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date: 25 June 2022

A History of Qualitative Research in Education in Chinafree

A History of Qualitative Research in Education in Chinafree

  • Manli LiManli LiTsinghua University


Since the early 2000s, qualitative research (QR) emerged as an interpretive approach and has gained increasing interest in education in China, while it is deeply rooted in Chinese intellectual history. Indigenously, the concept of QR methodology sought to explore the richness, depth, and complexity of phenomena, which was a way to gain insights through discovering meanings by improving the comprehension of the whole overall.

In the 1920s, pioneering intellectuals promoted Western education or new education in the New Culture Movement (around the time of the May 4 Movement in 1919), led by Hu Shih, Chen Tuhsiu, Li Tachao, and others. They actively advocated democracy and science. The May 4th Campaign dealt a heavy blow to the traditional rituals that ruled China for more than 2,000 years. It has inspired people’s democratic consciousness and promoted the development of modern science in China.

Quantitative research, like statistical methods, was introduced in the field of education. With the development of theories and methods of probabilistic statistics for studying randomness, small sample theory, statistical estimation, and statistical tests were widely introduced in the 1940s. In the upcoming decades, for many, quantitative research evoked a strong allegiance in academia, particularly in education, since it was considered to be based on a belief in science, perhaps more so than what many considered qualitative research in China. Actually, the relationship between qualitative and quantitative research in education has been fraught with misunderstanding, confusion, and tension in China.

After the 1990s, QR, which has been primarily advocated by Western researchers, has also grown in importance in educational and cultural studies in China as a methodological approach to research that aligns in important ways with quantitative research. Thus, internal tensions within the field of education have also emerged. Yet, though both approaches vary and have distinct genealogies and commitments, QR may be seen as a broad methodological genre in which open-ended interviews, participatory and non-participation observation, literature analysis, case studies, and other methods of social phenomena engage in long-term, in-depth, and meticulous studies. Such critically oriented QR has important implications for educational research.


  • Research and Assessment Methods

Roots of Qualitative Research in Chinese Intellectual History

Centuries ago, the term “qualitative research” (QR), with its particular definition, existed in China. What Chinese refers to as “qualitative” actually refers to “nature” or “essence,” which is a more appropriate translation than “quality” in English. So, what is so-called Chinese QR? What is its definition and theoretical foundation? Generally, it should be said that the definitions of QR in China’s social sciences are relatively abstract and broad. It grew as an explicitly interpretive approach to conducting research, situating the researcher as part of a complex ecology in a naturalistic setting. As such, all non-quantitative studies (including individual speculative thinking or policy interpretations) are usually classified as QR.

The preference for QR is deeply rooted in Chinese civilization and tradition. The Chinese QR approach to education was underpinned by a complex ontology, epistemology, and ethic. Emerging in the 500s bc, QR as a methodological approach was rooted in the underlying assumptions of various sources of indigenous concepts that emphasize interpretive Chinese intellectual history. A range of different intellectual traditions—Confucianism, Taoism, liberalism, humanism, phenomenology, existentialism—drawing from the Chinese bible, The Four Books (Confucian Analects, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Works of Mencius, The Great Learning), and the indispensable classics of Chinese education such as Encouraging Learning (Hsun Tzu), Family Instructions of the Yan Clan, as well as educational articles such as China’s Only Hope (Chang Chih-Tung), and Shi Shuo (Han Yu), are all QR.

So why? Ku Hung-Ming and Liang Shuming are the two most representative figures of the Chinese intellectual community in the 20th century. They both argue that Chinese culture is a “future-oriented” culture in which a Confucian spiritual orientation corresponds to the world in which art and morality are united, as Western culture is a culture that believes in the circumstances of the world. Fung Yulan summed up the ways of expression of the classical Chinese thinkers (Fung, 2012):

When one begins to read Chinese philosophical works, the first impression one gets is perhaps the briefness and disconnectedness of the sayings and writings of their authors. Open the Confucian Analects and you will see that each paragraph consists of only a few words, and there is hardly any connection between one paragraph and the next. Open a book containing the philosophy of Lao Tzu, and you will find that the whole book consists of about five thousand words—no longer than a magazine article; yet in it one will find the whole of his philosophy. . . . The fact is that Chinese philosophers were accustomed to express themselves in the form of aphorisms, apothegms, or allusions, and illustrations. The whole book of Lao Tzu consists of aphorisms, and most of the chapters of the Chuang Tzu are full of allusions and illustrations. . . . Aphorisms, allusions, and illustrations are thus not articulate enough. Their insufficiency in articulateness is compensated for, however, by their suggestiveness. . . . The sayings and writings of the Chinese philosophers are so inarticulate that their suggestiveness is almost boundless. (pp. 11–12)

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the era of feudal centralization of development in Chinese history reached its peak. There were many measures for strengthening centralized feudal rights in ideology, culture, and education. The design of schools and the imperial examination system were more rigorous. Compared with their predecessors, thinkers such as Wang Yangming and Wang Fuzhi put forward some valuable and glorious ideas about education, such as the “unity of knowing and doing” and “teaching students in accordance with their natural aptitude.” Yan Yuan also proposed to train “talents with practical ability.” However, their ideas are still only hinted at and not explicitly articulated. Nonetheless, whether successful or not in their attempts to express their ideas, they certainly aspired to stylistic elegance, wit, and aphorism.

Since modern times, Chinese educational research has gradually entered the stage of experimental research. German physiologist and philosopher William Wundt founded the first psychology laboratory in the world in 1879, and psychology has gradually developed into an independent discipline. Subsequently, psychological research stimulated many educators to improve the status of educational research by means of experimental, statistical, and other research methods in carrying out quantitative research.

As is well known, the experimental school of Ernst Meumann, a disciple of Wundt, pioneered the new style of educational research at that time and gave birth to the quantitative research paradigm. Tao Xingzhi, Yan Yangchu (also known as Y. C. James Yen), Chen Heqin, and Cai Yuanpei, who studied in the United States and Germany and obtained their doctoral degrees, conducted experiments after returning from studying abroad. A series of influential achievements appeared, including Tao Xingzhi’s Famous Essays on Education.1 Chen Heqin, called “the Froebel in China,” whose eldest son was born on December 26, 1920, took his son as the object of experiment and research on child psychology.2 The little boy was continuously observed and recordings were made of his physical and mental development since birth. His two books, Research on Children’s Psychology and Family Education, were published in 1925 after three to four years of systematic research.

In the 1920s, QR, like statistical methods, was introduced into education. With the development of theories and methods of probabilistic statistics for studying randomness, small sample theory, statistical estimation, and statistical tests were introduced in the 1940s. Subsequently, non-parametric statistics and factor analysis methods have been introduced to make educational research more substantial and abundant. Educational researchers decided that the new genre, the analytic rather than the narrative mode, was best suited for organizing and presenting data, but quantitative research is still less abundant than QR.

In summary, QR in Chinese intellectual history, as its name implies, is focused on personal analytical research, policy research, and speculative research. Although Chinese social science researchers widely used the term “qualitative research” and many think they are conducting QR, they have not systematically and normatively created its definition, theoretical framework, operation, and testing methods from the perspective of methodology literature.

Qualitative and Quantitative Educational Research in China Before the 1990s

The Chinese believe that qualitative inquiry explores the richness, depth, and complexity of phenomena, which is a way to gain insights through discovering meanings by improving our comprehension of the whole. Qualitative research (QR) has always been perceived as a fine tradition of education and research in China.

In the nearly 20 years after the reform and the opening up, QR occupies an important position in all of educational research. Such studies include historical research, philosophical research, and policy research, and other qualitative studies, including ethnographic research, are also on the rise. Generally, too many articles exist on QR in education and scientific research in academic journals. Leading scholars have stated that problems existed in educational and scientific research methods, mainly focusing on the QR approach, as Sun Kaifeng pointed out (Sun, 1982):

At present, China’s social sciences are still basically in the qualitative research stage and have not yet entered the quantitative research stage, so they are not very accurate and not very scientific. Therefore, in actual use, we feel that there is a large amount of flexibility and error, causing many mistakes in our actual work. To achieve the quantitative social science research, we must introduce mathematics and statistics into social sciences. Many laws and principles of social science are more precise and scientific in order to reach the point where they can be expressed mathematically. (p. 41)

Scholars in education commented that educational research badly needed to achieve a breakthrough as well. QR methods mainly included dialectics through logical analysis of things or phenomena, which elaborated on its own ideas or theories, including theoretical reflection, historical research, experience, and other specific methods. In other words, this indicated that individual speculative research was simple and backward.

Many articles consisted of explanations or generalizations, and the proportion of articles based on empirical studies was very low. Thus, practical experience was a major feature of educational research. Too many “creeds” hindered educational theory from reaching a field of science. In fact, the phenomenon of education was ambiguous. For example, we often heard people say that “a certain school is really good,” “a teacher is good at teaching,” “that student’s moral integrity is good,” and so on. “Good,” or “very good” was a common description. However, to what extent did “really good” have meaning? What did it mean to “teach very well” and have “good moral character”? Such statements could not be expressed in a clear quantitative concept and had no value in the study of micro-education, which targeted various activities of teaching and learning.

Although summarizations of educational experiences represented an important method of educational science research, it was not the only method. Educational science is a very practical science and requires a great deal of empirical research. Speculation research must also be based on objective evidence, and disorderly arguments are scientifically taboo. Researchers began to propose or conduct quantitative research (Hao, Wang, & Chen, 1981; Ye & Cui, 1983; Shen & Zhang, 1990).

In nearly 20 years from the reform and opening up to the late 1990s, we have seen more in-depth development of educational research in China. China already has a fine tradition of QR, including review studies, historical studies, and philosophical studies. With an emphasis in modern China on the accuracy of educational research methods, many researchers prefer the application of mixed empirical and experimental scientific research methods. Therefore, as the education psychologist Zheng Richang suggested (Zheng & Cui, 2001):

In educational research, emphasis on only one kind of educational research method has greater limitations. The study of education as an objective fact linked with the values and educational norms not only overcomes the fact that experimental science avoids the weaknesses of the educational value orientation but does not return the ultra-experienced speculative philosophy, which lacks scientific due objectivity. . . . Therefore, instead of a paranoid approach to some kind of educational research, it is better to focus on the integration and complementarity of different educational research methods. (p. 21)

In the application of specific research methods, the integration of quantitative research and QR has become the guiding principle. In the field of educational research, less and less “value-oriented study” will take place, which requires a holistic, qualitative, speculative research approach. Although education is a kind of concrete practical activity with a certain degree of activity and scale, it has a distinct “quantitative” characteristic. Quantitative research can make qualitative research more scientific, and thus quantitative research is indispensable.

The Importation and Development of Qualitative Research From the 1990s to the 2000s

Fundamentally, indigenous speculative research is based on theoretical speculation and empirical summarization. Empirical data are used as arguments to prove arguments and their persuasive power needs to be analyzed. Through the analysis of sample studies, many empirical studies of speculative studies are often subjective, although some of the experience is practical but does not include sources. In a paper entitled “Analysis and Reflection on the Educational Research Methods in China in the Past Ten Years,” Yao and Wang state that the main source of information used in studies is from existing literature, but 60.7% of the research does not indicate clear data collection methods (Yao & Wang, 2013).

The work of Chen Xiangming, who received her doctorate from Harvard University and is currently (2019) a professor at the Graduate School of Education in Peking University, has been extraordinarily influential in bringing qualitative research (QR) with a Western framework to China. Chen Xiangming’s ideas have been taken up not just by educationists, but also by scholars and practitioners in a wide range of social science fields, including philosophy, sociology, politics, women’s studies, counseling, social work, disability studies, and peace studies. In educational circles, Chen Xiangming is regarded as one of the founding figures of imported qualitative inquiry research. She is best known for her basic education programs for underserved groups in impoverished communities and for her classic early text, Qualitative Research and Social Science Studies. As a writer, she is the most prolific researcher in the past 20 years of her academic life. Her work advances an ideal of QR through transformative reflection and action and stresses the importance of developing key epistemological, ethical, and educational virtues, such as openness, humility, tolerance, attentiveness, rigor, and active policy commitment. In her famous QR paper, “Why Did Wang Xiaogang Drop Out of School?—A Case Study of Dropout,” she declares (Chen, 1996) the following:

The qualitative research we refer to here is different from the qualitative research commonly used in China’s social sciences. The latter mainly rely on individual intuition and philosophical speculation, according to the individual’s subjective experience putting forward some views, and then using the method of deduction to verify their own thinking. The former refers to: in the natural environment, the use of field experience, open-ended interviews, participatory and non-participation observation, literature analysis, case studies and other methods of social phenomena in-depth and meticulous and long-term research. This kind of research usually takes inductive method as the main analysis method. At that time, with locally collected first-hand information, and the meaning of their behavior and their perception of things from the perspective of the involved parties, the researcher then establishes the assumptions and theories on this basis and pass various channels to verify the results of the study. (p. 35)

Broadly defined, QR means “any kind of research that produces findings not arrived at by means of statistical procedures or other means of quantification” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). In recent years, the rapid development of qualitative methods has been widely used in practical education, which has achieved some results. So far, the main areas covered and the achievements made are given here.

Research on Education Equity

To qualitative researchers, the concept of educational equity is not only a question of the distribution of educational material resources, but also a question of the background of the social system of education. In the existing context of institutional background, cultural issues bound within the field of education have always existed. This cultural injustice is manifested in that disadvantaged groups are not sufficiently recognized and respected in the respective systems and practices, and that they have no place and are ignored in the cultural rule of society. It is this cultural injustice that has led to the emergence of various educational injustices. For example, in the QR work by Chen Xiangming, “Why Did Wang Xiaogang Drop Out of School?,” the author studied the dropout issue in poor provinces in China. This is a sub-project of the World Bank’s poverty alleviation project funded by China.

Researchers Zhang Yu, Huang Zhenzhong, and Li Manli studied one of the most significant and concerning social issues for a vast number of people—the problem of “pit-shift (Kengban)” school choice for 12-year-olds in Beijing.3 To collect data, the researchers interviewed parents and primary and secondary school teachers and then supplemented their research by examining the teaching content in pit-shift institutions and primary school textbooks. They focused on pit-shift style school choice and its impact on the ecology of basic education (Zhang, Huang, & Li, 2014). In addition, some researchers use QR methods to conduct studies on family education of migrant populations. Zhao Juan has done in-depth interviews with 12 migrant families and discussed their family rearing patterns through their guidance of their growth, the atmosphere of their care, the ways their conduct is controlled, their expectations of education, and so on (Zhao, 2004).

Most of the existing research on education equity is on migrant children, left-behind children, and college students in rural areas, while other disadvantaged groups are not examined in such studies, such as students with disabilities and ethnic minority students.

Study of Curriculum Issues

In recent years, many researchers have used QR to explore a range of issues in the curriculum area. Researchers found that each person has a different understanding and evaluation of what “good lessons” are. When practitioners construct standards, teaching design, students’ readiness, and teaching objectives have received widespread attention. Researchers noticed, however, that assessment of classroom teaching should also be a process of exchange, negotiation, and mutual understanding (Zhao & Ma, 2007). Researchers also conducted a qualitative study of psychological abuse in primary and secondary schools in the classroom (Deng, Xiang, & Pan, 2009). It explored the characteristics, incidence, and adverse effects of classroom psychological abuse by teachers in primary and secondary schools and provided a basis for improving students’ mental health. Ma Yongjun and Wu Junming’s analysis of the formation process of an open chemistry class showed that teachers’ existing practical knowledge, evaluation orientation, curriculum concepts, peer mutual assistance, professional guidance, and practical factors influenced classroom instructional design and helped the implementation of new curriculum concepts (Ma & Wu, 2006).

Research on Teachers’ Practical Knowledge

Researchers also demonstrated another effort to systematically study the practical knowledge of teachers. Practical knowledge is the understanding of education and teaching that teachers sincerely believe in and actually use and demonstrate in education and teaching practice. It is the knowledge foundation for teacher education and development and plays a very important role in teachers’ daily work. Guided by this paradigm, for many years researchers have carried out continuous and in-depth research on the practical knowledge of teachers. For example, Chen Xiangming’s research, “Study of Teacher Practical Knowledge,” has been continuously conducted for seven years. This paradigm strongly promotes the entry of local social and cultural perspectives. It is a continuous effort to deepen teacher education research and has clear practical significance. According to the teaching practices of Chinese university teachers, Lin Xiaoying used analytical induction and continuous comparison methods to conduct comparative research on localization and interpreted the mental state of college professional teachers (Chen & Lin, 2004; Chen, 2010).

Women’s Education

With the development of society, women’s education has received more and more attention. Many scholars have used qualitative methods to conduct effective research on a series of issues regarding women’s educational opportunities, women’s educational content, gender differences, curriculum selection, academic evaluation, and expectations for future careers. Researchers have qualitatively studied the phenomenon of urban women’s participation in sports and stratification in China’s cities (Xiong, 2012). Since the reform and opening up, the participation of urban women in sports and leisure sports has been accepted, and participation in sports has become a measure of their influence, status, and identity. This study used in-depth research methods to discuss sports behaviors and sports concepts with three different groups of women: white-collar women, blue-collar women, and unemployed women. Different groups of women have different opportunities and constraints in participating in sports. They cannot all completely and equally benefit from urban sports. Researchers conducted a qualitative study on career development and work participation of Chinese female engineers. Researchers selected 48 engineers (30 female engineers and 18 male engineers) in China’s machinery and equipment manufacturing industry and conducted in-depth interviews and field observations. Using methods to investigate their subjects’ real lives, the authors collected a large number of first-hand accounts of the day-to-day work of engineers, showing the reality of women engineers in work participation and professional development. The basic conclusions state the following: compared with the diversity and complexity of the work content of male engineers, the work of female engineers shows a singleness and repeatability; thus, women engineers have a secondary relationship to their male engineer counterparts (Hu & Li, 2017).

Students’ Group Subculture

This research mainly examines group norms of different types of students, and students’ values, attitudes, and adaptations to behavioral environments. Among these norms, the more influential ones are the special experiences of students in specific time periods, such as the characteristics and influencing factors of the post-1990 college students’ thoughts and behaviors. Qualitative research shows that in post-1990 college students’ views of their common characteristics, they adhere to the mainstream, are involved in the self, have rich personalities, yearn for maturity, and are sentimental. They reflect the background of the times, their families’ growth environment, their school education, and online life. Such influences have created these characteristics in them. Paying attention to and caring about their self-cognition and growth, guiding them to understand themselves scientifically, and to constantly surpass themselves are important tasks of contemporary post-1990 college students’ ideological and political education. A qualitative study was conducted on the key stages of the growth processes of outstanding Chinese engineers and their influencing factors. This study was based on the QR study of 27 outstanding engineers who had participated in a major national engineering project, the Qinghai-Tibet railway. Through the use of NVivo analysis software, key stages of growth of outstanding engineers were explored and important factors identified that affected these growth stages and ultimately revealed an understanding for nurturing outstanding engineers. The research suggested creating a good developmental environment and revealed where the significant factors lie (Li & Hu, 2010).

These case studies show that qualitative methods are of great significance to educational research and are currently being developed and widely used in specific research. However, we must also realize that any research method has its own history, and it has advantages and limitations. The qualitative method is no exception. At present, qualitative methods are criticized from different aspects. QR is mainly carried out in education by describing and explaining complex life situations between teachers and students. In QR, researchers try to capture characteristics of phenomena and understand their internal meanings. However, as researchers must be faithful to the realities of the phenomena and penetrate into this reality, it is often difficult to grasp the key factors of the phenomena or problems.

Contemporary Tensions and Multi-Methodology Trends

Contributions of social science research in the policy area are increasingly being questioned. Conservatives generally dislike social science research but they often make use of its results. Liberal scholars who generally like and support social science research have made achievements in it. However, application skepticism is growing. Although there is currently a denial of applied social sciences, it is reasonable to see that the prospects of applying social sciences are promising. The key to this comparatively bright future is the evaluation of research and demonstration studies among a wide range of disciplines that link quantitative research methods to qualitative research (QR) methods.

To understand the contemporary relationship between qualitative and quantitative research requires a review of the history of such research in the educational sphere. The theory and methods of statistics have not yet reached a level where all social phenomena can be quantitatively studied. Statistics needs to be further developed and perfected. Blind prejudicial statistical surveys and a refusal to use other survey methods will inevitably drive educational research in an erroneous direction. If we study only the social phenomena in which the quantitative relationship is obvious and can be used for quantitative statistics, ignoring research on those social phenomena whose quantitative relationship is not so obvious and which cannot be quantitatively studied for the time being, then we will have a one-sided understanding of society. This trend has occurred in Western social science research, and we must take warning (Jia & Lin, 1983).

However, description and interpretation are the main methods of QR, and they are conducted through observations and interviews in real situations. This can easily lead to the description of many non-inherently connected phenomena that appear on the surface, and individual subjective experiences and feelings are added to the explanation. This greatly reduces the generality and accuracy of the theory and directly affects the reliability and validity of the research. In addition, in QR, researchers combine observers, recorders, interviewers, and analysts into a highly individualized job. Individuals are all tools for research. Therefore, if something goes wrong at a certain point, it will affect the results of the entire study. In short, although qualitative methods are currently developing rapidly and have gradually become the main research paradigm for quantitative research, there is still room for improvement.

Education science is a science that studies social phenomena. The objects of educational scientific research are the two attributes of human beings: social development and natural development. It determines that educational science is not only governed by the laws of social development, but is also governed by the laws of natural development. As an education science that belongs to the category of social sciences, it is more necessary to cite mathematical methods to study educational issues (Zheng & Cui, 2001). In other words, education science must be both qualitative and quantitative research. Of course, we apply mathematical methods in studying pedagogy, and we must pay attention to combining the characteristics of educational science itself so as to better absorb the new achievements of modern science and technology.

The hybrid approach that accompanies the complex ideological trends within a paradigm war is a methodological system that has the same status as the positivist paradigm, quantitative methodology, and constructivist qualitative methodology. The application of the hybrid methodology system has broken the boundaries of disciplines and has become a social science research tool and one of three basic methodologies. The development of hybrid methodology has enabled researchers to rationalize the interpretation of research objects and research issues. The analysis and interpretation of the internal and external logic of research problems have become more comprehensive. For sponsors of social science research, measures are being taken to promote the development of hybrid methods in social science research activities, encourage the combination of quantitative method researchers and qualitative method researchers, and respond better to the current “innovation for development” in China. The slogan enhances China’s overall strength and international level of social science research. For example, in the autonomous program of the Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), promulgated in December 2017, the National Natural Science Foundation of the People’s Republic of China has formulated the “13th Five-Year Plan” for the development of the National Natural Science Foundation of China. The official from the Ministry of Education proposed, “The development of education is not satisfactory. Despite enough efforts, many bottle-neck basic science problems have not been solved. Natural sciences (such as cognitive sciences and information sciences) have insufficient support for educational research; and the cross and collaborative innovation between humanities, social sciences and natural sciences need to be strengthened.” A new scientific fund application code has been specifically announced to support the basic research of educational sciences, namely “F0701 (on Educational Information Science and Technology).”

As a branch of social sciences, educational research is an applied subject. The study of subject theory is the foundation of its construction. The study of teaching practice is the cornerstone of its development. Therefore, methodological guidance is indispensable. At present, based on the past experience of educational research, there are still many deficiencies in domestic research methods on education, which should trigger rigorous educational research methodology training and, at the same time, align with social science branches such as economics, sociology, management, and politics. The promotion of the use of mathematical statistical methods in educational research is moving toward higher-level inferential statistics on the basis of descriptive statistics. In the current complex of educational research, a hybrid method based on quantitative research methods and qualitative research methods is also under way. The field of educational research is constantly expanding and improving its effectiveness. The hybrid method, as a methodological guide, measures the pros and cons of each method and provides another way of thinking for educational research, with a “unique epistemology.” The historical trend allows domestic researchers to keep in mind that China’s educational development is different from that of the West and has its own development trajectory. When using it for reference, it should be placed in an educational environment with Chinese characteristics. The complexity of education and human beings and the complementarity of various research methods determine that educational research should adopt multilevel, multifaceted, and multi-indicative methods. According to the nature and characteristics of educational research objects, the flexible application of various methods can fully reveal the nature and laws of educational phenomena. In short, being systematic, being scientific, and being diversified are the inevitable trends in the development of education and research.


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  • 1. This is an essay collection edited by Fang Ming and published by Educational Science Press in 2005.

  • 2. Friedrich Froebel was, a German educator who was the founder of the kindergarten and one of the most influential educational reformers in the 19th century.

  • 3. The so-called pit-shift refers to the special tutoring courses offered by training institutions affiliated with elite middle schools or co-organized with social training institutions. Prior to “computer allocation” of the regular admission season, the elite middle schools select top students from the pit-shift directly.