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China’s Cultural Revolution: Reforms in the Education System

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The period of the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1969) witnessed a massive effort by the Maoist leadership to engineer the socialist transformation of Chinese society, one of the area most radically affected by the Cultural Revolution was the Chinese educational system. The Great Leap Forward has brought about much economic instability and lack of agricultural production, leading to the great famine. The goals and policies imposed by the government during the Cultural Revolution greatly decentralized the educational system and shifted focus from an industrial intensive production to an agricultural production. Although many rural schools continued to function throughout this period, formal education virtually ceased in the urban areas.

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In this paper, we will first take a look at the three main objectives in the educational reforms. With this general background description of the program, we hope to explain some of the goals that the Communist partied hoped to achieve. The second section of this paper will discuss the means that China employed to carry out the three main objectives, analyzing the decentralized manner in the implementation process and the structural impact it had on the educational system. Finally, we will evaluate the repercussion and critiques these reforms had on students and the society as a whole.

Educational Reforms

The Cultural Revolution had three basic objectives in reforming the educational system. In terms of the content of education, the first objective was to intensify ideological education so as to raise the “political consciousness” of the students. The second objective was to integrate theory and practice in the educational process in order to make education more responsive to the immediate production needs of the country. In terms of the scope of the educational system, the third objective was to popularize education, especially in the rural areas of China.[1]

Prior to the Cultural Revolution, it seems that there was a tendency in Chinese education to emphasize technological and professional training often at the expense of the socialist revolution as envisioned by Chairman Mao. In 1956, with the exception of the third year of senior middle school in which a section of the “constitution’ class was held each week, it was reported that political classes were entirely cancelled. This trend was further reinforced after the Great Leap Forward when educational policy emphasized more study and less work and politics. This general educational policy seems to have led to the consolidation of an “elite technocracy” drawn largely from the educated bourgeois elements of the past. Thus, the most important goal of educational reform in the Cultural Revolution was to mobilize the students and raise to a higher level their awareness of class contradictions still existing in Chinese society. As Mao made clear, “all work in school is for changing the thinking of the student.”[2] This educational objective was part of the massive effort of the Cultural Revolution as a whole to revitalize the commitment of the country to the socialist transformation of society.

The economic objectives of the educational reforms of the Cultural Revolution should be seen within the context of the overall strategy for economic development. The emphasis on integrating theory with practice, or education with production, was not new in itself. The Ministry of Education stated explicitly in 1950 that “the purpose of institutions of higher learning in the People’s Republic of China is to train high level specialists for national reconstruction in accordance with the principles of the Cultural and Educational policy included in the Common Program of the People’s Political Consultative Conference of China, and using a method which combines theory and practice. These specialists will have advanced standards of culture, will master modern science and technology, and will have total dedication to serving the people.”[3] However, the way in which theory was linked to practice was quite different from that which Mao had in mind for the Cultural Revolution. And the problem here was not simply one of implementation but of basically different concepts of economic development.

From 1949 to 1958, China’s strategy for economic development essentially followed that of the Soviet model, which stressed the growth of heavy industry at the expense of light industry and agriculture. As “bottlenecks” began to form, China began searching for alternative developmental strategies. Thus, the Great Leap Forward was an attempt to mobilize the masses on a large and intensive scale to break the “bottlenecks’ in the economy. While this strategy as a whole failed, it marked the point at which China changed from its previous strategy to one placing relatively more emphasis on rural development. This change in developmental strategy brought a basic change in the definition of what “practice” constituted in the educational process. In one case, it meant working in the industrial sector primarily in a technological capacity, while in the other, it meant working in the fields to increase rural production. Thus, in the former case, linking theory and practice meant training more highly skilled specialists to advance the technology for China’s heavy industry, while in the latter, it meant training less-highly skilled generalists in less time to meet the local production needs of the rural sector. Thus, the economic objectives of the educational reforms were oriented primarily to the development of agriculture and light industry.

Up until 1966, educational opportunities, particularly at the higher levels, remained unduly concentrated in the big cities. The rural areas, despite some improvements since 1949, did not benefit from educational expansion to nearly the same degree as the urban areas.[4] In fact, according to a Russian source, after initial success at popularization of educational opportunities between 1950 and 1958, the number of students at all levels of education decreased markedly from 1960 to 1965. It was also said that Liu Shaoqi admitted that in the 1965-66 school year approximately 30% of the children in China were not covered by a system of primary education.[5] This bleak picture was partially confirmed by the People’s Daily report that in 1965, “30 million school-aged children were not in school, most of them being rural children.”[6] Thus, one of the major objectives of the educational reforms was to correct this situation by increasing the number of schools in the rural areas and initiating a large scale recruitment of peasants and workers into the existing educational system.

Means of the Reforms

The implementation of educational reforms was carried out via a decentralized process, as most schools were placed under local management. In fact, it was reported in 1973 that each school had its own “Revolution in Education’ Committee responsible not only for implementing reforms but also for part of the planning process within its own institution.”[7] So it would seem that local experimentation within the general framework of the new educational policies was encouraged. Experimentation was seen as necessary primarily because of the emphasis on adopting flexible methods to meet the diverse needs of different schools and regions. We will identify below the major guidelines regarding the implementation of the educational reforms, as well as describe some of the different ways the reforms were implemented.

In order to elevate the “political consciousness” of the students, the curriculum was heavily stocked with political education courses. The major texts used were drawn from the works of Mao. Aside from increasing the number of political course, other courses also drew upon Mao’s thoughts to explain various approaches to the analysis of whatever phenomenon was involved.[8] This reliance on Mao’s thoughts was essentially the concept of “putting politics in command of knowledge.” At the same time, “revolutionary mass criticism” and “class struggles” were actively promoted to bring into sharp relief the various contradictions in society from a more personal perspective. The principal means of linking theory and practice in the educational process were to make production labor a major part of the students’ curriculum and to direct research to meet local needs. These methods were based on the concept of “practical training,” although their implementation in China seems to have gone far beyond that practiced by other countries.

In the rural areas, students would spend much of their time working in the fields and learning from the peasants. The training of the students included clearing marginal lands, planting and harvesting, working on the construction of water conservation projects and irrigation systems and so on. [9]Research in turn was directed towards increasing the crop yield and the mechanization of the local production units. What the specific tasks would be depended on the particular needs of a given locality. As for the urban sector, secondary and higher learning institutions were reported to have set up local factories within the schools not only to train students in practical work, but also to engage in significant production work. In other cases, factories and schools established ties with one another so as to direct the research of the latter to the needs of the former, making possible the immediate application of new findings. At the same time, veteran workers were often brought to the schools to teach in certain areas and students worked at the factories for practical training. Some factories even established schools of their own, although this method seems to have more or less faded out.

In brief, the educational reforms designed to attain the economic objectives basically gave the students more practical training and actual work in production than did the previous educational system. It was said that prior to the Cultural Revolution, peasants and workers had much difficulty attending schools because of such obstacles as high entrance examination standards (primarily for colleges and universities), high costs and expenses, inaccessibility since most schools were located in the cities, conflict of class schedules with local production time tables, and the lack of direct and immediate relevance of the courses offered to local production needs. As a result, educational opportunities were still not extended to many in the country living in the rural areas.

During the Cultural Revolution, many of the reforms were implemented specifically to erase such barriers to education. Some of the broad guidelines for popularizing education were: 1) lowering educational standards, thus making possible the large scale recruitment of peasants and workers into the existing educational system, and especially to higher learning institutions; 2) lowering educational fees and expenses; 3) shortening the number of years for a basic education, usually from a “6-3-3” to a “5-2-2” system, while higher education was usually reduced from four or five years to two or three years (this allowed more to enter the educational system since less time would be taken off needed production work and the school population would be reduced for a given amount of students going through); 4) promoting popularly-sponsored schools-this expansion occurred mainly in the rural areas and was limited basically to the primary school level; 5) adapting curriculum and schedules to local requirements; and 6) simplifying teaching materials.[10]

Within these reform guidelines, however, schools at all levels could experiment with different ways of implementing the reforms. For example, Peking University with its more carefully selected students continued to have higher standards of education than many other colleges and universities. However, an attempt was made to lessen the gap.[11] Or with regard to popularly sponsored schools, there arose “mobile” schools, “spare-time” schools, “half-work, half-study” schools and so on. Furthermore, the specific curriculum of each school, except perhaps for the political education courses, varied according to the needs of the particular region. Thus, the popularization of education was carried out under a flexible and decentralized educational system.

Repercussion of the Reforms

While the drastic educational reform measures have given peasants opportunities to attain basic education in rural areas, as well as agricultural production and political gains, it naturally came with lasting negative impacts that promoted many post-modernist’s critiques. In the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, values like collaboration, diligence, modesty, and respect for elders and teachers were discarded as a result of the purge of the old Chinese cultures and traditions. Many have failed to retain the virtues during the revolution. Second, due to political struggle and line drawn between working classes and intellectuals, as well as political and violent nature of the social revolution, substantial innocent teachers and professionals were subjected to personal attacks and humiliation, some even executed. Third, specific strategies of the reformed curriculum and examination system proved to be misguided and wasted the schooling of many young people. The disconnection between academic achievement and students’ future career, the emphasis on political correctness over academic achievement, and the neglecting of theory learning and over-emphasis on hands-on experiences were all examples of poor decisions. Fourth, the Cultural Revolution both liberated students and dominated them. It liberated students and people because it opened their eyes to the inequality existing in education and society; However, it imposed political control and dominated them because it did not allow real democratic, independent and critical thinking ability.[12] As Freire (1970) put it, “If teachers help students from oppressed communities to read the word but do not also teach them to read the world, students might become literate in a technical sense but will remain passive objects of history rather than active subjects.”[13]


The Cultural Revolution opened people’s eyes but imposed the government’s intentions on the people and dictated their thinking. Thus, people were forced to follow the government’s ideology. In accordance with the three objectives set forth by the Communist Party, strategies were carried out in a decentralized manner that placed significant amount of decision making on local management. To raise political awareness, much of the curriculum were inspired by Mao’s thinking. His principles such as “practice training” were also preached to the students, which compliments well with the second objective; to integrate theory and practice while increasing agricultural production. At the time, schools and factories were tightly assimilated, as much of the students from urban areas were organized to work in rural areas, in order to experience the “real China” and raise consciousness on the large class segregation that existed. Lastly, with adjustments to the curriculum schedules, time commitment, academic and financial requirements, the barriers to entry were significantly reduced for many rural youths. Basic education was finally attainable by peasants and popularized in the rural area. However, this caused a reduction of higher education and development of specialized skilled workers in the urban area, in accordance with the focus on agricultural production rather than industrial production.

The extremist nature of the reforms achieved by China was unlike what other countries could have accomplish. While political agendas and production goals were met, it came at a great cost to students that lasted through the generation. Connections to their ancestor’s culture and virtues were cut in favor of Mao’s thinking and the way of the new China. This led to activities that post-modernists could consider contradictive to the development of humanity, which was evident in the case of innocent individuals who retained the old culture or decided against Mao’s thinking were humiliated or executed. Students’ freedom of critical thinking was taken away, replaced by political correctness and over-emphasis on hand-on experiences, ultimately hindering their theoretical knowledge and future career development.



Seybolt, Peter. Editor’s Introduction, 1971

Huey, Alison B. The Revolutionary Committee of Peking Middle School #31, 1970

Gardner and Idema, China’s Educational Revolution, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973

Klepikoy, V. Z. The Fate of Public Education in China, Sovetskaia Pedagoka #8, 1968, translated by J.  Barry Eliot, CE 1

People’s Daily, China’s Educational Revolution, 1965

McCormick, Robert. Revolution in Education Committees, The China Quarterly #57, 1974

Wuyuan Rev. Comm. et al., A New Type of School That Combines. Theory with Practice, 1968

Yu-lin Special Region Rev. Comm. and Kuei-p’ing Rev. Comm, Train Workers to Have Socialist Consciousness and Culture, 1970,

Wan, Guofang. The Educational Reforms in the Cultural Revolution in China: A Postmodern Critique, 1998. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED427419

Lankshear, C. and Mclaren, P.L. Critical Literacy, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993

Shor, I. Empowering Education, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

[1] Peter Seybolt, Editor’s Introduction, 1971, p. 4.

[2] Alison B. Huey, The Revolutionary Committee of Peking Middle School #31, 1970, p. 206.

[3] Seybolt, p. 4.

[4] Gardner and Idema, China’s Educational Revolution, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973, p. 257

[5] V. Z. Klepikoy, The Fate of Public Education in China, Sovetskaia Pedagoka #8, 1968, trans, J. Barry Eliot, CE 1, p. 42.

[6] People’s Daily, China’s Educational Revolution, 1965, p. 258.

[7] Robert McCormick, Revolution in Education Committees, The China Quarterly #57,1974, p. 133.

[8] Wuyuan Rev. Comm. et al., A New Type of School That Combines. Theory with Practice, 1968, p. 24-31

[9] Yu-lin Special Region Rev. Comm. and Kuei-p’ing Rev. Comm, Train Workers to Have Socialist Consciousness and Culture, 1970, p. 40-45

[10] Gardner and Idema, p. 279-280.

[11] Ibid., p. 286.

[12] Wan, Guofang. The Educational Reforms in the Cultural Revolution in China: A Postmodern Critique, 1998.

[13] Lankshear, C. and Mclaren, P.L., Critical Literacy, New York: State University of

New York Press., 1993

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