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Modern History Sourcebook:
Yan Phou Lee:
When I Went to School in China, 1880

SCHOOLS in China are generally kept by private gentlemen. The Government provides for advanced scholars only. But since the one qualification for office is education, and the avenue to literary distinction and public honors lies through competitive examinations, the encouragement that the Government extends to education and learning can be estimated only by that eager pursuit of knowledge which is common to all classes, and by the veneration in which scholars and scholarships are held.

Therefore it is not strange that schools are to be found everywhere, in small hamlets as in large towns, although the Government appropriates no funds for the establishment of common schools; and although no such thing is known as "compulsory education," there is a general desire, even among the poorer classes, to give their children "a little schooling." Schools of the lower grades never boast more than one teacher each. The combination system of a head master and several assistants does not work well in China. The schoolmaster in China must be absolute. He is monarch of all he surveys; in his sphere there is none to dispute his rights. You can always point him out among a thousand by the scholar's long gown, by his stern look, by his bent form, by his shoulders rounded by assiduous study. He is usually near-sighted, so that an immense pair of spectacles also marks him as a trainer of the mind. He generally is a gentleman who depends on his teaching to make both ends meet---his school is his own private enterprise---for no such thing exists in China as a "school-board,"---and if he be an elegant penman, he increases the weight of his purse by writing scrolls; if he be an artist, he paints pictures on fans. If he has not taken a degree, he is a perennial candidate for academic honors, which the Government only has a right to confer.

A tuition fee in China varies according to the ability and reputation of the teacher, from two dollars to twenty dollars a year. It varies also according to the age and advancement of the pupil. The older he be, the more he has to pay. The larger sum I have named is paid to private tutors. A private tutor is also usually invited to take his abode in the house of the wealthy pupil; and he is also permitted to admit a few outsiders. During festivals and on great occasions, the teacher receives presents of money as well as of eatables from his pupils. And always he is treated with great honor by all, and especially by the parents of the pupils. For the future career of their children may, in one sense, be said to be in his hands. One who teaches thirty or forty boys at an average tuition fee of four dollars is doing tolerably well in China; for with the same amount he can buy five or six times as much of provisions or clothing as can be bought in America.

Schools usually open about three weeks after the New Year's Day, and continue till the middle of the twelfth month with but a few holidays sprinkled in. However, if the teacher be a candidate for a literary degree, usuallya vacation of about sixweeks is enjoyed by the pupils in summer. During the New Year festival, a month is given over to fun and relaxation. Unlike the boys and girls of America, Chinese pupils have no Saturdays as holidays, no Sundays as rest days. School is in session daily from 6 to 10 A.M., at which time all go home to breakfast. At 11 A.M., all assemble again. At 1 P.M. a recess of about an hour is granted to the pupils to get lunch. From 2 P.M. to 4 is held the afternoon session. This of course is only approximate, as no teacher is bound to a fixed regularity. He is at liberty to regulate his hours as he chooses. At 4 P.M., the school closes for the day.

Schools are held either in a private house or in the hall of a temple. The ancestral temples which contain the tablets of deceased ancestors are usually selected for schools, because they are of no other use and because they are more or less secluded and are generally spacious. In a large hall, open on one side towards a court, and having high ceilings supported by lofty pillars beside the brick walls, you may see in the upper right-hand corner a square wooden table, behind which is the wooden chair; this is the throne of his majesty---the schoolmaster. On this table are placed the writing material consisting of brushes, India ink, and ink-wells made of slate. After pouring a little water in one of these wells the cake of ink is rubbed in it until it reaches a certain thickness, when the ink is ready to be used. The brushes are held as a painter's brushes are.

In conspicuous view are the articles for inflicting punishment; a wooden ruler to be applied to the head of the offender and sometimes to the hands, also a rattan stick for the body. Flogging with this stick is the heaviest punishment allowed; for slight offenses the ruler is used upon the palms, and for reciting poorly, upon the head.

The room at large is occupied by the tables and stools of the pupils, chairs being reserved for superiors. The pupils sit either facing the teacher or at right angles to him. Their tables are oblong in form and if much used will show the carving habits and talents of their occupants. Usually the pupils are all of one sex, for girls seldom attend other schools than those kept in the family, and then only up to eleven or twelve years of age. They are taught the same lessons as their brothers. The boys range all the way from six or seven up to sixteen or seventeen years of age, in an ordinary school; for there is no such thing as organizing them into classes and divisions; each one is studying for himself. Still there are schools in which all the pupils are advanced; and there are others which have none but beginners. But they are rare.

I began to go to school at six. I studied first the three primers: the "Trimetrical Classic," the "Thousand-words Classic," and the "Incentive to Study." They were in rhyme and meter, and you might think they were easy on that account. But no! they were hard. There being no alphabet in the Chinese language, each word had to be learned by itself. At first all that was required of me was to learn the name of the character and to recognize it again. Writing was learned by copying from a form written by the teacher; the form being laid under the thin paper on which the copying was to be done. The thing I had to do was to make all the strokes exactly as the teacher had made them. It was a very tedious operation. I finished the three primers in about a year, not knowing what I really was studying. The spoken language of China has outgrown the written; that is, we no longer speak as we write. The difference is like that between the English of today and that of Chaucer's time.

I then took up the "Great Learning," written by a disciple of Confucius, and then the "Doctrine of the Mean," by the grandson of Confucius. These text-books are rather hard to understand sometimes, even in the hands of older folks; for they are treatises on learning and philosophy. I then passed on to the " Life and Sayings of Confucius," known as the "Confucian Analects " to the American scholars. These books were to be followed by the "Life and Sayings of Mencius," and the "Five Kings"---five classics, consisting of books of history, divination, universal etiquette, odes and the "Spring and Autumn," "a brief and abstract chronicle of the times" by Confucius. I had to learn all my lessons by rote; commit them to memory for recitation the day following. We read from the top right-hand corner downwards, and then begin at the top with the next line, and so on. Moreover, we begin to read from what seems to you the end of the book. All studying must be done aloud. The louder you speak or shriek, the more credit you get as a student. It is the only way by which Chinese teachers make sure that their pupils are not thinking of something else or are not playing under the desks.

Now let me take you into the school where I struggled with the Chinese written language for three years. Oh! those hard characters which refused to yield their meaning to me. But I gradually learned to make and to recognize their forms as well as their names. This school was in the ancestral hall of my clan and was like the one I have described. There were about a dozen of us youngsters placed for the time being under the absolute sway of an old gentleman of threescore-and-six. He had all the outward marks of a scholar; and in addition, he was cross-eyed, which fact threw an element of uncertainty into our schemes of fun. For we used to like to "get ahead " of the old gentleman, and there were a few of us always ready for any lark.

It is 6 A.M. All the boys are shouting at the top of their voices, at the fullest stretch of their lungs. Occasionally, one stops and talks to some one sitting near him. Two of the most careless ones are guessing pennies; and anon a dispute arises as to which of the two disputants writes a better hand. Here is one who thinks he knows his lesson and, having given his book to another, repeats it for a trial. All at once the talking, the playing, the shouting ceases. A bent form slowly comes up through the open court. The pupils rise to their feet. A simultaneous salutation issues from a dozen pairs of lips. All cry out, "Lao Tse" (venerable teacher)! As he sits down, all folbw his example. There is no roll-call. Then one takes his book up to the teacher's desk, turns his back to him and recites. But see, he soon hesitates; the teacher prompts him, with which he goes on smoothly to the last and returns to his seat with a look of satisfaction. A second one goes up, but, poor fellow, he forgets three times; the teacher is out of patience with the third stumble, and down comes the ruler, whack! whack! upon the head. With one hand feeling the aching spot and the other carrying back his book, the discomfited youngster returns to his desk to re-con his lesson.

This continues until all have recited. As each one gets back to his seat, he takes his writing lesson. He must hold his brush in a certain position, vertically, and the tighter he holds it the more strength will appear in his handwriting. The schoolmaster makes a tour of inspection and sees that each writes correctly; writing is as great an art in China as painting and drawing are in other countries, and good specimens of fine writing are valued as good paintings are here. After the writing lesson it is time to dismiss school for breakfast. On re-assembling, the lesson for the day is explained to each one separately. The teacher reads it over, and the pupil repeats it after him several times until he gets the majority of the words learned. He then returns to his desk and shouts anew to get the lesson fixed in his memory. The more advanced scholars are then favored with the expounding of Confucius's "Analects" or some literary essay. After the teacher concludes, each is given a passage of the text to explain. In this way, the meaning of words and sentences is learned and made familiar. The afternoon session is passed by the older pupils in writing compositions in prose or in verse, and by the younger in learning the next day's task. This is the regular routine, the order of exercises, in Chinese schools.

Grammar, as a science, is not taught, nor are the mathematics. Language and literature occupy the child's attention, as I have shown, for the first five or six years; afterwards essay-writing and poetry are added. For excellence in these two branches, public prizes are awarded by the resident literary sub-chancellor. But public exhibitions and declamations are unknown, though Chinese fathers sometimes visit the schools. The relations of the sexes are such that a Chinese mother never has the presumption to appear at the door of a schoolroom in order to acquaint herself with the progress of her child's education. Parents furnish the textbooks as a rule. They are bound into volumes and printed usually with immovable type.

The pupils usually behave well. If not, the rattan stick comes promptly into use. Chinese teachers have a peculiar method of meting out punishment. I remember an episode in my school life which illustrates this. One afternoon, when the old schoolmaster happened to be away longer than his wont after the noon recess, some of the boys began to "cut up." The fun reached its height in the explosion of some fire-crackers. As they went off, making the hall ring with the noise, the teacher came in, indignant, you may be sure. His defective eyes darted about and dived around to fix upon the culprit; but as he did not happen to be in the line of their vision, the guilty boy stole back to his seat undetected. The old gentleman then seized the rattan and in a loud voice demanded who it was that had let off the crackers. And when nobody answered, what do you suppose he did? He flogged the whole crowd of us, saying that he was sure to get hold of the right one and that the rest deserved a whipping for not making the real offender known. Truly, the paths of Chinese learning in my day were beset with thorns and briers!


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Volume I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 214-221.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, October 1998