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A political history of Chinese historiography on “foreign education”

Chen Luxi (Faculty of Education, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China)
Su Yiqing (Faculty of Education, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 3 November 2020

Issue publication date: 13 May 2021




This paper examines China's historiography on foreign education since 1900, with an emphasis on the period since 1949. The understanding of “foreign education” in China during this period shifted rapidly from the Western-centered approach that had been introduced from Japanese during the late Qing dynasty and the Republic of China to the Soviet-centered approach that followed the founding of New China to a restoration of Western-centered approaches after the “opening” of the late 1970s and 1980s. The paper asks: how has the study of foreign educational history changed over time in the People's Republic of China, how has the broader discipline of history of education changed, and how have successive generations of historians of education conceived of their intellectual and political roles?


Grounded in archival documents and the published works of influential historians of education, this study notes the ways in which political regime change affected the construction and application of academic knowledge.


This study identifies four stages in the Chinese historiography on foreign education: a formative stage (from 1900 until the late 1940s); a difficult post-revolutionary recovery, followed by growth and then suppression (from 1949 until the mid-1970s); a period of achievement combined with an academic crisis (from 1978 until the early 2000s); and finally, a recent transition marked by theoretical innovation and global integration (from the 2000s until the present).


This study finds that a narrow focus on “practical utility” or service to politics and policy has perturbed historians of foreign education in China and stunted their field's development. A look back at early periods in the historiography offers a warning about the potential dangers of extreme ideological/political utilitarianism. These dangers existed not only in the history of foreign education but also in the history of education research more broadly. A close examination of these dangers can help twenty-first-century historians of education in China balance the practical, political and professional dimensions of their research. To grasp the meaning of foreign education, historical research needs to be politically independent.



This paper was funded by the International Joint Research Project of Faculty of Education, Beijing Normal University (ICER201908).


Chen, L. and Su, Y. (2021), "A political history of Chinese historiography on “foreign education”", History of Education Review, Vol. 50 No. 1, pp. 80-93.



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