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Educating the World’s Largest Population: Why China’s Children Excel

June 27th, 2016
in:Humans
by:Nicole Webb
located in:China
tags:China, illiterate, Qipao, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?, Yong Zhao

Come mid-June each year, classrooms across the country are crackling with the nervous energy of ten million teenagers sitting the gruelling “Gao Kao” entrance examination to university. For China’s children, it’s pegged as the biggest two days of their lives.

Having disciplined their children in preparation for this day since birth, anxious mums wait outside schools, dressed deliberately in their bright, silk Qipao.

A nation steeped in customs and beliefs, it’s only fitting to wear China’s traditional dress. With ‘Qi’ the first character in the phrase for “victory”, hopeful parents are leaving nothing to chance. 

Cars on the roads have been silenced…by the authorities. The normally frenzied beeping that echoes constantly across China is reduced to little more than a soft hum. 

Construction zones near any high school grind to a halt; even the frogs are silenced, parents fearful their constant croaking at night will wake their sleeping children, who need all the rest they can get.

In a country of 1.4 billion people, the stakes are high. 

A place at university means the opportunity to rise from the pack. Getting ahead of the game is critical. Families have been known to change their hukou, or social services registration location, for the chance to get their children into a better college

Just recently, a woman made headlines when it was discovered, eleven years after the fact, she had used a friend’s hukou to apply for a job and then stolen her identity to snare a place at a more prestigious university, effectively changing her own fate at the expense of someone else’s.

While the university pool is rapidly growing, ambitious parents are no longer satisfied with just any university. The battle is on to get their children into one of the top universities in first tier cities like Beijing or Shanghai. A feat that can be impossible if you’re an outsider, with a different hukou.

For wealthier families, the pressure valve has been released. Sending their children overseas to study is deemed a favourable alternative.

Comparably, though, the number is still small with around 400,000 Chinese students pursuing studies overseas each year compared to around 7.5 million attending Chinese universities.

Whether studying at home or abroad, China’s children are renowned for their rigorous studying techniques and impressive results. 

In the well known Pisa test, an international study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for comparing education systems, Shanghai students constantly rank first in the world in maths, reading and science.

Academic grooming starts young

From a very early age, children are taught that education is everything. In primary school, students are expected to study around the clock, with children as young as seven hitting the books until at least 9pm at night and on Saturdays. Life is a blur of study and extracurricular activities.

This intense pattern continues throughout school life, the pressure only intensifying, right up until university entrance. 

This all-consuming focus on education is largely attributed to the fact that today’s parents and grandparents had much fewer opportunities afforded them in an impoverished nation. That coupled with the introduction of the one child policy in the late seventies has only served to perpetuate the Tiger Mom’s desire to see her offspring succeed, in a country laden with the world’s highest population.

A decade ago, China’s Education Bureau recognised the need to reduce pressure on the nation’s kids, which meant reducing homework and extra classes, especially on weekends. But in a society with such fierce competition, today’s parents still have a hard time accepting anything less.

There’s a saying, dú shū xū yòng yì, yī zì zhí qiān jīn – which loosely translated means, “When reading, don’t let a single word escape your attention; one word may be worth a thousand pieces of gold.”

In Yong Zhao’s book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” he argues, China’s extreme discipline and focus on test-taking is robbing students of creativity.

“Chinese education produces excellent test scores, a short-term outcome that can be achieved by rote memorization and hard work,” said Zhao, who grew up in China and taught there, “but like the Chinese government itself, it does not produce a citizenry of diverse, creative, and innovative talent.” 

China has been criticised by outsiders for having a nation of people who consequently don’t know how to survive in the real world once they eventually finish studying. Having been hand-fed everything and told only to listen and memorise for their entire childhood, it’s believed, as adults, many struggle to think outside the box.

There’s no denying though, for a country still considered to be a developing nation, China has achieved more than a pass when it comes to educating its people.

In the last fifty years, the country has made sweeping reforms in an effort to run the largest education system in the world. 

In 1949, 80 per cent of China’s population was illiterate, with the enrollment rate of students in primary schools just 20 per cent.

In 1986, a compulsory law making nine years of education mandatory was passed. Today the Ministry of Education estimates that 99.7 per cent of the population has achieved this basic level of education.

Around 88 universities are now included in the QS World University Rankings by Subject.

In such a vast land, teeming with people (many still living in poverty), it’s hard to eliminate China’s “survival of the fittest” attitude.

Following the crowd isn’t considered a negative; it’s would be a sin not to. You’ve got to be in it to win it, and that means a youth devoted to study; a chance for every child to achieve their (or perhaps even more pressing, their parent’s) dream.

The proverb “Wang Zi Cheng Long, Wang Nu Cheng Feng!” is still just as relevant in China today: „Expect a son to be a dragon and a daughter to be a phoenix!“

Article written by:
Nicole Webb
Author
Current Map: Our coverage
A place at university means the opportunity to rise from the pack. Getting ahead of the game is critical. Families have been known to change their hukou, or social services registration location, for the chance to get their children into a better college.
In a country of 1.4 billion people, the stakes are high.
In the last fifty years, the country has made sweeping reforms in an effort to run the largest education system in the world.

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