China Table of Contents
Formal education provided the best and most respected avenue of upward mobility, and by the nineteenth century literacy rates in China were high for a traditional peasant society. Chances of receiving a good education were highest for the upper classes in and around coastal cities and lowest for the farmers of the interior. If schooling was not available, there were other avenues of mobility. Rural people could move to cities to seek their fortunes (and in some cases the cities were in Southeast Asia or the Americas). People could go into business, gamble on the market for perishable cash crops, try money-lending on a small scale or, as a long shot, join the army or a bandit group. Late traditional society offered alternate routes to worldly success and a number of ways to change one's position in society; but in all routes except education the chances of failure outweighed those of success.
In many cases, whether in business or banditry, success or failure depended to a great degree on luck. The combination of population pressure, the low rate of economic growth, natural disasters, and endemic war that afflicted the Chinese population in the first half of the twentieth century meant that many families lost their property, some starved, and almost all faced the probability of misfortune (see Republican China , ch. 1). From the perspective of individuals and individual families, it is likely that from 1850 to 1950 the chances of downward mobility increased and the ability to plan ahead with confidence decreased.
Data as of July 1987