1891  — 1946

Tao Xingzhi

Educational reformer.

Tao Xingzhi was born in 1891 into a peasant family in Anwei province. He attended the China Inland Mission school where his mother worked. After the school closed, he applied to a medical school, but was turned away because he would not become a Christian. As a student at Jinling University in Nanjing, Tao became engrossed with the philosophy of Wang Yangming (1472-1829) and adopted as his name, “Zhi-xing” (“knowledge-action”) to reflect Wang’s theory.

During his final year at Jinling, he professed faith in Christianity, but he believed more in the “social gospel” than in conservative doctrines and theology. [Editor’s note: Tao is an example of the many Chinese who were influenced by the Social Gospel movement in the early part of the 20th century. Though nominally “Christian,” many did not believe in traditional Christian doctrines or associate closely with Christian churches. They are included in this dictionary because of the impact of Christian ethical and social teaching upon their lives and careers.]

Although his schooling was interrupted by the Revolution, he graduated in 1914 with a degree in literature.

With financial support from his parents and Jinling’s American principal, Tao went to the University of Illinois to study political science with the goal of working in municipal government. After completing his M.A., he transferred to Teachers College, Columbia University, because his imagination had been caught by a class about educational philosophy taught by a disciple of John Dewey. He was supported by a partial scholarship from the Chinese government.

Tao also applied for a Livingston Scholarship. In his letter to the scholarship committee, he stated his life’s goal: “to create a democracy by education and not by military revolution.” He told how he had come to realize that “no genuine republic could exist without a genuine public education” while attending a Y.M.C.A. camp at Lake Geneva the previous summer. He shared his plans to go back to work with other educators to organize an efficient system of public education so that the Chinese people could “develop and maintain a genuine Democracy which is the only realisable (sic) utopia of justice and liberty.”

Because he did not have enough research data to complete a dissertation, his professor, Paul Monroe, asked the Dean of the school to allow Tao to have his comprehensive examination before he left Columbia. He never completed his dissertation, but received an honorary degree from St. John’s University in Shanghai.

When Tao returned to China in 1917, he joined other Dewey protéges in revolutionizing Chinese education. Guo Pingwen, the president of Southeastern University who was the first Chinese student to receive a Ph.D. from Teachers College, Columbia, hired Tao.

Though Tao’s Deweyian philosophy was not appreciated by many of his colleagues, he was elected chairman of the education department after the May Fourth Movement.
Besides serving as one of Dewey’s translators during his tour in China, he published a revised translation of Dewey’s Democracy and Education. After the Chinese Association for Educational Advancement was founded in 1922, Tao was chosen as executive secretary, and he succeeded Jiang Menglin as editor of the journal, The New Education. Tao also promoted the School Reform Decree of 1922 that placed American-style education as paramount until the Russian model prevailed in the 1950s.

The following year, after a “bout of introspection,” Tao exchanged his Western clothes for Chinese ones and became “one of the most thoroughly Chinese returned students.” At the formation of the National Association of the Mass Education Movement in August 1923 at Tsinghua, Tao was elected Secretary. A year later, his family, the James Yangchu Yen family, and the office moved to the home of the Association Chairman, Zhu Qihu, in Beijing.

Yen and Tao differed in their views of peasants. Yen believed that peasants were intelligent and wise and only needed education and enabling to transform their rural lives. In comparison, Tao thought that the Chinese peasant, with his “stolid conservatism, superstition and ignorance,” was the problem. Tao’s belief that the educator was a savior of the people was consistent with the Progressive view of the educational expert as above and outside politics. Breaking with Yen and the Mass Education Movement in 1927, Tao set up his own rural project with a model teacher training school, Morning Village Normal College, in Xiaozhuang near Nanjing.

When Professor William H. Kilpatrick of the Teachers College, Columbia visited China in 1929, he went to lunch with a dozen Chinese educators at the Returned Students’ Club in Beijing. After visiting Tao’s normal school, Kilpatrick came away from China praising Tao and Yen as pioneers of a new education system in China.

A year later Tao’s school came under suspicion by the Guomindang (KMT, Nationalist Party) and was closed. The Guomindang may have desired to control teacher education or it may have suspected Tao of anarchist tendencies because of his emphasis on academic freedom, or of harboring Communists who spread propaganda on street corners in the evenings. Tao, thinking he was about to be arrested, first fled to Shanghai then to Japan. When he arrived in Japan, Tao reversed the order of his name to “Xing-zhi” to reflect his emphasis on action as the source of knowledge.

When Tao returned to China in 1931, he initiated the “Little Teacher” Movement near Shanghai, where school children taught illiterate adults. The Movement spread to twenty-three provinces in a year. During World War II Tao established Yucai, a school for gifted orphans in the hills north of the war capital, Chongqing. One student who benefited from Tao’s vision for training leaders was Li Peng, who was Premier of China from 1988-98 and served as the second highest ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee. After the war cut off funding from donors in South East Asia, more than half of the support for the school for orphans came from the China Aid Council of United China Relief in New York City, whose president taught at Teachers College, Columbia.

Coming to believe that China’s ills needed a more revolutionary solution, Tao drifted into Marxism in the 1930-1940s. After becoming a member of the Democratic League, he began editing two of its publications. When the two leaders of the League were assassinated by right-wing activists with connections to the Guomindang in mid-July 1946, Tao heard rumors that he was the next on their hit list. He overworked and died in Shanghai of a stroke less than two weeks later, at the age of 55.

Though Tao never joined the Communist Party, Mao Zedong sent his condolences from his base camp in Yanan, along with a commendation, “A great people’s educator.” Vice Chairman of the CCP, Zhou Enlai, rushed to his bed and proclaimed Tao a “non-party Bolshevik.” John Dewey and William Kilpatrick sent a cablegram that read: “We honor Dr. Tao for his unsurpassed and heroic devotion in behalf of a better education on for the common people of China.” His friends at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City held a memorial service for him.

For several years, the Communist Party encouraged the cult of Tao by publishing his essays on education, but after China entered the Korean War in October 1951, his disciples had to publicly recant their connections during a campaign that culminated in a book that attacked Tao’s connection with Dewey’s social and educational thought.


  • Adapted from Stacey Bieler, Patriots or Traitors? A History of American-educated Chinese Students (M.E. Sharpe, 2004).

About the Author

Stacey Bieler

Research Associate, Global China Center, Michigan, USA