Yusheng YAO

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Tao Xingzhi (1891–1946) was one of the most influential educators in twentieth-century China. His theories (based on the ideas of the US education reformer John Dewey) evolved throughout his life, but his core ideology of national reconstruction through “life education” remained. Tao’s many accomplishments include the founding of Xiaozhuang School, Yucai School, and Chongqing Social University. “The great educator of the people” is the most widely studied modern educator in China today.

Tao Xingzhi 陶行知 (1891–1946) was one of the most creative and influential educators in twentieth-century China. He devoted his life and energy to working for national reconstruction in a China that was large and populous, but economically and educationally underdeveloped. Tao was an educational revolutionary who was very critical of both traditional and modern education, considering them elitist, impractical, ineffective, and alienating for individuals and the society at large. His major achievement was embodied in his theory and practice of “life education” (shēnghuó jiàoyù 生活教育), which aimed at making education practical, experience-based, and transformative—as well as available to all. Tao believed that a “life education” achieved by integrating the hands and mind of the individual, school and society, and education and life would turn individuals into productive and creative human beings, eliminate class divisions and social barriers, and rebuild society from the bottom up. The result would be working-and-learning communities whose members would work together, learn from each other, and care for and help each other.

Childhood and Early Education

Tao Xingzhi was born in 1891 into a poor family in a small village in Shexian County, Anhui Province. Tao’s father was well educated relative to the rural conditions of the time, but was unable to hold a steady job partly due to his opium addiction. His mother was an illiterate working woman. Tao’s education was intermittent owing to family poverty, but he received several years of traditional education that included home schooling with his father and instruction at two local private tutor schools. As a teenager, Tao helped with work in the fields while continuing to study on his own, and when he was fifteen he enrolled in a free boarding school run by the China Inland Mission 中国内地会. The school principal, G.W. Gibb, returned to England at the end of 1907, obliging Tao to graduate in two years. The school offered a curriculum that combined Western and traditional Chinese elements, and subjects such as world history and geography broadened his intellectual horizon and awakened his national awareness. He was said to have written on his dormitory wall, “I am a Chinese; I will make contributions to China.”

At Jinling University

With the help of his former school principal, in 1909 Tao entered Huiwen Academy 汇文书院 in Nanjing—an American mission college that merged with the famous Jinling University 金陵大学 the following year. The most important moral and intellectual development for Tao at Jinling was the experience of his first identity crisis, brought on by the realization of his hitherto unrecognized “hypocrisy.” Tao resolved this identity crisis through intense and repeated self-examination, and in particular by embracing Wang Yangming’s 王阳明 philosophy of “unity of knowledge and action” (zhīxínghéyī 知行合一) as his ideology. This experience was so crucial for Tao that he changed his name to Zhixing (knowledge and action) to remind himself of his lifelong goal of moral renewal and activism. Later on he would change his name yet again to Xingzhi (action and knowledge) to denote his philosophical conviction that the source of true knowledge was in action or practice, but moral cultivation and activism remained a major component of his theory of life education.

At Jinling Tao also came to believe in national reconstruction through education, another important intellectual development for him. In his 1914 graduation thesis “On the Essence of the Republic” 共和精义, Tao defended the ideals and principles of the republic but rejected revolution as legitimate means to achieve them, proposing national reconstruction through education instead. Indeed, he perceived education as a panacea for all the problems that he imagined a republic could suffer from. At this time Tao’s belief in national reconstruction through education was conservative in nature, as it emphasized the individual’s moral cultivation as crucial in rebuilding the republic. The quick failure of the 1911 Revolution 辛亥革命, coupled with his recent conversion into Christianity and experience of moral renewal, contributed to this conservative political stance.

A Deweyan Reformer

After graduating from Jinling in the summer of 1914, Tao came to the United States for graduate study. After receiving an MA degree in city administration from the University of Illinois, he enrolled in the PhD program at Columbia University’s Teachers College—the center of the progressive education movement. There he met Hu Shi 胡适, Jiang Menglin 蒋梦麟, and Zhang Boling 张伯苓, who, like Tao, would play an important role in Chinese politics and education from the May Fourth Movement to the end of the Republican era. In the fall of 1917 Tao returned to China, bringing with him the US education reformer John Dewey’s philosophy of experimentalism (shíyàn zhǔyì 实验主义) and ideas of progressive education. He put these into practice as soon as he began teaching at Nanjing Higher Normal School 南京高等师范学校. Inspired by the Allied victory in World War I and the deepening of the New Culture movement, Tao joined his alumni from Columbia University in launching the New Education Movement (1919–1926). They founded the Society for Promoting the New Education 新教育改进社 and its organ New Education 新教育 to promote education reforms based on ideas of progressive education, especially those of Dewey. In the same year they arranged for Dewey’s lecture tour in China, which lasted from 1919 to 1921. The tour was an important event among Chinese intellectuals of the May Fourth period, who were looking eagerly to the West for ideas that would modernize China and solve its problems. During this period Tao was the embodiment of  a liberal Deweyan reformer, regarding Dewey as the peak of Western science and democracy and actively promoting Dewey’s philosophy and methodology of experimentalism for China’s new education.

Xiaozhuang School

Inspired by James Yen’s 晏阳初 experiment in advancing literacy, Tao joined him in launching the National Association of Mass Education Movements (MEM) (píngmín jiàoyù 平民教育) in 1923. The campaign, which influenced and educated over a million participants, was unsurpassed in scale and organization by any other of its kind in the Republican era. It was also of the utmost importance in developing Tao’s own identity and ideology: several months into the movement, he experienced a sudden awakening in which he rediscovered his “Chineseness” (Zhōngguóxìng 中国性) and “commoner identity” (píngmínxìng 平民性). This awakening enabled Tao to criticize “the foreign aristocratic style” he had cultivated in his years of school life and was the beginning of his ideological change from a Deweyan liberal to a populist.

In the 1920s many reformers and revolutionaries were turning their attention to the countryside in response to China’s rural crisis, and in late 1926 Tao initiated his most famous experiment—Xiaozhuang Rural Normal School 晓庄乡村师范学校. Tao’s approach in building and reforming regular and normal schools was to combine rural education reform with rural reconstruction, and believed that a new kind of schoolteacher who possessed “a farmer’s physique and skills, a scientist’s mind, and the spirit for social transformation” could be trained to staff these schools. These teachers would shape their students into qualified national citizens in turn, and together they would help the peasants in their community become “[economically] independent (zìlì 自立), [politically] self-governing (zìzhì 自治), and [militarily] self-protecting (zìwèi 自卫).” Tao believed that such a model would catch on and be spread throughout China by progressive educators.

Xiaozhuang School served as a progressive community center that tried to advance the lives and environment of the local people during the Rural Reconstruction Movement. Half a year into the undertaking, Tao designated an experimental zone that included a dozen villages in the surrounding area—and every Thursday afternoon, instructors and students would go to nearby villages to “make friends” with the villagers and investigate their living conditions. In the evening they would share what they had learned and discuss the problems they had encountered. They built a road for the community and set up programs to popularize literacy, introduce scientific farming, provide healthy entertainment, and conduct campaigns for public and environmental hygiene. They also organized a self-defense league with local people when bandits threatened normal life, and launched a successful campaign against gambling and opium in the local communities. Tao required the school’s instructors and students to “nongminhua” 农民化 (peasantize); that is, they had to be able not only to live and work among the villagers but also be regarded as one of them in order to win their trust and support. Tao seemed to be urging the new intellectuals to acquire both a populist orientation and a commoner identity, modeled after his own self-awaking in 1923.

The Xiaozhuang period was the most creative of Tao’s life. During this time he developed his theory of life education and his methodology of “unity of teaching, learning, and doing” 教学做合一, as well as his ideas about promoting human creativity and social equality by integrating an individual’s hands and mind in daily life and work. These theories were based on Dewey’s own—that “school is society” and “education is life,” the idea of “learning by doing,” and his beliefs about human alienation and reintegration—but Tao’s experience with grassroots rejuvenation through community school building also had a significant impact on his philosophy and methodology of rural and national reconstruction through education.

The Work-Study Union Movement

In part because of its students’ radicalism, the Nationalist government shut down Xiaozhuang School in 1930, and the frustrated Tao briefly was attracted to the idea of organizing a “green party” to continue to work for the interests of the peasants. His short exile in Japan during its economic depression, however, convinced him that the fundamental problem in China—as well as the rest of the world—was the Malthusian dilemma of overpopulation and limited land resources. He believed the solution to this dilemma lay in the popularization of science, non-capitalistic industrialization, and the universalization of life education. In 1931 the nation slipped into crisis following the Mukden Incident 九一八事变, in which the Japanese troops took over the major cities in northeast China, and Tao’s reform visions became more radical and ambitious. His Work-Study Union Movement 工学团 (1932–1936) continued his Xiaozhuang experiment, but its focus shifted to the reorganization and empowerment of village China. His ultimate vision was to reorganize and to empower the whole nation by turning every social unit—be it a family, a school, a factory, or a village—into a community of multiple functions whose members were able to protect the country, have production skills, exercise democracy, and teach and learn from one another.

Yucai School

After the December Ninth Movement 一二九运动 in 1935, Tao took an active part in and became a leader of the National Salvation Movement. Politically and ideologically he moved further to the left, calling on the masses to fight against foreign imperialism and the Chinese ruling elite (“the tiny minority,” or xiǎozhòng 小众) for national liberation as well as their own emancipation. Between 1936 and 1938 he went on a mission of “people’s diplomacy” to twenty-six European and North American countries, in order to advocate for an international united front against fascism. While abroad, he was on the government wanted list for the second time. Returning to a war-torn China, Tao opened Yucai School 育才学校, a boarding school for talented refugee children in Chongqing. This was his first and only experiment in academically oriented education. Although an elite school in terms of selection of its students, Tao ran the school with a populist orientation based on his theory of life education. The school was distinctive by virtue of its close relationship with the wartime Communist (or Eight Route Army 八路军) headquarters that was located in Chongqing, and due to its highly qualified faculty members, most of whom were Communist or progressive intellectuals.  It was known for its academic rigor, innovative curriculum, stressing creativity, and disciplined collective life.

Chongqing Social University

During the National Salvation Movement Tao cooperated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) closely in both education reforms and political activities, out of necessity, common interests, and a similar populist ideology. This was consistent with his steady move to the left after the closing of Xiaozhuang School, and with the CCP’s new policy of forging a broad united front against Japan. At the same time Tao was growing increasingly alienated from liberal intellectuals like Hu Shi, whom he criticized on several occasions as a representative of the new literati. After 1939, Tao joined the Constitutional Movement and later was involved in organizing “the third force” (minority parties and groups that were neither Nationalist nor CCP) with the hope of accomplishing both national resistance and national reconstruction through democratization. In January 1946 he launched his last project—Chongqing Social University 重庆社会大学. This was an evening school for young working adults who wanted to continue with their education. At the same time Tao advocated “a social university movement,” calling on the common people who could not go to regular schools to teach and to learn from one another in “the ‘formless’ university, the only university that belonged to them.” This was an appropriate last act to conclude his lifelong effort to promote education for all as the way for national reconstruction.

Last Years

After World War II, Tao was busy preparing to move Yucai School to Shanghai and to revive the Work-Study Union Movement in the same vicinity. He also actively participated in the peace and anti-civil war movement, making over a hundred public speeches in the last hundred days of his life. Rumors abounded that he was third on the government special agents’ assassination list (two of his notable colleagues in the Democratic League 民盟 had already been gunned down for their outspoken criticism of the government). But Tao was determined to the last, and in his will he encouraged his wife and his students to carry on his life’s cause. Fatigue, stress, and anxiety about his life took its toll, all contributing to his death from a cerebral hemorrhage on July 25, 1946.


By the time of Tao’s death, the Nationalist government was engaged in a civil war with the CCP. As a strategy to win the hearts of the people, the CCP leadership seized on the opportunity presented by public mourning for Tao in China’s major cities to launch a propaganda campaign. Top CCP leaders sent cables of condolence, attended public memorial meetings in Yan’an, and joined the public in eulogizing Tao as a national hero. Mao Zedong 毛泽东 praised him as “the great educator of the people,” setting the tone for the official assessment of Tao’s contribution to China. Within five years, however, Tao became a major target in the CCP’s ideological campaign against the film The Life of Wu Xun 武训传 and various reformists (gǎiliáng zhǔyì 改良主义). Except for a feeble attempt to rehabilitate him during the Hundred Flowers Movement 百花齐放运动, Tao remained a forbidden topic for scholarly study until after the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命 (1966–1976). Later support from his former students, many of whom were middle or high rank officials, resulted in a great Tao Xingzhi revival from 1979 to the mid-1990s. Within a few years formal Tao research societies emerged in more than twenty provinces and major cities, culminating in the founding of China’s Tao Xingzhi Research Society and Foundation 中国陶行知研究会、基金会 in Beijing in 1985. Tao has become the most studied modern educator in the post-Mao era and his ideas have been used in hundreds of education experiments nationwide.

Tao’s legacy of national reconstruction through education is rich, complex, and ever evolving. Still, it is possible to identify three stages in Tao’s intellectual and ideological development between 1913—when he first proposed national reconstruction through education—to the mid-1930s—when he developed a model for national reconstruction through grassroots reorganization. After the failure of the 1911 Revolution, Tao became a political conservative with a belief in the individual’s moral renewal as the basis for national rejuvenation. At this time Tao was a “moralist nationalist,” as his approach to national reconstruction was through moral cultivation and moral activism. Next, Tao’s encounter with US progressive education and Dewey during his graduate school years greatly enriched his theory and methodology for national reconstruction through education. After returning from the US in 1917 Tao spared no effort in promoting Dewey’s philosophy, and worked closely with other Deweyan liberal reformers like Hu Shi and Jiang Minglin on political and education reforms. His life took another turn with the upsurge in popular nationalism of the May Fourth Movement and the close interactions with peasants in MEM. In 1923 Tao experienced an awakening and discovered his “Chinese” and “commoner” identity, rejecting his “foreign aristocratic orientation” that had been developed during his school days. This marked his ideological reorientation toward populism and prompted him to search for a broader vision of and more radical solutions to China’s problems. In the Xiaozhuang experiment, Tao developed his theory of life education and his methodology of “unity of teaching, learning, and doing,” as well as his ideas about human creativity and social equality. He achieved this by creatively and radically transforming Dewey’s education philosophy and methodology. In the 1930s, the capitalist world’s Great Depression and an ever-deepening national crisis at home led Tao to look for other routes to national reconstruction in China. He found an answer in the Work-Study Union Movement, aimed at grassroots reorganization and empowerment. At this point Tao’s ideas about national reconstruction through education (as a theoretical framework if not in practice) were largely complete.

Although US scholars generally regard him as a Deweyan reformer, Tao was actually an educational and social revolutionary in his theoretical maturity. His populist ideology, and his vision and strategy for individual and social transformation through integration of the individual’s hands and mind and grassroots reorganization, had much in common with the revolutionary discourse of anarchism and Communist populism. Tao’s legacy of radicalism in education is still relevant today because his concerns—about direction and methods in education and in modernizing China, and the meaning of modernity—are still very much alive in China, and because his theory and practice of life education continue to provide lessons and insights for those engaged in education and social reforms.

Further Reading

Brown, Hubert O. (1987). American progressivism in Chinese education: The case of Tao Xingzhi. In Ruth Hayhoe & Marianne Bastid (Eds.), China’s education and the industrialized world: Studies in cultural transfer (pp. 120–138). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Keenan, Barry. (1977). Tao Hsing-chih and educational reform, 1922–1929. In The Dewey Experiment in China: Educational reform and political power in the early Republic (pp. 81–110). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Yao Yusheng. (2002). Rediscovering Tao Xingzhi as an educational and social revolutionary. Twentieth-Century China 27(2), 79–120.

Source: Yusheng Yao. (2012). Tao Xingzhi. In Zha Qiang (Ed.), Education in China: Educational History, Models, and Initiatives. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.