Tao Xingzhi: Public Education in China

History remembers the victors. Typically, what happens to those that have lost are lost to history, and if mention is made of those that fought against the victors, it is usually in an altered light. This is exactly where China was at the end of the nineteenth century. Historically, China was a proud nation where the rule of law commanded respect (unless you take a look at the Warring States Period). Dynasty after dynasty saw golden ages for China rise and fall. Then something quite remarkable happened. Europeans became very interested in China and all of the goods and services that it could provide. During this period of transition for China, losing several wars with European powers (Boxer Rebellion being the bloodiest and costliest) and finally losing to their neighbor, Japan, China lost all of its identity, and due to this loss of identity a new China needed to be created from its chaotic mess.

One of the most interesting things that happen in history or at least history makes way for the emergence of these people that make a difference. It is through these times where people great and small make the biggest impact. Enter Tao Xingzhi. Xingzhi, a disciple of Dewy, thought that education would be the only factor that could save China, and give back its true identity. Fundamentally, Xingzhi believed that “society is school” and that there is a “union of teaching, learning, and doing” (Weijia and Kaiyuan, pg. 95). However, what does this exactly mean? These terms above suggest, according to Xingzhi that it is through education where life truly is. Metaphorically, life is education and education is life. It is through experiences where students make the most with their learning because it is through those experiences that pupils understand the world around them (Hansen, 2007).

The philosophy of Dewy and the application of education is life and how those two seemly different things are two sides of the same coin prompted Xingzhi to understand where China was about its educational prowess. What Xingzhi found was 200 million (or about 50% of the population) Chinese peasants illiterate (Weijia and Kaiyuan, pg. 97). This is another viewpoint and philosopher that determined that real democracy can only be achieved if everyone was educationally literate. This would lift the people out of oppression and into the realm of true enlightenment (Fishman and McCarthy, 2007). Inadvertently, these principles of Paulo Freire were expressed with Xingzhi and how he says the illiteracy of the peasants. As such, later Xingzhi’s philosophy would change to include the mobilization of the peasants, and that without them (peasants) “a Chinese revolution won’t succeed” (Weijia and Kaiyuan, pg. 104). This is an interesting point to make since it was the same viewpoint that Mao Zedong achieved during the time of the Chinese Revolution in the 1940s, especially in Hunan. It was Mao’s prerogative to mobilize the peasants into a movement for a real revolution to take hold and grow. Though Mao never mentions the educational philosophy of Xingzhi, nevertheless, the similarities are uncanny (Suguru, 1975).

In the end, it is through these great moments in Chinese history that gives Xingzhi the title of Father of Modern Chinese Education. It is through the principles of Dewy that Xingzhi learned in the United States from Dewy himself that made Xingzhi realize that there was a fundamental problem in China and its educational system. The response? The development of schools that were created to produce a different style of learning. No longer would the typical direct instruction and students be taking mindless notes. Instead, Xingzhi introduced a rather Dewian approach to education using preparatory schools where students can learn the core classes (all hands on) and then take other courses that they viewed as an interest. Nonetheless, these schools weren’t used to create the next generation of bourgeois students, instead they were intended for education to be experienced and then those skills be taken back to various villages and be reported on what they (students) learned (Weijia and Kaiyuan, 2007). The history here ends, however, since the untimely passing of Xingzhi in mid-1946. The Chinese Revolution had been won, the communists were in power, and the free-thinking liberal parties and government were forced to exile to Taiwan. It would seem that the free-thinking of education and the progress that Xingzhi would pass along as well, only to be ridiculed by those that were victorious. However, liberal voices began to whisper louder and louder, and by the 1970s a new wave of intellectual thought and revolution was in the air. As a result, the philosophies of Xingzhi were re-imagined. As a product, Xingzhi could be labeled the ‘Modern Confucius’ since it was Confucius and his teaching that dominated Chinese education until someone like Xingzhi entered the historical stage.


Fishman, S. M. & McCarthy, L. Paulo Freire’s politics, and pedagogy. In Hansen, D. (Ed.). (2007). Ethical visions of education: Philosophies in practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hansen, D. (Ed.). (2007). Ethical visions of education: Philosophies in practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Suguru, Y. (1975). The Peasant Movement in Hunan. Modern China, 204–238.

Weijia, W. & Kaiyuan, Z. Tao Xingzhi and the emergence of public education in China. In Hansen, D. (Ed.). (2007). Ethical visions of education: Philosophies in practice (pp. 95–107). New York: Teachers College Press.