The (Trans)Forming of Curriculum Knowledge in China (1880-1920):From Traditional Academy to Modern Schools

Year: 2019

Author: Zhao, Weili, Zheng, Yundan

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Foucault (1973) understands “episteme” as some “epistemological unconsciousness” which is embodied in discourses and more importantly grounds, models, and conditions knowledge (re)formation at varied historical periods. For example, the Western society has witnessed a radical epistemic rupture at the turning of the seventeenth century when modern language became an enclosed representational system severed from material things and when difference replaced identity as a new principle in ordering things and reconfiguring knowledge (re)production.

China, as is commonly concurred, has experienced its most radical “epistemic” transformation over the turning of the 20th century when Western discourses and notions flooded into China (through Japan) and have since gradually overwritten the Chinese language, discourse, and system of reasoning. As an effect, the traditional Confucian academies (shuyuan) were closed and imperial civil service examination system (keju) was abolished in 1902, giving their way to the establishment of modern schools and new pedagogical-testing mechanisms in China.

Drawing upon Foucault’s historical-genealogical mode of inquiry, this paper dissects the happening of this epistemic rupture, as well as its conditions of possibilities, between the so-called Confucian tradition and Westernized modernity as expressed in China’s curriculum and education reformation/transformation roughly between 1880-1920. Specifically, it unpacks the then scholars’ debates on Chinese learning versus Western learning, on preserving the Confucian tradition versus learning from the West, and how these debates have re-shaped the curriculum structure and knowledge (re)production of the then established Tongwen Academy (Tong Wen Guan), the earliest official educational institution influenced by the West as well as the earliest foreign language school. Taking its curriculum structure change as an example, this paper examines how the founding Confucian classics and modes of exegesis were gradually replaced by Western modern subjects of physics, mathematics, international law, economics, and geography. In so doing, this paper explicates the possible forms, expressions, as well as effects of this tradition-modernity epistemic rupture in transforming the traditional Confucian curriculum and knowledge system into a modern(ized) configuration. Furthermore, it provides a historical lens to cut into present China’s curriculum knowledge (re)production as an effect of this epistemic transformation.