27 October 2017

New paper: Higher education and social order in imperial China

In a CGHE working paper published today, Lili Yang from the UCL Institute of Education investigates the contribution of higher education to the public good in imperial China.

The paper, ‘The public role of higher learning in Imperial China’, focuses specifically on higher education’s effects on society, the state and individuals (families).

Ms Yang argues that higher education’s main public contribution in imperial China was maintaining social order – keeping society in harmony with the state.

Higher education produced ‘descriptive public goods’ by cultivating political efficacy, providing social mobility and promoting economic and scientific development.

It also produced ‘normative public goods’ through the creation and dissemination of values and principles. State-approved moralities and values were built into the education curriculum, ensuring they would become internalised and prevail within society. In addition, Confucianism placed a great importance on educating the emperor so he was respected as a strong ruler by the society he governed.

Ms Yang concludes that the legacies of higher learning in imperial China are still evident in contemporary China. She highlights the pros and cons of the country’s traditional emphasis on social order. Higher education prospered and is still maintained through generous financial investment from the government. Yet tightening state control also led to the gradual narrowing of its functions. Such perspectives help frame the wider debate around public goods and higher education.