A few months into my grant, after I had read more textbooks than could fill my apartment, a mentor gave me the research idea to explore less traditional forms of education, namely, those who had used their own time and resources to self-study their way to expertise in certain areas, both practical and ideological.
This opened a wave of new information and ideas. I found, after a few days of searching at the archives, that not only did many people self study (especially in the early days of the Communist period) but in fact it was part of a wider government program to promote mass education. The government realized that as it was spreading education opportunities to new members of society at an unprecedented rate, it couldn't educate everyone, especially two groups of people: those who were older and did not receive an education (or received a poor one) before 1949, and those who were not able to test into higher education because of the lack of sufficient secondary schools. Therefore, the government worked hard to spread awareness about the benefits of self study, and to organize self study groups.
One of the most interesting ways the government supported and promoted self study among its population was by instituting radio broadcasts. These radio broadcasts included broadcasts on political thought, but most of the broadcasts were lessons in spoken mandarin Chinese, basic math and algebra. The government also published textbooks to supplement these lessons, and over the radio, organized self study groups with trained teachers in different areas of Shanghai. This was one of the main ways that the government involved itself in this particular sector of unorthodox education.
Self study took on a different meaning, however, during different time periods. In the early 1900s, during the height of the New Youth Movement and May 4th, self study was a way to improve and better oneself. When the term "self study" was used in these contexts, it was often used for the already educated, and was meant to be a way for people to better and reform themselves, thus contributing to the betterment of society as a whole (these movements heavily stressed education). There were manuals that those with the impetus to self study could use, and they listed different methods and ways to self study. Oftentimes, the topics were literature, science, or foreign languages. As the manuals themselves were often written in difficult Chinese, and the rational for using various methods cited foreign sources, the implication was that people who used these manuals were already well educated. This demonstrates the way that time period viewed self study: it was a method through which people could become "Renaissance men" which would ultimately improve Chinese society as a whole.
Documents are much fewer in number after 1961, but from what little I have been able to glean from informal interviews and secondary sources, the meaning of self study changed once again during the cultural revolution. Once the Cultural Revolution began, standard education was not an option anymore; furthermore, while work unit meetings and other such educational options were still available, the material taught through these options was largely impractical, focusing almost entirely on political ideology. Therefore, those who wanted some sort of future saw self study as their only option. Many people, for instance, used this time period, and the radio broadcasts (which were still performed) to learn either spoken Mandarin Chinese or English. I don't know if radio broadcasts continued in such areas as algebra or science continued after 1966 (as such documents are unavailable to me) but it would be interesting to see of those continued as well.
Exploration into this topics illuminates many themes and ideas from the 20th century. First of all, it raises the question as to the role of government. I think we often believe that in a Communist regime (especially the Maoist regime) that the government sought to control every aspect of society, including thought, activity, and culture. However, the way in which the Communist regime promoted self study implies that the government, while trying its best to control content, also believed that it was the job of the citizen to design their own future through self motivation. On a side note, I found it interesting that many of the documents from the 1950s and 1960s emphasized that children or adults who self studied could have a "future," which seemed to be the main concern of the population. I think that I believed before that once the Communists took over, they never felt the need to talk about such things since the government would take care of everything. Clearly, worries about getting a future career still seemed to permeate Chinese society.
Another question this topic raises is the meaning of knowledge and education. Before 1949, self study was a means to further better oneself once he is already educated. And while reformers from the 1920s and 1930s emphasized mass education, self study was not a big part of that. Education, and self motivation, was reserved for the elite. Furthermore, the content was not necessarily a skill set necessary for life, but instead was scholarly knowledge, useful to those in academia but little else. In a sense, the Communist period saw a shift in the meaning of education. It was not meant necessarily to enlighten, and it was not reserved for the elite. Instead, it was meant for everyone, and it was meant to give participants a skill set to be used in all lines of work; it was for basic education. This demonstrates a shifting meaning of the words knowledge and mass education.
If I were to further pursue this topic, I would need more information from a few things. First of all, I would need to get much more information from the 1920s and 1930s, and more information from the Cultural Revolution period. I have plenty of information from the 1950s and 1960s, but sources are fewer (from what I have explored) during these other periods. Furthermore, I have very little information about what was happening during the war; this is an important period to cover since a lot in terms of mass education was happening during this period. I also would like to get ahold of some of the radio broadcasts from the time periods (although for the time being, I have documents that outline their curriculum).
I think this could be a great idea, and could illuminate a whole other side of the world of knowledge and education. I hope to be able to explore more of this in the future.