Course:HIST481/Education and National Minorities in Contemporary China

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Introduction: The Challenge Of Education And China's National Minorities

China faces a substantial challenge in regards to education and its massive minority population in the 51 semi autonomous regions that are designated for its recognized minorities[1]. China has acknowledged the importance of maintaining the cultural integrity in these semi-autonomous regions and is currently looking for ways to balance preferential education for minorities with standardization of education that leave employment opportunities. At the same time however, China, like other nations with regional ethnic groups must find ways to incorporate these ethnic groups and give them the same opportunities that urban Chinese youth currently have. Along with the problems aforementioned, China has been grappling with the education of minority women, an issue that persists in many traditional semi-autonomous regions throughout the country.

State Policy Measures in Regards to Education of Ethnic Minorities

In recent times China has recognized the importance of furthering the social and economic development of its ethnic minority groups. Since education reforms in the late 1970's, China has made this a priority by adding an department of ethnic minority education into its greater state education bureaucracy. In 1984, the Act of Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities came into effect in which Articles 9 and 10 gave ethnic minorities the right to use and develop their own language and the freedom to believe in religion. [2]. The 1984 Act is seen as a substantial commitment on the part of the government to try and work with ethnic minorities in regards to education, however given the massive diversity of China's ethnic groups, it has proven increasingly difficult for the Chinese state to implement. This seemingly positive move by the Chinese government has however not been implemented fully in politically tense regions like Tibet. Tibet has been the focal point for many minority advocacy groups who claim that the Chinese government is trying to assimilate ethnic Tibetans into mainstream Chinese society by ignoring their linguistic and cultural rights. Much of China's hardline position towards Tibet's minority education rights has been due to the separatist ambitions of many ethnic Tibetans, a move that is heavily opposed by Beijing[3]The state apparatus has designed provincial and county levels for furthering minority education at the local level as well. China has invested state funds to increase the accessibility to foreign language education in minorities as well as better customizing special cultural, linguistic, and historical education in the curriculums of designated ethnic minorities. China's massive government however is divided between those who emphasize more importance on preserving cultural traditions at the local level and those that want to create a more educationally homogenous society. It is important too from the state's point of view that their efforts to enhance education for ethnic minorities translate into measurable economic outcomes upon graduation. Economic development tends to be lower in rural semi-autonomous regions like Tibet, therefore the state as well as the people of those regions want to see development with the help of the government but also cultural preservation.[4]

In regards to modernization of the education system amongst minorities, China has found it increasingly challenging to transpose its extremely competitive and dynamic tertiary education sector into the fringes of the country. It is apparent that China is still grappling ways to bring its minority populations up to the urban standard in education therefore we can expect a slower, gradual pace of devlelopment amongst advanced educational institutions in the semi-autonomous region.

Positive Effect to Minorities in terms of Language Policy Changes

China is a multi-ethnic country with 55 minority groups, representing approximately 110 million people. Han, the dominant group, comprises about 92 percent of the total population.Historically, China’s minority language policies experienced several stages: support of minority languages in the early and mid-1950s, suppression of minority languages during the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and tolerance of minority language starting from the late 1970s. [5] The most important of negative influence on minority language rights was the dominance of Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin became the official language in Mainland China started in 1956. Due to the strong economic development after 1978 with the educational reforms, the Mandarin Chinese was not only to improve the employment opportunities , but also to promote the entry into new identification of being Chinese. [6]For instance, the massive use of Mandarin Chinese in everywhere, in terms of government, employment and private sectors. It had the large effects on Tibetan language learning and also at the same time was the effect of losing the minority heritage language. However, the massive use of Mandarin could make everyone better off in the view of living standard. In fact, some Tibetans believed that learning Mandarin was the only entrance to improve their living standard, because of they could easier get government jobs after graduation. Employed in government always was the best strategy in terms of earnings and welfare. Before PRC established, the economic development in Tibet was much below the average compared with other regions of China. [7]The most important reason was Tibetans were not willingness to accept the multiculture and advanced thought, education system and technology, because of their own cultural reasons. After PRC established, the leader Mao and Deng had made the positive impact on the multicultural education in China, even though there existed the strong opposite voice, however, in the contemporary China, the minority students had many benefit when they entered into secondary schools and universities. The national policy indicated that they could be benefited in terms of standardized examinations, due to the different ethnics. Minorities could benefited from the lower entrance admission compared to Han ethnic students. Thus, in contemporary Chinese universities, the minority students were easily seen in the schools, which opened the opportunities for minorities to improve academic achievement. In overall, the uniformed language policy as the economic indicator did boost the national stability and unity by increasing the employment and then increasing the living standard.

Gender Perspectives on National Minority Education

There has not been a significant amount of research conducted regarding female ethnic minority participation in Chinese state education. While there is overall concern about the development of state education amongst ethnic minorities in China, the specific provision of educational opportunities for minority girls and women is rarely focused upon. Both Chinese and foreign researchers have lumped minorities together in terms of state education, without looking at the differences between male and females within the different ethnic groups, and how gender relates to an individual’s perception of education.

Women lag behind men throughout all of China in terms of their level of education and women belonging to national minorities have the highest rates of illiteracy in China. Gender inequality in education may be based on the lasting influence of Confucian thought, with traditional notions of gender roles. Sons remain in the family, so it is a better investment to put them through school. Many ethnic minorities do not have a history of participating in Chinese state education, both for boys and girls, and as such as reluctant or at least indifferent to sending their children to school. Ethnic minorities generally reside in rural areas, and for many families schooling is simply a financial burden that takes away a potential earner for the family. Though not necessarily against education, rural families consider the cost of education to be prohibitive, and cannot afford to send all of their children to school. The choice to send a son to school rather than a daughter is commonplace for many parents in minority groups[8].

One example of an ethnic group with relatively high level of participations in the Chinese education system is the Naxi in Lijiang prefecture. The Naxi girls however participate at a much lower rate than do boys. Females from the Naxi group were hesitant to continue with further education for fear of not being able to find a marriage partner, if they were too educated. Another ethnic minority population, the Tai of Sipsong Panna, have quite low rates of school attendance, yet the proportion of girls enrolled in the state system is as high as that of boys. This is in part due to the fact that many Tai boys are school dropouts as it is customary to send boys between the ages of seven and fifteen to the local Buddhist monastery to receive training in religious studies. Tai women who have continued with their education, along with females from some other minority groups, have found that due to their education and ethnic status, they have been able to obtain employment specifically in the tourism industry.Han tourists, mainly male, travel to other parts of China and ethnic women can get jobs as guides when they have a certain level of linguistic competence in Chinese. Han men often travel to these areas specifically to see the beauty of the ethnic women and to experience the ‘gentle’ way of life of the different ethnic groups[9].

Ultimately, the state education system in China is experienced differently by males and females from minority groups, and is a subject that invites further research.


  1. Dreyer, J. T. (1976). China’s forty millions: Minority nationalities and national integration in the PRC. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  2. Information Office of the State Council, (2005). Regional autonomy for ethnic minorities in China. Retrieved from 07/28/content_18127.htm
  3. Woeser, T. (2010). Are ‘minority’ languages safe? Retrieved from
  4. Postiglione, G.(2008). Making Tibetans in China: The educational challenges of harmonious multiculturalism. Educational Review, 60(1), 1-20.
  5. Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (1982). Retrieved January 13, 2008, from
  6. He, B. (2005). Minority rights with Chinese characteristics. In W. Kymlicka & B. He (Eds.), Multiculturalism in Asia (pp. 56-79). Oxford University Press.
  7. Nima, B. (2001). Problems related to bilingual education in Tibet. Chinese Education & Society, 34(2), 91-102.
  8. Hansen, Mette Halskov. “Ethnic Minority Girls on Chinese School Benches: Gender Perspectives on Minority Education.” Education, Culture and Identity in Twentieth Century China. Eds. Glen Peterson, Ruth Hayhoe, Yongling Lu. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001. 403-29. Print.
  9. Hansen, Mette Halskov. “Ethnic Minority Girls on Chinese School Benches: Gender Perspectives on Minority Education.” Education, Culture and Identity in Twentieth Century China. Eds. Glen Peterson, Ruth Hayhoe, Yongling Lu. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001. 403-29. Print.