Yu Jian: “Education Without Heart”

Below is a translation of this article from Southern Weekend, a fairly well-known online news site featuring critical essays and opinion pieces on various issues related to China. In this article, Yu Jian discusses how the contemporary Chinese education system is failing to produce individuals with “empathetic hearts”, and that the current system is too focused on producing test results instead of quality human beings.


Teaching for the final test seems to have become education’s primary duty.

From what I understand, all grade three Chinese senior high school students have already finished their normal studies for the year and entered into vigorous preparation to battle the Gaokao exam. Now, all schools only have one class: how to handle the Gaokao. Parents closely cooperate, and the study of unrelated subjects such as poetry, music, dance, art, philosophy, aesthetics and ethics have resolutely come to an end, as if the sky had collapsed in on them. In other words, the skill of test taking has become education’s highest knowledge, the only knowledge [worth having].

And I’m quite sure that China is the only country confronting this type of situation. From the time children enter school, they spend their entire academic careers preparing for the Gaokao. The objective of all subjects is just to serve one purpose: to prepare students for this final test. When students attend class their teachers will usually inform them of what material will be tested, and what material will not. “This won’t be tested, turn the page, don’t study this,” [teachers say]. When studying history, for example, students will only cover the main points concerning the governance of the economic system. The humanities of history are ignored completely.

Score + Grades = Character

One rainy morning as I was seeing my child off to school, we approached the school entrance just as the test bell went off. As soon as the bell sounded, children all around me frantically began running inside fearing to be the last [to enter the classroom]. Amidst all of the running, a female student slipped and fell down. Not one student stopped to help her up; they were all too busy running to class. The student picked herself up [and ran inside]. The students around her seemed to feel [this disregard for others] to be completely natural—the test is more important than anything else.

And I sighed. If this is the result of education, that students turn a blind eye to another student who has fallen down, that empathy has vanished, then this education system truly is too terrifying.[….] Education which emphasizes only testing, education without heart, is inhumane education.

The objective of this contemporary education system is to mold “new people”. When I say “new people”, I mean a new generation of individuals different from the historically backwards ones. But during this process of “molding” it is impossible for us to throw off tradition. No matter how we mold [new people], we still must depend on the day in and day out tradition of educating unobtrusively and imperceptibly, of teaching students according to their individual abilities.

When the great Confucius said that we should “teach students according to their individual abilities”, he certainly did not mean that we should teach only from some textbook for some test, he meant that we should identify and cultivate each student’s individual and unique genius[….]

Gaokao Prep Books

In the past, teachers praised and criticized students on the good and bad deeds they performed—this determined whether or not a student was a good or bad child. Now, teachers praise or criticize students solely on their grades. Students who score high on their exams represent “Socialism’s ‘new person’”. Whether or not the student has morals, faith in socialism, or is an empathetic person is not important. Scores determine everything. An inhumane student with good grades is still considered to be a “new person”.

Students are also becoming more pragmatic: since all that matters is the final score, studying is just a means of developing test-taking skills; learning is insignificant. The acquisition of knowledge is only valuable in so far as it can help them test. Knowledge is boring—only the answers matter. A or B. Why one is B and not A is not important—it’s just the answer.

And this [approach to education] leads to undermining morality and ethics. Students do not learn to take initiative in their studies, everything is decided by the test answers. Why bother studying when all [the students are doing] is learning to memorize the answers? [….] Rote memorization has forcefully exterminated empathy. Genius, talent, creativity, wisdom, independent thinking—these skills all receive a final mark of “0”.

Students outwardly go through the motions of receiving this type of education, but inwardly disdain it. The knowledge required for tests is comprised of one set of facts, and the knowledge needed for reality another. Moreover, most of the material covered in today’s textbooks has no practical value in the outside world, and is irrelevant to everyday life. And for this reason this type of education can no longer be taken seriously [….]

This education system creates latent enemies of education. Once a student’s score passes a certain mark, [students feel no need to continue to learn,] and feel no remorse for not continuing their education.

There is also a very important difference between modern education and traditional private schooling. Private education is represented by the teacher’s personal image, while in modern education, the teacher’s personal style and morals, and student’s behavior, is concealed—the teachers and students are merely represented by a test paper. Teachers who produce students with high scores are good teachers. The teacher’s personality and morals are not important. Teachers have no need to adhere to moral principles or responsibilities. Their only responsibility is to help students achieve high scores.

And immoral teachers carelessly go about teaching during normal school hours. After class, they collect [extra] fees from students’ parents and teach these students directly from confidential test books. Today’s students do not respect their teachers, as teachers are considered to be only a boring screw in the country’s test machine.

Teachers do not care how their students develop as human beings, they only care about their test scores, and this signifies that teachers are not empathetic. If saving a person leads to scoring low on an exam, you are a bad student[….] Actually, neither the teacher nor the student is wrong as the education system itself has made this type of logic natural. Don’t behave this way, don’t study this way, if the teacher doesn’t get his or her bonus, there won’t be a school.

Modern education is training education dissidents. I’m not at all using hyperbole when I say that our current education system is heartless and without morals, that students under this system will never look upon teachers fondly as if they were their mothers and fathers, students will never feel deep gratitude [for them].

After the tests, after students have entered society, they will discover that society does not revolve around scores. If one day they cannot find the answer and do not have the ability to judge right from wrong, then they will have no spirit, no personal opinion or voice, no talent. And if there are hordes of people like this, then our future is in grave trouble. My meaning is, when confronting how different countries’ education systems are supposed to lift up their societies, it is clear that the goal of education is to make a country stronger. But what we see now instead is not how our education system will make our country stronger, but instead a foreshadowing of how this system is slowly degenerating and burying our country.

0 thoughts on “Yu Jian: “Education Without Heart””

  1. An emotional essay and a skilful translation! I remember attending school in New Zealand, just when the reforms were being made. We were derisive of them at the time, because there would be no final test of the calibre the older students had taken, but now I see that it not necessarily a useful form of knowledge if it is just directed at a test. Life as a whole is about learning; it does not stop when you pass a test and leave school.


  2. This situation is by no means specific to China. In Russia, they have their ЕГЭ, in Germany Abitur, and average grades of USA college graduates can also matter much.

    As soon as student associate better grades with more chances to find a good job, there will be this learning for the test attitude. So this is created by approach the industry and governments have to choose new hires.

    Fortunately, in the new technology sectors (IT, biotech) there is common understanding that employees have to learn the whole life long, so the importance of good grades ceasing slowly – first in West, later also in China.


  3. Tests are important, but I agree they should not be the only goal. People, in their work or life, are tested daily: whether they can do something,how resourcefull, leadership, etc.. In school we can funk and get another chance; in real life, if we are prepared, we could much worse off.
    The other question is that the curriculum should include humanities, like philosophy, arts, music, ethics, etc which make us human and whole. But this is a different issue with or without tests/exams.


  4. Ah yes… final tests – which is supposed to be the yardstick to measure what you will do in life. What a crock of shyte that can be, in the face guanxi – whether it be by connections (i.e. alumni or legacy clauses) or by simple “donations” of hefty red envelopes.

    Sorry if I sound that cynical, but… one can only witness so much school politics so much.


  5. I think it’s interesting that Yu Jian talks even more about cultivating students’ morality than any other educational goal. A traditional Confucian education was largely a moral one and it seems like this idea is still very much alive. In Western countries we would be more likely to criticize the lack of creative- and critical-thinking schools taught in Chinese schools and the emphasis on rote memorization (which this author does touch on) than the state of Chinese moral education in schools.

    I don’t know how I feel about it. While I certainly think that teachers should teach their students good moral behavior, I also don’t want an emphasis on moral education to turn into more indoctrination of a political agenda (as happens in the U.S. too much, i.e. this stuff: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/13/education/13texas.html).



    This article is pure crap.

    China’s current education is the best in the world.
    How did China become so strong and great without
    its superior education system.

    I studied at UC Berkeley and this university was not as good as Beida. The American male professors also wanted “bribes” in return for good grades. I was disgusted with my experience there. Studying in America makes a Chinese a prostitute.

    Chinese should stop slavishly worshiping the Western educational system. All American whites are racists because of their education system. China is for Chinese.


  7. Pugster, where does Yu Jian mention the U.S. ??

    Straw man as usual from you…

    Kai Pan,
    “All American whites are racists because of their education system.”

    Then why the hell did you stay there if it was so oppressive??


  8. Designing an educational system and assessment of its effectiveness is like designing and engineering a product. They both involve compromises of different requirements. The current Chinese system may have its problems. It is, by comparison, better than a lot of the educational system in other developing countries. It — along with other test based university placement system — is also, by far the fairest system of allocating scarce resource of a university education.

    The reason of why so much effort is spent on passing the gaokao has more to do with the competitiveness of the society and the lack of economic opportunity through other channels.


  9. Kai Pan says, This article is pure crap. China’s current education is the best in the world!How did China become so strong and great without its superior education system. I studied at UC Berkeley and this university was not as good as Beida.”

    Haha, of course UC berkeley isn’t as good as Beida. Berkeley is a petri dish of idiocy, and your comments did a decent job supporting this fact.

    You cannot compare you sole experience in a liberal, 3nd tier American University to that of all of China’s, can you? Just asking. The author is arguing that morals and heart are missing from Chinese education and society, two things which do not have direct relationship to a country’s short term economic strength. A moral code and sense of what it means to be civilized are what keep cultures and countries prosperous in the longrun, as they gain soft power abroad and the sense unity at home.

    There is plenty of evidence to back up this article. Take reality for example, strangers have a blatent disregard for eachother and lack what can be simply called manners, etiquette or common consideration. China is not considered a developed country for more than just economic reasons. Chinese generally lack a common ethos, or civilized philosophy that governs their treatment of the fellow man. Maybe this is because their culture was whitewashed some years ago and they basically started over by emulating the outside world, while receiving government regulated education. Note that the CCP does not openly adopt past traditions of Confucianism, Daoism or Buddhism (all of which have clear moral codes), so the people only absorb what they are exposed to. The result = ? The result is that students mostly learn what the government condones, and so they learn little of anything.


  10. once I had a problem with my luggage and my baby daughter at airport in China, it was the foreigner who gave me a hand, my follow countryman just passing by one by one and looking at me indifferently. the similar situation repeated many times, hnonestly, it always is the foreigner willing to lend hand. I couldn’t pin point the reasons, can I simply blame the education system ? I don’t know!


  11. @ Kyle (and others): Be advised, this is not the real Kai Pan. It’s a troll posing as him. The real Kai uses a gravatar so that a photo of him appears next to his comments. His IP address is also different from this “Kai Pan”.

    @ “Kai Pan”: Congratulations, you found something trollish to do that wasn’t covered in our Comments Policy. It is now. Any future posts you make attempting to impersonate someone else will be deleted, and your IP — which I have made a note of — will be banned.


  12. This is a super complicated problem. The competitiveness for university is so out of control that they need some way of sorting who should go and who shouldn’t, so they obviously need some sort of test to help that. I think the mistake comes from putting everything down to that one test, and from the type of test it is.

    Putting a child’s whole future into their performance on one test is ridiculous. Some people are super bright, but can’t handle pressure very well. Too bad, no university for you. In my province in Canada, we have two province-wide standards tests – one in Math, and the other in English. They account for 30% of the final mark for those classes, the other 70% being a mixture of homework, unit tests, and quizzes. It allows the student to show you all year long, in a variety of ways, his strengths and weaknesses.

    From what I read here as well as what I have already read about the gaokao, it relies on memorization more than anything else. Again, ridiculous. While memorization is a useful skill in certain subjects and at certain times, it is no way the most important skill, and it certainly isn’t a reflection of how bright or ready for university a person is. Again, an example from my home province (it’s a brief summary). Our English Language Arts test every year has a theme (say, “the Power of Music”); no one knows the theme until the first day of the exam. The students have 3 hours to read about 10 different texts (ranging from poetry, short stories, newspaper articles, photographs, etc.) related to that theme and answer a variety of different types of questions about them. Over the next 3 days, they have 3 hours in total to plan and execute a text of their own about the same theme. They cannot bring in anything or take anything out of the room during those times. This is just one example of a test that lets a student show his strengths (by being able to choose any type of writing he wants for the final written section) and tests a variety of skills related to the subject. Notice how there’s no room for showing off memorization skills here.

    I’m encouraged that so many more people are talking about this lately. For sure our system isn’t perfect, but I’d really like to see some things change about the system here. It really is spirit crushing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s