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Women and Education in China: How Much Progress?

China’s Economy and the Maoist Strategy

by John G. Gurley
Monthly Review Press, 325 pp., $5.95 (paper)

China’s Economic Revolution

by Alexander Eckstein
Cambridge University Press, 340 pp., $7.50 (paper)

After thirty years, how successful has the Maoist regime been in conquering the terrible poverty and inequality which China suffered under capitalism?

In the last issue we looked at the regime’s record in dealing with health and hunger, which determine whether life can be lived at all (NYR, April 5). We found that such typically enthusiastic surveys of China as those by Al Imfeld and John Gurley did not recognize many of the regime’s failures, especially in food production. The work of the late Alexander Eckstein was more accurate and realistic. In this issue we consider a few of the things that make for a decent social life: literacy and respect for women. By examining how well the Maoist regime has provided such benefits to its people, we will be in a better position to arrive, in a final article, at conclusions about existing inequality in China and to compare China’s successes and failures to those of other nations.



Before 1949, something like five-sixths of China’s adults were illiterate.1 How well can the Chinese read today? Father Imfeld in his recent book claims that “in barely a generation, a nation of 700,000,000 [sic] people became literate.” He tries to back assertion with fact. Here is the “fact”: “Today almost everybody in China belongs to an organized study group.” True, but this is irrelevant: the groups to which he refers are for political study (self-criticism, memories of bitterness, and the like); they are not calligraphy classes. Professors Gurley and Eckstein talk about “rising” literacy, but since more than 80 percent of the Chinese couldn’t read or write before the Liberation, there was considerable ground for improvement. How much of this gap did the Maoist experiment actually close?

The fact of the matter is, no one knows, not even the Chinese. There are no figures on literacy, and statistics on education are scanty and unusually contradictory. Even if our information on China were perfect, however, we would be hard pressed to come up with a single statistic that would represent basic educational attainment unambiguously, for “literacy” is an especially slippery concept. “Functional literacy” is different today in India and England, just as it has differed from generation to generation within England as well. Remember: two centuries ago any European who could sign his own name in the parish marriage register was considered literate.2 How would we define literacy today? By the ability to write an order for a bag of fertilizer? To read a telephone book? To fill out one’s own income tax form? Probably the definition would vary not only from country to country, but also from region to region, from city to countryside, and even from profession to profession.

Since information is scarce and the definition of literacy is confused, it should not be surprising that estimates of China’s literacy rate differ. Still the differences are astonishing. The Asia Society cites a figure of 95 percent literacy. This would be twelve points higher than Cuba, eight points higher than Israel. At the other end, the CIA estimates only 20 percent. This would be five points lower than either Bangladesh or Nigeria, nearly twenty points below Iran. Clearly, both these figures are absurd. For the Asia Society’s figure to reflect reality, not only would every single child raised under communism have learned to read and write—an achievement which even East Germany, a nation with near universal literacy to begin with, cannot claim—but more than 80 percent of the adults raised before the Liberation would have to be literate as well.

We know, however, that more than 80 percent of them were illiterate, and that, sadly, after a generation of adult literacy campaigns around the globe, no poor country has been able to keep anywhere near that proportion of its late-starting pupils reading after they leave the schoolhouse.3 The CIA figure is equally implausible: it would imply that the vast adult education campaigns of the early 1950s bore absolutely no fruit, and that less than one child in four has picked up basic skills since the Liberation. Some adults, of course, learn to read in any program, despite their teachers, and there is no known school system where more than half of the students fail to learn to read. To say that the true literacy figure is somewhere between these two extremes is not much help, since they are seventyfive points apart.

To estimate how many children had passed through primary school, and try to infer literacy rates from this, might seem fruitful. But going to school and being able to read are not synonymous. In early modern Western history, many people learned their three Rs outside the classroom (although it may be more difficult to master an ideogram system than a phonetic alphabet). Conversely, if secondary schools in New York City can turn out functional illiterates, it would not be unreasonable to assume that primary schools in rural Hunan or Kansu might have done so as well—especially during the years when students were graded on political attitude rather than written performance. Finally, even after students graduate from primary school, they can forget how to read and write if these skills are not regular parts of their lives. At the beginning of the Meiji era in Japan, for example, just under half of all men had been schooled,4 but there is good evidence that only about a third of the adult male population could read or write.5 School attendance, nevertheless, will tell us something about literacy; in any event it is the only handle we can grasp for.

Our best hope for getting at enrollment ratios is to take the reported proportion of the total population that is in primary school and compare this with the proportion of China’s total population that we would expect to be of primary school age. Conveniently, D.M. Lampton, a political scientist at Ohio State University, has done this.6 He shows that over 14 percent of the country is attending primary school now, and this would be consistent with an enrollment ratio of over 90 percent. For 1952, he shows that just under 9 percent were in primary schools; this would be very roughly consistent with an enrollment ratio of 50 percent. The increase from 9 percent to 14 percent seems to follow a smooth pattern, although we do not have figures for every year, and we know that education was disrupted during such campaigns as the Cultural Revolution. If we had to quantify the proportion of children who passed through primary school for 1952 to 1976, the best range would seem to be two-thirds to three-quarters. These children would now be between fifteen and forty years old, and given the age structures implied by the figures of John Aird and Leo Orleans,7 they would make up between three-fifths and two-thirds of the adult population.8 Of their elder comrades, probably no more than a third went through grade school. We can calculate that between a little over 50 and a little over 60 percent of Chinese have had some basic education.

What level of literacy would this range suggest? The literacy rates of other countries where around 40 or 50 percent of the population never went to school may be instructive. In Turkey, where nonattendance is about 50 percent, literacy is believed to be around 55 percent. In Peru, where a third of those over twenty-five (and an even smaller fraction of those over fifteen) missed schooling, 28 percent of the country is still unable to read or write.9 If we give China the benefit of the doubt, and assume not only that all who passed through school kept their skills but that some who were passed by picked up literacy later on, then we might get literacy rates as high as 60 to 70 percent today.

If this guess is right, how would China compare with her other Asian neighbors? She would be far ahead of India and Pakistan (36 percent and 25 percent, respectively), but significantly behind Sri Lanka (84 percent); ahead of Laos (22 percent), and “Kampuchea” (50 percent), but not necessarily ahead of Indonesia (60 percent) or Malaysia (61 percent), and definitely behind Singapore (76 percent), the Philippines (80 percent), Thailand (82 percent), Taiwan, and South Korea (88 percent each).

In some sense, comparing literacy in China and the Philippines is unfair. For the first forty years of this century the Philippines was an American “Protectorate,” and one of the “gifts” our colonial bureaucrats bestowed upon the archipelago was a system of “near-universal” primary education. When the Maoist regime was still sizing up the dimensions of its educational problem, this system was fully functioning. On the other hand, some countries were at a distinct disadvantage against China. It was part of Dutch policy, for example, to keep the Indonesians uneducated; one of the factors contributing to Sukarno’s phenomenal rise to power was that he was one of about four dozen native college graduates in a country whose population was then already over sixty million.

China, it must be remembered, started out as a relatively literate civilization; in fact, for most of recorded history the Chinese were the best educated people in the world. After the generation of the education explosion, a literacy rate of 16 percent may not look very good, but think what this meant. More than 30 percent of China’s men could read. Around the turn of the century, only 20 percent of the men in what is now the Soviet Union could do so. Southern and Eastern Europe certainly could not have bested China’s literacy rate for men, nor, with the single exception of Japan, could any country in Eastern Asia.

In estimating literacy rates for China, of course, we have been indulging in a guessing game; we simply do not have the information we need, and even if we did, definitions of literacy would complicate matters. And there would always be the problem of comparing cultural systems which use very different alphabets—the Chinese is much harder to learn, much easier to forget. But unless these speculations are entirely off base, there is really little reason to believe that China has eradicated illiteracy, or even that its educational strategy has produced decidedly more impressive results than those of its nearest neighbors.

Who are China’s illiterates? Chinese reports claim that both school attendance and literacy are close to universal in the urban areas, and visitors’ reports confirm this. Illiteracy is a problem of the countryside, and if our guesses are in the right range, it is still a serious problem: as much as half of China’s rural population may not be able to read or write. Illiterates tend to be older. They also tend to be women, not men. The reason China’s overall literacy rate was a sixth when nearly a third of the men could read and write was that more than 98 percent of the women could not. Even if the gap between access to school for men and women is now entirely wiped out—and as we shall see there are hints that it may not have been—the proportions of women going to school or taking the sorts of jobs that would teach them to read over the past two generations have been lower than for men.

  1. 1

    See John L. Buck et al., Land Utilization in China (University of Nanking, 1937). Professor Evelyn Rawski of the University of Pittsburgh set me straight on several points about literacy in China, and helped me find information on several others.

  2. 2

    Carlo Cipolla, Literacy and Development in the West (Penguin, 1969).

  3. 3

    See Philip H. Coombs, The World Educational Crisis (Oxford University Press, 1968).

  4. 4

    Ronald P. Dore, Education in Tokugawa Japan (University of California Press, 1965).

  5. 5

    K. Okawa and H. Rosovsky, Japanese Economic Growth (Stanford University Press, 1973).

  6. 6

    David M. Lampton, “Performance and the Chinese Political System: A Preliminary Assessment of Education and Health Policies,” China Quarterly, September 1978.

  7. 7

    John S. Aird, “Population Growth in the People’s Republic of China” in the Joint Economic Committee’s Chinese Economy Post-Mao (Government Printing Office, 1978); Leo A. Orleans, “China’s Birth Rate, Death Rate, and Population Growth: Another Perspective” (Library of Congress, 1977).

  8. 8

    The proportion of children sent through primary school would be even lower if some of the students attending were adults. Older people constituted a significant proportion of students in the 1950s, and may still account for a portion of it today. What this means, of course, is that my enrollment guess, and hence my literacy guess, for young people will be biased high.

  9. 9

    Attendance figures come from UNESCO’s Statistical Yearbook 1975.

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