Chinese Books on Display: Textbooks at the Turn of 20th Century

Following the defeat of the Chinese empire in the Opium Wars and numerous military humiliations inflicted by western powers, by the late 19th century, the government of Late Qing dynasty initiated a series of reforms in an attempt to revitalize China. Many saw education as the critical part of this reform.

From then on, the imperial civil service examination was abolished and a new education system was set up. Western-style schools, from elementary to higher education, were established and western educational theories, practices and textbooks were introduced. Education on foreign language, science and technology was eagerly sought out. As the modern form of the school system and curricula spread across China, writing and publishing of new-style textbooks for elementary education flourished all over the country.

Traditional textbooks for Chinese elementary students were based on core value and belief systems in Confucianism, such as Three Character Classic (三字經), One Hundred Family Names (百家姓), Thousand-Character Writing (千字文),Wisdom in Chinese Proverbs (增廣賢文)and Four Books and the Five Classics (四書五經). New textbooks were designed to suit the learning habits of elementary students and the content expanded into science, technology, nature, world knowledge, modern concepts of ethics, etc. Displayed here are just a few samples of these new style textbooks for elementary school students at the end of 19th and early 20 century, selected from the Chinese collection at East Asia library.

Xiu Yaochun (秀耀春, Francis Huberty James, 1851-1900), missionary from Britain, taught in the Imperial University, Peking (京师大学堂). This book is a translation from an unknown English source on teaching methods for elementary students.

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最新國文教科書,蔣維喬, 莊俞編纂,上海 : 商務印書館, 光緖30年[1904] Weiqiao Jiang (蔣維喬,1873-1958,influential educator and philosopher. This book covers a wide range of subjects, with lovely pictures and interesting text, quickly became a favorite textbook for elementary school children. It was the first complete set of standardized textbooks in China and had a great impact on Chinese education. The publisher of the book, the Commercial Press (商務印書館), became a major player in this revolutionary educational reform.

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澄衷蒙學堂字課圖說,劉樹屏编,[蘇州?]: 澄衷蒙學堂印書處, 光緖31 [1905] Liu Shuping (劉樹屏, 1857-1917), the first principle of Chengzhong Elementary school in Shanghai, which was established by Ye Chengzhong (叶澄衷)in 1899. He and his colleagues first wrote this textbook to be used in his school. It covered the basics of natural science, geography, chemistry, astronomy, law, politics, etc. and was widely adapted by many schools across China.

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再次改良婦孺新讀本,陳榮袞編,出版不祥,[1900-1903] Ronggun Cheng (陳榮袞, 1862-1922年), influential educator. He was actively involved in the education for children and women, and advocated the use of vernacular Chinese (白話; "plain speech"), a style of writing that is similar to modern spoken Mandarin Chinese in textbooks, instead of classical Chinese or literary Chinese (文言文), a traditional style of written Chinese. This book was his early attempt to use both vernacular Chinese and classical Chinese in the textbook for elementary children and women.

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普通最新雑字圖本,王燾,上海:鴻裁書莊付石印,光緒三十二年 (1906) Teaching of English was introduced in the late Qing. This book, published in 1906, has section of Chinese/English commonly used words.

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