Primary schools (mengxue 蒙學) served in first instance to learn reading and writing and the basics of etiquette, like obedience and diligence. During the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) primary schools were called xueguan 學館, during the Tang cunxiao 村校, during the Song 宋 (960-1279) and Yuan 元 (1279-1368) periods xiangxiao 鄉校, jiashu 家塾 or dongxue 冬學 (to the last two terms, see below), and from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) on mengguan 蒙館. During the Yuan period, the private shexue 社學 school took over the duty of primary education, too.
The oldest word for "school" is xiang 庠, which actually means a building for livestock with two facing walls, where elderly people reared sheep, pigs or cattle and at the same time were entrusted with the duty to watch children and instruct them. According to ancient writings, the Xia dynasty 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE) knew upper instruction places (shangxiang 上庠) and lower instruction places (xiaxiang 下庠). The Han-period commentator Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200) equals the upper instruction places with the later National Universities (daxue 大學) which were located in the western suburbs (xijao 西郊), while the lower instruction places were elementary schools located in the royal palace compound. Both were called "state or dynastic schools" (guoxue 國學), while all other types (xiao 校, xu 序, ku 庫) were “"local schools" (xiangxue 鄉學). Whether such local schools existed during the Xia and Shang periods 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), can be doubted. The Shang took over the Xia institusions, and is was the Zhou who spread it to each township (xiang 鄉 and neighbourhood (dang 黨).
There was apparently also a difference between an easter school (dongxu 東序) and a western school (xixue 西序), as can be lernt from the ritual Classic Liji 禮記 (ch. Wangzhi 王制), where it is said that during the Xia period, the members of the main lineage of the royal house were educated (yang guolao 養國老) in the Eastern School, and that of the sidelines of the lineage educated (yang shulao 養庶老) in the Western School.
The ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 explains that the township schools were called xiang 庠, the village (zhou 州) schools xu 序, the neighbourhood (dang 黨) schools jiao 校, and the schools of a lane (lü 閭) had the name shu 塾. Different designations are found in the Liji (ch. Xueji 學記): private family (jia 家) schools were shu 塾, neighbourhood (dang) schools xiang 庠, provincial (shu 術, sui 遂 schools (xu序), and that of the royal house (guo 國) were called xue 學.
The book Mengzi 孟子 uses wordplays to explain that "(primary) schooling means, to rear" (xiang zhe, yang ye 庠者，養也), "(middle) schooling means, to instruct" (xiao zhe, jiao ye 校者，教也), and "(military) schooling means, to shoot" (xu zhe, she ye 序者，射也). The same book alleges that the schools of the Xia dynasty were called xiao 校, that of the Shang xia 序, and that of the Zhou xiang 庠. The purpose of these institutions was "to make clear relationships between humans" (ming ren lun 明人倫). The chapter Mingtang wei 明堂位 of the ritual book Liji adds that milin 米廩 "granary" was the word for "schools" (xiang 庠) used during the time of Emperor Shun 舜 (Yu 虞氏).
In the chapter Baofu 保傅 of the semi-Classic Da Da Liji 大戴禮記 is it said that "in ancient times" boys used to visit a school (waishe 外舍, i.e. outside the own house) from the age of 8 sui on, where they learnt the "lesser arts" (xiaoyi 小藝) and "lesser rules" (xiaojie 小節). The chapter Neize 內則 in the Classic Liji says that from 10 sui on boys visited the school of an "outer mentor" (waifu 外傅) where they learnt writing and calculating (shuji 書計). These schools were called shuguan 書館, shushu 書塾, xueshu 學塾, shuguan 塾館 or xueguan 學館, the teachers were called shushi 書師.
The most important textbooks for learning to write and read Chinese characters were the Cangjiepian 蒼頡篇 and Jijiupian 急就篇, as well as the Classics Xiaojing 孝經 and Lunyu 論語 that served to instruct young boys about the most important contents of Confucian teaching, yet there was no clear curriculum, and no schedule according to which these texts had to be learnt. Such a curricular schedule only took shape from the Tang period 唐 (618-907) on, where the three steps of reading, writing, and the composition of texts, had to be learnt. These served to prepare students for entering state schools (guanxue 官學), academies (shuyuan 書院) and to take part in the state examinations. One thousand characters were sufficient to read the primers Sanzijing 三字經, Baijaxing 百家姓 or Qianziwen 千字文, as well as the "Four Books" Sishu 四書, which became the core texts of Neo-Confucian education.
From the Ming period on the system of primary education became more sophisticated. Private foundations by rich landowners or merchants were called jiashu 家塾, while such founded by kinship clusters (zongzu 宗族) were known under the name yixue 義學 or yishu 義塾 "charity schools". The latter were often sponsored by the imperial government. The Kangxi Emperor 康熙 (r. 1662-1722), for instance, encouraged the founding of charity schools throughout the empire. Public schools were called shexue 社學. During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) some private schools were located in the households of the sponsors, called jiaoguan 教館 or zuoguan 坐館, in contrast to schools located in the house of a teacher, known as jiashu 家塾 or sishu 私塾. The curricula of these primary schools and the age of the pupils was not standardized before the late 19th century. In 1902 the school statutues (Qinding) Xuetang zhangcheng (欽定)學堂章程 regulated the nation-wide school system.
Private teaching (sixue 私學) became fashionable already during the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). Confucius, for instance, was a teacher with a private school (xueshe 學舍) in Qufu 曲阜 in the state of Lu 魯. He instructed his 3,000 students in the ancient writings Shijing 詩經 and Shangshu 尚書, ritual books (lishu 禮書) and texts on music (yue 樂), three of which were later to become so-called Confucian Classics, and the "six arts" (liuyi 六藝). Another teacher (shushi 塾師) in the state of Lu was Shaozheng Mao 少正卯 (d. 500 BCE), and Deng Xi 鄧析 (545-501 BCE), an early legalist master, was a private teacher in the state of Zheng 鄭. During the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) more and more private schools were opened, where the masters of the "hundred schools" instructed their followers. Master Mo Di 墨翟 (c. 476-c. 390 BCE), the founder of Mohism, lectured 300 students, likewise the Confucian philospher Mengzi 孟子.
The First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE) had all private schools closed. During the Han period private schools (shuguan 書館) were established as "refined lodges" (jingshe 精舍 or jinglu 精廬). Mou Chang 牟長 for instance had more than a thousand disciples, the Confucian philosopher Ma Rong 馬融 (79-166 CE) even several thousand, likewise Cai Xuan 蔡玄 and the eminent Confucian master Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200). Young boys learned to read and write Chinese characters with the help of the gloss books or "dictionaries" Cangjiepian 蒼頡篇, Fanjiangpian 凡將篇, Jijiupian 急就篇, Yuanshangpian 元尚篇, Xunzuanpian 訓纂篇 and Pangxipian 滂熹篇, part of which had been compiled under the rule of the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE). The actual curricula of these private schools included the study of the Confucian Classics, just as it was use in the National University (taixue 太學) in the capital. The teachers were therefore called "Classics teacher" (jingshi 經師). There was a tuition fee the height of which limited the number of students.
It was especially under the precarious situation of the many states during the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 (300~600) period that private schools flourished. At that time, Buddhist and Daoist schools began to challenge the Confucian monopoly on education. Thuring this period kinship clusters began founding private schools for their own breed (jiaxue 家學, jiaguan 家館). This type of school came basically from the Han period tradition to learn a scholarly profession from one's own father. Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145-c. 86 BCE), for instance, learnt the business of astronomy/astrology and historiography from his father Sima Tan 司馬談 (190-110 BCE); Huan Rong 桓榮 was instructed in Ouyang Gao's 歐陽高 version of the Shangshu by his father; Dai De 戴德 transmitted his expertise in the ritual classics to his nephew Dai Sheng 戴聖; Sun Yan 孫焉 learnt from his father and bestowed his practice and knowledge down to his grandson Sun Dian 孫典.
This tradition continued after the downfall of the Han. The mathematician Zu Chongzhi's 祖沖之 (429-500) ancestor had been Chief Minister for the Palace Buildings (da jiang qing 大匠卿) under the Liu-Song 劉宋 (420-479), and his son Zu Gengzhi 祖暅之 (480-525) and his descendants became astronomers, mathematicians, and mechanists. Sun Hao 孫皓, too, had learnt his job as a mathematician from his father. Jiang Shi 江式 (d. 523), an exerpt in writing styles, was educated in his family's school in southern China, likewise the physician Xu Zicai 徐子才 in northern China. Even during the Tang period, families continued instructing their sons in a profession, as it can be seen in the example of the astronomer Li Chunfeng 李淳風 (602-670). This custom corresponded to the corporate structure of Chinese society, where "a farmer's son remains a farmer, and a craftsman's son a craftsman".
The imperial dynasties had also "private" schools for princes. During the Qing period this dynastic school was called "Gioro School" (Jueluo xue 覺羅學, Aisin Gioro being the family name of the Qing dynasty). There was one school in Peking and one in Mukden (Shengjing 盛京). In 1729 the Yongzheng Emperor 雍正 (1723-1735) expanded the scope of the school and had created one Gioro School for each of the Eight Banners (baqi 八旗), as a kind of Banner School, where Manchu, Mongol and Chinese members of the Banners learnt reading and writing Manchu and Chinese, studied the important Classics and histories, and also practices riding and shooting with the bow. Graduates were allowed to participate in the regular state examinations or were given the chance to begin their career as secretaries (bitieshi/bithesi 筆帖式) in the Grand Secretariat (neige 内閣).
The types of private schools diversified from the Sui period 隋 (581-618) on. There were jiashu 家塾, jingguan 經館, yixue 義學, sishu 私塾, cunshu 村塾 or dongxue 冬學. While public and private schools were to be found in urban centers, the countryside knew many more private schools. Each school was normally staffed with one teacher, who either lectured personally, or through a senior student. In the late ninth century the institution of the academies (shuyuan) came into being that created a lively landscape during the Song period. In contrast to earlier private schools, the academies had statutes that regulated the organization of the school and the curriculum. The academies were gradually "nationalized" during the Qing period.
In village schools (cunxue 村學, cunshu 村塾) the curriculum during the Tang period consisted of the texts Jijiupian, Qianziwen, Taigong jiajiao 太公家教, Mengqiu 蒙求 and Tuyuance 兔園冊, and selected poems. From the Song period on the text corpus of the so-called San-Bai-Qian 三百千 (an abbreviation of Sanzijing, Baijiaxing and Qianziwen) became the focus of learning, which they remained until the end of the imperial period, in addition to the texts Jianlüe 鑒略 and Shentongshi 神童詩 and the Four Books. The aim was that pupils were able to read the Four Books three times a day. Public village schools (lixue 里學) were established during the Tang period.
Winter schools (dongxue 冬學) were rural schools were children only learnt to read and write during wintertime. Their basic textbooks were the Baijiaxing and various zazi 雜字 "miscellaneous words" texts.
In 1043 a special type of school for military officers (wuxue 武學) was created that was located in the temple of the Kings Wu and Cheng 武成王廟, with Ruan Yi 阮逸 as director, but it was given up after a few months, only to be revived in 1072. There were several hundred students in the school, instructed by civilian and military officials. Only such students were allowed to attend the military school that had either been recommended, or were sons of soldiers, or had displayed their mastery of riding and archery. The curriculum concentrated on the ancient military writings (see Wuqing qishu 武經七書) and historical examples of success and failure in war. These studies of ancient writings were paired with practical training. Graduates were, after three years of studies, directly appointed to an officer's post. During the Yuanfeng reign-period 元豐 (1078-1085) the position of teacher (jiaoshou 教授) was elevated to that of professor (boshi 博士 "erudite").
During the Chongning reign-period 崇寧 (1102-1106) the central military school was restructured according to the system of the three colleges (sanshe 三舍) of the National University for the examination, selection and promotion of students (kaoxuan shenggong fa 考選升貢法). Gradutates of the Outer College (waishe 外舍) were called selected military person (wu xuanshi 武選士), and that of the Inner College (neishe 內舍) were given the title of refined military person (wu junshi 武俊士). At the same time military schools were founded in all prefectures of the Song empire. In 1120 the military schools in the prefectures and districts were given up, but the central school was refounded in 1146, and in 1199 lodges for military cadets (wushi zhaishe 武士齋舍) were founded in all prefectures. At the same time the regulations fixed that archery was first to be mastered, before mounted archery was practiced. Those failing in these practical arts, were not allowed to proceed in the curriculum.
Military schools under the Ming were only sponsored in important garrison towns like Daning 大寧, but from the Zhengtong reign-period on, also in the two capitals Beijing and Nanjing. The Chongzhen Emperor 崇禎 (r. 1628-1644) ordered the expansion of these schools and planned to create military schools throughout the empire, but this plan was never realized. The curriculum of military schools ranged from the Four Books and the Five Classics to the canon of the Seven Military Writings (Wujing qishu) and the biographies of hundred famous generals, the Baijiangzhuan 百將傳. The examination was therefore very similar to that of the civilian schools and centered on writings rather than on military practice.
During the Yuan period a specialized type of astronomical / astrological school (yinyangxue 陰陽學) were created. According to an edict of 1291 in all routes (lu 路 "sub-provinces"), the astronomical schools served to create personnel that was able to make calendrical calculations. Another subject was the art of divination that had traditionally always been connected to astronomy, particularly astrology, and a third subject was geomancy (dili 地理). During the Yuanyou reign-period 延祐 (1314-1320) the number of these schools was extended to all prefectures. These schools were subordinated to the Astrological Commission (taishiyuan 太史院). The first curriculum from 1295 determined that the three fields of "matrimonial origins" (hunyuan 婚元), "residential origins" (zhaiyuan 宅元), and "funeral origins" (yingyuan 塋元) were to be learnt, with the treatise Sanyuan jingshu 三元經書 as a textbook. Important themes were the calculation of the ecliptic (risuan 日算), the "three lives" (sanming 三命), the five planets (wuxing 五星), and the study of divination by the "Classic of Changes" Yijing 易經, the liu-ren method 六壬, as well as arithmetics. The students had to read the books Zhancai dayi 占才大義, Zhoushu bi'ao 周書祕奧, Bazhai tongzhen lun 八宅通真論, Dili xinshu 地理新書, Yingyuan zonglun 塋元總論 and Dili mingzhen lun 地理明真論. Graduates of the astronomical schools were allowed to obtain a post in the Bureau of Astronomy (sitiantai 司天臺), but they were prohibited from offering their services to the Mongol nobility, for fear they might support separatist movements.
Between 1104 and 1110 the Song government sponsored painting and calligraphy schools (huaxue 畫學) were painters were educated that were later to serve official projects. Their textbooks were the Han period dictionaries and gloss books Erya 爾雅, Shuowen jiezi 說文, Fangyan 方言 and Shiming 釋名. The study of these texts was important to learn the composition of Chinese characters in the chancery (lishu 隸書) and the seal scripts (zhuanwen 篆文), and to establish knowledge of words with the same field of meaning. There were two classes of students, the shilu 士流 and zaliu 雜流, the former studying one of the "greater Classics" (dajing 大經, i.e. Liji 禮記 or Zuozhuan 左傳) or one of the "lesser Classics" (xiaojing 小經, i.e. Yijing 易經, Shangshu 尚書, Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 or Guliangzhuan 穀梁傳), the latter only one of the lesser Classics or a law text. The final examination laid stress on the natural and individual character of the examinees. The school was in 1110 merged with the Hanlin Academy 翰林院, as the department of painting (Hanlin tuhua ju 翰林圖畫局), but during the Xuanhe reign-period 宣和 (1119-1125), Emperor Huizong 宋徽宗 (r. 1100-1125) again held examinations. It was abolished with the downfall of the Northern Song 北宋 (960-1126).
In the multi-ethnic environment of the Qing empire, several specialized ethnic schools were founded. In 1728 a Russian school (Eluosi xue 俄羅斯學) was founded under the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監) to teach Russian students the Manchu and Chinese languages. They were given a monthly scholarship. In 1757 the parallel institution to learn Russian was founded, under the Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣). 24 students from the Eight Banners were selected for the five years long curriculum. The two best graduates were granted an official rank. This school was dissolved in 1862, with the creation of the Foreign Office (zongli yamen 總理衙門). Students from the island of Ryūkyū were instructed in the Ryūkyū School (Liuqiu xue 琉球學).