Jean W. YAN

One man studies while another naps on the ledge of a porch. China aims to establish a network of adult education that is accessible to the whole society. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Adult education in China evolved from simply eliminating illiteracy (between the 1950s and 1970s) to serving the public as an alternative to the conventional school education (since the 1980s). Student populations grew to include others besides workers and peasants, while the types of programs and subjects increased to serve the needs of the general population wanting to expand the breadth of their knowledge.

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, about 80 percent of its population was illiterate. The immediate task of the new government in need of a skilled labor force was to provide literacy education. The Council of Government Affairs (now the State Council) issued an executive order that specified that the top priority in education was to eliminate illiteracy among workers and peasants. The order called on the public to launch a literacy movement nationwide in an attempt to gradually decrease illiteracy. This wave of literacy education shaped adult education in China.

Adult education was first labeled as worker-peasant education or after-work education between the 1950s and 1970s. The designation adult education came about in the early 1980s with the development of economic reform, an increase in the need for learning, a wider audience receptive to education, and the enrichment of this type of education in format and content. The central government issued the Development Outline of Education Reform in China (1993), which specified that adult education would serve the public as an alternative to the conventional school education.

Student Populations

China’s adult education provides educational opportunities mainly to the following:

? Illiterates who need basic reading and writing skills

? Employed workers who need training to advance their skills or to transfer to a different position

? Job seekers who need training to meet the requirements of knowledge and skills in the professions in which they seek employment

? School dropouts who want to complete their secondary or college education and earn diplomas or degrees

? College graduates and professionals who want to update and advance their knowledge and skills in their professions

? Members of the general public who want to learn about topics such as health, finance, law, and family planning, or want to enrich their lives with various hobbies

Instructional Models

Adult education in China can be roughly divided into four categories:

? Adult primary education for workers and peasants, or literacy classes that offer basic reading and writing skills

? Adult secondary education, which also includes training in vocational, agricultural, and technical programs, courses taught by radio and closed-circuit television broadcasts, and tutoring for individuals who want to pass an examination to earn a diploma or certificate through self-study

? Adult higher education, which includes university-level courses taught by radio and closed-circuit television broadcasts, administrative cadres institutes, teacher-education colleges, and distance-learning colleges

? General distance learning using online or correspondence courses

All these categories of adult education are under the authority of the Department of Adult Education and Vocational Education at China’s Ministry of Education. Offices implementing adult education are under the education authorities in provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and prefectures, counties, or townships. The industries involved in adult education range from mechanics, electronics, civil engineering, environmental protection, chemical engineering, light industry, coal, and metallurgy to railway, transportation, agriculture, and forestry. The public organizations involved in implementing adult education include democratic parties, public organizations, academic organizations, trade unions, and Communist Youth League offices at different levels; independent enterprises and individuals often advocate for adult education programs as well. Another important partner of the Ministry of Education in adult education is the Chinese Association for Adult Education. Founded in 1981, it is a social organization for all members of participating in adult education in China. Its main functions are to publicize, organize, and coordinate the activities of adult education; provide consultation and training; and carry out international exchange relating to adult education affairs.

Adult education can be pursued full-time or part-time in the classroom, by taking online courses, and through individual tutoring. The curricula have expanded to include liberal arts, natural sciences, engineering, medical science, agriculture, finance, political science and law, education, and sports. The programs can result in a diploma, a degree, or a certificate or be simply for pleasure and personal enrichment. Most diploma or degree programs can be completed in two or three years. A few offer a four-year regular undergraduate curriculum.

TABLE 1 Number of Student Enrollment of Adult Education Programs Providing Formal Programs (Unit: 10,000 students)

1949 1965 1978 1980 1985 2000 2003 2004 2005 2006
I. Higher Education
Undergraduates in Adult Higher Education Institutes 0.01 41.30 140.80 155.40 172.50 353.64 559.16 419.80 436.07 524.88
II. Secondary Education
Adult Senior High Schools 75.12 138.98 32.40 21.85 19.37 21.81 17.47
Adult Vocational Secondary Schools 0.01 351.80 123.90 449.40 169.26 105.45 103.35 112.55 107.59
Adult Junior High Schools 302.57 273.30 18.77 52.82 48.78 51.27 50.44
III. Primary Education
Adult Primary Schools 1326.80 823.70 6467.20 1646.10 303.23 480.88 381.49 384.19 307.76 265.16
Of which: Literacy Classes 1326.80 1806.70 1220.90 518.98 249.32 195.22 242.54 192.44 167.46
Source: People’s Republic of China Ministry of Education,

Further Development

Strategies to develop or improve adult education in China focus on job training, continuing education, and community education. One focus is to establish an adult education network among counties, townships, and villages in the countryside to help promote education in literacy, applied technology, democracy and legal systems, environmental protection, family planning, and other areas. Another priority is to encourage corporate sponsorship systems, vocational certificate and licensure systems, and other flexible approaches to adult education. It is also important that laid-off workers and workers needing job transfers will have opportunities to receive vocational training or formal education at different levels and be prepared for re-employment, and that improvements are made to the examination system for the those pursuing self-study. Establishing a network of adult education that is accessible to the whole society will certainly impact China’s future for the better, as will initiating experimentation in community education and fostering the concept of lifetime education.

Further Reading

China in Brief.. (2007). Adult education. Retrieved December 10, 2008, from

Chinese Adult Education Association. Retrieved December 10, 2008, from

Zhongguo cheng ren jiao yu [China adult education]. Retrieved December 10, 2008, from

Ministry of Education. (2005). Zhongguo cheng ren jiao yu jian shi [Brief history of China’s adult education]. China Higher-Education Information. Retrieved February 12, 2009, from

State Council, People’s Republic of China. (1987). Guo wu yuan pi zhuan guo jia jiao yu wei yuan hui guan yu gai ge he fa zhan cheng ren jiao yu de tong zhi [State Council’s notification of its approval of the Education Commission’s decision to reform and further adult education]. Retrieved December 10, 2008, from http:www.hnedu.cnfaguiLaw17law_17_1056.htm

Worden, R. L., Matles Savada, A., & Dolan, R. E. (Eds.). (1987). China: A country study. Washington, DC: GPO for the Library of Congress.

Source: Yan, Jean W. (2009). Education, Adult. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 681–683. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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