The year of the student

Radicalism and Educational Reform in 20th-Century China
April 25, 1997

This volume contains the most detailed analysis of the development of education in China to date and it is certain to generate much interest for many years to come. The work spans the period 1911 to 1980 and is a further elaboration of the themes first laid out in Suzanne Pepper's earlier volume, China's Educational Reform in the 1980s: Policies, Issues, and Historical Perspectives. The new volume examines China's "attempt to create a formal educational system, inspired by the prior western example, within a historically and culturally different setting, constrained by a low-income economy". An important feature of this volume is its effort to differentiate the view of the international community about the Chinese development model of education from that of the Chinese themselves. Pepper adeptly recounts the traumatic search of the Chinese for an ideal model of education by "an ancient society still unreconstructed after nearly a century's concerted effort to modernise in the image of the western world".

Pepper frames the volume by posing the question of why the model of Chinese education in the mid-1970s that was praised widely in the international community and seen as worthy of emulation by many developing countries, was suddenly dismantled in the 1980s, a time when China was opening to the outside world. She employs the literature on development studies to highlight the key issues facing Chinese education, and demonstrates its inadequacy to deal fully with the Chinese case. The search for an adequate answer compels Pepper to employ a historical approach which makes apparent the continued persistence of the two-line struggle between radicals and reformers, between anti-establishment currents and the "forces of regularisation" that was only briefly outlined in her earlier volume.

The volume adds a tremendous amount of detail from the new material available on educational history published in Chinese in recent years and by drawing on extensive interviews, done in the late 1970s, which focused on the early period of the cultural revolution.

Pepper unmistakably makes the point that the development of Chinese education is much more complex than it has been made to seem and that the common images of the cultural revolution's negative impact on educational development need to be modified. Pepper does clarify some myths and mysteries about the cultural revolution and its effect on education, but this is not the kind of volume that sets out to show America what it can learn from Chinese education.

While the book does make clear the role of social capital in educational success, cultural capital gets less attention. Moreover, the cultural groups included in China's 100 million national minority population get no mention, except for a few pages on the Koreans, the nationality group that has the highest levels (including the majority Han Chinese) of literacy and educational achievement.

Nevertheless, the book does much to advance the field of Chinese educational studies, especially in terms of the great need for high quality sociohistorical studies for the international scholarly community. The work crosses the fields of sinology, development studies, comparative education and politics of education. It should be of interest to international development agencies as well as policy-makers in China. It should be read by all students in the field and it is a pity that a soft-cover edition is not available.

Gerard A. Postiglione is associate professor of education, University of Hong Kong.

Radicalism and Educational Reform in 20th-Century China: The Search for an Ideal Development Model

Author - Suzanne Pepper
ISBN - 0 521 49669 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 610

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