Written by Nan Li.

China has a long tradition in valuing education and respecting teachers. There is a cultural root for this tradition. Historically, teachers are categorized as government officials. For instance, long before China’s unification, vassal state governments and Zhou Tianzi 周天子, a monarch of the Zhou Dynasty (1050-256 B.C.), established schools to educate sons of noble families. Teachers at those early government-run schools were government officials. Non-government officials could not be teachers in government-run schools (Meng, 2010). Later generations in China refer to the Zhou dynasty schools as “schools run by officials for officials” (官学).

Private schools (私学) did not appear in China until Confucius established them during the Spring and Autumn period (770-475 B.C.). However, one needs to be aware that a major purpose of Confucius’ education was to cultivate “gentlemen” 君子. In ancient China, government officials were viewed as “君子”. Zi Xia, a disciple of Confucius, said “If one is good at school, one should be a government official” 学而优则仕. This saying illustrates how ancient Chinese connected good education with high social status. Becoming an official in ancient China meant receiving a handsome income and respect from society.

A popular saying among Chinese people illustrates this financially-rewarding aspect of receiving good education in the Chinese society: “There are beautiful women and much wealth in books” (书中自有颜如玉, 书中自有黄金屋). This saying is attributed to Zhao Heng, an emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty (A.D.960- A.D.1127). More than 1000 years later, Chinese still view education as a way to achieve social mobility. The Entrance Examination for Government Employees requires a minimum three-year college degree prior to taking the Examination. It is a highly competitive exam for young Chinese who wish to work for the Chinese government. The prototype of this examination is China’s Civil Service Examination (科举考试) established during the Sui Dynasty (A.D.589 –A.D. 618). Although the Civil Service Examination was abolished in 1905, the tradition of taking a special examination prior to being recruited as a government official is still practiced today. As education is such an important factor to decide one’s future livelihood, it is not surprising to understand why Chinese people highly respect teachers.

In feudal China, not only ordinary people, but also the crown princes were required to hold a special ceremony to solicit a prospective teacher. This ceremony or ritual is called “拜师” meaning to worship or pay respect to teachers (Wang, 2010). The specifics vary across China, but the basic procedure is the same: visiting a potential teacher in person, presenting the teacher with gifts (in ancient times food was a common gift to be presented to the teacher) or money, and kowtowing three times before the teacher agrees to take one as his student (Wang, 2010).

Although the “拜师” ritual is not practised in modern China, teachers still enjoy high status in Chinese society. There is a national holiday set aside to recognize teachers’ contribution to society, called Teachers’ Day. It falls on September 10th each year and on this day teachers receive bonus money from their employers and usually receive gifts such as fine tea, cards, flowers, and drinking cups from their students or the parents of the students. Teachers’ salaries are categorized on the government officials’ pay scale. In China, government officials receive stable income, a generous retirement package and comprehensive medical insurance benefits.

Since having a good education can help one lead a financially secure life in ultra-competitive Chinese society, parents in China naturally pay great attention to their child’s education. When I was 11 years old, my father told me that if I did not study well, I would not find a decent job and would become a beggar since he was too old to earn an income to provide food and clothing for me. When I recalled what my father had told me almost three decades ago, his words did have a powerful impact on my 11 year old mind. From my father’s teaching, I knew that, poor performance at school is associated with being a beggar and living a miserable life in the future.

To many ordinary Chinese people like my father, education is the only way for social mobility. This motto has been widely accepted by most Chinese people regardless of their social and economic status. Thus, it is a social norm for Chinese people to respect teachers and value their work. An age-old Chinese saying: “Being one’s teacher for only a single day is like being one’s father lifetime” ( 一日为师, 终生为父) reflects the Chinese people’s ultimate admiration of teachers.

Culturally speaking, American people tend to be more expressive than their Chinese counterparts. One can easily find cards for all kinds of occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, engagement, etc. However, there are no specific cards designed in honour of teachers. In the United States, the first whole week of May is set aside as Teachers Appreciation Week. I hope Hallmark Company and other major card manufacturers in the U.S. will consider designing special cards dedicated to teachers to recognize their unique contribution to the society. In my humble opinion, education is the foundation of a country’s welfare. As one famous Chinese educator and philosopher Li Gou 李觏 in the Northern Song Dynasty (A.D. 960- A.D.1127) wrote in his book Guang Qian Shu 广潜书: “The root of kindness depends on teaching and the root of teaching depends on teachers” (善之本在教, 教之本在师). Teachers indeed assume the solemn role of educating a country’s citizens.

Dr Nan Li is a visting Assistant Professor in Modern Languages, Literature, Cultures and Chinese at Gustavus Adolphus College. Image credit: CC by Matt Brown/Flickr.

Reference List:

Meng, Xiancheng. 2010. (zhong guo gu dai jiaoyu shi ziliao) by East China Normal University Press. ISBN: 9787561774793. http://baike.baidu.com/link?url=IhQ6psHr1uHwQB8BDkuRfc5oGsQtvuVO66LCB9lICKBjcO3pW_eZHm4b4eXBd8gWeKi9fnXXoRLxLgQoKtII9a

Lunyu by Confucius: http://www.amazon.com/Analects-Confucius-Lun-Yu/dp/0195112768/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1434730696&sr=8-1&keywords=lun+yu&pebp=1434730729345&perid=0AGBYVY7SKKVHNECW1RR

Wang, Weimin. 2010. Chinese Ancient Customs by China International Broadcasting Press. http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Ancient-Customs-Paperback-WANG/dp/7507832511/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1434731052&sr=8-1&keywords=9787507832518&pebp=1434731052501&perid=002Y6X595Y4NKFVASF9K