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The Growth and Determinants of Literacy in China


In China, as in other nations, reading skills depend mainly on the level of education attained. But reading skills in China depend on other factors as well: the quality of schooling; the cultural capital of the family of origin–parental education, of course, but also such measures of cultural capital as the number of books in the household and the reading behavior of parents; gender; and the extent to which literacy is used over the life course. I exploit data from a 1996 national probability sample of Chinese Adults (N=6,090) that includes information on literacy (the number of characters identified from a list of 10 characters), measures of family cultural capital, and the usual socioeconomic data on both respondents and their families of origin, to study the determinants of the number of characters recognized. My analysis includes three components: (1) An overall assessment of the determinants of literacy in the adult population of China In addition to years of schooling, a number of factors positively affect literacy: father’s years of schooling; the “cultural capital” of parents, manifest in their reading behavior; urban residence at age 14; and male gender. Further, the effect of father’s education is entirely mediated by the effect of family cultural capital. (2) The effect of occupational experience on literacy. Net of education, those with non-manual jobs gain in literacy over the life course whereas the literacy of those with manual jobs declines. The fact that the two trends go in opposite directions suggests an age as opposed to period interpretation of the results. (3) An assessment of the effect of the Cultural Revolution on literacy. Net of years of schooling, those educated during the Cultural Revolution (especially the first years) are less literate than those educated before or after the Cultural Revolution, and the effect of the Cultural Revolution is larger in magnitude than the effect of an additional year of schooling.

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