Saturday, May 31, 2014

Hundred Days Reform: Education

Emperor Guangxu at his study
Beijing, 1898 – Chinese Emperor Guangxu had just took direct control of his Empire for a decade. During that time, China was in a dire situation. Its territories were carved by Western imperialist into several spheres of influence. Emperor Guangxu wanted to reverse the dismal conditions of China. Inspired by the Meiji Restoration and stories of same situation from abroad, like Peter the Great, in June 11, 1898 Guangxu decreed several orders instituting wide ranging and radical reforms. The Hundred Days Reform began. Including to the focus of reforms.

One of the key features of Emperor Guangxu’s reform was making changes to the centuries old civil service examinations. Before the reforms, the civil service examination was a rigid Confucian based exam. It followed a format called the eight legged essay where examinees must follow this format to create a composition of a certain given topic. The topics were mostly about Confucian classics and ideas of neo-Confucianism. The reforms were intended to change the topics and the format of the exams. Guangxu intended to add practical subjects like political economy. Kang Youwei, one of the reformers adviser to the Emperor, wanted to add science and technology to the exams. 

The reforms sounded realistic during those times of chaos but for the hard-line conservatives in the court, it was sacrilege. They thought that it would shake the foundation which the Empire had been build. They also thought the idea as an influence of the so-called “foreign devils.”

Adding to the frustrations of the conservatives, Emperor Guangxu was not just intending to change the civil service exams, but the whole education systems itself. He wanted to change the curriculum of education institutions in the empire. He wanted schools not just to teach Confucian classics to students. He wanted them to teach new subjects like mathematics and new sciences like biology and astronomy. He wanted also schools to teach public administration and economics. Emperor Guangxu intended to create a foundation for future engineer, scientist, and public administrators of his country.

To boost his efforts for reforms, he also reorganized the education system of China and aligned it with the west. Emperor Guangxu ordered that private academies located in the provincial capitals to be converted into colleges. Meanwhile, schools in the prefecture capitals were to serve as high schools. Finally, schools in the district capital were to serve as elementary schools. School boards were to be set up in every city to oversee the Emperor’s reforms. Other than reorganizing schools, he also established a somewhat similar state university. In July of 1898, the Imperial University of Peking was established. From this University, a new medical school that would teach western medicine was formed. Also, special schools were also established. Agricultural schools were to be established to modernize the techniques and methods of farmers in the countryside. Schools for the processing of tea and silk were also to be established as well.

Besides schools, Emperor Guangxu wanted to encourage intellectual opinion and public discourse. He wanted the common people to know the events in their own area or even throughout the Empire. This was embodied when he allowed liberal newspapers to continue their publication.

However, no matter how good the intentions of the Emperor were, he was no much to the influence and power wielded by his aunt and former regent, the Empress Dowager Cixi. She led the conservatives who opposed the reform in ending the 1898 Reforms of Emperor Guangxu. In September 21, 1898, a coup was launched by the conservatives against the Emperor. The Emperor was imprisoned to the Summer Palace outside Beijing, and his reforms were reversed. But some of his reforms were sustained and some made a comeback in early 1900’s. The Imperial University of Peking remained. The Civil Service Examinations were abolished in 1905. But even with the comeback of some educational reforms, it was too late. Six years later, the imperial system and the Manchu Dynasty fell in the hands of chaos.

See also:
Hundred Days Reform
Hundred Days Reform: Administration
Hundred Days Reform: Other Reforms
Menelik II
Radama I

Hsu, Immanuel. The Rise of Modern China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 

Meyer, M. China: A Concise History. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1994. 

Spence, J. The Search for Modern China. New York: Norton, 1990.

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