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28 Mar 2015

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Universal access to primary education, one of the most pervasive social policies around the world, began in the early nineteenth century. As a feature of an institutionalised model for national development across the globe, this system spread quickly from European nations to the United States and then later to Asia.

Mass schooling systems fundamentally enlarged the number of people who could benefit from education; therefore, it considerably accelerated the speed of human capital formation. In China, the attempt to provide mass schooling began relatively late during the turn of the twentieth century; and the introduction of the concept of ‘mass education’ was only one part of a greater agenda: establishing a modern and West-inspired education system.

Research by Pei Gao, presented at the Economic History Society’s 2015 annual conference, studies this origin of mass education system in China. By presenting quantitative dimensions of the uneven rise of schooling across regions, the study tries to solve one puzzle: despite the political chaos and economic backwardness, modern primary education expanded at a noteworthy rate in China throughout the first half of the twentieth century. What factors drove such surprising results?

The research finds that economic factors show very limited powers in explaining the variations in primary educational outcomes. In contrast, both informal practice of governance imposed by gentry (one important social group in Chinese history) and regional political stability presented their critical importance.

To begin with, the gentry class, as a social elite group in local communities, supported the modern education expansion because of both their long-lasting public obligatory responsibility towards local education, and their private interests of recognising modern schooling as a potential source of income. Equally importantly, the story of roving bandits is applicable in the context of China that we find the pattern of political stability bred better governance (in terms of schooling provision); furthermore political instability largely reduced the positive effect of the local gentry as well.

The findings of this study are exceptionally important. First, an interesting contrast with the early stages of educational development in Europe is noted, where the landholding elites were seen as the main interest group blocking the provision of education to people of lower rank. In addition, as local gentry’s status were granted via traditional education, this finding confirms the legacy of traditional education towards the rise of modern schooling, which has been neglected in the field of Chinese educational history.

Moreover, this study sheds light on a growing literature stressing the importance of informal institutions enforced by social groups in providing public goods in non-democratic societies. Last but not least, with a surge in the developing world view that education expansion, as a path to development, findings of this study, specifically the importance of political and social institutions, is particularly relevant.


Risen From Chaos: What Drove the Spread of Mass Schooling in China Through the Early 20th Century

Pei Gao, London School of Economics

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