Education in China and the US: History and Differences

Cite this


Historically, education is believed to have started in Greece, but there have been evidences of it having started in China. There is a large difference in the quality of higher education between China and the United States, which is believed to have been influenced by the differences in the governance systems and cultural heritages between the two countries. The history of the Chinese education illustrates the five stage transformational process, which was determined by the change and nature of political regimes in China. Right from the early development stages of the two education systems, the Chinese education system started at the youthful level unlike is the case for the American system, which was adopted from England and started at the elementary level (Whitehead 89).

However, looking into the two forms of the education system quantitatively, Chinese colleges produce at least 6 million graduates into the job market annually according to a survey carried out in 2011, while on the other hand, the United States is a little bit lower at 4.7 million (Li 111). The rate of employee retiring in both countries is considerably low, thus implying that there are no gaps created for majority graduates in the job market. The two education systems are different and the paper looks into their quality and capability to equip students with skills necessary to withstand the high unemployment level in the world. This paper looks into the historical background of each system as it helps to bring out the differences and the reasons why such differences exist between the two education systems.

History of Education in China and the United States

The historical background of education in both countries is essential for illustrating the existing differences in the education qualities in the two countries in the contemporary world. In addition, each of the two countries has an education system that is unique to the other depending on the country’s policies and cultural background. Many factors influence the nature of the education system in every country across the world; for instance, a developing country with a vision of rising to the economic level of a middle-income country level is likely to adopt an economically enriched education system. Hence, the history of the education system also exhibits the quality that is dependent on economic growth and development.

Informal education is believed to have started a long time before civilization, as there have been some exhibits of Chinese artifacts, which are believed to be the oldest artifacts ever found in any other country across the world. Those artifacts are reserved in the national museums in China and have a rich Chinese cultural heritage that illustrates education to have started in China unlike is the case where it is believed to have started in Greece and Rome. In China, emperors and other nobles are believed to have been the first social groups that initiated education system in the country. They set up informal education system for their offspring for they were aware of the relevance of knowledge and skills in passing over nobility to the coming generations.

Education then emphasized much on the relevant skills to the economy and leadership and some persons played a major role of teaching those skills to the students. The system continued all through the aristocratic government where civil examinations are believed to have started in Han and were founded in Tang in around 200 BC. Civil examination played a major role in the transition to meritocratic government by ensuring confidence in the quality of leadership system with regard to the leaders having relevant leadership skills.

After the introduction of the civil examinations during the Xia, Shang, and Zhou leadership dynasties, the Chinese government introduced formal education system where youth nobles were required to attend schools in two divisions, viz. the lower and the upper schools. The lower schools offered basic skills to the youth whereas upper schools offered specialized skills to the students, and hence their foundation marked the beginning of higher education facilities in China. However, by the end of the Zhou Dynasty, China had five national schools that taught art and other skills to the youth nobles.

Later, more schools were founded that enrolled only the noble youths. However, the system changed for the better during the Confucianism era where the leader, Confucius, is believed to have founded education system for the masses. The new education system was open for all. Confucius emphasized on offering education to all without discriminating and he advised teachers to teach their students according to the student’s individual ability. However, not all schools offered education without bias and thus there were specialized schools organized for different social and political entities with the most specialized schools belonging to the Mohists and they offered special education system.

However, education history in China tells of some rough times whereby some political regimes opposed the education systems and sometimes banned education altogether. The most common period when education was abused was during the Qin’s era in around 200 BC whereby the then leader, Qin Shi Huang, favored only the Chinese philosophy and violently opposed other philosophies provided by education systems. He led a movement of burning books and other scholarly materials and he even orchestrated the persecution of scholars. This ill action enabled his regime to suppress ideas from non-state officials and brought about the notion that women were supposed to stay at home doing housework, and thus they paid little or no attention to the education system. Later after the Qin’s era, Emperor Wu came into power and he is praised for favoring Confucianism by making it a national education doctrine to suppress any form of discrimination in the education sector.

His leadership is marked as “the origin of Statecraft in China whereby civil servants were hired on education merits and were taught on the five classics of the Confucianism” (Li 73). Later in 8th Century, the prestigious Pear Garden art school was founded as the education system had reached the stable growth rate in China and followed the Confucian principles. The first military school of China was set up in 1178 during the time when Chinese lived by the advice of Mencius, viz.

“Those who labor with their minds govern others; those who labor with their strength are governed by others” (Li 86). Individuals were allowed to set up their own education institutions to cater for the vast majority of illiterate population that the government could not have quenched their education thirst. During this period, education was generally accepted in the Chinese culture and government hired those who would master the classic acquired through education.

Later in the year 605, imperial examination was started and it demanded that students had to pass local examinations before the final examination. It was realized that students who attended private schools always prevailed in the examination where dominant private schools were the White Deer Grotto Academy and the Donglin Academy. Education system was greatly boosted by the invention of writing paper, which enabled the learning easier for the students. In addition, a few selected students were offered stipends by the government to pursue specialized education after passing well in their examinations.

Critics argue that Qin’s era is the cause of the gap that existed between the military powers of China and Western countries due to its negligence of applied sciences, mathematics, and engineering studies in the education system. However, Qing brought forth the self-strengthening society by founding the Tongwen Guan that hired specialized foreign trainers to teach European languages, mathematics, and sciences to the Chinese students and military men. Later in 1898, Peking University was established, but initially it offered Japanese syllabus until the abolishment of the imperial examinations in 1905.

Later in 1919 during the Republican epoch, the Chinese authorities came under heightened criticism over what critics saw as a departure from Confucianism to other technical and areas of specialism. The Chinese realized a move by the government to ignore the Confucianism education principle because it campaigned for the education system, which focused on the Western philosophy. However, education system had been decentralized as the republic of China was yet to be established. Consequently, there were differences amongst the foreign imperialists, Japanese, and Chinese warlords, who fell within the Chinese territory. However, these difficulties that faced China did not deter it from establishing several universities, where the first four included “the National Central University, Wuhan University, Zhejiang University, and the National Southwestern Associated University all of which were operational during the war periods” (Li 129).

Later in 1949, China started taking political shape under the People’s Republic but the new ruling party was rooted in communism and it did not support the previous regime’s emphasis on social studies, which occasioned departure from the same. Consequently, the Chinese Academy of Sciences was set up by communists to enhance the growth of the Chinese industries. In addition, the Confucian education system was reformed to suite the “Soviet model whereby specialized education was established and small engineering institutions were upgraded into polytechnic institutes and universities such as Tsinghua University and Tianjin Universities, which had started as small institutions” (Li 131).

Just like China, the United States has a fascinating history of its education system. The United Stated has no native culture like China and thus its education system started far much later than in the Chinese case. The American formal education started in 17th century under the watch of the British colonialists. They first founded the “Boston Latin School in 1635, which is today referred as the oldest public school in the United States” (Rudolph 90). The education system was much similar to the one that was taught in Britain. However, it initially stressed on basic knowledge skills such as arithmetic, social, and economic values, which were taught with regard to family education that parents were expected to teach their children.

The American education started in the New England region where colonialists had settled in great numbers. Education had started earlier in Britain and other parts of Europe and hence colonialists needed to educate their children, and thus they introduced education in the United States. According to Cremin, British colonists used their native education system, which enhanced community and apprenticeship welfare (24). After the introduction of formal education in Boston, colonialists realized the need to expand education to other towns in the United States and in 1642, education was made mandatory in Massachusetts and by 1660, all American British colonies had adopted that education policy. Unfortunately, women did not attend school in large numbers due to cultural heritage and unlike in China, the American education was not free to all as parents were supposed to pay tuition fee that was then used to support the growth of the education system in the country (Cremin 24).

The American education system is known to have had a major difference from the Chinese in the sense that a majority of parenthood roles were passed on to the teachers who took care of little children. This aspect implies that the American education accommodated young children whereas the Chinese education system started with the youth nobles for specialized training and knowledge acquaintance. However, the American education system had a smooth growth rate unlike the Chinese system, which was deterred by the political interferences.

The smooth growth rate of the American education is evidenced by the establishment of numerous education facilities across the United States and the view that public high schools, which were established by colonists, had been replaced by the private high schools by the late 18th century. Some of the oldest American private high schools included Phillips Andover Academy (1778), Phillips Exeter Academy (1781), and Deerfield Academy (1797) and they are nowadays amongst the most prestigious high schools in the United States (Rudolph 167).

Religion played a major role in the establishment of education in some parts of the United States and especially the southern parts where British colonialists had not settled. By early 18th century, Jesuits were operating majority of schools in the south where they provided free education to the poor families. However, the major hindrance to smooth growth of the American education was the existence of racial discrimination across the majority parts of the United States.

The US did not have civil right movements or advocates until in the 20th century and that aspect contributed to the societal inequality whereby the southern region was viewed as inferior to the north because the majority of the people were of color and poor. The 19th century marked the culmination of the American education with vast growth of higher education facilities like Harvard and Yale universities.

Since the establishment of education in the United States, “the government has since been supporting education with the establishment of new educational facilities and financed scholarship to students who do well in their high school examinations, for higher education in universities, and colleges” (Cremin 107). The case has been the same in China where the government has played a major role in the growth and development of the education sector and largely also by promoting extra-curricular activities in schools through the development of sporting and gaming facilities.

Differences between Chinese and American higher education systems and their impacts

The historical background of both the Chinese and the American higher education plays a major role in explaining the reason why there are some differences between the two education systems. The Chinese education system was initiated by the powerful leaders who needed their offspring to be well acquitted with relevant leadership skills upon their ascension to power. On the other hand, it is clear that the American education system was started under the watch of colonialists who had settled in the New England, which was an American-British colony in Boston, for they needed their offspring to acquire education while in the colonial land.

The American education got into the natives’ hand within a short while and upon getting independence, the government did not halt its growth; on the contrary, it tried to accelerate it by providing relevant facilities. On the other hand, change in leadership and political regimes, in China, had a direct influence on the education system where some leaders were opposed to some forms of the education system and it interfered with the growth process. Chinese education became a mass requirement in late 20th century unlike the American system, which became generally accepted in 17th century (Rudolph 149).

In addition, in the United States, education system did not undergo the five stages of development like the case of the Chinese education system, but it developed instantly beginning with elementary levels as it was adopted from a fully-grown education system of England. Looking into the nature of each of the education systems, one realizes that they are completely different and their differences have a direct impact on the cultural heritage and the economic growth and development of each particular country (Spring 34).

The American education system is more diverse as compared to the Chinese system. It is rich in humanity and social science subjects, which equip the student with important knowledge and skills necessary for good social relationships as well as survival. The majority of the American universities offer courses that teach American history, political sciences, literature, constitution, and other humanity subjects in addition to more specialized subjects.

These subjects are necessary for the American dream whereby unity of the American societies is enhanced via humanity courses and knowledge of the American history and the constitution. In other words, the American higher education system teaches patriotism to the students as well as enhancing social relationship and economic independence. Such knowledge has contributed to the economic growth of the country as students learn to seek jobs at an early age for their own economic independence (Spring 39).

On the contrary, the Chinese education system is much more specialized than the American education system. From the history of Chinese education system, it is clear that it was structured into a highly specialized system due to eagerness to acquire technological advantage in an effort to compete with Western nations. In addition, the government of the People’s Republic of China has an upper hand on the education system and hence it demands competitive system, which is hard to give room for the growth of individual’s patriotism. In addition, the communist nature of the Chinese governance does not allow the introduction of many humanity and social science courses in universities for such fields do not have much economic and technological value to China in the face of the world. Hence, students are not taught to be economically independent like is the case of the American system, but rather to study well in order to work for the government (Li 126).

In addition, the American education system is not always focused on students’ performance in their examinations, in order to determine their performance, but rather on whether the student has garnered relevant skills to achieve success in life. This aspect explains why some people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who are well known to have dropped out of colleges, have gone far much ahead of others in the road to success. In addition, the majority of successful people in the American society give credit to the knowledge and skills they acquired in college, but not to their extemporary performance.

On the other hand, the Chinese education system emphasizes on the good performance in the examinations like the case during the era of imperial examinations, which were used by the government during the hiring process. Historical events still exist, as the majority of people who are employed by the government are those who did well in college and university examinations. In addition, the system stresses on the acquaintance of knowledge learnt in college, mastering, and application of the same in earning a living (Li 156). In addition, China has not yet adopted calculators in colleges, as they believe such a move would bring about some element of laziness in the students’ minds. This aspect indicates the high level of reluctance to allow for self-determination and instead setting demanding standards of excellence in education.


The American education system is better than the Chinese educational system. The American education system accommodates all manner of students by its diverse course variations. The students who do not like specialized and technical courses have the freedom to choose simpler courses that suit their capabilities. In addition, academic performance is not all that matters most for an individual’s performance, but rather the ability of the student to apply the acquired knowledge in daily life. The case is different in the Chinese education system where academic performance determines the nature of the job that a student would get after school. In addition, it is much more specialized and hence limiting many students who would prefer to pursue simpler courses to pursuing higher education.

Works Cited

Cremin, Lawrence. American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783, Washington, D.C: Harper& Row, 1970. Print.

Li, Cheng. Bridging Minds across the Pacific: U.S.-China Educational Exchanges, 1978-2003, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005. Print.

Rudolph, Frederick. The American College and University: a History, Athens: Georgia. The University of Georgia Press, 1990. Print.

Spring, Joel. The American School: From the Puritans to No Child Left Behind, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.

Whitehead, Alfred. The Aims of Education, New York: The Free Press, 1967. Print.

Cite this paper

Select style


ChalkyPapers. (2022, January 31). Education in China and the US: History and Differences. Retrieved from


ChalkyPapers. (2022, January 31). Education in China and the US: History and Differences.

Work Cited

"Education in China and the US: History and Differences." ChalkyPapers, 31 Jan. 2022,


ChalkyPapers. (2022) 'Education in China and the US: History and Differences'. 31 January.


ChalkyPapers. 2022. "Education in China and the US: History and Differences." January 31, 2022.

1. ChalkyPapers. "Education in China and the US: History and Differences." January 31, 2022.


ChalkyPapers. "Education in China and the US: History and Differences." January 31, 2022.