In ancient China, education was conducted both in the private sector and by the government. Children were educated at home by private tutors (known as Sishu), scholars who failed central governmental exams. Educating children was an important career path for these intellectuals: it provided a means of livelihood, nurtured their talents, and promoted education in society.
In ancient Chinese society, everyone respected teachers and the teachers were highly regarded authority figures. The hierarchy of respect went: “Heaven, Earth, Emperor, Parent, Teacher.”
People took it as a motto that “A teacher for a day is a father for a lifetime.” Hence intellectuals were very willing to teach. If any one of their students was able to rank high at the central governmental exam and became a highly regarded official, it would bring great glory to their teacher, and he was honoured for the rest of his life.
The schools conducted by the government were called Shuyuan. Some of them were private but all had official backgrounds; they were often supported financially by the government. The purpose of Shuyuan was for more advanced studies and a setting that cultivated high-level talent. Only those who were dedicated to take governmental exams would be good enough to enter Shuyuan.
Shuyuan only existed at the provincial levels or in large provincial capitals. Shuyuan provided the finest education and had high academic standards.
Shuyuan directors were all leading figures in academic circles and highly respected scholars. The government worked with private sectors to establish schools, which allowed quality education to be available to the general public. The ancient Chinese education system was very comprehensive and tailored to provide the state and society with talented people in various fields.
In classical Chinese society, education was classified into classical study, elementary study, and half-classic and half-elementary study. Elementary study imparted rudimentary knowledge to beginners. The teachers only read aloud the text without explaining the meaning. As the teacher read, students memorized every word and phrase. Scholars, beginning young, would thus memorize hundreds of thousands of characters.
This teaching method may seem clumsy but it was in fact effective for the following reasons: First of all, it served to hone the students’ temperament and rectify their attitudes towards study. Second, through such intensified training, words with divine significance were carved into the students’ minds and they could remember and use these words as a basis to conduct themselves for the rest of their lives. This part of the study laid down a solid foundation for their future studies.
There is a reason why teachers did not explain the meaning of the texts. The words of the saints have profound philosophy and meanings and cannot be explained in just a few words. The students might not understand even with the most thorough explanation. It may take a student their entire life to digest this knowledge, comprehend it, and practice it before he could achieve a thorough realization. Subjective or inappropriate explanation could easily mislead the students. Hence for classical Confucian books, it was a tradition that teachers did not explain them at the elementary study level.
Classical study means the teacher explained the words or phrases as he lectured to the students. There was open discussion between the teacher and the students. At this level, students already possessed a certain amount of knowledge and firm academic fundamentals and were able to exchange opinions and discuss with the teachers. The students could propose questions and the teachers would answer them.
Half-elementary and half-classical study fell somewhere in between. The teacher would explain the content of his lectures to a limited extent. No matter which kind of study, the kind of lectures provided to the students were greatly related to the teachers’ academic level.
Ancient Chinese education paid a lot of attention to whether the students were truly enlightened with insights and experience. Only when the students could really master the knowledge were they considered knowledgeable.
Some people may think that ancient Chinese education is nothing more than memorizing mechanically and is therefore boring. That is not entirely true. Truly studying is a process that has hardship. It is only natural that only when one works hard he will be rewarded. The ancient Chinese educational system was particular about moving forward gradually. A student’s academic performance was intertwined with his cultivating himself. A student’s improvement in the academic field was a reflection of his improvement in self-cultivation.
Ancient education was not boring; it was rewarding and fun. Besides learning Confucian classical books, the students spent a lot of time and energy studying poems, singing, calligraphy, music, chess, writing, and painting.
There were also many kinds of special training in ancient education such as rhythm enlightenment, paring up words/phrases, composing poems, writing articles, playing musical instruments, and painting. This training was done every day and education was mixed with entertainment. It boosted the students’ intelligence, trained their thinking process and improved their writing levels. It also stimulated the students’ creativity, their desire to create, and cultivated their minds and noble thoughts.
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