Thank You, Teacher: Celebrating Teachers’ Day in China

Teachers’ Day is a day to recognize and thank teachers for their hard work throughout the year. In China, this holiday falls on September 10th each year and involves celebrating the contributions made by teachers by giving them gifts and conducting ceremonies to honor them.

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What is Teachers’ Day?

Due to the traditional importance of education in China, Teachers’ Day is an especially significant holiday that symbolizes the profound respect that Chinese society has for educators and scholarship.

During this holiday, many Chinese schools host customary ceremonies honoring teachers that are reminiscent of ancient Confucian rituals. Teachers also often receive gifts from school administrators, parents, and current and former students. Some educators even get the day off.  

In China, Teachers’ Day (教师节, Jiàoshījié) takes place every year on September 10th.

chinese teacher in traditional chinese dress standing in front of yellow background facing forward with promotional language overlaid

Is Teachers’ Day an international holiday?

China isn’t the only country that celebrates Teachers’ Day, however. In fact, almost every nation around the world celebrates some variation of Teachers’ Day, whether it is the international World Teachers' Day or a regional version. 

Although celebrating educators is a global phenomenon these days, Teachers’ Day in China is distinct due to its Confucian roots as well as the many transformations this holiday has undergone over the course of China’s long and sometimes tumultuous history. 

Before diving into the ins and outs of this important holiday as it is celebrated now, let’s first explore its historical evolution.

a western woman looks at a book with three young Chinese students

Although many other countries also celebrate Teachers’ Day, the holiday has a special resonance in China due to the continuing influence of Confucianism.

Teachers’ Day in ancient China

Although not designated as an official holiday until the end of the twentieth century, Teachers’ Day in China has a long and fascinating history.

The earliest celebration that resembles the modern holiday first took place, albeit informally, over 2,000 years ago during the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). At that time, Teachers’ Day festivities were generally held on the 27th day of the eighth lunar month, a date widely believed to be the birthday of China’s most influential educator and philosopher, Confucius.

Confucius, China’s first teacher

Confucius (551-479 BCE), known as 孔子 (Kǒngzǐ) in Chinese, was born in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-481 BCE) in modern day Shandong Province. His parents were neither peasants nor aristocrats, but belonged to a middle class of common gentry called 士 (shì). 

During this period, formal education was generally available only to children from elite families and consisted of a curriculum in the six arts (六艺 liùyì), that is, rituals (礼仪 lǐyí), music (音乐 yīnyuè), archery (射箭 shèjiàn), chariot driving (驾车 jiàchē), literacy (识字 shìzì) and mathematics (计算 jìsuàn).

Traditional Chinese painting depicting Confucius holding with his pupils

Confucius’ ideas about education have had an outsized impact on Chinese society since ancient times.

After ascending through the ranks of various labor and government positions, Confucius quickly earned a reputation as a skilled educator and righteous advisor. In addition to serving as Minister of Crime in his home state of Lu, he dedicated his life to educating others by establishing private academies that centered around Confucian ideology and were accessible to students of all social classes. 

Confucius believed in the importance of education at the individual and collective level and taught that the construction of effective societies relied upon the accumulation of knowledge by individuals. 

“I have never grown tired of learning, nor weary in teaching others what I have learned,” Confucius stated in his work, The Analects. The doctrines contained in The Analects, as well as the teachings put forth by Confucius and consolidated by his disciples in The Four Books and The Five Classics (四书五经 Sìshū Wǔjīng), would underpin attitudes towards education in China for centuries to come.

a black and white ink drawing of Confucius

Confucius taught that education was an important element in the construction of an effective society.

The status of teachers in ancient China

Confucius is often called the father of all educators, and his emphasis on the importance of education meant that teachers in ancient China were also generally held in high esteem. 

In ancient China, comprehensive training in the classics was crucial to passing the Imperial Examinations (科举考试 kējǔkǎoshì), a rigorous test that guaranteed successful male candidates a coveted bureaucratic job. Therefore, many families sought to hire a tutor to help prepare for the exam.

Parents of prospective exam candidates often sent invitation letters to certain teachers, and accepting or denying the invitation was at the discretion of the educator.

a painting of a group of Chinese officials participating in the ancient Chinese imperial exams

Passing the challenging imperial exams was the key to a successful career in ancient China.

Teachers in ancient China were often compensated directly by families who presented tuition in the form of a customary 束脩 (shùxiū), which consisted of a bundle of goods that usually included dried meat (肉干 ròugān) and other commodities or cash based on what the family could afford. 

Once inside the classroom, teachers were treated with the utmost respect by students, who kowtowed to and accepted the authority of their educators without question. This customary student-teacher relationship was rooted in the Confucian belief that rigorous education and strict hierarchies are necessary catalysts for harmonious societies.

Confucius is in with his students

Teachers were held in high esteem in ancient Chinese society.

Early Teachers’ Day celebrations

Since Teachers’ Day was traditionally conflated with a celebration of the life and contributions of Confucius, commemorating the philosopher remained an important holiday practice throughout much of Chinese history. 

Emperors and officials celebrated the holiday by visiting regional Confucian temples, known as 孔庙 (kǒngmiào). These ancient Confucian temples, thousands of which are open to visitors across China today, often house literary collections and cultural relics related to the sage and his disciples. 

From the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) to the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 CE), a formal Confucius Memorial Ceremony was held in provincial capitals around the country to mark the holiday, during which selected teachers were given a hefty bonus by the central government. 

In addition to paying homage to Confucius through temple visits and ceremonies, court educators were also treated to extravegant banquets, and teachers around the country frequently received extra compensation in the form of 束脩 (shùxiū).

an ancient Chinese painting showing several scholars sitting under pine trees with bamboo in the foreground

Confucius was such an important figure that many ancient temples were built in his honor.

The changing status of teachers in modern China

Like many elements of Chinese society, major changes to education occurred throughout the twentieth century as a result of the country’s political transformation after the collapse of China’s final dynasty, the Qing, in 1911.

Changes to education during the communist period

After a bloody civil war, communist leader Mao Zedong announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In order to strengthen the country’s newfound socialist system, class hierarchies were reconfigured.

Citizens were labeled as either class enemies or honorable members of the working class based on profession and family background. Those who had once owned property or wealth were treated as adversaries, whereas peasants were empowered due to their “good” class backgrounds.

Not belonging to either classification, teachers were caught somewhere in between, categorized as intellectuals who required reeducation along with other scholars, writers, and artists. In order for this intellectual class to break away from their alleged bourgeois backgrounds, teachers were required to become strict advocates of socialist ideology.

a Chinese propaganda poster showing a student being handed a water pitcher by her teacher

After the founding of the People’s Republic, teachers and students were expected to strictly adhere to the party line.

“Our educational policy must enable everyone who gets an education to develop morally, intellectually and physically, and become a cultured, socialist-minded worker,” Chairman Mao stated in his 1957 essay “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.”

This emphasis on socialist education and the role of teachers as disseminators of socialist theory led to the complete integration of Maoist ideology in the national curriculum, as well as the dissolution of boundaries between school education and party propaganda. 

During imperial times, Confucian values of education, respect and hierarchy ruled classrooms. After the founding of the People’s Republic, however, communist leaders rejected these traditional values for a time. Students were even encouraged to resist, reject, and, in some extreme cases, behave violently against teachers who were perceived to lack dedication to the political cause.

a black and white photograph showing Chinese university students writing big character posters during the Cultural Revolution

During the mid-twentieth century, Chinese students were encouraged to actively support the communist party.

Down to the countryside

During the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many urban youth were removed from school and sent down to the countryside to be reeducated by farmers, a campaign known as the 上山下乡运动 (Shàngshān-xiàxiāng Yùndòng), or the Down to the Countryside Movement.

While this movement was going on, academic achievement based university entrance exams were suspended and schools began selecting students based on class background, political attitudes and party allegiance. 

Some historians argue that such changes resulted in a decline in the quality of education and the status of teachers in China during this period.

a black and white photograph showing a large group of people with three young Chinese women in the foreground, two with their fists raised

In the late 1960s, many urban youth were sent to the countryside to learn practical skills from the farmers.

Rethinking education during Reform and Opening-up

After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, newly implemented economic reforms called 改革开放 (Gǎigé Kāifàng) worked to once again elevate teachers’ social status. No longer marginalized as intellectuals in need of reeducation, teachers were to be integrated as members of the working class. 

Campaigns to improve housing conditions, salaries and general welfare for teachers were conducted by the government from the 1980s on.

The reinstatement of national school and university entrance exams in 1977 also helped to reposition educators as cultivators of the nation. Conventional education was again seen as a necessary step towards achieving individual and national development.

a photo from the 1980's of Chinese university students sitting at desks in a classroom

During China’s period of reform and opening-up, students returned to conventional schools and the status of teachers improved.

Celebrating Teachers’ Day today

Because teaching is generally regarded as an honorable profession in China today, it should come as no surprise that Teachers’ Day remains an important holiday. 

Although Teachers’ Day is not a public holiday in China, it is still observed in various ways. On September 10th, many teachers enjoy bonuses from school administrations or even a few hours off work. It is also common for students and families to gift teachers with cards, presents, or on some occasions, 红包 (hóngbāo; red envelopes filled with cash). 

Former students will also traditionally return to their alma maters and give presents to their favorite former teachers in order to mark the holiday.  

Traditional Confucian-style rituals honoring educators are still held at some schools and institutions. Check out this video of a traditional Teachers’ Day ceremony at the Confucius Temple in Beijing:

The joys of teaching in China

Beyond Teachers’ Day, it’s worth noting that teachers in China are generally treated well by students throughout the year. At schools around the country, pupils commonly stand up when answering questions, clap when teachers enter classrooms, and even bow when speaking with their instructors. 

Unlike in many western countries, teachers in China generally enjoy perks like free meals on campus and school-subsidized housing. Foreign teachers, such as English teachers in China, often receive even more benefits including flight reimbursements, free furnished apartments, and more. 

The treatment of teachers in contemporary China is reminiscent of the age-old reverence for learning that existed during the imperial era. Teachers’ Day is one important way that educators in the country are celebrated and respected in China.

a photo taken from the back of a room showing a classroom full of young Chinese students with a teacher standing in front of a blackboard facing the class

Teachers enjoy a great deal of respect in modern Chinese society.

Celebrate Teachers’ Day with CLI

At CLI, we recognize just how important teachers are, which is why we aim to celebrate them everyday, not just on September 10th! Join us in Guilin to improve your Chinese and celebrate Teachers’ Day with some of the most talented teachers in China. 

Alternatively, meet our team online to continue learning about Chinese language and culture from anywhere in the world

Remember, no matter where you are this Teachers’ Day, be sure to give thanks to the educators in your life for all that they do. 老师们,辛苦了 (Lǎoshīmen, xīnkǔle​​; Thanks for your hard work, teachers)!

a group of young Chinese women toasting the camera with a canned beverage in their hands while multiple other people talk in the background

Teachers deserve to be celebrated every day, not just on Teachers’ Day!

Teachers’ Day vocabulary

教师节JiàoshījiéTeachers' Day
辅导老师fǔdǎo lǎoshītutor
孔子KǒngzǐConfucius, China's most prominent philosopher and educator
六艺liùyìthe six arts or subjects in ancient Chinese education
科举考试kējǔkǎoshìimperial examination
束脩shùxiūcustomary payment for teachers in ancient China
教育jiàoyùeducation; to educate
共产党GòngchǎndǎngCommunist Party
改革开放gǎigé-kāifàngChina's economic reform and opening-up
红包hóngbāored envelope filled with cash
辛苦xīnkǔwork hard; go to great trouble

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