The Expansion of Education in the Qing Dynasty:
Confucian Indoctrination as Ideal and Reality
The expansion of education in China during the Qing dynasty is a topic of ambiguity. This ambiguity starts with the term ‘education’, for, in order to speak about an expansion of it in China one has to be aware of the fact that there are different forms of education and that these forms incorporate different prerequisites, applications, and goals. In Qing China, where ‘imperial Confucianism’ was established as the “absolute criterion for thought and conduct”, Confucian ideals were forced upon the people via different media, ranging from oral transmission for the illiterate to primers for boys attending elementary school to the canonized Four Books and Five Classics for civil service examination candidates. There could be no distinct ‘general education’ in our modern sense for all Chinese strata. Thus, the Chinese government had to employ different strategies among the range of social strata in order to achieve a dissemination of Confucian ideals with the ultimate goal of social stability.
In this essay I will discuss the different approaches to this task and the ways in which the ideals of the ruling elite were reflected in the reality of the people.
Forms of education
Defining the term ‘education’ for Qing China is not a trivial task. In contrast to our sense of a ‘general education’ that permeates all social realms, only possible because of a certain amount of minimal standardization, equal education for all inhabitants of the Chinese empire was never intended by the ruling elite. Therefore, education had entirely different meanings for a Chinese peasant and an official at court. One might be inclined to see literacy as a prerequisite for education. However, being illiterate did not preclude education per se.
One example of a means to educate illiterate villagers to some degree can be drawn from the Xiangyue lecture system. The Xiangyue lectures were initially inaugurated in 1652 because of the Shunzhi emperor’s intention to proclaim his Six Maxims of a Hortatory Edict  . These maxims were extended on several occasions: In 1670, the Kangxi emperor wrote a set of sixteen maxims (The Sacred Edict of Kangxi) and in 1724, the Yongzheng emperor wrote The Amplified Instructions of the Sacred Edict amounting to about 10,000 words. These oral lectures were given by shengyuan scholars over the age of 59 at fixed intervals and open to attend for people of any social or ethnic status.
Another level of education was attempted to be achieved by expanding the network of schools accessible to more than already educated scholar and elite families. These schools were to widen the geographical as well as the social scope of education, but were by no means a novel concept in Qing China. However, the fact that their general number significantly increased compared to the preceding Ming dynasty, while not noticeably changing in commercial centers, reveals their rising presence in the countryside. The most important of these schools were the so-called “charitable schools”, comparable to public elementary schools. Ideally, spreading elementary schools across the empire meant the expansion of at least a certain form of literacy among the people and, more importantly, helped create a mindset of possible improvement of one’s own situation, which was, in case of the peasants, characterized by hardship and constant struggle for survival. While the schools’ curriculum involved functional contents to allow members of the peasant stratum to engage in activities and to simply do the accounting of their farms, it mainly rested on three primers throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties: Sanzijing (Trimetrical Classic), Qianziwen (Thousand Character Classic), and Baijiaxing (The Hundred Names), also collectively known as the San Bai Qian. 
 Hsiao (1960), p. 184.
 I equate Elman’s mention of literacy with education here, because any kind of ‘equal education for everyone’ would have never meant ‘illiterate education’ for the Chinese government. Woodside & Elman (1994), p. 547
 Hsiao (1960), p. 185.
 Hsiao (1960), p. 185.
 Ibid., p. 185, 191.
 Woodside & Elman (1994), p. 526.
 Ibid., p. 527.
 Rawski (1985), pp. 29-30.
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- China Chinese culture history Qing dynasty late imperial early modern Modernism Confucianism Education expanding Expansion Indoctrination real ideal