Historically in China, it was one’s position in a government office, not his material wealth, that determined his elite social status. Since the government officials were normally selected from the best candidates (in theory) through a series of academic examinations (similar to but more, and much much more, comprehensive than today’s Public Service Recruitment Test), literacy capabilities played a decisive role in deciding to which class one should belong.

Naturally, it is impractical for a society to have the majority of people in an elite class exempted from paying tax and working for free on government projects, therefore the literate folks have to be in small numbers.

Further, the classic Chinese written language is very different from the speaking language, and for anyone to become literate meant he would have to virtually learn a different language.

Most peasant families who lived from hand to mouth just could not afford the time and money to be spent on such a big investment, as the reward of which was never guaranteed.

Of course, separating written and speaking languages does have many merits that outweigh the disadvantages.

The middle kingdom is vast in territory and huge in population with hundreds of different dialects. Besides, speaking languages keep changing over time. All these give the use of a unique language for writing some distinctive benefits: It ensures that the Chinese will always be able to communicate among themselves and between generations.

The downside of this practice is of being over costly in time – it could take ten years or so) to become literacy competent – which further contributes to China’s once extremely low literacy rate.

In the early 20th century, a new cultural movement emerged in China, calling for replacing classical language with speaking language when writing.

But the real boost to China’s literacy rate, for the first time in Chinese history, only occurred in the 1950s when free literacy education campaigns were carried out, along with the establishment of a public education system that is heavily subsidised by the government.

When the People’s Republic of China was established in October 1949, among the total population of 550 million in China, 80 percent were illiterate. In 1952, 1956 and 1958, the Chinese government repeatedly launched free literacy-education campaigns, which were responded to enthusiastically by 150 million participants.

In the next five decades, the endeavour to reduce the illiteracy rate continued. Today Chinese enjoy nine-year free education, and the illiteracy rate in China has fallen from over 80% in 1949 to less than 6 percent in 2019.

Following are some old photos showing how the Chinese CCP government worked on increasing the literacy rate among the general Chinese population.

The Chinese Communist Party’s effort on providing free literacy-education began as early as during the years of the Resistance War against the Japanese Invasion. In the villages liberated by the Eight Route Army, the kids studied at CCP-sponsored schools taught adult peasants to read and write.

1951, two years after the Chinese Communist Party united entire China (except Taiwan Island), two boys in Qinghai Province in China’s remote west were learning how to read when minding their sheep.

1951, during the winter season when there isn’t much work to do on the farmland, villagers in Ding County, of Hebei Province, attend a literacy education class.

1951, the PLA soldiers were learning the sound code system of Chinese script during military training.

1952, village women in Shanxi Province attend an outdoor literacy learning class.

1955, villagers in Fu County, of Liaoning Province in China’s far northeast, were learning Chinese characters during the break of their farmland work.

1956, a young mother at Sile Village in Shanxi Province was practicing letter writing skills while nursing her babies.

1957, at a free literacy education class at Fushun Coal Mine in Liaoning Province, a  teacher chatted with her students. As many as 4,000 miners attended free literacy education after work.

1958, peasant workers at Phoenix Reservoir in Yunnan Province were learning how to read Chinese during the breaks.

1958, daughters, mothers and grandma of a fisherman family were practicing writing in Chinese at their tiny boat home. Before 1949, the illiteracy rate among the boat-living women in Fujian Province, the native land of the most Taiwan residents, was 100 percent.

1958, the students in a neighbourhood literacy education class in Beijing were practicing new Chinese characters they just learned.

1958, village girl Ni Huaifeng in Sichuan Province received a graduation certificate in literacy study. She created a record by memorising 1,500 Chinese characters in just ten days.

The literacy rates of 20 major countries in the world in 2014, compiled by ABC News

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