A Chinese chequered history

China's Universities 1895-1995
July 19, 1996

Ruth Hayhoe condenses with a compelling lucidity a vast amount of sinological research and observation, drawn from a lengthy residence in mainland China and visiting more than 100 universities. She examines how the ideals of the European university and its structures of knowledge were transferred to the Chinese context. As a devoted student of the late Brian Holmes, she is alert to the problems of transplanting the structures of one culture to those of another.

Throughout the 20th century China struggled to achieve the economic and social concepts of western science and technology while clinging to the patterns of culture and knowledge in ways that would maintain a Chinese identity. In detailing the Nationalist story, Hayhoe illustrates how the fledgling republic established by Sun Yat-sen quickly gave way to a takeover from the north. From 1917 the country was essentially ruled by warlords with regional and local armies, until the southern forces reorganised and initiated the Northern Expedition of 19, culminating in the establishment of the Nationalist government. This was the period that saw the emergence of the idea of a university with defining values of autonomy and academic freedom.

From this analysis, the significant figure of Cai Yuan-pei stands out. He had spent the years 1906 to 1910 in Germany and France and after a brief tenure as minister of education he returned to Europe for a further five years. After his return, the ideals of autonomy and academic freedom found institutional form, first in Peking University and later in the Academica Sinica. While Cai's vision for the internal constitution of a university came from the German model, his idea for university relationships with the rest of the education system, and to society generally, came from the French model. A consequence was the setting up of the Universite Franco-Chinoise.

The record of Soviet influence in the 1950s highlights the tensions created in the development of higher education policies. Many regional and local institutions were dissolved. The focus of development became the establishing of a highly centralised national system. The new institutions were to serve directly the task of socialist construction along lines that reflected the experience of the Soviet Union as closely as possible. The central intellectual institution, the People's University, held a position that enabled it to regulate all teaching and research. Hayhoe sums up: "The Soviet Union achieved a degree of congruence among patterns of educational, cultural, economic, and political domination that had never been achieved by any other colonial power that had been active in China."

The Japanese influence prevailed before 1911 when Japan was the most important model, both for imperial bureaucrats and for large numbers of young teachers, writers and artists who went to study in Japan. Hayhoe argues that the spirit of the European university was not well understood during the earlier period. She suggests that the system of higher education was clearly modelled on that of Japan in the legislation of 1902 and 1903. The book reveals how the interweaving of Japanese, German, French and Soviet influences has led to the shaping of higher education development in China today.

Much of the final chapter is devoted to a discussion on the contributions made by women to the evolving story of higher education, particularly Li Xiaozhang. She stands out as a national leader in the movement to give women a voice in contemporary development. In the preparation for the United Nations Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995, there arose considerable tension between professional women such as Li, who sought for women to have an independent voice at the conference, and those "who continued to function largely as mouthpieces of the state in its pronouncements on women's issues".

This is obviously a volume that is the harvest of years of scholarship enhanced by this Canadian professor's command of a Chinese language that enables her to gain insights that would be beyond the external observer.

J. H. Higginson is an honorary member of the Comparative Education Society of Europe and of the British International and Comparative Education Society.

China's Universities 1895-1995: A Century of Cultural Conflict

Author - Ruth Hayhoe
ISBN - 0 8733 2501 X
Publisher - Garland
Price - £46.95
Pages - 299

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