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Reproduced from 1983 Conference Proceedings, pp. 33-46 ã SCUTREA 1997


Rural literacy campaigns and the politics of education in The People's Republic of China

David Chambers, University of Bristol


In July 1982 the People's Republic of China (PRC) conducted its first national census since 1954. The initial results from the census revealed that some 235,820,002 Chinese over the age of 12 were either illiterate or semi-literate and that illiteracy is concentrated in rural China.1 Eliminating illiteracy amongst over 235 million people? A daunting task, but Chinese educational planners have at least been able to take some comfort from the fact that the current incidence of illiteracy (23.5% of the total population) is considerably less than it was in 1949, when most sources indicate that some 80-90% of the population could neither read nor write. Illiteracy has thus been eliminated on a vast scale in China since the foundation of the PRC.

Presently available demographic and educational data do not permit a precise calculation of the relative contributions of primary schooling for children and rural adult literacy campaigns to this achievement. However, a host of recent statements by Chinese educational spokesmen have emphasised that the relative and absolute contribution of rural literacy campaigns would have been significantly greater had it not been for the intrusion of disruptive political factors into the realm of literacy planning and development. In short, it has been suggested that by reflecting China's political environment and by contributing to acrimonious elite disputes, the conduct of rural literacy campaigns has suffered greatly since 1949.2 This paper seeks to explore briefly these aspects of rural literacy work in the PRC, particularly the impact of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) and its aftermath upon the eradication of rural illiteracy in China.

Background: Rural literacy campaigns 1949-19663

From 1949 to 1954 rural literacy campaigns developed rapidly and on a wide geographic scale in the PRC. Elite support for the elimination of rural illiteracy was well publicised and some campaigns were particularly effective - notably those based on experiences generated in peasant education during the Sino-Japanese and Civil Wars. However, others were not successful. In some cases the reasons for failure are familiar to any student of literacy campaigns elsewhere: teacher shortages, 'childishness' of teaching materials, conflicts between school schedules and farm-work cycles, funding problems, etc. But in many cases - perhaps the majority - the reasons for the lack of success derived from political factors peculiar to China in the early 1950s. China was at war with Korea and many local officials, eager to demonstrate their political loyalty by the fulfilment of patriotic state tasks (as illiteracy elimination was defined), resorted to forced enrolment and coercive physical and financial sanctions to retain students in class. At a time of nation-building when a clear need existed to explain new Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policies, many programmes suffered from an excessive intrusion of political subject matter into curricula. Peasants resented this and where possible voted with their feet against heavily slanted 'literacy' lessons which were no more and no less than full-blooded bouts of explicit political education - as one student was reported saying: 'politics tonight, politics tomorrow - not a character taught - is this what studying is all about?' The perception of planners may have been that peasants needed political education; many of their clients thought differently.4

For these and several other reasons, China's first national conference on rural adult education met in 1954 in an atmosphere of near crisis. After heated discussion, the conference's main decision was that rural literacy campaigns should henceforth be linked directly to the needs of impending rural collectivisation. In practice, this meant that curricula should be geared not to the provision of an education comparable to that available in formal full-time schools. Instead curricula were to be geared to the less 'formal' but very necessary task of equipping peasants, particularly political activists, with a knowledge of the Chinese characters for local place-names, crops, work procedures, tools and family names, i.e. those required for the recording of collective labour performance and the management and division of collectively generated income. Literacy was to be vocational and functional, geared towards the political objective of socialising agriculture.5

A few months later Mao intervened decisively in favour of this functional concept of rural literacy and with such a weighty political endorsement it seemed that rural literacy campaigns along these lines could hardly fail.6 Certainly this concept of functional literacy suggested a close linkage between the needs of the state (staff for collectivisation) and the peasant (the desire to monitor his own income, that of his peers and possibly acquire a skill which would lead to a management position in a newly-established collective). There were indeed some quite phenomenal successes in rural literacy campaigns in 1955 to early 1956. However, no sooner had these become apparent than contrary trends emerged. Once again, the reasons for such set-backs were largely political rather than educational. Mao had identified himself closely with collectivisation and in pursuing it at a rapid pace he had defied the opinions of those who had advocated a more gradualist approach. Local cadres had sought consequently to demonstrate their personal loyalty to the CCP Chairman by implementing excessively ambitious programmes of collectivisation which stretched local resources to breaking point. As part of this 'blind advance', rural literacy programmes soon began to suffer. Timetables for the achievement of literacy were compressed and follow-up work with the newly literate was often ignored. The following two quotations from subsequent provincial literacy work discussions are illustrative of the consequences of the excessively rapid extension of rural literacy work:

Many of our cadres, too eager to get good things done overnight, have asked the peasants to complete the work of eliminating illiteracy within a period of time much shorter than that stipulated by the government, using time which should have been devoted to production or leisure.7

Plan targets for illiteracy elimination have been set too high in the past because of an underestimate of the difficulties and complicated nature of anti-illiteracy work. In some places lack of a practical spirit has led to people being forced to attend classes. Places like these have stressed only increasing numbers and have neglected raising quality.8

In November 1956 the CCP's daily Renmin Ribao joined the chorus of complaints as follows:

During the literacy movement's development there have been cases of adventurism. In some areas reality was ignored, subjective and objective conditions were disregarded, illiteracy elimination plans were set at excessively high levels and at one time the practice of commandism was universal.9

In response to this situation professional literacy planners sought to calm the frenetic atmosphere. But Mao's adherence to the principle of rapid collectivisation made this a difficult task to pursue and planners therefore had to wait until the political climate was more conducive towards a de-escalation of the political impetus of collectivisation. Thus it was not until March I957 that the Ministry of Education felt secure enough to issue a formal directive calling for a literacy strategy based upon incremental and steady growth, improved quality and measures to overcome student and staff anxiety. The latter was a particularly pressing need since the 'blind advance' phase of literacy work during collectivisation had led many staff and students to commit suicide rather than be seen to have failed in target fulfilment or the acquisition of literacy.10

This directive had hardly been promulgated when its intentions were negated by the Great Leap Forward. The launching of the Great Leap Forward was facilitated by Mao recapturing the political initiatives in late 1957 and represented a bold plan to achieve rapid and simultaneous growth in industry and agriculture so that China's economic performance might outstrip that of advanced capitalist states. History soon demonstrated that the Great Leap strategy was wildly overambitious and that its implementation was very poorly planned. In the field of rural literacy work it had devastating effects. During the early stages of the Great Leap, many officials who had counselled caution in the past were summarily dismissed from posts in rural literacy planning agencies. The principal victim was Lin Handa, who had been the vice-Minister of Education responsible for adult education. He never regained his post and died in ignominy during the GPCR, having been condemned as a 'rightist' and 'class enemy'.11 After only just completing collectivisation, many peasants were reluctant to ascend higher on the ladder of socialised agriculture and thus were deemed to be in need of political education on the virtues of establishing larger collectives, the people's commune. Thus adult education curricula in rural China once again became heavily politicised with consequences similar to those outlined above.12 So far as the specifics of targets for the elimination of rural illiteracy were concerned, it was envisaged that with the Great Leap in progress some 30-40 million peasants were to become literate each year: a ten-fold increase over previous yearly averages.13

These grandiose targets were not achieved. By 1959 severe difficulties in implementing rural literacy campaigns were apparent. The pace at which individual programmes were conducted created massive problems of lack of retention amongst the newly literate; consolidation work had been neglected. Rural work loads increased phenomenally with the result that many peasants were simply too exhausted to attend literacy classes after responding to heavily charged slogans that they should (e.g.) 'compress twenty years' work into a single day'. Belatedly, the winter season, when peasants had customarily attended literacy classes, was devoted as part of the Great Leap strategy to labour-intensive construction tasks. Not surprisingly, enrolments collapsed from an all-time high of 112,000,000 in 1958 to 50,000,000 in 1959.14

These factors were compounded by a severe recession which swept through the economy between 1959 and 1961 caused by natural calamities, the cancellation of Sino-Soviet aid contracts and the flaws of the Great Leap strategy itself. Rural literacy programmes were devastated. Peasants were starving, or at least suffering extreme hardship and their perspective and that of national planners was clearly that all efforts should be concentrated on matters directly and immediately related to individual and national survival, i.e. not to the conduct of further literacy campaigns on a massive scale at rapid speed. Thus apart from a cautious and well-planned campaign in 1960,15 little was heard in national and provincial media of the conduct of rural literacy work for some years. Development work during the period 1960-65 appears to have been mainly concerned with (i) the establishment of a 'print environment', i.e. the improvement of publishing and distribution of rural reading matter for the newly literate and (ii) the provision of limited educational facilities for rusticated urban youths.16

By 1963 economic recovery was underway in rural China and with it steps to recommence the eradication of peasant illiteracy were taken in a number of provinces. However, no sooner had this recovery taken place than Mao launched the Rural Socialist Education Campaign in 1963. The objective of this campaign was to combat what Mao perceived as a decline in the revolutionary elan of cadres and peasants. By 1964-65 the campaign had begun to have a clear impact upon the conduct on rural literacy work. On the one hand it offered compelling political reasons why such work should be conducted, arguing that if poor peasants remained illiterate then their old (and new) 'class enemies' would continue to dominate rural society by virtue of the bourgeoisie's former monopoly of education.17 On the other hand, the campaign led to Mao's writings becoming the teaching material for all rural adult education work. Thus newspaper articles of 1965 and 1966 stated

In developing rural adult education it is necessary to give prominence to politics. In other words a spare-time school must arm the members of people's commune with Mao Zedong Thought and energetically organise them to study Chairman Mao's works.18

All those who want revolution, whether they are illiterate or not are able to study Chairman Mao's works ... rural Party organisations should guide peasants to study Chairman Mao's works on a large scale and put this work in the first position, above that of all other work.19

Thus by 1966 the priority of rural literacy work was clearly defined: to guide peasants to study politics, particularly the politics of Mao, who, on a much wider stage, was about to launch the GPCR.

'A decade of political and educational chaos: the GPCR'

According to the current official CCP canon, the GPCR was a 'lost decade' in which all sectors of the Chinese education system suffered immeasurably and irreparably. Institutions were closed; staff and students humiliated, tortured and murdered. What was the impact of the GPCR upon the conduct of rural literacy campaigns?

Much information has yet to be revealed, but it is clear that literacy work virtually collapsed between 1966 and 1968, experienced some reconstruction between 1968 and 1973 but thereafter was plunged into renewed chaos. What political factors lay behind this tortured saga?

1966-68: Destruction.

This period could broadly be described as the destructive phase of the GPCR. For example, the Chinese Ministry of Education was dissolved in 1966, not to be reconstituted formally until 1975. A similar fate was shared by provincial and county education bureaux, although their reconstruction took place somewhat earlier. Within rural China the GPCR itself was a relatively muted affair, principally because national leaders were determined to prevent the factional activity and violence of urban China spilling into rural China during the critical sowing and harvest seasons.

In itself, this meant that GPCR political activities in rural China were concentrated into the winter which, as indicated above, was the customary season when rural literacy work took place. At the same time, few officials were prepared to place themselves in the politically vulnerable position of administering or teaching literacy programmes at a time when educational policy and practice was being subjected to a highly critical and violent review on the streets of urban China. At best a minority continued their work using the 'cover' of Mao text-based lessons, but most local educators dropped out of any sustained campaign planning and execution.20

1968-73: Attempts at reconstruction.

With the central and local apparatus of the Ministry of Education in disarray, it is hardly surprising that the initiative for reconstruction did not come via a clearly articulated formal directive. Instead, it derived from a comment of Mao's on military participation in farm work in which inter alia he suggested that peasants should study culture (i.e. literacy and numeracy).21 Yet even Mao's imprimatur was insufficient to stimulate an immediate resumption of rural literacy campaigns. Those staffing educational institutions in the late 1960s frequently had little professional expertise, having received their appointments largely on the basis of political criteria. When literacy classes began to re-open in 1968-69 their curricula were once again heavily politicised - a 'safe bet' for officials but an action unattractive to clients who sought a more conventional basis for the establishment of literacy.

Simultaneously, the forced rustication of the cream of China's intellectuals and academics to rural China between 1969 and 1970 had a profound disincentive effect upon potential rural literacy students. If such a fate had afflicted China's best educated, there seemed to be little benefit in taking part in literacy classes, as one commune member was reported as saying:

since graduates from universities and middle schools all end up with shovels in their hands, what's the point in ... learning to read. 22

These problems were aired at a national education work conference in 1971. Soon afterwards the CCP's monthly Hong Qi and its daily Renmin Ribao ran a series of accounts on the typical (sic) examples of rural literacy work in two production brigades. The choice of brigades was extremely significant, for both had been praised fulsomely by Mao during the collectivisation drive of the mid-1950s for their literacy achievements. Given this, the publicity accorded to them was a further political signal that the CCP's Chairman approved of the reconstruction of rural literacy work. These accounts shed considerable light on grass roots developments between 1966 and 1971. Teachers' morale had collapsed as their earlier achievements had been criticised by GPCR 'leftists' and most had dropped out of educational work to earn a living as ordinary farmers. Only a few literacy classes had been run after 1968, these only after the intervention of local troops and stern orders from above, i.e. local initiative had collapsed. The frank confession of these problems was again a political signal to the rest of China: if such 'model' brigades had experienced difficulty with literacy work, then other brigades need not be ashamed at their own lack of progress; moreover, they could and should study the means by which literacy work had resumed operations in these brigades and derive lessons to guide their own reconstruction programmes.23

Following the publication of these articles the momentum for reconstruction was maintained by a steady stream of further publications in CCP media which continued until 1973. Most rural adult education institutions were described as 'political night schools' (zhengzhi ye xiao), but a careful examination of local material indicates that they included literacy as well as political education in their curricula and that real achievements in the eradication of rural literacy were being made again. The period 1971-73 was not without problems in rural literacy work, but these tended to be 'educational' issues, e.g. student recruitment, staffing, teaching methods and materials etc., i.e. those topics which had been areas of concern during stable political periods before the GPCR. Certainly, there is no indication in available sources that any substantial matters of policy were being debated or that rural literacy campaigns were experiencing anything other than a period of steady growth and success.24

1973-76: The impact of the 'Xiaojinzhuang experience'25

Since 1976, official PRC commentaries have suggested that the years 1973-76 witnessed substantial disruption of rural literacy campaigns due to the political activities of the 'Gang of Four', and particularly the malevolent mischief of Mao's widow Jiang Qing. Anyone familiar with the sorry tale of the USSR show trials might be inclined to dismiss such allegations. So too might those who have imagined from afar that the GPCR was a rewarding exercise in revolutionary socialism. Nonetheless there exists a massive body of pre-1976 evidence (i.e. that available before Jiang Qing's disgrace) which indicates that the 'Gang of Four' did take an interest in rural adult education and affect directly its development between 1973 and 1976. One example, which lies outside the scope of this paper, is the way in which the 'Gang' attempted to use a rural correspondence education network to gain local political intelligence and foment local disorders.26 But what of rural literacy work? The most illustrative example is the so-called Xiaojinzhuang experience.

Xiaojinzhuang, a production brigade on the outskirts of Tianjin, first emerged on the national rural literacy stage in a Renmin Ribao article published on 4 August 1974. The article portrayed Xiaojinzhuang as an exemplar of rural progressiveness, drawing particular attention to the 'Ten new things of Xiaojinzhuang'. Of these the first and that most directly related to rural literacy work was Xiaojinzhuang's political night school. Despite its title the school, like those referred to above, was clearly concerned with literacy education as well as political education.27 Had Xiaojinzhuang never been mentioned again in the PRC's media it would quickly have been forgotten both inside and outside China. However, the brigade and its school became the object of a national emulation campaign personally directed by Jiang Qing and between August 1974 and October 1976 no less than sixty nine articles about the brigade were published in national newspapers and hundreds more appeared in local media.

This campaign led to a major reorientation of rural literacy work and in doing so triggered a major dispute between Jiang Qing and Deng Xiaoping (then de facto Premier and senior CCP vice-Chairman) and Zhou Rongxin (then Minister of Education) during 1975 and 1976.

Jiang Qing's connection with Xiaojinzhuang was first acknowledged publicly in September 1974 when she escorted Imelda Marcos there in a blaze of publicity. In fact, she had first visited the brigade in June 1974 at the height of the national 'Criticise Confucius' campaign. She found the brigade's energetic criticism of the ancient sage most gratifying, overlooking the fact that the villagers did not know that in criticising Confucius they were being used as part of an allegorical campaign to criticise Premier Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. The brigade's political night school had taken the task of criticising Confucius seriously and had mounted special lessons on the topic. To Jiang Qing it seemed appropriate to give extensive support to these activities in order to widen backing for the criticism of Zhou Enlai. The 4 August article was thus intended not to be a 'one-off' article about cultural change, but the first of a long series ostensibly emanating from Xiaojinzhuang but in fact written by members of her personal staff.

In between Jiang's first visit to the brigade and her return with Mme Marcos, a secret directive was issued to provincial CCP officials in China calling upon them to heed well the 4 August article and launch a campaign to emulate Xiaojinzhuang in their own provinces. By the end of 1974 the campaign was in full swing: public notices to emulate Xiaojinzhuang had been issued, provincial media had rhapsodised about the brigade and similar Xiaojinzhuang-based 'models' and meetings of provincial education officials had been convened to discuss and disseminate a new approach to rural literacy work.28

During this period a subtle but unmistakable shift took place in public descriptions of Xiaojinzhuang's rural adult education work. Whilst the 4 August article had given fairly equal but separate emphasis to the political night school's achievements in literacy work and political education, by the end of the year emphasis was being placed upon the political function and content of literacy classes. Thus in December 1974 Hong Qi contained the following passage:

Over 250 members of the brigade have taken part in study. In the last three years 42 have cast off the label of illiteracy, over 190 have become able to write mass criticism articles, over 170 have become able to compose revolutionary poems and songs (and) a corps of poor and lower middle peasant political theorists has been established ... the political night school has become a classroom where commune members study revolutionary theory, a battlefield for criticising the bourgeoisie and a centre for developing revolutionary cultural activities.29

In practice nothing of the sort had happened, but this sort of fare and provincial media suggested that such practices were becoming universal in rural China.

However substantial, if temporarily unsuccessful, moves to counter such developments were afoot. 1975 began well for Jiang Qing and the advocates of Xiaojinzhuang-type literacy work in that the brigade's CCP secretary Wang Zuoshan secured election to the Standing Committee of the PRC's National People's Congress (NPC). But the NPC also appointed Zhou Rongxin as Minister of Education. Zhou had been dismissed during the early stages of the GPCR and humiliated at the hands of the Red Guards. Once in office he sought - with the active co-operation of Deng Xiaoping - to halt further dissemination of the Xiaojinzhuang experience and to readjust rural literacy campaign policy and practice. Deng and Zhou's concern was two-fold: that the experience was disrupting production and that the political activities and curricular bias of Xiaojinzhuang-styled night schools was undermining local rural leadership and the elimination of illiteracy.

Deng Xiaoping took two initiatives. Firstly, in mid-1975 he openly criticised Jiang Qing and her advocacy of Xiaojinzhuang at a meeting of the CCP's supreme decision-making body. The contents of this criticism are not recorded and media coverage of rural literacy continued to stress the political nature of literacy work. Deng next took the initiative at a national conference on rural policy convened in autumn 1975. In a long speech which sought an 'across the board' de-radicalisation of rural policy he blasted Xiaojinzhuang as being a false experience and called for an immediate cessation of all further publicity for the brigade. In response, Jiang Qing took to the rostrum and delivered an eulogy of Xiaojinzhuang. The contest was thus joined but both Deng and Jiang failed to have their respective views disseminated in documentary form (i.e. speech transcripts). For Deng the problem was that by late 1975 the 'Gang of Four' had a near total control over China's media which even he could not penetrate. For Jiang Qing this asset was undermined by Mao's response. Having read her speech, he issued one of his less elegant instructions: 'Shit. Wide of the mark ... don't distribute the text, don't play the recording, don't print the text'. In fact, my information is that Mao's scatological comment was not followed to the letter, for whilst the text of Jiang's speech was not distributed, a tape recording of the speech (and that of Deng's, complete with Jiang Qing's off-stage abuse) was circulated throughout China for the ears of CCP members working in education. The effect of this circulation will be considered below.30

Minister Zhou Rongxin adopted slightly less forthright tactics to undercut Xiaojinzhuang. Working with Deng Xiaoping, he had been travelling throughout China since January 1975, conducting a major review of all facets of GPCR educational policy. The results of his review indicated that the pursuit of 'radical' educational reforms in the GPCR had led to an alarming and unacceptable collapse of educational quality and that some return to a less overtly politicised concept of education was urgently required if Chinese economic modernisation was to succeed. So far as rural literacy campaigns were concerned, Zhou's plan was to convene a national literacy work conference which would revise policies in accordance with the view that political education for peasants should be conducted, but not at the expense of their remaining illiterate. As part of the planning arrangements for this conference, he directed the Tianjin Education Bureau to prepare a summary of Xiaojinzhuang's concrete results in illiteracy elimination. Believing (accurately as it turned out) that these results were non-existent, he hoped to use the report as powerful political ammunition in his bid to end the dissemination of the Xiaojinzhuang experience.

Minister Zhou was unsuccessful. Inspectors from Tianjin's Education Bureau began their work in Xiaojinzhuang, but were soon interrupted by the arrival back in Xiaojinzhuang of Wang Zuoshan. Wang had been in Beijing where a confidant of the 'Gang of Four' inside the Ministry of Education had alerted him to Zhou Rongxin's intentions. Once back in Xiaojinzhuang he steadfastly refused to allow the inspectors to continue their work, even when it was pointed out that they were acting with the authority of the PRC's Minister of Education. Soon the inspectors became the targets for intense political criticism and no report was made.31

During this saga Zhou had played into the hands of the 'Gang of Four'. He too had failed to gain access to national media to build support for a revision of national educational priorities, but two articles which he had commissioned for a provincial educational journal were published, only to draw the very public wrath of his opponents. One article criticised Dewey and child-centred learning (a veiled attack upon the GPCR's diminution of all teachers' authority); the other praised Lenin's Tasks of the Youth Leagues (a veiled attack upon the politicisation of curricula throughout China's GPCR educational system).32 As a result, Zhou became the target for wall-poster attacks on China's campuses and whilst continuing to attend his office at the Ministry he was subjected to violent criticism there which ended in his death in April 1976. Zhou's death coincided almost exactly with Deng Xiaoping being stripped of all his posts, with the result that public policy on rural literacy work continued to be the encouragement of Xiaojinzhuang-styled political night schools.33

The consequences were profound. At the time when Xiaojinzhuang was first being promoted (August 1974) rural literacy work was just beginning to recover some momentum after the initial assault of the GPCR. This momentum was all but halted in the winter of 1974-75. Administrators and teachers sought loyally to turn winter literacy schools into Xiaojinzhuang-styled political schools in accordance with official policy, only to encounter massive problems of student dropout. By the late summer/early autumn of 1975, when preparations for the 1975-76 season would normally have begun, literacy work was in complete disarray. Whilst Deng Xiaoping's and Zhou Rongxin's activities were essentially private and unreported in public media, restricted circulation reports, the tape recording of Jiang Qing's arguments with Deng and confused news and rumours of 'struggle at the Centre' had created vast confusion in rural China as to the most appropriate style in which to conduct literacy work. And the consequences of pursuing the wrong policy were clear for all to see in that Zhou Rongxin's unpleasant death was widely known. A wrong choice might thus determine not only one's political survival but also one's physical survival.

The common and sensible reaction of literacy workers in such a situation was thus simply to do nothing. In areas where education officials were sympathetic to the views of Deng and Zhou, some conventional literacy classes were conducted. In provinces where followers of the 'Gang of Four' held office, Xiaojinzhuang-style activities continued apace. But in the majority of areas the distribution or political loyalties and power was not clear-cut and literacy classes ceased. Such was the final impact of the GPCR upon the conduct of rural literacy campaigns.

Politics and rural literacy campaigns since the GPCR: an afterword

In the immediate aftermath of the GPCR, China's politicians and educational planners were concerned primarily with the need to restore order within the formal sector of China's education system and purge it of political sympathisers of the 'Gang of Four'. It was not until late 1979 that constructive comment on the future of rural adult education and literacy work began to appear with any frequency. Since then, a major emphasis has been placed upon the economic role of rural adult education, i.e. its role in developing vocational skill, and as a vital part of this role the preliminary task of eradicating rural illiteracy has been stressed. Elite divisions have continued, but they have not had as direct an effect upon rural literacy work as those of 1973-76 and the enormity of the task facing literacy planners has led to a frank condemnation of the 'blind advance' campaign styles of the past. Lessons have been learned and some senior spokesmen have gone so far as to suggest that the best long-run cure for rural illiteracy will be the development of universal primary education in China's countryside.

In the meantime rural illiteracy is almost certainly increasing in relative and absolute terms. In Hubei the underdevelopment of rural educational facilities means that the province produces 400,000 new illiterates each year and in China's vast national minority areas the incidence of illiteracy is as high as 70-80% of the population.34 When provinces began to publish census reports last year, many chose to dwell on levels of formal educational attainment in their populations and did not publish details of illiteracy - a very 'Chinese' way of indicating that major problems exist. Indeed, the 1982 census revealed starkly that educational planners had grossly under-estimated the incidence of illiteracy in the nation as a whole, for in 1979 it was suggested that there were 120,000,000 rural illiterates, less than half the number identified nationally in 1982.35

Moreover, illiteracy is not confined to the 'ordinary' peasantry. Much to the concern of China's political and economic planners, it also afflicts China's local rural officials. In Guizhou, over 50% of the province's production brigade CCP cadres in 1979 were 'either illiterate or semi-literate; they cannot even read documents'. Similar percentages have been reported from other provinces and if applied nationally, they would suggest that around 7,000,000 rural officials are incapable of performing properly the vital documentary tasks attached to their posts, whether as members of the COP or as production management officials. Needless to say, this is considered to be a substantial brake upon efforts to improve agricultural productivity and the effectiveness of the political system.36

The problem of rural illiteracy has been recognised and measures to solve it have received extensive elite support at national level. Hu Yaobang, CCP General Secretary, delivered a major speech of encouragement at a rural literacy work conference in 1979 and it is interesting to note that his own experience of rural literacy work extends as far back as the 1930s when he was responsible for peasant education in a CCP guerrilla base area.37 Until his retirement last year, Zang Boping acted as a very well-informed and active vice-Minister of Education in charge of the Ministry's rural adult education work. In some provinces, intelligent and articulate Education Bureaux officials have taken the work most seriously. Yet despite all this, current national enrolments in rural literacy classes are lower than in the 1950s even though the 'target group' is much larger and on at least one occasion annual enrolments appear to have declined.38 Why should this be the case?

Much further research is required before definitive answers can be given. However, three reasons suggest themselves on the basis of data currently available from documentary sources and limited field observations. The first two derive from the introduction of the so-called 'production responsibility system' and its impact upon rural society in the PRC. In essence, this system is based on the allocation of farm tasks to small groups or individual households rather than to the larger collective unit. The system also maximises the scope for private farming activity. It is clearly a popular system and one which has done a great deal to boost the quality and quantity of PRC agricultural output. Nevertheless, it has directly increased the opportunity cost to the individual peasant of devoting time to literacy classes. Under the responsibility system the peasant can derive a direct and tangible economic benefit from individual farm work, much more so than in the past. By contrast, the pursuit of literacy does not offer any immediate cash benefit.

The second problem relates to the funding of rural literacy programmes within rural China. Funding for rural literacy campaigns in the PRC has always been provided at local level - some funds from provincial education budgets, but most from collective income divided up in villages at the end of each farm season. This has always meant that literacy campaigns have generally fared best in the richer agricultural areas, but the production responsibility system's weakening of the collective base of Chinese agriculture has made it more difficult to generate funds on a collective basis for the operation of local literacy classes. The concept of opportunity cost is also relevant here in that choices are being presented of funding literacy classes - no immediate economic benefit and (e.g.) the purchase of fertiliser - immediate economic benefit.39

The third problem is a continuing problem of rural literacy campaign planning in the PRC, and relates to China's educational planning and administrative systems. The Ministry of Education does stipulate general targets and programmes for the elimination of rural illiteracy, but China's size and provincial and intra-provincial diversity dictate that much decision-making power is vested in provincial level bodies. The provinces in turn devolve powers to the county level of educational administration. Similarly, the Ministry does provide some central government funding for literacy work and remits it to the various provinces. The key level of administration is the county and here the problem lies. For the Ministry may remit funds to the province and the province in turn may indicate that it wishes literacy campaigns to take place, but if the county or lower levels decide that they would rather do otherwise with scarce resources then the Ministry is powerless to intervene. This problem is frankly admitted to by senior Ministry officials and it illustrates that despite the compelling arguments in favour of educational decentralisation in the PRC, such decentralisation does have its adverse effects.40

Current Chinese reports of rural literacy work and rural adult education present a contradictory picture. In some areas it is clear that rural literacy work has recovered fully from the ravages of the GPCR. Having acquired literacy, many peasants are proceeding onwards to classes in agro-technology and acquiring economic as well as cultural benefits from rural adult education. Yet in others, reports are more problem-oriented. Officials and individuals are attaching less importance to educational investment than to the direct and immediate improvement of the peasants' well-being. The attitude may be summed up in the Chinese jingle: 'Distant water will not put out a fire close at hand' and in areas where it is common it is clear that the politics of personal choice and the politics of planning and administration continue to exist as formidable barriers to an expansion of rural literacy work. It must be stressed that virtually no information about the conduct of rural literacy campaigns is available for some provinces. This raises two possibilities. It might be that literacy campaigns are being run in an orderly fashion in such provinces, presenting no problems which need comment in the educational press. Alternatively, it could be that the absence of media coverage about literacy work in these provinces indicates the prevalence of major problems of apathy, and suggests that the marginal costs of mounting literacy campaigns far outweigh their marginal benefits. Further research is needed before overall trends can be inferred with any accuracy.

A brief conclusion

Many recent Western studies of rural literacy campaigns in the PRC have tended to laud China's successes in the elimination of rural illiteracy.41 The data given at the beginning of this paper indicate clearly that major achievements have been made. However, the Chinese sources upon which this paper is based suggest that a good deal of circumspection is needed if one is to appraise the Chinese experience properly. As Chinese dialecticians put it 'one divides into two' (yi wei er fen). As the comparative educationist should put it, educational phenomena in particular states cannot be understood in isolation from their individual political context. For the policy-oriented comparativist there is a great deal in the Chinese experience which lends itself to replication elsewhere. There is also much that does not.



  1. Beijing Review, Nos. 45 and 48, 1982.
  2. E.g. Zang Boping, 'Chengren jiaoyu zai shehuizhuyi xiandaihua jianshe zhong de zuoyong', Hong Q, No 16, August 1980.
  3. For background and detail on this period, see Yu Bo, China's Experiences in Anti-Illiteracy Work, (UNESCO mimeo) March 1982 and Chambers, D. I., Spare-Time Education in the Peoples Republic of China (University of Bristol PhD dissertation) 1980, pp 270-390.
  4. See for example, Wang Zhongquing's 'Shanxi sheng yijiusijiunian dong xue yundong de zongjie baogao' in Zhongyang Renmin Zhengfu Zhengwuyuan Wenhua Jiaoyu Weiyuanhui, Wen Jiao Cankao Ziliao, (Sanlian Shudian, Beijing) IX, pp 16-40 and 'Min xiao gongzuo zhong de jige wenti', Renmin Jiaoyu, November 1950.
  5. 'Diyici quanguo nongmin yeyu wenhua jiaoyu huiyi', Xinhua Yuebao, September 1954; 'Jinyibu fazhan nongmin yeyu wenhua jiaoyu', Renmin Ribao editorial, 1 September 1954.
  6. Mao Zedong (ed.), Socialist Upsurge in China's Countryside, (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing) 1957, pp 425-444.
  7. Yang Jue, 'Why the individual interest and immediate interest of workers cannot be overlooked', Xuexi 2, July 1956 in Extracts from China Mainland Magazines (ECMM) (US Consulate General, Hong Kong) No 9, 1956 .
  8. 'Jiangsu calls conference on anti-illiteracy work', Xinhua Ribao, 21 October 1956 in Survey of China Mainland Press (SCMP) (US Consulate General, Hong Kong) 1431, 1956.
  9. 'Jijidi wenbudi saochu wenmang', Renmin Ribao editorial, 25 November 1956.
  10. 'Jiaoyu Bu guanyu saochu wenmang gongzuo de tongzhi', 8 March 1957 in Guowuyuan Fazhi Ju, Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Fagui Huibian (Falu Chubanshe, Beijing) V, pp 304-306.
  11. Compare Wen Kemin 'Lin Handa yiguan sanbu sixiang dusu he wumie Xin Zhongguo de yeyu jiaoyu he sao mang gongzuo', Wen Hui Bao, 25 August 1957 and Xinhua She, 13 July 1980, posthumous eulogy.
  12. Jia Jie, 'Why socialist education must be conducted among the peasants', Zhengzhi Xuexi 9, 13 September 1957 in ECMM 112 (1957).
  13. 'Yong geming jingshen saochu wenmang', Renmin Ribao editorial, 20 May 1958.
  14. Xinhua She, 5 November 1959.
  15. Li Ming, 'Jiakuai sao mang jindu, dujue fu mang daolu', Renmin Ribao, 12 February 1960.
  16. Chambers, D., op cit., pp 357-375.
  17. Guangming Ribao, 28 March 1964; Zhongguo Qingnian, 16 January 1965
  18. 'Develop energetically spare-time education in the countryside to serve the three revolutionary movements', Guangming Ribao editorial, 24 December 1965 in Union Research Service (URI, Hong Kong) 42:4.
  19. 'Guide the broad masses of peasants to study Chairman Mao's works in a big way', Renmin Ribao editorial, 25 January 1966 in SCMP 3631 (1966) Emphasis added.
  20. Chambers, D., op cit., pp 426 ff.
  21. Mao Zedong Sixiang Wansui (1969, np) pp 642-643.
  22. 'The poor and lower middle peasants have acquired culture', Hong Qi, August 1970
  23. 'Red banner in popularising spare-time cultural education for peasants', Renmin Ribao, 22 September 1971 SCMP 4990; 'An Mao Zhuxi zhishi ban hao yeyu jiaoyu', Hong Qi, June 1970.
  24. D Chambers, op cit., pp 432-433.
  25. Apart from the sources cited below and used in ibid, pp 433-442, this section is based on interviews held in Tianjin in April 1982.
  26. Shanghai Shifan Daxue Pipan Zu, 'Jiekai 'Si Ren Bang' liyong hanshou jiaoyu fan Dang de hei mu', Renmin Jiaoyu, January 1978.
  27. 'Ten new things at Xiaojinzhuang', Xinhua She, 3 August 1974.
  28. Various monitored provincial radio broadcasts, cited fully in Chambers, D., op cit., p 477.
  29. 'Zai liang tiao daolu douzheng zhong fahui zhandou baolei zuoyong', Hong Qi, December 1974.
  30. 'Sao mang shi 'niuzhuan zhengzhi ye xiao fangxiang' ma?', Renmin Jiaoyu, February 1978 and 'Jiang Qing and Xiaojinzhuang', Renmin Ribao article (nd) in SWB:FE, 17 January 1978.
  31. Tianjin interviews, April 1982.
  32. D Chambers, 'The 1975-1976 debate over higher education policy in the PRC', Comparative Education 13:1 (1977).
  33. 'Mao Zedong sixiang zhiyin women dingfeng qianjin', Hong Qi, May I976.
  34. Qian Jiaju 'Yao ba zengjia jiaoyu jingfei zuowei shijian 'si hua' de zhongyao zhanlue cuoshi', Jiaoyu Yanjiu, April 1980.
  35. Xinhua She, 12 December 1979
  36. Guizhou Ribao, 13 February 1979, Xinhua Yuebao, February 1979.
  37. See Chen Yuanhui (ed.), Lao Jiefang Qu Jiaoyu Ziliao (Yi) (Jiaoyu Kexue Chubanshe, Beijing) pp 395-398.
  38. If anything, the decline appears to be constant as the following official enrolment statistics indicate: 1979: 20,000,000, Xinhua She, 12 December 1979
    1980: 11,961,800, Zhongguo Baike Nianjian, 1981, p 481
    l981: 6,004,200, Zhongguo Baike Nianjian, 1982, p 579..
  39. Zang Boping, 'Tuanjie fendou, ban hao nongmin jiaoyu', Renmin Jiaoyu, February 1982.
  40. Interview, Ministry of Education, April 1982.
  41. For example, . H. S. Bhola, Campaigning for Literacy (UNESCO mimeo, May 1982), pp 79-101.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 22 May 2003