I. INTRODUCTION: A SNAPSHOT OF LITERACY AND ILLITERACY IN CHINA
“Any problem, multiplied by China's 1.3 billion people, is very large. But any problem divided by 1.3 billion people is very small. All you have to figure out, with any given problem, is whether you should multiply or divide.”1
The mathematics of illiteracy has challenged Chinese leaders and educators since the turn of the 20th century, when China’s illiteracy rate stood at roughly 85-90% of the total population.2 Fifty years later that figure remained virtually unchanged.3 In contrast, literacy rates from the 1950s onward chart an upward climb, with most estimates indicating that on average 4 million people per year became literate. (Zhang, 1997; Bhola, 1990) The relative efficacy of political, economic and educational policies in reducing illiteracy has been subject to intense debate. (Peterson, 1997; Hayford, 1987; Seeberg, 1990; Bhola, 1990). Keeping in mind the “unstable state of Chinese literacy studies,” (Peterson, 1997, 4) scholars generally agree that China is a literacy success story.4
By 1959 rates among youths and adults (aged 12-40) fell from 80% to 43%. By 1979 this figure had dropped to 30%, by 1982 to 25%, and by 1988 to 20%. (Wang, 1985; Wang and Li, 1990) China’s national censuses of 1964, 1982, 1990, and 2000 reported slightly different declines of illiterates as a percentage of the total population (which increased during those years from approximately 694,580,000 to 1,265,830,000) from 33.58%, to 22.81%, to 15.88% to 6.72%.(Li, 1992; Meng, 2002)
According to 2000 census data, 86.992 million adults in China were illiterate, 20.55 million of whom were between the ages of 15 and 50.5 Three quarters of these illiterates lived in rural areas. Seven provinces and regions had the highest illiteracy rates, including Tibet, Yunnan, Guizhou, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia (Figures 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 and Tables 1, 2, 5 and 6) Tibet’s illiteracy rate was 37%-38%, the illiteracy rate of Yunnan, Guizhou, Gansu and Qinghai varied from 10%-15%, and the illiteracy rate of Inner Mongolia was 7%-8%.6
Primarily on the basis of 2000 census findings, the State Council declared on New Year’s Day 2001 that China had met the goals of achieving the “two basics” of literacy, that is basically achieving 9-year compulsory education and eradicating illiteracy among youths and middle-aged adults. (Xie, 2000) While recent literacy policies that primarily target literacy training toward this very age group indicate that this announcement was premature, demographic and educational trends will sustain its momentum into the future. China’s dependency ratio, the size of its school age population in relation to its active population, is expected to decline from the 13% range of the 1990s to 9% in 2010. China's basic education enrolment rates, while controversial in their national reportage, are higher than those of most other lower income countries, with more than 98.4% of the 6 - 11 age cohort enrolled in primary school and over 78.4% of the 12 - 15 age cohort in lower secondary school (Figures 8 and 11 and Tables 10, 11, and 12).
However, the 9% drop in overall illiteracy rates between 1990 and 2000 was accompanied by regional and urban-rural disparities in basic education provision and development, a political compromise with equity that as early as 1990 was already identified as a major point of concern by literacy specialists.(Stites and Semali, 1991) (See Tables 13 and 14) Although China has experienced a quadrupling of per capita income over 20 years, lifting ¼ of a billion people out of poverty, poverty reduction slowed in the second half of the 1990s. Since then the numbers of Chinese citizens in poverty have remained relatively constant with the better off reaping the benefits of China’s robust economic growth rate. Increased urban-rural disparities in income and resources have negatively affected educational attainment and achievement for rural children jeopardizing full literacy and its social benefits7 (Figure 13 and Table 9). They have also been a major factor in tightened connections in literacy education programs between literacy education and skills training among adults. (Meng, 2002; Jing and Qi, 2005)
Three primary barriers to literacy have shaped China’s literacy and UPE policy agenda and context for the next decade. One barrier, the lack of resources and programs for China’s disabled population, has yet to be adequately recognized and addressed in state policy or by the public. A second barrier, the inadequacy of educational resources in many rural and particularly national minority communities, has since 2000 figured centrally in China’s development strategy, leading to recent decisions to abolish primary school fees in the poorest villages. The third barrier is a diminishing but still evident gender gap in literacy rates beyond the primary school level (Figures 4, 10, 16, 17 and Tables 7, 8, 16, 17, 18). Since 1990 literacy policy has “targeted” females, particularly poor and/or minority girls and youths. Whereas 42 % of Chinese women over 25 were illiterate in 1990, less than 26% of women over 15 were illiterate in 1998. This compared to 9% illiterate men over 15 years of age in 1998. Over 70% of China’s 240 million illiterates and semi-illiterates in 2000 were women. In 2000 China’s adult literacy rate (15+) was 90.9%, 95.1% for males and 86.5% for females. The youth literacy rate (15-24) was 98.9%; 99.2% for males and 98.5% for females. China’s overall illiteracy rates are expected to fall a further 43% by 2015, and China is one of 24 nations listed in the 2003-2004 Global Monitoring Report that have achieved gender parity in primary schooling. Most but not all studies predict that China will also achieve gender parity in secondary education by 2015.8
The sheer size of China’s population makes achieving literacy for all a daunting task, and 11% of the world’s 800 million illiterate adults live in China. Nevertheless, in comparison with other E-9 countries China is making significant progress in eliminating illiteracy and offering youths and adults access to training that provides them with literacy integrated with skills teaching or “literacy with functionality.”(Bhola, 1990) Even with growing regional disparity in literacy rates, China’s disparities are less than those in India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. (UNESCO, 2001). Only Mexico had a higher male adult literacy rate (93% in Mexico, 92% in China) and only three E-9 countries (Mexico, Indonesia, and Brazil) had higher female adult literacy rates than China (89%, 82%, 85%, and 76% respectively). We conclude that with continued political will and increased educational resources provided to those most in need, China could redress these gaps and basically eliminate illiteracy, except among the disabled and the elderly, during the 2003-2012 United Nations Literacy Decade.
We begin our explanation of this assessment with an examination of how literacy in China has been conceptualized and used for political, economic and social purposes. The processes of economic integration, educational globalization and demographic changes that have altered China’s socio-political landscape together create alternative meanings of literacy in rural, urban and peri-urban areas. In 1984 UNESCO proclaimed that, “eighty per cent of China’s population is rural. The problem of eradicating illiteracy in China is basically the problem of educating the peasants.” (UNESCO, 1984, p. 7) With 50% of China’s poor living outside poor counties (World Bank, 2004) and 38% of the total population now designated urban China in 2005 is a different country with different literacy challenges.
II. LITERACY AND ILLITERACY IN THE CHINESE CONTEXT:
HISTORICAL AND CONTEMPORARY PATTERNS OF LITERACY PROVISION “The pursuit of literacy for nation-building and economic development has been a central theme in the history of reform and revolution in China throughout the twentieth century. It was not until the communist revolution of 1949, however, that China embarked on a determined nationwide effort to eradicate the scourge of mass illiteracy. Indeed, the literacy programs mounted in China after 1949 constitute what is perhaps the single greatest educational effort in human history.” (Peterson, 1997, 3)
Literacy policies and practices since the turn of the 20th century provide the context for our examination of the relationships among illiteracy, literacy provision, and multiple dimensions of development. Concepts of “functional literacy” dominate contemporary Chinese literacy studies, and they include three key features.9 One is the preponderance of literacy definitions based on an individual’s recognition and/or use of a minimum number of characters (or alphabets/words in the case of minority languages).10 The second is the maintenance of different levels of competency for rural and urban residents.
The third is that literacy often means literacy in standard modern Chinese, rather than in a national minority language. China’s traditions of elite language usage, definitions of modernization, and approaches to state-building have empowered a single standard language politically, legally, socioeconomically, and even aesthetically.(Zhou, 2004) Although China’s early nation (as opposed to state) building efforts supported the codification, development and protection of many minority languages, its more recent state-building drive has eroded such support. This policy shift is designed to encourage and enable minority groups to be able to communicate with, and ideally assimilate into, Han society. Coupled with the forces of globalization, China’s modernization and marketization drive favors two dominant languages, Chinese putonghua as the national commonly-used language and English as a world language. Because of the complexity of China’s linguistic landscape and because literacy has been so tied to the standardization and popularization of one national Chinese dialect, the following history focuses primarily on Chinese language literacy. The dominant literacy policy and practice trends below then provide the context for our discussion of literacy challenges among China’s minority nationality communities.
Our chronology of Chinese literacy is divided into four periods.11 Within each period we summarize state literacy policy and regulations; formal, informal and nonformal educational programs; and progress and failures in: 1) literacy education and adult education designed to eliminate existing illiteracy; 2) literacy education and universal primary education/compulsory schooling to prevent new illiteracy; and 3) literacy education and post-literacy measures designed to sustain newly acquired literacy skills. Our analysis is based on the assumption that literacy, far from being a universal good that can be measured by one standard, in fact plays multiple, contradictory, and frequently unequally distributive social, political and economic roles, and is heavily influenced and inflected by the particular uses of languages in specific communities.12 This conceptualization of literacy has been influential in Chinese literacy studies since Evelyn Rawski’s path-breaking study of literacy in China’s premodern period. Rawski challenged the assumption grounding previous scholarship that the benchmark for Chinese literacy was the high culture knowledge and sensibilities of the scholar official. Rawski recognized that outside that tradition tens of millions of Chinese employed “practical literacies” that embodied a continuum of skills including knowledge of several hundred characters particular to their trade or daily activities. With this definition Rawski concluded that by the turn of the 20th century, when less than half of all males had any formal schooling, as many as 30% - 45% of men and 2% - 10 % of women were “literate.”
A CHRONOLOGY OF LITERACY POLICY, DEFINITIONS AND PRACTICE: 1905-2005 Changing definitions of literacy and literacy education policy and practice in China have been shaped by a complex set of factors, including China’s experiences with “modernity” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the size and complexity of Chinese geography and demography; chronic fiscal weakness of the Chinese state throughout most of the last century; state policies privileging urban over rural education and development and industrial over agricultural development; and a tug of war over who and what the state education system should serve. (Pepper, 2000; Bailey, 1990; Peterson, 1997)
Two important starting points help clarify this history. The first is that there is more consistency than change across China’s 1949 divide. “The government of the People’s Republic that came to national power in 1949 drew on several generation’s worth of aspiration and experimentation; they coordinated a flexible and diverse structure for increasing literacy that drew on roots as diverse as the Manchu and nationalist formal school systems, the YMCA’s health campaigns, the literacy movements in the Soviet Union, and the Chinese village school.” (Hayford, 1987, 167) These helped create a “talismanic faith in universal literacy as the touchstone of China’s modernization.” (Peterson, 1997, 13)
The second is that uneven distribution of literacy and educational provision in contemporary China is not only a function of poverty or remoteness of a region from market centers, of cultural patterns privileging male education, or of discrimination against or neglect of minority and disabled populations. It is also a consequence of state policies shaped by the reluctance of political elites and professional educators, from the late Qing to the present, to place in non-elite hands “politically empowering literacy.” (Woodside, 1992; Pepper, 2000) China’s current campaign to provide basic schooling for children in her poorest counties, as well as her adult literacy are a legacy of communist policies to create through education and residency restrictions “statutory peasants.”(Peterson, 1997)
Three additional themes are significant to understanding Chinese literacy programs. First, literacy has been conceptualized not primarily as a technical skill but as a moral template for cultural identity and modernity. As such, Chinese literacy education has been used “to retheorize or reimagine” politics, economic systems, and Chinese society itself.” (Woodside, 1994, 459) Thorgersen argues that “the initiation, speed, and direction of educational reforms have been linked more directly to the political needs of the state than to developments in production and economic life.” (Thorgersen, 2002, 7) This pattern has shifted in the last decade, changed by altering state-society relations as well as China’s participation in and leadership in international efforts to universalize literacy. (Meng, 2002)
The second theme, mentioned above, is the privileging in language and literacy programs of a variant of Chinese over other Chinese “dialects” and minority languages and scripts. In addition to the 120 languages of China’s diverse national minority populations, seven major Chinese language “dialects” are spoken in China. Because the word dialect is a misleading concept for referring to major Chinese languages, we prefer and use in this report a more literal translation of the Chinese term fangyan (place or region language), topolect.13 Topolect underscores the great variation and often mutual unintelligibility of spoken Chinese languages. We use dialect in this report to refer to variants of topolects. For example, China’s standard common language, putonghua, referred to as Mandarin in English,14 is one dialect among an extensive and diverse northern Chinese topolect. The Cantonese (Yue) topolect is spoken in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and parts of Hainan and Macau. Most of the inhabitants of Hunan use the Xiangtopolect, also known as Hunanese. The Min topolect is spoken in Fujian, large areas of Taiwan and Hainan, parts of Eastern Guangdong and the Leizhou Bandao Peninsula, and in areas of Southeast Asia. Most of the people living in Jiangxi, eastern part of Hunan, and the southeastern corner of Hubei use the Gan dialects. The Kejia or Hakka topolect is spoken in Guangdong, southwestern Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan, Hainan, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, many overseas Chinese communities, and in pockets throughout Southeast Asia. The majority of the inhabitants of Zhejiang, as well as people living in southern areas of Jiangsu and Anhui, speak the Wu topolect. Wu shares marginal mutual intelligibility with the Mandarin and Gan topolects. Speakers of all seven topolects share the written Chinese language upon which literacy measures are based.
A third theme is the lack of consensus regarding the outcomes of the single greatest educational effort in human history. (Pepper, 2000; Seeberg, 1990; Peterson, 1997; Thorgersen, 2002). Critical appraisals of China’s much heralded literacy campaigns from the 1950s to the 1970s emerged primarily after the release of China’s 1982 census data, which served for Chinese politicians as a wake up call and provided international scholars with information not available since the previous national census of 1964. Demonstrably high illiteracy rates, coupled with dissatisfaction with Cultural Revolution education policies, triggered sustained debate about how to balance educational quality and quantity. Leading officials, echoing earlier criticisms of communist educational programs in the 1940s, deemed the failure of basic education as one of the three “big mistakes’ of CCP policy.15 Rural residents became subordinated like full literacy itself “to the greater demands of economic development and political struggle.”(Peterson, 2000, 7)
1905-1949 Literacy for Saving, Securing, and Strengthening China Reformers at the turn of the 20th century recognized literacy as central to an effective security strategy. High levels of basic literacy, and the public goods linked to it, helped explain to Chinese reformers why Japan had been able to defeat China and Russia in a span of 10 years. Not long after China’s imperial entrance examination was abolished in 1905, literacy policies included the expansion of basic schooling, language reform, and informal social education for adults. Although adult literacy programs began as early as 1908 in “language made easy schools,” (Hayford, 1987, 155) in the public mind literacy, embodied in knowledge of Confucian texts, was admired primarily as the route for acquiring access to a world of elite cultural values.
Republican educational reforms included the development of a “modern” school curriculum, citizenship and girls’ education,16 as well as literacy campaigns for adults. During the 1920s and the 1930s literacy was advocated as a key to modernization, first for national cohesion and then for rural reconstruction. Literacy campaigns with millions of participants were run through libraries, reading rooms and education halls by populist educators like James Yen, Tao Xingzhi, and Liang Shuming who “invented the countryside” through their efforts to bring science to it. (Peterson, 15; Hayford)
At the same time, the CCP struggled, not always successfully, to reach and gain the support of rural residents through educational and literacy programs.(Seybolt, 1971) During the mythologized Long March from 1934 to 1935 soldiers carried out educational work among the peasants. Between 1937 and 1944 these activities intensified to include literacy education campaigns in urban and rural areas; night schools and half-day schools, literacy groups, news reading groups, tiny libraries carted by donkeys from village to village, mass reading campaigns, and a winter study campaign. Communist policies consolidated the dual system of supported town schools and local minban or popularly managed schools in villages and primarily built on traditional and local forms of communication and “political mobilization and general communication were more important than general literacy.” (Hayford 164)
In 1935 the Nationalist government initiated a drive for the universalization of basic education. Between 1935 and 1940 the plan called for all children to receive at least one year of school, between 1940 and 1944 two years of school, and after 1944 all children were to receive at least 4 years of primary schooling. This ambitious goal, ultimately beyond the financial resources of rural communities, was to be accomplished through the use of short term primary schools and reformed traditional private schools (for the study of the Confucian classics). While many students went to school, impact on long term literacy was forestalled both by the short time children spent in school and the war with Japan. By the 1940s war efforts had drained education coffers and adult and cadre education took precedence over basic education for children. (Thorgersen, 2002)
The literacy and educational outcomes of this energized period were disappointing. Reformers, who were contemptuous of the conservative curriculum of old-style private schools, failed to build on their strengths, essentially creating a dichotomy between mass education and a more elite school system.(Pepper, 2000) This dichotomy left a “missing interface” between modern schools and the daily political and social needs and lives of rural residents. (Thorgersen, 2002) The biggest impact of UPE reforms was on teacher training. The rural reconstruction movement established new teaching methodologies and curricula that “attempted a radical reconstruction of rural, political, social and economic structures through the medium of education.”(Thorgersen, 2002, 92)
The period prior to 1949 laid the foundation for literacy work in the first three decades of the communist era. Two parallels are striking. First, “Throughout the twentieth century the redistributive role of the state in rural education has been very restricted, and as rural communities were left to organize and fund their own schools they were also able to exert considerable influence over them.”(Thorgersen, 2002, 11) Second, adult education took priority over the education of children, (Bhola, 1984; Thorgersen, 2002) and theprimacy of adult education in literacy policy continued well into the communist period. Only after 1978 did the universalization of primary education become conceived as an important means to prevent new illiterates. Not surprisingly, formal, informal and nonformal educational programs for adults gradually waned.