Ethnic Minority Education in China: Finding a Path between Tradition and Development
Educating a nation is no simple task. Even in the United States—which boasts a substantial tradition of public education, political stability, economic prosperity and a strong middle class—issues such gender and racial equality, diversity, and budget reality still cause continuous debate. For a nation like China, the task of educating its people is even more daunting. China has a population of 1.3 billion, an economy that is still developing, and thus even more stringent budget constraints. And although abandoning command economics for the free market in 1977 allowed double-digit ...view middle of the document...
It is no coincidence that many of the poorest and least-educated areas in China today are heavily populated by ethnic minorities. To begin with, not all minority groups are motivated to seek education—for some, such as nomadic tribes, the uniform national curriculum in China has little bearing on life within the minority society. Others, such as the Tibetans, traditionally favor religious education for boys, and discourage education for girls (Lee, 40). For minorities who are not indifferent to formal education, structural barriers persist. Minority children often grow up speaking their native tongue, which puts them at a disadvantage in the Mandarin-oriented system of formal education. Many fall behind early, and drop out because they lose hope in ever catching up. Poverty is another barrier against educational advance, especially given the fact that market reforms have taken away many of the services that used to be provided by the state. Public education is no longer free, so many children leave school because greater output on the farm results in more income for the family. Also, since minorities are not subject to China’s one-child policy, having a greater number of children often means that the family cannot afford to send them all to school. Within the region or village, shortage of funds means that schools, qualified teachers, and adequate facilities are often few and far between. Given that the competitiveness of the Chinese education system makes advancement difficult to for any student, minority or Han, to achieve—examinations are conducted in the sixth grade, ninth grade, and twelth grade to determine who can go on to the next level of education, and only of 2% of all college-age youth can be enrolled in universities (Lee, 3)—such structural barriers make success in education an extremely difficult goal for minority students.
Brief History of Minorities and their Education in China
Of course, the current state of minority education has its roots in the historical relationship between ethnic minorities and the Han majority. Although China experienced minority rule under the governance of Mongol and Manchu rulers during the Yuan and Qing dynasties, respectively, the Han have generally considered their own highly developed writing system, Confucian values (a system of social and ethical philosophy), and technological sophistication, as signs of cultural superiority. In fact, some Confucian scholars believed regard for education to be the marker of who was Han and who was not—as stated by a scholar in 1738, “if savages cherish learning, they may advance to become Han; if Han people neglect learning, they may degenerate into savages” (quoted in Hansen, 9).
During dynastic China, many non-Han peoples were pushed into less desirable border areas as the Chinese empire expanded. Others were conquered into the empire, and paid tribute to the emperor of China. Particularly in the Qing dynasty, the spread of...