Cai Yuanpei - The Pioneer of Modern Chinese Education

The statue of Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培) at Jing’an Park (靜安公園), Shanghai (上海). (Photo credit: Visual China Group)

Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), from Shaoxing City (紹興) of Zhejiang Province (浙江省), was an educator, revolutionist, and politician in modern China. He received traditional education as a young boy. At the age of 25, he got a Jinshi degree (進士, the highest rank granted by the ancient imperial examination) in Dianshi (殿試, the palace examination, which was the highest level of examination in the ancient imperial examination) and was appointed as Shujishi (庶吉士, a reserve officer on probation) at the Hanlin Academy (翰林院). Two years later, he was promoted to Bianxiu (編修, compiler) at the Hanlin Academy. In the same year in 1894, the First Sino-Japanese War broke out. Some far-sighted men predicted that the country would face a greater crisis and advocated reform. Cai, a strong admirer of Tan Sitong (譚嗣同), was also in favour of reform. After the failure of the Hundred Days‘ Reform, Cai lost trust in the Qing (清代) imperial court and returned to Shaoxing to teach in a modern school.

In the late Qing dynasty, Cai taught in several educational institutions, including Shaoxing Chinese-Western School (中西學堂), Shanghai Chengzhong School (上海澄衷學堂), and Nan Yang Public School (南洋公學). He also founded the China Education Society (中國教育會), Patriot Society (愛國學社) and Women’s Patriot Society (愛國女學). Moreover, he founded The Alarming News from Russia (《俄事警聞》, later renamed The Alarming Daily News 《警鐘日報》) . He then joined the United League (同盟會) and served as the president of its Shanghai branch to engage in revolutionary activities. In 1907, the Chinese Ambassador to Germany Sun Baoqi (孫寶琦) sponsored him to study philosophy, aesthetics, psychology, and ethnology in Berlin for four years.

Cai returned to Shanghai after the Wuchang Uprising (武昌起義) in 1911. The Provisional Government of the Republic of China was established in Nanjing (南京) in 1912 and Cai was appointed Minister of Education of the Republic of China. During his tenure, he issued the Interim Measures and Curriculum Standards for General Education, which laid the foundation of the modern Chinese education system. He also published an article entitled “Opinions on Modern Education” explaining his blueprint for modern education. In July 1912, Cai resigned his post and went to Europe due to his dissatisfaction with the dictatorship of Yuan Shikai. (袁世凱)


In 1916, Cai returned to China and was named President of Peking University. He supported the New Culture Movement led by Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀), Hu Shi (胡適), Li Dazhao (李大釗), and Lu Xun (魯迅, also known as Zhou Shuren [周樹人]), and advocated the development of academic research. He also upheld all-embracement and all-inclusiveness in thoughts and promoted the implementation of faculty governance in universities. During the May Fourth Movement, he firmly supported the students’ patriotic actions and played an important role in rescuing arrested students. The Nanjing Nationalist Government was established in 1927 when Cai was appointed President of the Academy of the Republic of China, focusing on the development of national cultural and educational undertakings and academic research. The University Council and District System advocated by him was an attempt at something new in Chinese history of education. He strongly believed that education should be aligned with academic research. Cai was appointed President of the Academia Sinica in 1928. Under his leadership, the Academia Sinica made remarkable achievements in reserving talents, supporting experts, and promoting academic exchanges at home and abroad.

When the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression broke out on full scale in 1937, Cai, who originally planned to travel to the southwest via Hong Kong to preside over the relocated the Academia Sinica, had to stay in Hong Kong due to his poor physical condition. While staying in Hong Kong, he was concerned about the anti-Japanese war and helped seek international support. Cai died of illness in Hong Kong in 1940.


Cai devoted his whole life to education and regarded it as the foundation of national salvation. He advocated practising and coordinating five types of education in the education system, namely, military education, utilitarian education, civic moral education, worldview education, and aesthetic education. He highly valued aesthetic education and believed that the coordinated development of aesthetic and intellectual education would finally promote moral education. In addition, he attached great importance to civilian education and supported the establishment of evening courses for school workers, a speech group for civilian education, and a civilian evening school at Peking University to improve the overall education level. Having served as Minister of Education of the Republic of China, President of Peking University, and President of the Academia Sinica, Cai made significant contributions to Chinese education and academics.

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