Handbooks of Research on Contemporary China series
Edited by Yingjie Guo
Chapter 8: Education, social stratification and class in China
The role of education in social stratification is probably more salient in China historically than in any other major countries. It is well known that China’s civil service examination was one of the most important social institutions for centuries, and that the examination system, which powerfully shaped education in dynastic China since its establishment in the sixth century, played a prominent role in social mobility and stratification in late imperial China (Ho 1962; Elman 2000; Zong and Wu 2007). While scholars emphasize the degree of social mobility that such an examination system permitted in a pre-modern China, it is also noted that ‘classical examinations were an effective intellectual, social, and political construction that met the needs of the state bureaucracy while simultaneously supporting late imperial class structure’ (Elman 1991: 9). Furthermore, the examination is widely regarded as a major factor that contributes to an age-old tradition in Chinese societies of strong motivation and aspiration towards education. In contemporary China, education continues to play a significant role in social stratification, as is the case in other modern societies. However, certain characteristics of the educational system in China mean that the ways in which education is related to social stratification in China might be distinct from those in many other societies. One of its distinctive characteristics is the extent to which the educational institutions are themselves stratified. Most of the Chinese institutions of primary, secondary and higher education are publicly funded.
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