Chinese early childhood education in transition

Limin Gu
Mid Sweden University, Sweden

During the last decades, economic and political reforms have brought rapid and substantial changes to Chinese society, which have greatly affected people’s attitudes, behaviours and ideas about education and other aspects of life. In addition, traditions and new developments in Chinese culture have always played important roles in shaping people’s perceptions concerning the nature of child development, goals and proposes of education, and teaching patterns. Institutional and structural changes in Chinese early childhood education, that were ignored during the early time of reform have become a key focus following the “system” (, Ti Zhi) reform of the nation, which is regarded as not only a political question but also an intellectual one, since focusing on institutional change reveals much about the nature of Chinese society and its policy process. It is in this social, cultural, political, and economic context that early childhood education in present China is critically and reflectively examined.

This article addresses several of the core changes that were identified through a study of early-childhood education in China in 2001 as a result of the system changes in China after the Liberation. Among the dimensions that are presented briefly are changes in the formal structure of education as well as pedagogical models. A more in depth analysis can be found in the doctoral dissertation: Modernization and Marketization: the Chinese kindergarten in the 1990s (Gu, 2001).

Development in the area of preschool education in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution has become a prerequisite to the recent structural reform and the transformation of preschool pedagogy. Key features in the development include:

  • State formulated regulations concerning the qualifications of kindergarten teachers and the assessment of their performance. In the whole country 67 normal schools were devoted to the training of preschool teachers. In addition, a significant number of preschool departments were attached to vocational high schools. Overall, the springtime fostered a network of preschool teacher training.
  • New “Regulations on Kindergarten Work” by the State Ministry of Education in 1996 was a milestone in the development of kindergarten education. They represented the beginning of “promoting a regular and scientific development of kindergarten education”.
  • Since the 1980s, studies on kindergarten curriculum programs have been conducted through collaborations between University researchers and teachers from kindergartens. Ten new curriculum programmes were developed, for example “The Integrated Model” and “The Activity Model”.

Structural Reform

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the law of economic development has been regarded as a fundamental criterion in judging all aspects of social life, and a crucial principle in guiding all social actions. This is supported by a view of economic development as the most important task of the nation, as well as the pattern of marketisation, which has dominated current economic life of China, suggesting the important roll the economy plays in society.

In 1993, The State Council issued “The National Program for Educational Reform and Development”, which is regarded as the first official policy document concerning structural reform of the educational system. Although the program did not included the special field of preschool education, its principles and strategies for primary, secondary, and higher education reform have been adopted to guide the structural reform of kindergarten education. Strategies for structural reform of education include, according to the program, separating managerial authority from ownership in public schools, and encouraging local people and private investment to run educational institutions at different levels. Since the middle of the 1990s, local governments and educational authorities have focused on separating kindergarten from their attached enterprises and institutions, and instead encourage private and other social resources to run preschool institutions.

From welfare model to market competitive model

Under the planned economy of Socialism, kindergarten education was regarded as a pure welfare undertaking for society. It was thought natural that the government and enterprises should bear the full responsibility for the children of state-employees. The welfare model of kindergarten prevailed in the middle of 1970s with a dramatic increase in the number of kindergartens run by enterprises, institutions, factories in urban areas and by municipalities and village communities in rural areas. The parents were charged a much lower fee than the actual cost of kindergarten. Under market economics such arrangements are considered unreasonable and are also regarded as against the law of economic development. As a result, the transformation of the ownership of kindergarten became a characteristic of the new economic structural reform. Changes included among other things privatization of kindergarten, a contract system, and school leadership responsibility, each of which was guided by market economics. Reflected in this is the strength with which educational development in China is politically driven.

Due to the market economic policy and the financial difficulties of many enterprises, the funds allocated to kindergarten have not been augmented. As a result, many small-sized enterprises have closed the kindergartens they sponsored. These small-sized kindergartens usually have had fewer children, worse physical and material conditions, more unqualified teachers, and fewer possibilities to maintain themselves without the support of their sponsored organizations. There are also kindergartens run by enterprises with better economic situation, which still maintain the status quo, some of them have retained the welfare model to benefit their native employees, and some of them have changed the managerial strategies in order to conform to the economic transformation and social change.

For those medium-sized enterprises, casting off the “burden” has been carried out by separating kindergartens from their enterprises. This means that the enterprise still keeps the ownership of kindergartens (the locations, buildings, basic installations), but the running of these kindergartens (kindergarten management) is contracted out to individual persons. The essence of the contract system is, in fact, to separate the management function from the ownership, divorcing economic management from personnel management.

Since the mid-1990s, a “Contract System” has been adapted in many kindergartens attached to the organizations or institutions.

The contract system claims that the enterprises should take responsibility for providing the basic condition for running the kindergartens (such as the local and houses), the renewal of equipment, guarantee of maintaining kindergarten staff’s employed status and their medical insurance, and helping the kindergartens digest the surplus staff members; it also claims that kindergartens should assume the sole responsibility for their profit or loss and should improve educational quality by carrying out the “director responsibility system”, the “system of personal responsibility”, the “system of staff appointment”, and the “system of rewards and penalties”.

The contract system appears to be an interim form – or dual system – between state-owned and private owned systems, with a separation of ownership and management functions. The strategy of the Chinese government is to implement “a socialized early childhood education”, which means shifting the responsibility of early childhood education completely to the public and individuals and financing early childhood education from various public funds. This however, is unreasonable and impossible to do when the social insurance system has not been perfectly constructed, and when public capital (social resources) has not reached a sufficient level. Thus, the implementation of the contract system is regarded as an interim stage in this transformation process.

Private kindergartens

Private education is a new phenomenon in China with important consequences for both the economy and culture. Defining the concept of private education is quite complicated in China’s context today, and is reflected in the variety of models that are to be found. The Chinese term for private education is minban, which means “run by the people”. Since the 1980s, several types of non-government school models have emerged reflecting the complicated economic system. For instance, there are educational institutions “run by non-government agencies but aided by government”, “state-own but maintained by voluntary agencies” that are run through “educational savings”, run by private companies or enterprises, run by individuals. There is a stock system of running schools, and so on. All these belong to the private sector.

The number of private kindergartens has also increased greatly during the last decades. At the national level, the number of private kindergartens has increased from 18,184 in 1994 to 37,020 in 1999. This increase in privatisation results from a number of factors, including: 1) the shortage of state funds in early childhood education, 2) the great interest and need of quality kindergartens in society, 3) the quick development of private economy, and 4) the dramatic increase in concentration of private capital, all of which provide the material and ideological conditions for the privatisation of kindergarten.

With this shift to privatisation emerge a number of questions, including, “What are the attitudes, postures, and strategies of the government in this process?” Official documents explicitly “welcome and encourage”, “give full support”, “maintain the right direction” and “strengthen regulations” regarding private education institution. The Chinese government envisions an integrated educational system with public schoolsplaying the leading role and private schools -- set up by all sectors of the society -- developing in concert. In order to ensure that private schools are able to grow smoothly and soundly, the State Education Committee issued “Regulations Governing Private Education” in 1997. These Regulations officially legalize private education. Local governments are supposed to give support (mainly policy support) and provide supervision and guidance to private education institutions. Policy support means a kind of policy gradient, with governmental preference given to private owners of kindergarten (e.g. in the tax system, buying lands, and so on) compared with other private businesses.

The result is a variety of models of private kindergartens. In a booming economy, many non-government agencies and individuals devote themselves to the development of private education. A number of private entrepreneurs think that funding a kindergarten is a proper way of doing public affairs and it will also contribute to the establishment of a good image of their enterprise. In addition, the growth of knowledge about child development, the need of universalising early childhood education by the society, and the demand for quality kindergartens by parents have provided the ideological and material conditions for these entrepreneurs to make their decision about investment.

A shareholder system of running kindergarten has also emerged in China, following the growth of the stock market. A stock system kindergarten is an early childhood educational unit run by a number of citizens who have the legal qualifications. In administration, such kindergartens implement the “system of director responsibility” under the leadership of shareholders who are responsible for collecting funds for the kindergarten. Compared with other types of private kindergarten, this type of stock system kindergarten has more possibilities for obtaining funds from all circles of society.

Many private kindergartens are boarding kindergartens, providing good quality of living and educational circumstance and materials, and charging highly as well. Private kindergarten is, in many people’s understanding, a kind of “noble” kindergarten, since the high fees they charge are not available to ordinary people. This has raised many questions and suspicions about the appropriateness of creating a “distinct” or “elite” education for Children. The relative closed circumstance of living, favourable material conditions, and children’s sense of superiority have often been criticized as a disadvantage for the socialization of children. In contrast, the lower ratio between staff and children, more autonomy and flexibility in administration and curriculum, higher income of the teachers, and ample teaching materials and toys for the use of teachers and children have been commonly regarded as an advantage for these private early childhood educational institutions. However, the arbitrariness of internal administrative operation among many of these private early childhood institutions is a problem. There is evidence of profiteering in running kindergartens, charging improper fees, concealing, pocketing and embezzling funds, and infringing children’s and staff’s rights and interests.

Changes in Pedagogy and Educational Practice

In the Chinese Confucius educational tradition it was believed that the early experiences of a person would play a key role in constructing his/her personality and moral quality. Thus, early learning was praised highly by Confucianism. In general, the classical Chinese educational model stressed teacher-centred, subject-based and speech-stressed lecturing and a memory-based and imitation-privileged learning. Along with growing international political, economic and cultural exchanges due to the open-door policy since the end of the Cultural Revolution, many Western ideas have come into China and impacted Chinese traditional and socialist culture. The current nationwide debate about “being inline with international trends” reflects the complex interaction of Chinese tradition and Western influences in a new historical epoch. In addition, the current industrialization, urbanization and marketisation of Chinese society have brought changes in people’s lives, as well as transformed their values, attitudes, moral concepts, and aesthetic standards. All these have been of profound significance for educational reform in China.

From subject-based teaching to play-based activities

Stressing knowledge teaching and learning, especially comprehension and the systematization of the subjects taught in school has been an outstanding character of China’s education for decades, and kindergarten education was not an exception. It was common for most kindergartens to take lessons (classroom instructions) seriously, which consisted mostly of direct teaching of knowledge and skills. Since 1950, following the Soviet model, the contents of the kindergarten curriculum was generally arranged around six subjects: language, math, general knowledge (a combination of social and natural sciences), music, art and physical education. Teachers paid attention to the quality of the outcomes, and frequently gave children specific directions or instructions during these activities.

This subject-based teaching model was later challenged by the introduction of Western ideas in philosophy, psychology and pedagogy. Many foreign books and articles were translated into Chinese, introducing different pedagogic ideas and curriculum models. Through the theories of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Freud, Piaget, Dewey, and Montessori, Chinese educators have tried to find ways to improve their own insights into kindergarten education. The greatest change in kindergarten pedagogical practice is a shift from subject-based instruction model to play/experience-based activity model in organizing the child’s learning. Consequently many teachers recognized that play is not only a basic and important activity for preschool age children, but also a primary vehicle for, and an indicator of, the development of the whole child. It is also argued that kindergarten would be more educative if greater freedom was granted children.

In practice, many teachers integrated didactical models involving play with their pedagogical approaches and educational values, These pedagogical developments, which began prior to the marketisation, were further supported by educational policy. The important role of play in children’s development has been clarified in the “Regulations on Kindergarten Work”:

Play is an important way to carry out all-round development education. Children’s play shall be selected and guided in accordance with the age characteristics of the children. Kindergarten shall create favorable play conditions (time, space and materials) for the children. The functional multiplicity and variability of toys shall be emphasized. Teachers shall respect children’s desire to choose the forms of play and encourage them to produce their own toys. Teachers shall provide proper guidance for children in their play and keep them joyful, thus promoting the overall development of children’s ability and personality.

The intent of this policy was to introduce more elements of play into the teaching and learning process in early childhood education, so that children could learn in a more active, relaxed, and democratic way. This is expressed by using the term “educational activities” instead of “lessons” or “lecturing” in the document. As an official document, the “Regulations” were immediately and widely disseminated throughout the country, and kindergarten educators were asked to “study”, to “understand” and to “carry out” its “spirit”. Since then, the term “educational activities” has gradually become the “official language” used by teachers in their teaching plan, reports, and even daily talk, instead of the old notion of “lesson” or “lecturing”.

Table 1 highlights changes that emerged from the pedagogical development and educational policy changes.

Table 1: Distinctions between “lessons” and “educational activities”

Classroom lessons Educational activities
Normally in classroom Multiple choices of place
Teaching in subject branches Integrated model
Stress on imparting knowledge and skills Emphases on the development of children’s ability (mainly the way of thinking, creativity, and problem solving, etc.)
Usually in large group More opportunities in small-group and individually
Talking and demonstrating by the teacher More discussions, plays, experiments, and games by the children
The consciousness of subordination of the children The consciousness of participation of the children
Children share the toys and learning materials with group-mates Every child has one “stuff ” on hand to act with if condition permits
Control, order and discipline More freedom and own-choice for children

The pedagogical distinctions highlighted in Table 1 reflect general changes in the schools. Interviews with teachers indicated that there were differences in the understanding of the term “educational activities” which were reflected in their different interests and foci. Some emphasized the methodological aspect of the notion, while others gave more attention to the ideological aspect of the notion, stressing the aim, function, and significance of implementing the idea. No matter what their interpretation, the use of this new term has encouraged them to re-think the nature of children, the notion of child development, and the adults’ role in the socialization of the children.

From memory-based and imitation-privileged learning to flexible, individual and diversified leaning

“Having wide learning and a retentive memory” (Bo Wen Qiang Ji) had been regarded as the sole way to reach the higher level of learning in traditional education. As a result, mechanical instruction and memorizing became the traditional method of teaching and learning. Even today, children are frequently expected to recite stories and poems during their kindergarten years, and the teachers judge a child in accordance with the outcome of their performance in these activities.

Repetition and imitation have been two general methods used by kindergarten teachers in their teaching, especially in language study and skill training. In these classroom activities, children were usually asked by the teacher to listen to the teacher’s instruction, to pay attention to teacher’s demonstration, and then to copy the teacher’s work stroke by stroke, detail by detail, as best they could. Through a number of repetitions, children were finally able to attain the demands of teacher: performing exactly what the teacher had performed. The Chinese traditional pedagogic philosophy is that only by mastering the form, one is able to come up to the level of creativity; the underlying idea of this is that through the structure, one can then finally achieve the freedom.

However, the traditional pattern of classroom arrangement is disappearing. Children are no longer asked to sit on chairs in rows. Instead, they are divided into groups and the children are supposed to sit around the table during a collective activity. Around the room, different activity areas are arranged, such as the reading area, doll play area, shop area, hospital area, constructive activity area, animal area, plant area, painting area, music area, and so on. The aim of this design is to provide children with many opportunities to “act with something” or “do something” on their own during their kindergarten days. It is assumed that the learning process can be conducted not only by teachers talking and children listening, but also by doing . Figure 1 and 2 are illustrations of the old and new classroom arrangement patterns.

Figure 1: The old arrangement pattern of classrom

Figure 2: The emerging pattern

In the new pattern of classroom arrangement the teacher’s desk is moved to one side, and a movable blackboard has replaced the fixed one. This change seems to be very meaningful. First, the teacher’s position in classroom has been moved from the central to the side. With this, children are no longer expected to keep watch on every detail of teacher’s action. Consequently, the dominant communication model has transformed from mainly teacher-children into more children-children, shifting to a children-centered didactical model. Second, as the corners of the room have been arranged with different areas for play, children are no longer expected to sit calmly and in rows for long periods of time listening to the teacher. Instead the taking of initiative and active participation of the children is encouraged in educational actions. Children are no longer seen as the passive object of learning, but the active subject of educational process. They do not passively receive the knowledge and accept the ideas given by the teacher but rather explore the outside world by themselves in a more positive way. Furthermore, as the larger-sized group has been divided into several groups with smaller size, the teacher are expected to go around and pay more attention to the individual needs of the children, rather than focus on demonstrating for the students. Children are allowed to have a certain freedom in working on their own, indicating that the pattern of training has shifted from a rigid collectivist and passive model to one that is more flexible, individual and diversified.

From “Respecting Teacher” to “Respecting Children”

“Having esteem for teachers and respect for elders” has been a consistent virtue of the Chinese nation. It is undoubtedly one of the positive components of Chinese traditional culture. It reflects a mentality of great reverence for intelligence and knowledge since, traditionally, teachers and elders are the symbol of intelligence and knowledge. However, this notion also has its negative aspect, which is complete submission and blind compliance on the part of the children to the teachers and elders.

“Respecting the teacher” takes for granted that children should comply with what a teacher requires, and the teacher should control all the elements of classroom, even games. Teachers conducted their educational actions strictly according to their detailed plans, and placed their emphasis on how to teach, not on how children learn. “They are always ready to ask questions, but are not used to listening to children’s questions or to being interrupted by children’s opinions and explanations. Teachers use lecturing and demonstrating to provide knowledge or information rather than discussing ideas with the children and exploring the answers together”. Educational activities were regarded as a one-way transmission process rather than a two-way communication progress.

The new “Regulations” claim a shift from “respecting the teacher” to “respecting children and loving children”. Since then, there has been an extensive discussion about the new principle of “respecting children” in major popular professional journals of early childhood education in China. Many kindergarten teachers have participated in this discussion, presented their experiences, expressed their understandings, as well as raised new issues from their practice. “Respecting children”, according to their interpretations, means respecting children’s needs and desires, their personalities and emotions, and their age characters and the levels of their development.

“Respecting children” also means equality between teacher and children. The relationship between teacher and children should be more like friends, trusting and understanding each other. There should be more discussions with children in making decisions related to them, and not compelling children to accept the teacher’s ideas and arrangement, nor suppress their desires and needs. Praise and encouragement should be taken as the general methods for treating the children. Teachers should seek to understand the situation and characteristics of every child in the class, and treat them individually; that is, distinctively but equally. “Respecting children” means every child should be respected and treated equally regardless of their distinctions of sex, age, family background, economic background, intelligence, ability, and personality. “Respecting children” should dialectically be understood as: loving children but not spoiling them; giving them more freedom but not abandoning discipline and order; being more democratic but not completely giving up centralism; meeting the needs and desires of individual children but not forsaking collectivism.

Single-child Policy and its Effect

The family system has undergone enormous changes in recent decades, especially since the implementation of the single-child policy in 1979. Family size and the structure of the household can be correlated directly to socio-economic functions. In urban areas more and more urban young couples move from their parents’ houses after marriage. The current household is commonly a simple structure with two generations and three family members: two parents and one child. This change in family structure, combined with other effects of social, economic, political and cultural changes, has brought about changes among family members, including the distribution of power within family, views of childhood, and patterns of child rearing.

Recently, many urban residents have accepted government policy for population control. They believe that there is no alternative for the government other than to impose such sanctions. At the same time others perceive the economic conditions, as well as time and energy required for parenting are sufficient to control the population. In China the costs are high for better schooling and higher education, and it is the parents who assume responsibility to pay for their children’s education. Furthermore, as most of women in China have to work fulltime and as it is only 3-4 months for maternity leave, many parents, especially mothers are not willing to have more than one child – they don’t perceive they have enough time and energy to raise more children. Indeed, the budget of urban one-child families is stretched to cover the material needs of the only child plus a range of spare-time educational activities. Rather than being a solely economic phenomenon, the expenditure related to the only child should also be understood in the context of what Milwertz has termed “cultivation of the perfect only child”. By this she means many urban parents devote a great deal of money, time and energy to training their children to be bright, clever and intelligent through various strategies such as the form of music during pregnancy, toys and extra curricular activities.

Parental attitudes toward child training show a great departure from the traditional pattern, characterized by a lower degree of authoritarianism in the younger generation than in the older. In many respects, Chinese parents appear to be behaving more and more like their Western counterparts. They would like to see their actions pattern the “democratic principles”, which by this they mean “more discussions with the child”, “more like friends”, “more time play with him/her”, “more fun and jokes”, “less rules”, and “less punishment” at home.

However, it has been common sense in Chinese society to describe only children as maladaptive in their social, moral and personality development, constantly more spoiled, more selfish, less independent and less emotionally adjusted. Most Chinese scholars do not view these problematic behaviours as irremediable, but as the result of a home environment that yields less than desirable socialization. Researchers point particularly to the lack of home experience with other children and inappropriate parental styles of child rearing. At home, only children experience what has been called “4-2-1 Syndrome” – four grandparents and two parents funnel all of their attention to the single child. This special home environment may lead to a certain impoverishment of social perspective-taking, willingness to share and interest in helping others.

More and more parents seem to be aware that the “problematic behaviours” of single-children, which are actually the result of the problematic behaviours of the parents (and grandparents) concerning childrearing at home. While being aware of the limitation of the home environment of the single children, parents turn to kindergarten as the proper place for providing the children with the opportunity to develop their cooperative consciousness and behaviour, as well as to correct their disadvantage of being an only child. Kindergartens provide single children with the opportunity to interact with other children and with teachers trained to correct the errors of single-child parents. Parents send their children to kindergarten, not only because they think that kindergarten offers a more stimulating and challenging environment, but also because they hope that the teachers will compensate for the overzealous attention and misguided indulgence that children receive at home. Thus, the primary function of the kindergarten is regarded as not only to give children a good start academically, but also to offer good citizenship training.


The previous welfare model of kindergarten, which had been regarded as one of the outcomes of socialist system, has been expected to transform into a new model to meet the demands of the marketisation of society. The state has adopted a series of strategies in promoting this transformational process, for example policies to encourage collective and private investment in early childhood education. The local governments and individual organizations have also sought different measures to support the continuation of kindergarten, for example, the contract system and other kinds of management reorganization to help the kindergartens get through the “weaning” process (from their attached enterprises). More and more, Chinese kindergartens have become self-managing along the lines of small-sized businesses. The assumption is that once the market context has been established with the appropriate incentives and market disciplines, competition between educational institutions will serve to raise standards.

These changes require a shift of recognition by the administrators, the teachers and the parents from the customary one of affairs run by the state or by their “work-units”, to a more competitive, participative and active one. Different kindergarten institutions and different people have been experiencing these in different ways with different effects. The related issues raised by many kindergarten managers and teachers are: at state level, how to maintain the steadiness of the strategies, how to make the explication of the policies, and how to take into account the different conditions and situations in different areas; and, at local level, how to work with the relationship between the educational action and the entrepreneurial action in managing kindergarten’s affairs, how to realize the goal of the quality of early childhood education, how to train the staff to meet these new demands of the new situations? These are the new projects that need to be carried out by various forces in society.

The promulgation of the “Regulations on Kindergarten Work”, as an official policy document, has had an important role in promoting educational reforms and the ideological changes among preschool educators. Reform focuses on restructuring kindergarten programmes, encouraging an active participation of the children in educational process, improving the relationship between teacher and children, concerning the individual differences and personalities of the children, and constructing a democratic education. Changes have occurred in teachers’ classroom actions, for example the adoption of multiple ways in organizing children’s activities instead of a conventional form of classroom instruction; the replacement of a new pattern of classroom arrangement; and the attempt to give greater consideration to the individual and free play of children.

The single-child policy has also had a great impact on the family structure, childrearing and educational practice, and views of child development. The introduction of Western psychology, pragmatism and progressive educational ideas have had a great impact on Chinese traditional culture. The child is seen as an active subject in the process of learning. In practice, more significantly, there have been attempts to combine Western experiences with Chinese concrete conditions. Western ideas and theories are applied in the practice of organizing the curriculum such as “The Integrated Model” and “The Activity Model”. In brief, there has been a tendency to transform from a teacher-centred, curriculum-centred, and classroom-centred educational model to a child-centred, activity- or experience-centred, and society-centred model. However, the process of transformation is also protracted and arduous, reflecting a tension between traditional and modern cultures, Eastern and Western spirits, socialist and capitalist ideological elements. The current educational ideas and practices reflect this cultural and ideological conjuncture in which changes and continuities co-exist.


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