Family and Child Education

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Family and Child Education



Training Children. Starting from the age of ten, boys and girls were expected to take different paths in life. A boy usually was sent to a master/tutor’s house to learn classical literature as well as proper manners. At thirteen he was instructed in music, in how to recite the classics, and in carrying out the gentle-man’s rites. At the same time he was taught archery and chariot driving. At twenty he was “capped” in order to be permitted to attend to various filial and fraternal duties and to assume social responsibility as an adult. At the age often a girl was forbidden to leave the home; for a girl of a well-todo family, her mother or father sometimes hired a governess to teach her woman’s work. She was instructed in the arts of gentle speech and obedience, how to weave silks and fashion ribbons, and how to assist in setting up stands and dishes for various family ceremonies. At fifteen she was endowed with a hairpin that signified that she was allowed to marry and become a wife through the betrothal rites. Though there was variety in child rearing during the long span of imperial Chinese history, all customs shared the similar pattern of training children for socially defined functions and the duties of adulthood.

Grandfather’s Instructions. In Tang times (618-907) Confucian social ethics were taught in elementary education primers. In the “Family Instructions of the Grandfather,” regarding the proper behavior of both young men and women, it was written:

When his father goes out to walk
The son must follow behind.
If on the road he meets a senior
He puts his feet together and joins his hands.
In front of a senior
He does not spit on the ground.

The moral teaching of women’s behavior was also covered:

A bride serves her husband
Just as she served her father.
Her voice should not be heard
Nor her body or shadow seen.
With her husband’s father and elder brothers
She has no conversation.

Commitment. Parents were held accountable for neglect of their children’s educations, especially in upholding filial piety. It was a social obligation for parents to give their young children training in proper social behavior that honored the generation-age order until such conditioning became habit. For example, children were expected to know that it was improper to reach for food before their elders were served during meals. It was imperative that youngsters receive a good upbringing and that parents share responsibility for such training. It is thus not difficult to understand why parents in traditional Chinese society often accepted social blame and stigma when their children were found guilty of misconduct. From this perspective, mutual obligations for both the parents and children underscored the significance of filial piety. On the one hand, it was the parents’ commitment to rear their children to be fully aware of social obligations. On the other hand, it was the children’s responsibility to fulfill those obligations when they grew up. In doing so, both the parents and children observed their socially defined roles so that the family could be maintained in good order and harmony.

Zhang Family. One case, often cited in the classical literature on family relationships, regards the Zhang family in the Tang dynasty. When the emperor heard that the Zhang family had lived together for nine generations in succession, he was amazed about this unusual solidarity and continuity, and he asked the head of the clan to offer the secrets of family politics. Without uttering a word in reply, the family head took a piece of paper and on it wrote the word Ren one hundred times. Ren in English translation means “patience,” “toleration,” or “conciliation.”

Education. The family was the arena where formal education started under the close supervision of the parents or guardians. Because a man’s prospects hinged upon his becoming a literati, which helped him gain entry to high social status, the education of sons was a priority of Chinese families, especially the well-to-do. Generally, private schooling was the major educational avenue to success in imperial Chinese society. Wealthy families could afford to hire private tutors for their male

children, while boys of poor families attended clan-financed schools that provided free education.

Elite Competition. Education was an essential part of Chinese family values. This fact had much to do with the tradition of Chinese education being open to all talented individuals regardless of social status; this system can be traced back to Confucius’s teachings during the Zhou dynasty (771-256 B.C.E.) and was developed in successive dynasties. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) the Grand Academy of Education was established, and students took examinations to compete for entry into government service. By the Tang dynasty the educational system was elevated to higher official status as the Guo Zijian (State Academy Directorate), one of five state directorates. The Guo Zijian encompassed six schools, enrolling as many as 2,210 students through a highly competitive selection process designed to prepare them for the metropolitan examinations. The best students were awarded the most prestigious degree, the Jinshi, which guaranteed access to appointments in the imperial govern-ment—the key to upward social mobility. Many eminent statesmen and literary figures in Chinese imperial history were holders of \hzjinshi.

Elementary Education. The Song dynasty was more of a meritocracy than an aristocracy, because it expanded the civil service examination system and made official careers available to men of talent, regardless of their


Masters Chen and Tung established a firm schedule for their students during the late Song dynasty (960-1279). This excerpt indicates that children’s education was strongly influenced by neo-Confucian teachings, a tendency that continued until the end of the imperial period in China.


All students of this school must observe closely the following regulations.

  1. Ceremonies held on the 1st and 15th of every month. At day-break, the student on duty for that day will sound his clappers. At the first round of the clappers, you should rise, wash your face, comb your hair, and put on proper clothing. By the second round of the clappers, you should be dressed either in ceremonial robes or in summer robes and gather in the main hall. The teachers will then lead you to the image of Confucius, to which you will bow twice. After the incense has been lit, you will make two more bows....
  2. Daily salutations held in the morning and in the evening. On ordinary days, the student on duty sounds the clappers as described above. At the second round of the clappers you will enter the hall and line up to wait for the teachers to come out. Then the teachers and you bow to each other with hands folded in front. Next, you divide into two groups and bow to each other, after which you begin your daily studies....
  3. Daily behavior. You should have a defined living area. When in a group you will be seated according to your ages. When sitting, you must straighten your backs and sit squarely in the chair. You should not squat, lean to one side, cross your legs, or dangle your feet. At night, you should always wait for the elders to go to bed first. After they are in bed, you should keep quiet. Also, you should not sleep during the day.
  4. Gait and posture. You should walk slowly. When standing, keep your hands folded in front. Never walk or stand in front of an elder. Never turn your back on those who are your superiors in age or status. Do not step on doorsills. Do not limp. Do not lean on anything.
  5. Looking and listening. Do not gape. Do not eavesdrop.
  6. 6. Discourse. Statements should always be verifiable. Keep your promises. Your manners should be serious. Do not be boisterous or playful. Do not gossip about your neighbors. Do not engage in conversations about vulgar matters.
  7. Appearance. Be dignified and serious. Do not be disobedient. Do not be rough or rude. Do not be vicious or proud. Do not reveal your joy or anger.
  8. Attire. Do not wear unusual or extravagant clothing. Yet do not go to the other extreme and appear in clothes that are ragged, dirty, or in bad taste. Even in your private quarters you should never expose your body or take off your cap. Even in the hottest days of summer you should not take off your socks or shoes at will.
  9. Eating. Do not fill yourself. Do not seek fancy foods. Eat at regular hours. Do not be discontent with coarse fare. Never drink unless on a holiday or unless you are ordered to do so by your elders. Never drink more than three cups or get drunk.
  10. Travel. Unless you are called upon by your elders, ordered to run errands by your teachers, or faced by a personal emergency, you are not allowed to leave the campus at will. Before your departure and after your return you should report to your teacher. You must not change your reported destination, and you must return by the set time.
  11. Reading. You should concentrate on your book and keep a dignified appearance. You should count the number of times you read an assigned piece. If, upon completion of the assigned number, you still have not memorized the piece, you should continue until you are able to recite it. On the other hand, if you have memorized the piece quickly, you should still go on to complete the assigned number of readings....
  12. Writing. Do not scribble. Do not write slanted or sloppy characters.
  13. Keep your desk tidy. The assigned seats should be kept in order. Your study area should be simple but tidy. All book chests and clothing trunks should be locked up carefully.
  14. Keep the lecture halls and private rooms clean. Each day one student is on duty. After sounding the second round of the clappers, he should sprinkle water on the floor of the lecture hall. Then, after an appropriate wait, he should sweep the floor and wipe the desks. The other cleaning jobs should be assigned to the pages. Whenever there is cleaning to be done, they should be ordered to do it, regardless of the time of the day.
  15. Terms of address. You should address those who are twice your age as “elder,” those who are ten years older than you as “old brothers,” and those who are about your age by their polite names. Never address one another as “you.” The same rules should be followed in letter writing.
  16. Visits. The following rules should be observed when a guest requests to visit the school. After the teacher is seated and the student on duty has sounded the clappers, all students, properly dressed, enter the lecture hall. After the morning salutation, the students remain standing; only when the teacher orders them to retire may they leave. If the guest should wish to speak to a student privately, he should, after seeing the teacher, approach the student at his seat. If the student finds the visitor incompatible, he is not obliged to be congenial.
  17. Recreation. There are rules for the playing of musical instruments, for archery, as well as for other games. You should seek recreation only at the right time. Gambling and chess games are lowly pastimes and should be avoided by our students.
  18. Servants. Select those who are prudent, honest, and hard-working. Treat them with dignity and forbearance. When they make mistakes, scold them or report to the teacher. If they do not improve after being punished, report to the teacher to have them discharged. A student should not expel his page at will.

If you can follow the above regulations closely, you are approaching the true realm of virtue.

Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, ed., Chinese Civilization and Society: A Source-book (New York: Free Press, 1981), pp. 114-116.

family backgrounds. Chinese elementary education became systematic in terms of the standardized curriculum adopted by schools of various kinds. This curriculum included three primers: San Zi Jing (Trimetrical Classic), Qian Zi Wen (Thousand Character Classic), and Bai Jia Xing (Book of Hundred Surnames). These classic books provided the basic vocabulary of approximately two thousand characters for beginners, before they moved up to formal education that required the mastery of the Wujing (Five Classics). The Wujingw&s a corpus of moral and literary texts formulated in earlier dynasties and formalized in Tang times. The first classic was the Book of Changes, followed in order by the Book of Documents, the Book of Odes, Record of Rituals, and Spring and Autumn Annals. Two more texts were later added to this collection of Confucian classics: the Lun Yu (Analects) and Mencius’s Men Zi (Mencius). In the Song period (960-1279) four Confucian texts received special attention in the curriculum—the Lun Yu, Men Zi, Daxue (Great Learning), and the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean).

Examination. The improvement of printing in the Song dynasty encouraged a great expansion of the education system. The Song basically followed the pattern established by the State Academy Directorate of the Tang Dynasty but also set up official schools at the provincial and prefectural levels. Many community and charity schools also appeared at the local level. The Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties continued this tradition, but the Ming fully revived the functions of the State Academy Directorate, which became an important channel for men entering official service. In comparison with previous dynasties, the Ming was more open to the general public participating in the civil service examinations. According to research data, between 1371 and 1610 more than half of the students who took the examinations were from families in which no ancestor for three generations had held any academic degree, while only 8 percent came from a family that produced literati in the previous three generations.

Academic Degree. For Chinese parents the academic degrees that their sons earned through the Chinese education system not only brought the family fame and wealth but more importantly provided the incentive to carry on this family tradition. For a young man there were two happiest moments in his life. One was the first night spent with his bride in the bridal chamber after the wedding ceremony; the other was when he saw his name posted on the golden list ofjinshi holders.


Patricia Buckley Ebrey and James L. Watson, eds., Kinship Organization in Late Imperial China, 1000-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Weiming Shi, Yuan Dai Shen Huo (Social History of the Yuan Dynasty) (Beijing: Chinese Social Sciences Academy Press, 1996).

Sing Ging Su, The Chinese Family System (New York: International Press, 1922).

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Family and Child Education

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