Literacy in China


Trying to find a consensus on the growth of literacy in China is like trying to find a grey rock in a quarry of gravel. The one agreement is that literacy is growing, but sorting through the data for the most reliable information proves challenging. For the first fifty years of the 20th century, illiteracy (不识字或识字很少) in China remained at a steady 85-80% of the population. Thereafter, the figures start to vary. Below is a broad view of literacy rates:

By 1959 rates among youths and adults (aged 12-40) fell from 80% to 43%.  By 1979 this figure had dropped to 30%, by 1982 to 25%, and by 1988 to 20%. China’s national censuses of 1964, 1982, 1990, and 2000 reported slightly different declines of illiterates as a percentage of the total population (which increased during those years from approximately 694,580,000 to 1,265,830,000) from 33.58%, to 22.81%, to 15.88% to 6.72%.


According to 2000 census data, 86.992 million adults in China were illiterate, 20.55 million of whom were between the ages of 15 and 50.  Three quarters of these illiterates lived in rural areas. Seven provinces and regions had the highest illiteracy rates, including Tibet, Yunnan, Guizhou, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Tibet’s illiteracy rate was 37%-38%, the illiteracy rate of Yunnan, Guizhou, Gansu and Qinghai varied from 10%-15%, and the illiteracy rate of Inner Mongolia was 7%-8%.


History’s role
History shows that Chinese have long held literacy as an important “moral template for cultural identity and modernity.” Wisdom and education have been highly regarded in China, and literacy campaigns appeared throughout the 20th century and continue today. Despite the importance of education, literacy has not been easy to achieve. During the Cultural Revolution when secondary schools were closed between 1966 and 1968, the number of illiterate citizens rose, and the population boom further destabilized learning.

Prior to 1978, adult education had always taken precedence over children. The report says, “Adult literacy was given first priority in literacy campaigns designed to ‘sweep away illiteracy’ (saochu wenmang). Because 80% of adults were illiterate they were targeted as crucial for securing new China’s economic security.” It may sound cliché, but reading was (and continues to be) power, and leaders knew that the literate could have considerable influence.

In 1950 the government set recognition of 1000 characters as the standard for literacy and 300 for illiteracy. A reading primer for peasants was distributed in 1951 to rural people. Pinyin was developed (there was even talk of doing away with characters), Putonghua became the standard for the Chinese language, and characters were simplified in an effort to make the written language more accessible to the public and to unify the country under a singular language system.

When the primary school curriculum was standardized in 1978, the focus shifted to a more consistent national education program for the younger members of society, and adult education began to decline (of course, it was no longer as necessary since the newest generations picked up the language quicker). Literacy among children increased; however, the years before had seen a decline in literacy despite the campaigns to eradicate it. The trend changed however during the ‘80s and ‘90s when the literacy rate rose considerably and China reported a 15.9% illiteracy rate (1990). UNESCO reports that the majority of those who remained illiterate were (unsurprisingly) women.

Gansu China. Classroom. 2005

Gansu China. Classroom.

What is the standard of literacy?
In China, literacy is measured by the number of characters recognized. For urban dwellers, the current literacy standard is 2000 characters while rural dwellers need know only 1500. Minority languages and dialects do not generally factor in. Over the years other criteria has factored into what counts as literacy including ability to write reports, read popular publications, etc.

The actual statistics published by China have made critics outside of the country skeptical. With the size of the population, condition of rural education, and other factors to consider, it does not seem possible that the literacy rate in 1990 could be as low as 15.9%. The age range represented in literacy censuses has not been consistent or clear over time, which makes statistics hard to reconcile when combined with the shifting literacy standard.

What are the barriers to literacy?

  1. Rural education. China has made great inroads to better rural education—lessening the cost of primary and secondary education, sending or subsidizing books, etc; however, there is still a significant gap between the rural and urban education systems.
  2. Gender disparity: male children are still chosen to receive more education than female children, especially in rural settings.
  3. Population: with over one billion citizens, educating the huge population is decidedly challenging. Factor in the minority culture and tradition of minority peoples, the difficult to monitor rural populations, and the millions of migrant children living in cities with barebones education and you can understand how difficult educating the country is.
  4. Disabled students: “China’s reported disabled population of 60-70 million represents approximately 5% of the overall population, 1/3 of which resides in rural areas.” Disabled students are not given the same educational rights as other children, and schools that do specialize in caring for the disabled and those with learning disabilities are expensive and are almost nonexistent outside urban areas.