Overview of the Educational System of China

[ Note to the reader: This document is still in a very rough state. Furthermore, in certain spots my information is either missing, incomplete, or just plain wrong. Often, you'll see a linked comment that when "clicked" will bring up an email box, addressed to me. Please comment as necessary. Furthermore, please understand that the overview is necessarily brief, since more detailed discussions will be provided in the individual sections.]


The People's Republic of China, sometimes referred to as Mainland China (but in the present publication shall be referred to simply as China ) has a land mass of 3,705,393 square miles and a population approaching 1.2 billion people. As such, China is the most populous country in the world and ranking third in land mass, behind Russia and Canada. Despite having an economy based primarily on agriculture, only 10% of the land is arable.

(Insert maps, as appropriate.)

Roughly 92% of the population are Han Chinese (汉族), with the remaining 8% made up of ethnic minorities: Zhuang (壮族), Manchu (满族), Hui (回族), Miao (苗族), Uygur (维吾尔族), Yi (彝族), Tujia (土家族), Mongol (蒙古族), Tibetan (藏族) and other nationalites. [1] (See relevant map.)

The official language is Mandarin (or {\em Putonghua}) 普通话 ) and, with certain exceptions, [2] is the language of instruction in the schools in China. Other important dialects include Cantonese ({\em Yue} 粤), Shanghainese ({\em Hu} 沪), Fuzhou ({\em Minbei} 闽北), Hokkien-Taiwanese ({\em Minnan} 闽南) as well as a variety of Hakka ({\em Kejia} 客家) dialects.

By a 1993 estimate, 7% of the total population aged 15 and over are illiterate, down from 9.3% in 1990. Of the same age group, 22.2% are illiterate or semi-illerate.[3]

Overview of the Educational System.

For the purpose of the present publication, it is convenient to divide education in China into four categories: primary education, secondary education, higher education and adult education. In discussing the various categories, especially primary and secondary education, it is important to keep in mind that China has a Compulsory Education Law, which went into effect on July 1, 1986:

The Law of Compulsory Education.

This law calls for each child to have nine years of formal education. To meet this requirement, a child will attend either five years of elementary education, followed by four years of junior middle school, or six years of elementary education, followed by three years of junior middle school. Today in China, the second system, or ``6-3'' system is the more commonplace.

While the Compulsory Education Law calls for each child to have nine years of formal schooling, it is recognized that certain realities prevent this nine year standard to be implemented immediately. Therefore, a provision of the Education Law is that China shall be divided into three categories: cities and economically developed areas, towns and villages with medium development, and economically backward areas. In the first two categories, the nine-year standard has, in most cases, become universal. Estimates are that in areas comprising 91% of the population, primary education has become universal. Indeed, by a 1994 estimate, 98.4% of elementary school-aged children entered school, with a dropout rate of less than 2% per year. [4] Of the primary school graduates, over 80% go on to junior middle school,[5] which represents about 75% of the relative age cohort. However, in the ecomonically backward areas, which contains about 25% of China's population, a variable timetable for implementing compulsory education has been tied to each such region's local economic development. In short, the nine-year standard continues to be universalized, but in the strict sense compulsory education in China remains not so much a law as as aspiration.

In passing, it should be noted that the most important contributing factor the the drop-out rates at each level is the increasing cost of education in China. The schools are charged a variety of fees by the local authorities, [6] which are then passed along to the students. One trade union study of primary and middle schools in Chongqing, a very large city in the Sichuan Province, revealed that the average cost of miscellaneous fees for primary students in 1994 was 95.9 yuan; for junior and senior secondary students, the average fees totaled 155.5 yuan and 257.3 yuan, respectively.[7]

The Categories Within the Educational System

1. Primary Education.
Primary education includes pre-school education and elementary education. Pre-school, or kindergarten, can last up to three years, with children entering as early as age three, until age six, when they typically enter elementary school. Elementary school begins with the first grade, and then proceeds through either grades five or six, depending on the system.

The academic year is divided into two semesters, each consisting of 19 weeks, with a total of 38 weeks of instruction for the year. In addition there is one week ``in reserve'' (similar to ``snow days,'' in this country) for additional time as needed. The remaining 13 weeks are for vacations and holidays.

2. Secondary Education.
Secondary education is divided into regular secondary education and vocational and technical secondary education. Regular secondary education consists of junior middle school and senior middle school. Junior middle school will involve either three or four years of schooling, depending on the system (6-3 versus 5-4), and senior middle school is, in the vast majority of cases, a three year program, resulting in a 5-4-3 or a 6-3-3 system of elementary school-junior middle school-senior middle school.

The academic year for junior middle school consists of 39 weeks of instruction, with one week in reserve. The academic year for senior middle school is made up of 40 weeks of instruction, with one to two weeks in reserve.

Students in the vocational and technical secondary education stream will, upon graduation from junior middle school, enter a vocational or technical school. [8] Vocational schools generally offer programs ranging from two to four years, and train medium-level skilled workers, farmers, as well as managerial and technical personnel. Technical schools typically offer four year programs to train intermediate technical personnel. There is a third category, called Schools for Skilled Workers, that typically enroll graduates from junior middle schools to train for positions involving production and operation skills. The length of training is typically three years.

3. Higher Education.
Higher education at the undergraduate level includes two-year junior colleges ({\em zhuanke daxue} 专科大学), four-year colleges ({\em benke xueyuan} 本科学院) and universities ({\em daxue}大学 ). Many colleges and universities also offer graduate programs, leading to the Master's or Ph.D. degrees.

There is also a myriad of higher educational opportunities under the general category of adult education, as below.

4. Adult Education.
This category overlaps all three of the above categories. There is adult primary education, which organizes into Workers' Primary Schools, Peasants' Primary Schools, and Literacy classes. Adult secondary education includes radio/TV specialized secondary schools, specialized secondary schools for cadres, specialized secondary schools for staff and workers, specialized secondary schools for peasants, in-service teacher training schools, and correspondence specialized secondary schools. Adult higher education includes radio/TV universities, cadre institutes, workers' colleges, peasant colleges, correspondence colleges, and educational colleges. Most of the above colleges offer both short-cycle (zhuanke 专科) as well as regular undergraduate (benke 本科) curricula.

Educational System Chart.

This will be inserted to show the relative chronological placement of the various components of Chinese Education.

Grading Scale.

The system of grades used in China can either follow a five-scale or a four-scale system, as follows:

Five-Scale System (五级记录):

A	(优秀 or 优)	  Excellent 
B       (良好 or 良)      Good 
C       (中等 or 中)      Average
D       (及格 or 及)      Satisfactory
F       (不及格 or 不及) Unsatisfactory (Fail)

Four-Scale System (四级记录):

A        (优秀 or 优)      Excellent 
B        (良好 or 良)      Good 
C        (及格 or 及)      Satisfactory
D        (不及格 or 不及) Unsatisfactory (Fail)

Some transcripts, even those in the original Chinese, use the Latin letter grades (A,B,C,D,F) rather than the Chinese equivalents above. Often, numerical grades are reported (generally on a 0-100 scale); in this case, refer to the bottom of the transcript (especially the English translation) for the letter-grade equivalents.

Certain classes can be taken on a pass-fail basis, and are reported thus:

Pass	通过      
Fail	不通过


The State Education Commission (SEC) is the chief administrative organ which oversees education in China. The SEC formulates and enforces policies, principles and laws concerning education, and coordinates the various governmental agencies' operation of the individual schools. The influence of the SEC is directly felt mostly in the institutions of higher education, as the governance and management of primary and secondary schools is left to the local governments.

[ However, there are also private schools, how do they fit in? How extensive are they? What needs to be mentioned here? what about private schools?] Let me know what you think.

The management of the Chinese institutions of higher learning is more complicated, and divides into four categories:

Institutions directly under the SEC.
There are 36 [ Is this still right? Do we want to list them? Marr-Rosen report that there are 37 directly under the SEC.] national-level colleges and universities directly under the control of the SEC. Of these colleges and universities, 25 are among the key institutions, including internationally known Peking University (北京大学), Tsinghua University (清华大学) and Fudan University (复旦大学). \item {Institutions under the central ministries.} These are specialized colleges and universities, some of which are key institutions dedicated to training advanced personnel for the sponsoring ministries.

[ Maybe we should give an example of such a college or university. What do you think?]

Institutions under local control.
The bulk of the colleges and universities are in this administrative category and are generally multidisciplined universities, teacher training schools, and specialized colleges under the direct jurisdiction of the provinces, autonomous regions and the municipalities.

Institutions under major cities.
These are primarily the short-cycle (two- to three-year) junior colleges offering vocational training programs.

Key Schools.

The designation of ``Key School'' exists for selected schools at every educational level in China: elementary, secondary and higher. In addition, there are various levels of the ``key'' designation itself: There are national key institutions, provincial or municipal key institutions, and county or district key institutions. Key schools all enjoy priority funding as well as the privilege of recruiting the best students. At the elementary and secondary levels, this concept is similar to that of a ``magnet'' or ``college preparatory'' school in the United States. Entry into such schools is based on examination and academic promise and achievement. For such schools, success is usually measured in terms of the percentage of its graduates entering colleges and universities, especially the key colleges and universities. The philosophy has been that giving a limited number of schools, colleges and universities priority in allocating limited resources, then the training of the needed top-level manpower for China's reconstruction can be carried out more efficiently.

In certain areas, the concept of ``Key School'' has come under fire. Indeed, the success of the Key elementary and middle schools has too often been measured solely in terms of college placement of its students, rather than on more objective measurements of learning. Furthermore, remnants of the same sort of elitism that shut down the key schools during the Cultural Revolution have re-emerged, leading to questioning by the educational authorities.

[ [Here's a question: it was written that In 1985 entrance examinations and the key-school system had already been abolished in Changchun, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Xiamen, and other cities, and education departments in Shanghai and Tianjin were moving to establish a student recommendation system and eliminate key schools. In 1986 the Shanghai Educational Bureau abolished the key junior-middle-school system to ensure "an overall level of education. Exactly what is the situation today?]

Apart from the above philosophical reasons, key schools are, for many practical reasons, being turned away from. The first, and most obvious reason is the ever-increasing cost of instruction at a key school. Related to this is the reality that a college education, even at a national key university, is not the unique, or even the best route to gainful employment. The average salary of technical college graduates is starting to rival that of graduates from traditional colleges and universities, resulting in the need to engage in cost-benefit analyses long before one's educational strategy is mapped out. However, different regions continue to adhere to different values in connection with education. In Guangzhou (Canton), where the local ecomony is expanding at a robust rate, entry into technical secondary schools has surpassed entry into key secondary schools in terms of competitiveness. Beijing, on the other hand, continues to be the cultural and intellectual seat of China, and correspondingly the technical school option is still considered an inferior educational stream.

Educational and related Statistics.


Based on the 1990 census, the total population of China was 1,130,510,000 people, of which 1,039,190,000 were of the Han Nationality (汉族), and the remaining 91,320,000 people were distributed amoung the remaining 55 minority nationalities (少数民族). In the table below, the 1990 population aged six and over is distributed according to the highest level of education received:\footnote{Educational Atlas}

   LEVEL	           Total X 1,1000    Percentage
College and
University			6,140		0.62

College				9,620		0.97
Secondary Vocational and	 
Technical School		7,280  		1.74

Regular Senior
Middle School		       72,600		7.30

Junior Middle
School			      263,390	       26.50
School			      420,210	       42.27
Illiterate and 
Semi-Illiterate		      204,850	       20.61

Total population,
Aged 6 and over		      994,090	      100.00

In the next table are presented 1993 statistics describing entry and graduation numbers for schools at the various levels. Also total enrollments are reported for each level.

                   X 1,000         X 1,000            X 1,000
College and            
University		386		299		1,417

College			537		272		1,118
Specialized Secondary
School			899		756		2,820

Secondary Vacational
School	              1,349		880		3,064
Skilled Worker
School			664		500		1,739

Regular Senior
Middle School	      2,283	      2,317		6,569
Junior Middle
School		     14,789	     11,342	       40,822

Junior Vocational
School			267		145		  562

Junior Middle School
(Special Ed.)	          2		  1		    5
School	             23,535          18,415           124,212

Elemenatry School
(Special Ed.)	         32              11               163	


  1. Educational Atlas of China, Shanghai Scientific & Technical Publishers, 1995, p. 12.
  2. Article 12 of the Education Law of the People's Republic of China, which went into effect on September 1, 1995, stipulates Putonghua as the language of instruction, but in cases in which minority ethnic groups form the majority, the spoken and written language of the majority ethnic group or of common use by the local ethnic groups may be used for instruction.
  3. Educational Atlas. Here, semi-illiteracy is defined as being able to recognize some characters, but unable to read simple books or newspapers or to write.
  4. Educational Atlas.
  5. Basic Education in China, SEC, 1994.
  6. David Marr and Stanley Rosen, ``Chinese and Vietnamese Youth in the 1990s,'' in preparation. A SEC study of five provinces revealed an average total fee assesment of 10,000 yuan per school to support a variety of projects and activities, ranging from training the local militia to a mandatory donation of funds for the Three Gorges Dam Project.
  7. Ran Er, ``Reckless Fee Collection: Is it Reckless in Where it Comes From or Where it Goes?,'' Beijing qingnian bao (\061\061\076\051\107\140\104\152\061\050), February 22, 1995.
  8. Occasionlly a graduate from senior middle school will enroll in a vocational or technical middle school.
  9. Exclusive of Taiwan and Hong Kong.