A Critical Evaluation of John Dewey's Influence on Chinese Education

by Zhixin Su
A Critical Evaluation of John Dewey's Influence on Chinese Education
Zhixin Su
American Journal of Education
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A Critical Evaluation of John Dewey's Influence on Chinese Education


University of Cal$ornia, Los Angeles

John Dewey visited many nations and regions during his lifetime and exerted great influence on world education. Between 1919 and 1921, he spent two years in China lecturing to Chinese intellectuals on the nature of education and democracy. Evaluation of his visit to China and his influ- ence on Chinese education has been highly controversial, both in the United States and in China. This essay attempts to reevaluate the signifi- cance of John Dewey's influence on Chinese education both from Ameri- can and Chinese and from historical and contemporary perspectives.


For more than two years, from 1919 to 192 1, John Dewey traveled extensively in China and lectured on social and political philosophy, philosophy of education, ethics, and the main trends of modern educa- tion. Although he visited many nations and regions during his lifetime, Dewey spent more time in China than in any other foreign country. It has been claimed that China was the foreign country on which Dewey exercised his greatest influence, particularly in the field of education (Hu 1962; Clopton and Ou 1973), and China had become, according to his daughter, the country nearest his heart after his own (Jane Dewey 1939).

Dewey's intimate association with recent Chinese history and educa- tion is among the most interesting, but least known, phases of his life and work. Although Dewey wrote over 40 short essays concerning China between 1919 and 1922, mostly on the social and political changes, he seemed to be silent about Chinese social and educational development in the last 30 years of his life, except for a short, but

American Journal of Education 103 (May 1995)
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302 American Journal of Education passionate and supportive, message that he delivered in 1942 to the Chinese people (distributed in translated leaflet form over Chinese cities by the U.S. Army Air Force) toward the end of the Second World War (Dewey 1973). He did not even keep the notes of his lectures in China, which he carefully made and intended to revise for publication. In fact, the lectures that he originally delivered in English had to be returned to English from their original translation into Chinese. In the more than 70 years since Dewey's historic visit to China, only about 20 journal articles or book chapters and two books have been written by American scholars on this topic, and most were published before 1977, which has contributed to the general ignorance among Ameri- can educators and even Dewey scholars of Dewey's visit and his influ- ence on China.

Meanwhile, in China, Dewey's ideas have never lacked enthusiastic supporters, ardent opponents, and sincere or insincere critics. His influence on Chinese education has been a topic of great controversy among Chinese scholars, educators, and politicians over the years, and the debate has intensified in the most recent decade, resulting in more diversified interpretations. However, even though educational and scholarly communication between China and the United States has become very active since the early 1980s, few efforts have been made by Dewey scholars in China and in the United States to share and exchange information on this very important topic, except for a few isolated attempts made by Chinese scholars studying in the United States (Zeng 1988; Xu 1992; Wang 1993). Dewey study in China, therefore, lacks an awareness of the important trends and new direc- tions of Dewey scholarship in his home country, although Chinese scholars now have access to many current materials and critical evalua- tions of Dewey from sources outside China (Pfister 1990).

ZHIXINSU worked as a program officer in the National Ministry of Education in China before conducting her doctoral study and research in educational policy and administration at the University of Washing- ton. She has taught at California State University at Northridge and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has published research papers in teacher education and comparative education in Oxford Re- view of Education, Journal of Education for Teaching, International Review of Education, Journal of Research and DeveloFent in Education, and Phi Delta Kappan .

May 1995 303

This article attempts to reevaluate the significance of Dewey's influ- ence on Chinese education both from American and Chinese and from historical and contemporary perspectives. It is an effort to fill a gap in Dewey scholarship and to initiate a dialogue on this topic among Dewey scholars both in China and in the United States. For the pur- pose of the study, much attention has been given to the examination and content analysis of both Chinese and American historical docu- ments and research literature on this topic. While the American litera- ture has been found in the research libraries in the United States, most of the Chinese documents have been obtained from Nanjing Teachers University, which was one of the major institutions of higher learning visited by Dewey. Its research library contains all essential Chinese literature about Dewey's influence on Chinese education.

The limitation of the study is the absence of information on this topic from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other possible sources due to time constraints and lack of access to the research literature in those regions. The author is aware of the strong interest in Dewey's educa- tional theory among some educators in Taiwan and Hong Kong (Ou 1970; Pfister 1990), and efforts will be made later to survey Dewey's influence on educational development in those regions in comparison with Dewey's influence on education in mainland China.

Historical Background

Dewey visited China at a very significant moment in Chinese history and in his own professional life. When the Opium War in 1842 re- vealed the decay and decline of the feudal dynasty and heightened its social crisis, many Chinese intellectuals recognized the need to learn Western science and technology to reform the old system of education, which was characterized by Confucian learning and imperial examina- tion that emphasized memorization rather than reasoning. Once they rejected the past models, they were very eager to search for Western ideas that might be relevant to China.

By the turn of the century, the more Westernized elements in China took control, and the moment of transition from the old to the new arrived with the outbreak of the famous May Fourth Movement in 19 19, a nationwide student movement opposing Japanese imperialism and domestic Chinese corruption (Wang 1927; Chow 1960; Keenan 1977). In every sphere of social activity the old order was challenged, attacked, undermined, or overwhelmed by a complex series of pro- cesses-political economic, social, ideological, and cultural-that were set in motion in China as a result of the penetration of the dominant,

304 American Journal of Education expanding, and powerful western Europe and America (Teng and Fairbank 1954).

Since many of the leaders of the May Fourth Movement had studied abroad, they turned to philosophers of education in other countries for ideas and models to rebuild China. Dewey, then an established scholar in American educational philosophy and a professor at Colum- bia University, was called upon by his former students in China to speak before the professors and students of the new Chinese universi- ties, to make his suggestions concerning the best intellectual approach to reality, and to indicate just what adaptation China should make in order to survive nationally and internationally in the new world order. As Smith (1985) observes, Dewey clearly saw his own capacities and the orientation of his thought as both appropriate and adequate for the task. For, in addition to his role as a teacher, he was a teacher of teachers and one who had a focused theory of the educational enter- prise. He also saw himself, as his lectures in China amply demonstrate, well prepared to teach his audiences how to live and to think in an age of science and technology and how to understand the possibilities and the problems attendant on the development of a democratic form of government.

Dewey was, for those Chinese educators who had studied under him, the great apostle of philosophic liberalism and experimental methodology, the advocate of complete freedom of thought, and the man who, above all other teachers, equated education to the practical problems of civic cooperation and useful living. He was both America at its educational best and the West as the new Chinese scholar class was most able to understand it (Hughes 1938). As the first major Western philosopher invited to lecture at Chinese universities, Dewey had at that moment an opportunity seldom given to any philosopher (Beny 1960). Although the eminent British philosopher Bertrand Russell had also visited China in the second year of Dewey's visit, and his lectures initially appealed to a more radical element in Chinese politics than did Dewey's, many Chinese intellectuals were frustrated when Russell insisted on the value of China's great tradition of pacifist thought and praised such men as Lao Tzu (Russell 1922; Keenan 1977; Ching 1985). Russell met with Dewey shortly after his arrival in China, but he never enjoyed the same vogue as Dewey (Briere 1956). In comparison, Dewey's ideas appeared more attractive and practical to the Chinese audience.

Dewey's Visit and Lectures

There are at least six different accounts of who invited Dewey to visit China (Li 1985). Apparently, Dewey's hosts included his former

May 1995 305 students, who held important educational positions in China, major teacher-training institutions in Beijing and Nanjing, and representa- tive educational associations. Although his original intention was to stay only a few months in China, he became so fascinated by the struggle going on there for a unified and independent democracy that he and his wife altered their plan to return to the United States in the summer of 1919 (Dewey and Dewey 1920). Dewey applied to Columbia University for another year's leave and stayed in China for a total of two years and two months, traveling to 12 provinces and giving speeches in most of the cities and even the towns that he visited, often to overflow audiences.

Dewey chose to base his lectures in China largely on three of his own books, The School and Society ( 1899),Democracy and Education ( 19 16), and Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), a portion of which contained the substance of the lectures he had just given in Japan. A number of Dewey's former students interpreted his lectures in the Chinese lan- guage. For his several major series of lectures, his Chinese hosts also selected competent recorders to report every lecture in full for the daily newspapers and periodicals. What came to be known as "Dewey's Five Major Series of Lectures" in Beijing, totaling 58 lectures, were recorded and reported in full and later published in book form, going through 10 large reprintings before Dewey left China in 1921 and continuing to be reprinted for three decades until the founding of the People's Republic of China. The topics of the five series include "3 lectures on modern tendencies in education," "16 lectures on social and political philosophy," "16 lectures on philosophy of education," "15 lectures on ethics," and "8 lectures on types of thinking" (Clopton and Ou 1973). Later, most of Dewey's written work was translated into Chinese in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong and has been used as major textbooks in Chinese teacher-training institutions.

Dewey did not stop at simply giving lectures. He took part in educa- tional conferences and met with educational and political leaders, in- cluding Dr. Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Chinese revolution that over- threw the last feudal dynasty. Bankers and editors frequented his residences, teachers and students flocked to his classrooms, clubs com- peted to entertain him and to hear him speak, and newspapers vied with each other in translating his latest utterances. His speeches and lectures were eagerly read, and his biography had been elaborately written. The serious-minded commented on his philosophy; the light- hearted remembered his name. Dewey's visit to China was hailed as "one of singular success," and many intellectuals closely associated his thought with the very definition of modernity. A group of his Chinese disciples followed him from city to city and regarded him as a sort of

306 American Journal of Education modern-day sage, a source of explanation for the modernity in the West (Keenan 1977). At one point, Dewey was even likened to Confu- cius, especially after his Chinese friends learned that his sixtieth birth- day in 1919 fell precisely on the day the rotating lunar calendar indi- cated to be the birth date of Confucius. That Dewey received a thunderous welcome in China during his more than two-year visit is not a point of dispute among American or Chinese Dewey scholars.

Success or Failure? American Evaluation

In evaluating Dewey's influence on Chinese education, American and Chinese scholars differ in some fundamental ways. In the United States, the focal point of contention is whether the Dewey experiment in China-the legacy of his ideas-is in large part a success or failure. Clopton and Ou (1973) in their introduction to the English translation of John Dewey, Lectures in China, 191 9-1 920, claim Dewey's influence on Chinese education to have been a great success. They argue that of all Western educators, Dewey most influenced the course of Chinese education, both in theory and in practice. They observe that Dewey's philosophy of education dominated the teaching of educational theory in all Chinese teachers colleges and in university departments of educa- tion for many years. His Democracy and Education was used everywhere, and most of his major works were translated into Chinese. In addition, during and after his visit to China, numerous articles, books, and pamphlets were published to introduce and interpret Dewey's philoso- phy of education. Some of his most used phrases-"education is life," "school is society," and "learning by doingn-were familiar to all levels of the Chinese educational world. "Dewey became the highest educa- tional authority in China, and there were many more converts to his views in Chinese educational circles than among professional philoso- phers" (Clopton and Ou 1973, p. 22).

The success of Dewey's experiment in China can also be seen in practice, according to Clopton and Ou (1973). First, Chinese educa- tional aims were reconsidered in the light of Dewey's thought in the 1920s. While the old educational aims emphasized military education modeled after the Japanese pattern, the new goals embraced the aim and spirit of American education-"the cultivation of perfect person- ality and the development of democratic spirit." Second, the national school system was reformed according to the American pattern-the 6-3-3 plan-and governed by a set of principles advocated by Dewey that included "to promote the spirit of democracy," "to develop individ- uality," "to promote education for life," and "to facilitate the spread

May 1995 307 of universal education." Third, child-centered education predomi- nated in the revision of the curriculum. Fourth, new methods of teach- ing in accord with Dewey's pragmatic theory were initiated. Fifth, experimental schools were multiplied. Sixth, student government was widely extended as a mode of school discipline. Seventh, literary reform was encouraged, and elementary school textbooks written in the ver- nacular were adopted. And finally and most important, Dewey's essen- tial ideas were advanced and adapted in practice by his former students and disciples in China, most notably Hu Shi, Tao Xingzhi, and Chen Heqin, who became famous educators in China. On the basis of these examples, Clopton and Ou concluded that Dewey's influence on Chi- nese education was both profound and extensive.

While not disagreeing with Clopton and Ou on their observations of the various changes in Chinese education that resulted from Dewey's visit, Berry (1960), Sizer (1966), Pavela (1970), and Keenan (1977) maintain that Dewey's experimentalism in China was, in large part and in the end, a failure. They seem to believe that although Dewey profoundly impressed his Chinese audiences, he did not leave a lasting message. The opportunity for building a strong belief in the humanitarian ideals of the West and in democracy as a system of values was not fully exploited. As a distinct political party, the democratic movement envisaged by Dewey was never successful in China. As an ideal, it has remained a constant influence there and has seriously affected the political life of the country. Sun Yat-sen had always been doubtful about the success of democratic government in China. Partic- ularly in his later years, he considered that authoritarian government was the only type of government that could satisfy the political needs of China and attain those essential aims that were the objects in other countries of democratic institutions, in the proper sense of the word (Berry 1960).

In education, although Dewey's influence is considered to be original and decisive, the opposition to his influence was very strong. First came the opposition from Confucian scholars who objected to the iconoclastic attitude adopted toward the cultural traditions of the past. Second, the Marxist challenge to Dewey was even more effective than the Confucian. Marxism began to awaken in the Chinese a response of very great depth and enthusiasm, and in the 1920s it was already winning the allegiance of many professors and students throughout the country. In comparison, the liberal bourgeois democracy and American pragmatism as represented and advocated by Dewey offered a less dynamic political and educational program than that of Marxist proletarian Communism and dialectical materialism. Eventually, the majority of the Chinese intellectuals saw a valid picture of the modern

308 American Journal of Education world in the Chinese Communist Party, while the order supposed by Dewey's liberalism simply failed to develop and grow in a chaotic old China (Berry 1960).

Although Dewey's disciples in China tirelessly promoted his ideas in cultural and educational institutions and campaigns, they failed to promote Deweyism in the political arena, while the believers of Marx- ism did very well in promoting their ideas and succeeded (Sizer 1966). As Billings (1981-82) observes, Dewey's problem was that he could not provide the necessary bridge between old China tradition and modern Western liberalism. The October Revolution taught the young Chinese intellectuals that Western liberalism could be bypassed and Communism adopted directly. Grieder (1970, 1972) in his discussion of Hu Shih and the Chinese renaissance-the May Fourth experi- ence-also concluded that the Chinese liberals failed because they were overwhelmed by the confluence of two great historical move- ments-one traditional, the other modern-both of which equate politics with the totality of human experience and obscure the distinc- tion between public and private, thus denying the importance of indi- vidual liberty, which Dewey and the Chinese liberals considered to be a key condition without which a true political order could neither come into being nor survive. The question remains whether or how this failure contributed to the ultimate disintegration of the liberals' hopes for China, and why.

What is clear is that it is the political arena that finally counts for China. Deweyan experimentalism-as a way of thinking, as a way of acting politically, and as a component of democratic education-of- fered no strategy Dewey's followers could use to affect political power. Without such a strategy, failure was the main consequence of his followers' pragmatic reform efforts. Their reformism was paralyzed by dilemma. Dewey himself recognized this failure after his visit to China, writing, "The difficulties in the way of a practical extension and regeneration of Chinese education are all but insuperable. Discussion often ends in an impasse: no political reform of China without educa- tion; but no development of schools as long as military men and cor- rupt officials divert funds and oppose schools from motives of self- interest. Here are the materials of a tragedy of the first magnitude" (1983, p. 231). The experimentalist philosophy, conceived in a rich, literate, industrial, and relatively serene America and propagated by well-intentioned, but somewhat sheltered, Chinese intellectuals, was finally not appropriate for a huge, varied, agricultural, particularistic country. Maybe this is an important reason for Dewey's silence about his historic visit to China and his views on educational development in China in his later years.

May 1995 309

Positive or Negative? Early Chinese Evaluation

For Chinese Dewey scholars and critics, the early studies of the Dew- eyan experiment in China do not focus on its success or failure, as do studies in the United States, but center on the positive and negative aspects of Dewey's ideas and influence as measured by Chinese political ideology and the educational needs at different historical periods. The American scholars conduct their evaluation in a purely academic man- ner, and they are not personally affected by the consequences of what they say or write because they are far detached from the Chinese reality. The Chinese scholars, on the other hand, have to pay attention to the political climate while conducting their evaluation of Western influence because what they say will directly affect their academic careers and personal lives-being "politically incorrect" in academic discourse could result in the loss of jobs and alienation of families.

In general, the Chinese do not differ from their American counter- parts in their acknowledgment of the strong and widespread influence of Dewey's ideas on Chinese educational theory and practice (Zhou 1991). However, while the Americans do not question Dewey's sincer- ity in promoting the development of a democratic society or the worthi- ness of Dewey's educational philosophy, the Chinese have been in- volved in constant debates over the intentions and worthiness of Dewey's ideas for Chinese schools and society; some praise him as a saint, while others condemn him as an enemy. In many ways, it has been an ideological struggle between Dewey's pragmatism and experi- mentalism and Marxist-Leninist Communism.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, Dewey's pragmatic educational theory dominated the Chinese educational field. Nearly all his educational works were translated into Chinese, and his influence was apparent in major Chinese educational literature (Zhou 1991). The Chinese educational system went through significant transformation based on the American model and Dewey's ideas (Ou 1970). However, while Dewey's disciples and their liberal journals extolled Dewey's theory on education and democracy as a very positive force and the greatest hope for building a new China, a large number of intellectuals had been won to the Communist cause, and the remaking of China on the Marxist pattern had begun in the universities of China and in the publications that appeared during the years of decision. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party was founded during the two years that Dewey was in China (Passow 1982). Eventually, the Communists ob- tained superior standing with the intellectuals, particularly with pro- fessors and students, who found it difficult to accept the West as a

3 10 American Journal of Education teacher but saw in socialism a practical philosophy with which they could reject both the traditions of the Chinese past and the Western domination of the present (Hsu 1970). To them, Western ideas as presented by Dewey's lectures were more negative than positive for China. Such a psychological climate did not work to the advantage of Dewey's teaching (Ching 1985).

An intellectual himself, the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1949) officially denounced Dewey's intellectual followers and the kind of cultural influence the United States had exerted in China as "imperi- alist spiritual aggression." Mao identified Dewey's students with the United States in 1949, when that association meant support of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalists. It should be noted that as a young activist in the May Fourth Movement, Mao had actually attended Dewey's lecture in the spring of 1920. Mao not only was familiar with Dewey's theory but also highly recommended Dewey's Five Major Lectures and carried it in the very first stock when he opened a revolu- tionary bookstore in Hunan that year (Yu 1991). Clearly, Dewey's ideas had considerable influence on young Mao's mind. Later, however, Mao chose Marxist-Leninist Communism over Dewey's pragmatism and experimentalism, as many other young intellectuals did at that time. Dewey lived to see the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and watched his closest followers become refugees in Taiwan and the United States.

In the new republic, the ideological struggle intensified in the 1950s, characterized by severe criticism and total denial of Deweyan experi- mentalism and his followers in China. The movement began with two articles by Chao Fu (1950, 1951), "Introduction to the Criticism of John Dewey," parts 1 and 2, in the official education journal, People's Education. Chao urged that criticism of Dewey should begin with a critique of his anti-Marxist, reactionary positions. While Marxism has been regarded as the absolute truth and guiding principles for all undertakings, including education, in the People's Republic, it has been constantly doubted and critized by Dewey, both in his lectures in China and in his writings on political and social philosophy. For example, while Marxists believe in using methods of violence to overthrow the old system, Dewey advocates the use of methods of intelligence or other nonviolent measures to gradually change and improve the society. Marxist theory predicts that as capital squeezes out competition, the workers will become poorer and poorer, while Dewey argues that the workers will come to fare better and better as a result of competition. Marxists claim that Communism will inevitably win the final victory in the world, while Dewey maintains that the future is highly uncertain (Chao 1950; Dewey 1939; Keenan 1977;

May 1995 3 11 Ching 1985). Because of these fundamental differences in political and philosophical positions, Dewey was labeled by Chinese critics in the 1950s as the "biggest obstacle to the cause of building the people's education" (Chao 1950), "a sly enemy disguised under a progressive mask" (Teng 1957), "supporter of American imperialism" (Wang 1954), "guardian of modern imperialist forces," "defender of criminal acts of Wall-Street bosses," "speaker for reactionary forces all over the world," and "an enemy of the Chinese people and all people in the world who love peace and freedom" (Chen 1957). Thus Dewey was portrayed as a deliberate supporter of the capitalist system and a vi- cious enemy who tried to use education as a means to reproduce the evils in the Western society (T. Zhang 1955; J. Zhang 1955; Cheng

1956; Zhu 1956). Ching (1985) is right in her observation that the Chinese reactions to Dewey in the 1950s are entirely negative. There is no longer any discussion of pros and cons, any impartial analysis of Dewey's thought and influence. The criteria for criticism are derived from Marxist theories and are assumed themselves to be free from error.

It is interesting to note here that in the United States as early as the 1930s, some scholars argued that there were striking similarities between Dewey and Marx in their methodological commitment, and Dewey himself admitted that his experimentalism was most closely aligned to some form of democratic socialism (Hook 1976; Gavin 1988). Some modern critical theorists in the West also consider Dewey a "critical educator" and claim that the pragmatism of Dewey is not that far removed in spirit from the social praxis of Marx: each believed that a freer and more just society could be achieved only through the transformation of existing social institutions, and both agreed that social action must necessarily be informed by correct understanding (McLaren 1994). In addition, while Dewey was attacked in socialist China as anti-Marxist and a defender of imperialism, he has been criticized for his leftist, socialist Marxist tendencies in Taiwan (Liu 1990) and the United States (Tanner 1994). Some even charged that Dewey's educational theories and the scientism implicit in his instru- mentalism helped to erode the power of traditional Chinese culture, thus contributing significantly to the success of the Communist bid for power (Smith 1985).

In the 1950s, Dewey's pragmatic educational philosophy was also considered to be totally incompatible with the Communist educational philosophy in China. The words "malicious," "ridiculous," "reaction- ary," "fallacy," "sly," "dirty," and "ugly" were constantly used to de- scribe Dewey and his ideas. Such descriptions were not at all limited to Dewey but rather were typical of critiques of every intellectual of

3 12 American Journal of Education any influence, Chinese or Western. The most violent attacks on Dewey were launched by his former student and disciple, Chen Heqin. During the 30 years after Dewey's visit, Chen actively promoted Dewey's the- ory and practice in modernizing China's school system, especially the kindergarten and the elementary school. In the 1950s, Chen de- nounced Dewey during the course of his public "confession of error" that he was forced to make:

How was Dewey's poisonous Pragmatic educational philosophy spread over China? It was spread primarily through his lectures in China preaching his Pragmatic philosophy and his reactionary educational ideas, and through that center of Dewey's reactionary thinking, namely, Columbia University, from which thousands of Chinese students, for over thirty years, have brought back all the reactionary, subjective-idealistic, Pragmatic educational ideas of Dewey. . . . As one who has been most deeply poisoned by his reactionary educational ideas, as one who has worked hard and longest to help spread his educational ideas, I now publicly accuse that great fraud and deceiver in the modern history of education, John Dewey! (Cheri 1955, pp. 2-3)

Dewey's educational theories were thoroughly criticized in China during the 1950s. The first and foremost was his opposition to educa- tion with an external end and his claim that "education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself" (1916, p. 53). When it was translated into Chinese, it was often referred to as "Dewey's notorious theory of education without a purpose," which is really rather different in meaning from Dewey's original words. Nevertheless, Chinese critics argued that Dewey was only using this claim as a disguise for his real positions on the purposes of education-that is, education should only have individual, temporary, small goals and not social, future, larger purposes. Dewey's real intention, the Chinese critics said, was to cheat the working-class people and prevent them from demanding the establishment of new educational goals according to their interests (Chao 1955; Li 1956). The purpose of socialist education in China was definite and clear: to train all-around socialist or Communist build- ers and defenders. It seemed inconceivable at the time for Chinese educators to consider an education for education's sake.

In addition to the so-called theory of education without a purpose, Dewey was condemned by his Chinese critics in the 1950s for his emphasis on children's interests and experiences in the educational process (Yan 1955). He was blamed for the lack of discipline, lack of teacher authority, and therefore the lack of rigorous teaching and learning in the schools. Furthermore, Dewey's argument for "educa- tion is life" and "school is society," which was literally implemented in some Chinese schools from the 1920s to the 1940s, was interpreted as an attempt to eliminate formal curriculum, systematic knowledge, and formal schooling, which were considered as essential elements for a good education in China (Li 1956). By the end of the 1950s, Dewey's educational theories were rendered totally worthless and considered to be poisonous and harmful in China. Delibrate efforts were made to eliminate his influences from all spheres of the Chinese society.

Useful or Useless? Recent Chinese Evaluation

There was an eclipse of interest in Dewey even as a target of criticism in the 1960s and 1970s as China plunged itself into the disastrous Cultural Revolution. The 1980s, however, marked a new era in the history of Chinese education and educational criticism. China now is much different from the China before and during the Cultural Revolution, both in its social and political climate and in its relationship with the outside world, especially the United States. China then was closed and stagnant; China now is open and dynamic. China then had nothing to do with the Western world; China now has extensive exchange and communication with the Western world. There is a renewed interest in Western, especially American, ideas among Chi- nese intellectuals. Since 1980, over 80,000 Chinese students and schol- ars have come to the United States to study, and many American educators and researchers have gone to China to work and study. By the mid-1980s, Chinese colleges and universities had already estab- lished extensive educational cooperation with the Western world (Hayhoe and Bastid 1987).

The political and philosophical pendulum in China has clearly swung from Marxism to pragmatism in recent years (Chen 1988). The orthodox interpretation and implementation of Marxism left a poor and demoralized China after the Cultural Revolution. Both policy- makers and intellectuals have tried hard to grasp at an ideology that would guide China into a more definite and better future. The rehabili- tated leader Deng Xiaoping's words, "No matter if it is a white cat or black cat; as long as it catches a mouse, it is a good cat," rather than Marx's and Mao's quotations, ring true for the Chinese now. The underlying message is that if the economic theories and practices in the capitalist countries have resulted in a better living for the ordinary people, there must be something of value there for the Chinese people to learn and to apply to their own situations. Deng's political and

3 14 American Journal of Education economic pragmatism paved the way for Chinese intellectuals to be- come infatuated once again with Western pragmatism.

Under these circumstances, a serious reevaluation of Dewey's influ- ence on Chinese education has begun to emerge among Dewey schol- ars and concerned educators in China. Some critics suggest that the worthiness of certain elements in Dewey's educational philosophy and its status in the history of philosophy should be reevaluated. They recommend that instead of totally denying Dewey, the Chinese should critically borrow and make use of Dewey's ideas in Chinese educational practices (Zhao 1980; Wang 1982; Chen 1985; Meng 1985; Wu 1985; Xia 1985a; Zheng 1985; Wang 1986; Li 1987; Liu 1987; Ma 1989). In 1982, the second annual meeting of the Chinese Society for the Study of Educational History opened special panels on Dewey and received enthusiatic responses from many scholars. They proposed that the study of Dewey's educational theory should be conducted with a liberated mind and result in an honest, matter-of-fact evaluation (Xia 19856). Some even quoted Lenin to support their efforts in reeval- uating Dewey: "We should transform the most rich cultural tradition, knowledge, and skills accumulated in the capitalist society from a means for capitalism into a means for socialism" (Chen 1982, p. 86). A Chinese scholar studying in the United States went so far as to note the striking similarities between Dewey and Mao, as Sizer (1974)-an American scholar-did earlier, in their educational theories and prac- tices. "Although Dewey and Mao emerged from completely different cultures, times, and contexts, their theories had amazing similarities. Their logs, 'learning by doing' (Dewey) and 'learning by practicing' (Mao), ring a similar note. Moreover, their views on the significant connections between school and society, the social role of education, the role of experience in learning, and their stress on moral education overlap a great deal" (Xu 1992, p. 3).

Thus the recent Chinese evaluation of Dewey is in many ways drasti- cally different from the observations made in the 1950s-it no longer focuses on whether Dewey's educational theories are positive or nega- tive influences politically (although it is always necessary for Chinese educators to state that Dewey's political positions are counterrevolu- tionary and unacceptable in socialist China) but centers on the contri- butions that Dewey made to world education, the similarities between Dewey and Chinese educators and politicians, and the usefulness of his ideas for the improvement of China's educational practices. For example, Chen Jingpan, who used the most-both in number and in degree-negative and derogatory terms and labels to criticize Dewey in the 1950s, hardly reused any of that vocabulary in his new essays on Dewey in the 1980s (Chen 1957, 1982, 1985). "Dewey is a reaction-

May 1995 315 ary in his political ideology and class position," argues Zhang (1983), "but he is also a respectable scholar and thinker because of his lifetime efforts, his intelligence, and his achievements. Dewey's ideas are prod- ucts of a special era and a special society" (p. 67). Only in two articles published in China since 1980 did authors find an overflow of severe charges and political criticisms against Dewey (Luo 1981; Xu 1985).

The much-criticized theory of "education without a purpose" has received a reappraisal with a more accurate interpretation of Dewey's original meaning in the past decade. Shi (1985) points out that the conclusion drawn in the 1950s of Dewey's theory of educational pur- pose was too simplistic, subjective, and unfair. He cites different argu- ments from Dewey's own works to demonstrate that as a pragmatist, Dewey firmly believes in the role of education as a means of social reform for a democracy; thus he has a very clear social goal for educa- tion. Zhang (1989) concurs with Shi and concludes that Dewey has a strong focus on the society in his discussion on creating a balance between individual growth and social development in the educational process. Zhang further quotes from Dewey's lectures in China, which offered explicit warnings to Chinese educators against education with- out a purpose.

While still considering Dewey's statement about the goal of educa- tion as a manifestation of the decline of capitalist society, Fu (1986) recognizes the worthy elements in Dewey's theory: "Dewey tried to remind us that the purpose of education must conform to the develop- ment of the child, and must not be disconnected from the child's experiences and needs. Otherwise, education cannot reach any of its goals nor produce effective results. We feel that he is right on that point" (p. 116). Other scholars also began to see why Dewey values the process of education itself rather than something external to it. Jiang (1983), Meng (1985), and Zhao (1987) observe that by putting emphasis on education as life and growth rather than as the prepara- tion for life, Dewey did not dispute the importance of preparation. Rather, he meant that only through meaningful activities in the pro- cess of education can one be prepared for life, in the real sense of the word. Despite these positive interpretations, Dewey's theory on educational goals still receives strong political criticism from some Chinese scholars, who charge that Dewey's real educational purpose is to serve the interests and needs of the bourgeoisie and monopoly capitalists in the United States (Beijing Institute of Educational Admin- istration 1987; Wu et al. 1988; Li 1989).

Dewey's theory on curriculum and instruction also received a reeval- uation in China in the 1980s (Yuan 1983). A major area of contention in the 1950s was Dewey's emphasis on organizing class activities

3 16 American Journal of Education around the children's experiences, needs, and interests (Yan 1955; Chao 1950; Chen 1952), his delegation of a facilitator's role to class- room teachers (Liu 1955; Yan 1955; Fu 1957), and his promotion of "learning by doing" (Chen 1956; Liu 1955; Fu 1957; Chao 1950). In reassessment, many Chinese scholars seem to agree that Dewey's ideas represent a forceful and revolutionary criticism of the empty formal- ism in old education, although they are not constructive enough to replace the traditional, teacher-centered, discipline-oriented educa- tion (Wu et al. 1988). Therefore, these scholars maintain that child- centered activities with teachers as facilitators can best serve as a sup- plement to, rather than a replacement of, the existing teacher-centered curriculum. They seem to believe that Dewey advocates a child-cen- tered school whose activities tend to deemphasize the role of the teacher, the systematically organized curriculum, and teaching mate- rials, thus seriously affecting the quality of education. They point to examples from some Western countries-reports of serious discipline problems and low student achievement-as a result of the soft, pro- gressive, child-centered curriculum and instruction (Luo 1981; Meng

1985; Wu 1985; Xia 1985a, Li 1989). Wang (1982) even likened Dew- eyan schools to the Soviet deschooling movement in the 1920s and the chaotic educational failures during the 10-year Cultural Revolution (1966-76) in China. Thus these scholars do not see much use for Dewey's theory on curriculum and instruction in developing the mod- ern Chinese education system.

However, some Chinese critics, such as Zhao (1980, 1982), Wu (1985), Meng (1985), Ren (1985), Wang (1986), and Zhang (1989), provide a different perspective on this issue. They point out that while emphasizing children's interests, needs, and activities, Dewey also at- taches great importance to the role of the teacher, who continues to have the authority and obligation to help students in their studies. The teacher's role is even more difficult than before. In fact, Dewey himself sharply criticized those schools that misunderstood his theory on independent thinking and neglected the role of the teacher and other adults in the schools. This observation is similar to Ou's (1961) earlier argument that Dewey never advocated child-centered schools and that when he talked about freedom, interest, initiative, satisfaction of felt needs, and individual development, Dewey never forgot to at- tach importance to authority, effort, discipline, teachers' guidance, and social efficiency. Dewey indeed criticized the one-sidedness of the child-centered school (Dewey 1930). Zhang (1989) observes that Dewey dialectically and appropriately handled the relationship be- tween the child, the teaching materials, and the curriculum, and this is a significant contribution to education. "If we say that Marx creatively

May 1995 317 applied dialectics to the study of political, social and economic issues," Zhang concludes, "we have to admit that Dewey's contribution is as great as Marx's when he applied dialectics to the study of educational problems" (1989, p. 67). This is the highest compliment given to Dewey by a Chinese scholar in recent years. It presents a sharp contrast to the Chinese portrayal of Dewey as an anti-Marxist speaker for all reactionary forces in the world in the 1950s. Even earlier in the 1980s, Dewey was often criticized for his anti-Marxist political positions (Zhao 1980; Wang 1982).

Also emerging in China in the 1980s was a new interpretation of Dewey's theory of "learning by doing." In the 1950s, the critics argued that Dewey overemphasized the process of knowing and neglected the consequence of this process-knowledge, which is best represented by systematically organized academic subjects, as in a traditional educa- tion model. They concluded that students in Deweyan schools both in the United States and China "know how to think, but have no knowl- edge" (Chao 1950). In reevaluating Dewey's ideas on this issue, some scholars still adhere to this earlier conclusion and regard Dewey's theory of "learning by doing" as useless for Chinese education (Wang 1982; Jiang 1983). However, Zhao (1980, 1982) argues that Dewey does not oppose learning organized subject matter, he is only against spoon-feeding students with prepackaged knowledge that is discon- nected from students' experiences and therefore cannot be understood by them. By advocating "learning by doing," Dewey encourages stu- dents to acquire useful knowledge by solving problems in their own activities organized around different types of knowledge. Meng (1985) also highly regards Dewey's "learning by doing" and observes that Dewey's method builds an excellent connection between theory and practice and motivates students to make the necessary efforts in learning.

In the middle of these two opposing interpretations, Wu (1985) offers an eclectic position: "We do not want children to learn by doing, but we do not oppose children's participation in practice. We can experiment with different structures of curriculum to create conditions for children to apply what they learn in practice" (p. 76). Essentially, this position wants to maintain the traditional, teacher-centered, disci- pline-oriented classrooms but at the same time create extra, "learning by doing" activities for the students. Thus Dewey's ideas have limited use in this view for improving Chinese educational practices. Some Chinese educators have labeled these types of extra activities as the "second classroom," or the "second channel of learning" (Wang 1984).

In reality, most Chinese classrooms are still highly traditional, teacher centered, and textbook oriented with very few hands-on activi-

3 18 American Journal of Education ties for the students (Su 1989). As Zheng observes (1985), modern educational theory and practice in China has inherited more elements from the traditional education model than from new, progressive edu- cation ideas. In a recent comparative study of science education in the United States and China, the participating Chinese visiting scholars were very impressed by what they saw as student-centered, real-life, experience-oriented science classrooms in American schools. They took a particular interest in the activity curriculum and the project method, which were the natural products of the Dewey system (Ou 1961). Most of the scholars recommended these models to the Chinese schools, although they also recognized the weakness of these methods to be the lack of emphasis on systematic knowledge and theoretical reasoning (Su, Goldstein, and Su 1994). Surely the Chinese educators will not totally abandon their established educational system, but they now see the necessity of incorporating the useful elements from West- ern education, including Dewey's ideas, into the Chinese system. They will avoid going to either extreme-"traditional education," as repre- sented by Confucian and Herbart's educational theories, or "modern education," as represented by Dewey and his advocates in China (Zhang 1985). The schools in the Haidian district in Beijing are building a Twenty-First-Century Experimental School that will feature some of the learning strategies of their sister schools in Washington State, with a focus on individual personalities, creativity, and critical thinking (Iwasalu

1994). Dewey's progressive education ideas may yet play a significant role in the transformation of modern Chinese schools.


In summary, the encounter between Dewey and China is one of the most fascinating episodes in the intellectual history of the twentieth century. Despite the difficulties and opposition, Dewey accomplished much during his visit to China, a fact recognized by both American and Chinese Dewey scholars. Among his greatest contributions, Dewey established a communication of mind between American and Chinese educators, encouraged the Chinese people to break way from the harmful elements in the old tradition, and helped Chinese education to develop toward a new stage. This is Dewey's singular success, one that no other foreign visitor to China has ever achieved, although efforts to realize Dewey's vision of education and democracy in China have largely failed.

Dewey's political and social philosophy was severely criticized, and his educational theories were totally denied in China during the 1950s.

However, he received an open and warm reappraisal from Chinese educators in the 1980s. While they still consider his political and philo- sophical position-subjective idealistic experimentalism-unaccept- able in socialist China, Chinese critics have recognized Dewey's valu- able contributions to the history of education and his significant influence on both Chinese education and world education. They have also begun to see the worthiness of certain ideas in his educational theory and have recommended critical application of these ideas to Chinese educational practices. Despite trials and tribulations, Dewey's educational theories have finally transcended the stage of total denial to one of renewal and reuse in China.

The strong interest in Dewey scholarship in China since 1980 has resulted in heated debates, diversified interpretations, and numerous publications, which presents a sharp contrast to the near-silence of American scholars on the topic of Dewey and China since Keenan published The Dewey Experiment in China in 1977. The small pool of American literature on Dewey's involvement in China is both inade- quate and out-of-date in its references to the Chinese Dewey scholar- ship. On the other hand, Chinese educators and researchers seem to be unaware of the Dewey scholarship that has developed outside China both before and after China opened its gate to the Western world in the early 1980s. Limitation of resources and lack of language skills have been the major obstacles. Most Chinese Dewey scholars still do not have access to the research literature on Dewey available in the Western world.

Clearly, there remains great potential for Chinese and American Dewey scholars to collaborate in their research on Dewey and Chinese education. Whatever future development may bring in the way of a more definitive appraisal of the Dewey experiment in Chinese educa- tion, there can be little doubt that the entire episode and its repercus- sions must be put on record as the most colossal attempt in modern history to set ideas to work (Smith 1985), for whenever we seek answers to the most important educational questions, we still need to consult Dewey's ideas, whether in the United States or in China.


An earlier draft of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, April 8, 1994.The author wishes to thank Professor Chen Xian of Nanjing Teachers University, Suzanne Goldstein of California State University at Northridge, Chi Tianliang of the Nanjing municipal government, and Tang Chuiying of the Jiangsu Tao Xingzhi Study Society for their valuable assistance in gathering relevant

320 American Journal of Education

literature for the study. Thanks also to Professor Philip W. Jackson for his

encouraging and helpful comments on the first draft and to the anonymous

reviewers for their useful suggestions for revision on the second draft.


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