrary, schools were established earlier in that country than anywhere else in the world. Scholarship and scholars have had an influence and dignity in China which have never been paralleled elsewhere. Other countries have been ruled by soldiers and by priests, but China has always been ruled by her scholars. The development of the higher thought came early and the precocity of the race had its advantages and also its disadvantages. The ancient struck so high a note that their posterity have been in bondage ever since, lacking ambition to think for themselves. The form of the written language of China has a very intimate connection with the question of education, both the old and the new. In China as elsewhere written language, began with picture writing and then developed into a system of arbitrary sign writing. In other races so meagre a literature sprung up in the sign writing that men were not hindered from taking the next step and inventing a phonetic system of writing. In China, however, the higher thought had been so far developed that language in its second stage of development was immediately seized upon by the waiting thinkers and a rich and varied literature was built up in it, comprising philosophy, history, political economy, and poetry. Then the vast conservative force of scholarship held the language forever in that form. The Chinese written language has certain characteristics that differentiate it from every other language used by men.
It appeals to the mind directly through the eye. The consequence of this has been that characters having the same sound have multiplied, since no ambiguity is caused by it. All the 45,000 characters of the standard Chinese dictionary are read in the Peking dialect with only 420 different syllabic sounds. In the colloquial men get over the difficulty by uniting the single words into polysyllabic combinations, by which the meaning may be made clear to the ear, but this is not admissible in the literary style. No one can talk in classical diction and be understood, and hence there have never been orators in China. Whoever has anything to say writes it and publishes. The literary style represents the extreme of conciseness, and therefore it is impossible to translate it either into colloquial Chinese or into any other language without losing all that forms its peculiar literary flavor. Since the sound given to a character is arbitrary, the written language is so far fitted to be a universal language. The spoken language is different in different parts of China, but the same literature is read by all. Coreans, Japanese, Annamese, Thibetans, and Mongols have all made use of the written Chinese without learning to speak Chinese. They have simply read the characters with the sounds of their own language. This quality of the Chinese written language has caused it to be a unifying and civilizing influence in the Far East and has helped to keep Chinese ideals predominant.
There are two lines of mental training in which the study of the Chinese characters produces striking results. These are memory and quickness of perception. Whether the results of their ages of severe literary training have become hereditary, or whether the Chinese race was originally highly endowed in this direction, it is undoubtedly true that Chinese of all classes now excel other races in circumstantial memory. As the study of their own language must always form a part of the modern school curriculum, they are not likely to lose their fine retentiveness of memory in adopting the new education. I am inclined to think that in the elementary stages of education in America too little attention is given to memory training and the reflective powers are developed too early. Though the Chinese scholar may seem to be carrying a double burden in the necessity of learning his cumbrous written language, there will be a compensation in the superb memory training involved in it. Quickness of perception is taught in mastering the literary style because on account of its consciousness and lack of inflection the mind must be always on the alert to grasp the construction and relation between the characters used.
The sudden introduction of the modern sciences, which call for greater precision of statement than is natural to the Chinese, puts a severe strain upon the language. The Chinese language is undoubtedly lacking in exactness. The vagueness of the literary style which keeps the wits alert to detect the force and relation between the characters which make up a sentence may be a merit in certain forms of composition, but it is ill adapted to the expression of the exact sciences. The solution of this difficulty for the present is in using the Chinese as the medium of instruction in elementary study and introducing English as the medium of teaching in the higher branches of modern learning.
The subject matter of the Chinese classics, i.e., the content of the system of education, was ethics. The old philosophers, making their survey of human affairs, came to the wise conclusion that civilization was differentiated from savagery by man’s recognition of his duty in the different relationships of life. So the classical writings are taken up with dissertations upon ethics as applied to private relationships and to governmental affairs. The doctrine of force is discountenanced. One of the finest sayings of Confucius is: “He who rules by virtue is like the North Star, which keeps its place while all the stars turn toward it.” The ethical teachings of Confucianism leave little to be desired. I know that there has been an attempt to show that Christian ethics are greatly superior to the Confucian. As the Golden Rule of Christ is expressed affirmatively while Confucius states it negatively, the Chinese summary of man’s duty to man has been dubbed a Silver Rule. I think this is merely a question of rhetoric. The real weakness of the old Chinese education was that its scope was too narrow. There are other realms of thought besides the ethical, and these are scarcely touched upon in Chinese literature. The fact that the Chinese scholar confines his attention so exclusively to ethics also has a tendency to give him moral indigestion. As he is always reading and writing about moral questions, the precepts which were intended to govern action become stale, and are looked on as matters for literary juggling rather than for practical life.
About 1300 years ago the Civil Service Examination system of China took its form, and it has continued until within a year and a half ago, when it was abolished as a necessary step in educational reform. The old Civil Service Examination system embodied a grand idea and it has been an element of strength in the old civilization of China. It has secured the most able men for the government service, and it has made China essentially democratic, so fulfilling long ago the ideal towards which Europe has been struggling so hard for the past two centuries. Its defects in view of modern conditions are that it has caused mere literary ability to be overrated, and practical and mechanical ability to be undervalued. By its exclusive attention to the classics, important branches of human knowledge have been omitted from the scholar’s equipment. It has accentuated the tendency to regard moral maxims as something to be written about rather than something to be acted upon. It has tended to make civil office the only goal of the scholar’s ambition, and so has led to the overproduction of unemployed expectant officials, to the multiplication of sinecure offices, and to corruption in office.
I have said as much as time will allow of the old system of education and must speak of the influences that have led China to resolve to reform that old system and bring it into line with the modern European and American civilization.
We have such a conceit of ourselves here in America that it seems to most of us that on first contact with our civilization the Chinese would see the superiority of it, and would be driven by the sense of their own inferiority to imitate us. It would be satisfying to our self complacency if this had been true, but it is not true. Chinese scholars have not determined to modernize their old system of civilization because they believe that the foreign civilization is essentially superior to their own, but they have at last discovered that modern Western methods are more efficient in producing wealth and power. They realize that without greater practical efficiency in these respects their national existence is endangered. The new Western civilization has won over the old Eastern not by its superior virtue, but by its display of force. The first war between England and China, beginning in 1839, outraged the moral sense of China because it forced the opium traffic upon the country. It caused the Chinese to fear but not to respect the Europeans. The campaign of 1859 and 1860 left the same sort of impression. Up to the year 1895 the real attitude of China did not change. The European nations encroached more and more. The number of foreigners engaged in trade and missionary work increased year by year. China recognized the fact that the strangers were too strong to be kept entirely out, but the only thought or ambition was to regulate the intercourse with Europeans so that the old civilization might be interfered with as little as possible. The desire for the modern learning was confined to those who wished to take part in foreign trade or diplomacy. The most progressive took no interest in any scheme to remodel the ancient system of education or government as a whole. A few special schools were established to give special training to a few in the lines which the new foreign intercourse made important, but the literati looked with contempt upon this outside learning and would by no means consider a man with a western training as a scholar. In 1895 the nation received a rude shock in the defeat which the little island empire inflicted. In ancient times Japan had borrowed its literature and civilization from China, and the reports that Japan was turning from that old system to the new learning and methods of Europe caused a sort of condescending amusement on the part of the Chinese scholars; but when in 1895 the great empire of China suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of this little country with one-tenth of China’s population and with a much smaller proportion of China’s area and natural resources, the Chinese were forced to reflect upon the meaning of the phenomenon. The reform party had its real origin then under the leadership of Kang Yu Wei, Liang Ch’i Chao, and others of the literati class. This reform party had for its aims a radical change in the education and government of the whole empire, so that China might learn the secret of the wonderful power and material prosperity that went with the modern civilization. The leaders of this new party gained the ear of the young Emperor and won him over to their ideas. They became drunk with this first success and pressed forward too rapidly. Like many young reformers they underrated the forces of conservatism. They were both unwise and selfish in their plans. They schemed to put out of the way the Empress Dowager and the senior officials, and so brought about a most virulent conservative reaction. The Emperor was retired; the Empress Dowager was reinstated as ruler, and a persecution of the reformers commenced. The sober-minded conservatives lost their control over the situation, and we had the insane outbreak of 1900, when the reactionaries attempted to purge China once and forever of the foreigners and all their ideas. After China had suffered the punishment for that mad outbreak, the reformers found themselves again in the ascendant and this time led by an able and practical leader, Yuan Shih K’ai, who had been dubbed a traitor by the reformers in 1898 because he had refused to be a party to the conspiracy against the Empress Dowager and the senior officials. The Empress Dowager had thrown herself into the arms of the conservatives in 1898 to save her life and position, but she now turned about face and supported Yuan Shih K’ai and the other progressive officials. Since the reorganization of the government after the troubles of 1900 events have moved forward rapidly. Regulations for a complete modern school system were drawn up and sanctioned. All the available scholars that had been trained in the special school previously opened were collected and set to work as teachers. All the younger scholars who had started in the old course of study were enrolled in the new schools. In 1904 an edict announcing that the old system of examinations would come to an end within ten years; and in the next year another edict was issued announcing the summary abolition of the old system. This edict of a year and a half ago ought to rank with the world’s greatest events. It marks the turning of one-fourth of the race from the old into the new path of the modern nations, and involves radical changes in all political, industrial, and commercial adjustments of modern times.
Besides the work that is going on in the Chinese schools, the scholars who are too old to enter the schools are reading translated books with the greatest eagerness, and young men are flocking to other countries as far as means will allow. Japan being nearest receives the greatest number, and America and Europe are also receiving their share. I have brought with me forty from the Northern Administration, and the southern provinces have also sent delegations to America and Europe. With the new educational movement go also athletics, industrial activity, military training, and a desire for reform in the organization of government.
Last year the official commission for the study of Western methods of government passed through America, and since their return schemes for the reorganization of the government in the direction of the modern representative system are being discussed all over the empire.
The question naturally arises: Is China really going forward in the path of progress, or will the present reform movement be snuffed out like the abortive movement of 1896? The present movement will undoubtedly be a permanent one. I do not base this opinion on the attitude of Yuan Shih K’ai, Tuan Fang, or any other of the progressive officials. Intrigue may remove any one of the represent leaders, but the scholar class has now become so far imbued with the modern spirit that any permanent reversal of the current is impossible. It is almost certain that there will be troubled times during the next ten years in China. It is unreasonable to expect that so radical a change could take place without some disturbances. We have three parties at present in China, the radical and ill-balanced reformers, the sober and moderate reformers, and the conservatives. There will be continual clashing between these parties, there will be scheming and intrigue for personal power between individuals; but the final result need not be considered doubtful. China will take her place with the modern progressive nations and will ultimately become prosperous and powerful.
I wish to utter a warning. The West has underrated the capacity of the Mongolian race. Because they built up their civilization on strange lines in complete isolation from the rest of the world, and because, when the Europeans opened intercourse with the Orientals, they found them two or three centuries behind the West in the industrial arts, sanitation, road making and military equipment, the West looked with contempt on the Chinese and Japanese as an undeveloped lot of children. The Japanese have already shown the world its mistake. The Chinese are not inferior in mental capacity to any race on earth. Owing to peculiar conditions they have been overconservative and unenterprising up to the present, and their fine mental powers have been wasted in unproductive activities. Now that they have turned to the new science and new methods they will become able competitors to the other nations, and in the world politics they will be valuable friends or dangerous enemies. America must rise superior to silly race prejudice or the next generation will suffer for our mistakes All laws that make race discriminations should be swept from our statute books. What restrictions may be necessary in matters of immigration, naturalization, the franchise, must be drawn up in recognition of the doctrine of the “brotherhood of man” and not on racial lines. The different races are now becoming equalized in power and resources, and a conflict of races now would be too terrible in its consequences to think of. Such conflicts took place in the prehistoric and early historic periods, and we know something of the awful consequences to the world. If there should be in the future any such movement of race against race, both sides being equipped with all the resources of modern science, the consequences would be appalling.
In the reform party of China there is a new sensitiveness to the dignity of their own country. With a better understanding of the normal international relationships, the scholars are resenting as never before the rights of ex-territoriality exercised by merchants and missionaries. They are resenting the foreign control of the customs, foreign encroachment on Chinese territory and foreign dictation and control in every direction. But as the Chinese are adopting our science, and learning to think our thoughts, they are gaining a new respect for us personally, and social relations between Chinese and foreigners were never so free and kindly as now.
The moral teachings of the old Chinese sages, which still stand for the highest wisdom in the minds of the people, are a good preparation for truly civilized intercourse between Mongolian and Caucasian. If we were ready to abandon the savagery of war, the great Mongolian race would be willing to join heartily with us in establishing the new era of arbitration. We must beware that in adopting our civilization they do not learn from us new lessons of savagery.
The awakening of the Mongolian race is a momentous event in the world’s history, and whether it means a blessing or the “Yellow Peril” depends largely upon ourselves. Now is the time for the Christian nations to put their house in order. To make the relations between the white and the yellow races safe and mutually beneficial those relations must be based on mutual respect and on the great doctrine of the "Brotherhood of Man."
HomeEducation Reform in China
 Text Only
 Text & Inline Image
 Text & Image Viewer
 Image Viewer Only