School in Ancient China - education and the state examinations
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Chinese Schools

Chinese school
Chinese school (actually
from the 1500s AD)

June 2016 - Most kids in ancient and medieval China never got a chance to go to school at all. They had to work hard in the fields, planting rice or millet, weeding the vegetables, feeding the chickens, or taking care of their little brothers or sisters or cousins.

But if you were a boy, and your father could spare you from the fields, then he would send you to school. If there wasn't a school in your village, you might have to go live with your relatives or with strangers in a bigger town. At first your parents had to pay for you to go to school, but beginning in the Han Dynasty, many schools were free, paid for by the Emperor. There were even a few schools for girls, but girls' schools mostly taught girls to be obedient and not try to get any power.

Boys worked very hard in school, because school prepared you to take the government tests, and whoever scored highest on the tests could get a good job in the Chinese government. In order to give jobs fairly to the smartest men, only the test scores counted - not who your father was, or how much money you had, or how good a fighter you were.

Boys usually started school when they were about six years old. Elementary schools were very small, with only one teacher for the whole school. Most schools were in temples. You went to school every day, with no weekends, from about 6:00 in the morning until about 4:00 in the afternoon. There was one chair for the teacher, but the boys all sat on stools. There weren't any math lessons, or science. You learned how to read and write, and then you memorized page after page of Confucian philosophy and learned to write essays and poetry, and how to paint pictures. Very smart boys could try to pass a special test to get into special gifted programs. Otherwise, you stayed at this school until you were sixteen or seventeen, when you were ready for the first examinations.

Beginning about 500 AD, some boys and girls got an education in a different way, in the new Buddhist monasteries that Buddhist people were starting. Here children also learned how to read and write, but they did not learn painting or poetry; instead they learned Buddhist ideas.

By the time of the Ming Dynasty, beginning about 1400 AD, many rich women did learn to read and write at home. Some rich women wrote poetry and exchanged poems with their husbands.

Learn by doing: writing Chinese characters
More about ancient Chinese families

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese people:

Eyewitness: Ancient China, by Arthur Cotterell, Alan Hills, and Geoff Brightling (2000). , with lots of excellent pictures.

Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, by Jacques Gernet (1962).

The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the SungPeriod, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (1993).

Women of the Tang Dynasty, by May Holdsworth (1999). A short introduction, with many pictures of T'ang period figurines.

Chinese people
Chinese clothing
Chinese food
Chinese houses
Main people page
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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