Tag Archives: Education

Chinese Overseas Students, Then and Now

The first Chinese overseas student is Rong Hong, who went to the US to study in 1847, first at Monson Academy, then at Yale. Since then, more Chinese gradually studied abroad, with the first surge appearing at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, China was in a difficult transition period from the late Qing Dynasty to the republican period, marked by foreign humiliation and domestic suffering. But it was also an age of awakening. Hundreds and thousands of Chinese students went to advanced countries like Great Britain, Germany, France, America and Japan to study all sorts of matters. They brought back visions of modernity, which included not only Western technical knowledge, but also society, politics, laws and culture, bestowing great hopes on the modernization of China. They acted like a bridge which connected China to the outside world, and made important contributions in arousing Chinese people’s wake to overthrow the corrupt Qing Dynasty, establish a republic, abolish obsolete traditions, and modernize and strengthen China.

Today, it is fashionable to talk of China as the next superpower. With the shift of power from the West to the East, the special position of Chinese overseas students has also eroded. Perhaps they are no longer needed as saviours of China. They might even need to rely on China’s glories. But beyond China’s economic rise lies authoritarian politics, rampant corruption and mounting social problems. However, the current generation of Chinese overseas students see little interests in making things better. In a few recent articles, Beijing writer and FT Chinese columnist Xu Zhiyuan, and prominent Hong Kong writer Tao Kit, have portrayed them as a confined community, predominately interested in enhancing their personal careers while showing little interests in Western ideas and cultures. In other words, they fail to act as agents of change in China, quite unlike their predecessors.

A confined community

Drawing on his exchange experience at Cambridge University during 2009-2010, Xu Zhiyuan described in FT Chinese how Chinese students in Cambridge live in their own confined world, showing little interests in things around them:

The largest overseas student community in Cambridge is Chinese. Counting in the sixth formers and visiting scholars, it includes nearly 1,500 people. They are numerous and everywhere, but are invisible in Cambridge’s public life. In Varsity, the largest student-run paper in Cambridge, I seldom see their news. I am not familiar with the overly-rich student activity scene, but I rarely see a Chinese face, whether in the theatre showing the tragic life of Alan Turing, in bookshops, or in the cinema screening the great famine of Ukraine. It is also apparent that Chinese students here are not interested in making their voices heard, even when the world media is hotly debating about China.

These Chinese youth live in a new kind of confined life. New technologies and open information have liberated but also destroyed them. Armed with Skype, emails, MSN, Facebook and Youtube, they live a tribal life. Even though they are in Cambridge, they will not miss any popular TV series in China, or the latest film If You Are The One. For them, Britain is just a temporary background. They neither have the ability nor the interests to express their views on Britain or the world. Meanwhile, the rise of China affects them in another way. They no longer view themselves as a progressive force which will improve China. Conversely, they strive to integrate themselves into the current Chinese order. The internal logic of the rise of China has also forced its way into their lives. Three decades of successful commercialism and consumerism is accompanied by political stagnation and incompetence, and a noisy and coarse culture.

Narrow visions

In addition to a lack of interests in the world outside, Tao Kit also pointed out in Hong Kong’s Next Magazine the narrow visions of Chinese overseas students, who are only interested in pragmatic subjects like engineering, finance and commerce, rather than the arts and humanities:

The scope of subjects studied is narrower. Late Qing scholar Shen Jiaben studied law in Britain. He returned to China and tried to reform the legal system based on the British model. At least, he abolished many inhumane corporal punishments. Zhu Guangqian of the republican era went all the way to Edinburgh to study aesthetics, and became a great master after returning to China. While Jeme Tien Yow studied engineering in America, Sun Yat-sen read medicine in Britain, and Liang Ssu-ch’eng studied architecture in the US, at least, there were those who chose to study law and aesthetics in order to enlighten the minds of Chinese.

Today, business administration, finance and technologies are the hottest choices among Chinese overseas students. Who would choose to read Latin or arts history? […] A century ago, Chinese decided to study overseas so that they can contribute to the nation, akin to the spirit of Fukuzawa Yukichi [one of the founders of modern Japan]. Today, Chinese overseas students only care about finding a good job, while the Chinese Communist Party only believes in GDP. […] How can Westerners not view them merely as a group of consumers?

The US public believes that young Chinese students are particularly good at maths. This is a prejudice brought about by the bias in subject selections. Westerners only know that the Chinese are good at engineering and sciences, but not arts and humanities. This is just like how Hollywood views Chinese movies – it is Chinese kungfu rather than romance that is recognized. This is because Western audiences don’t believe that Chinese can be romantic.

Blurred identities

Overseas Chinese students are well placed to bridge the ideological divides between China and the West, and lead social progress in China. But, unlike their counterparts a century ago, they have failed to do so. In another article on FT Chinese, Xu Zhiyuan explained why, and set out the political implications:

When Hu Shih returned to China in 1917, he said to his friend who welcomed him in Shanghai, ‘now that we are back, everything will be different.’ He was referencing Erasmus Darwin’s famous sentence. This was the confidence of Chinese overseas student at its height. They acted as a bridge between Eastern and Western civilizations, shouldering the responsibility to introduce new ideas, technologies and organizations into the Chinese society. In one of his later articles, Hu Shih wrote, ‘we always carry with us new insights and a critical spirit. They could not be found in a race so indifferent and used to the existing order, but are absolutely essential for any reform movements.

Those ‘new insights’ and ‘critical spirit’ often enjoy bad luck. They are swamped by the inertia of Chinese people. Their ambitions, anxiety and constraints are exactly the characters of China itself. But no one can deny their importance. In between the enormous gaps between China and the West in terms of power, wealth and knowledge, they act like transmission belts. However, the tragedy lies here – they are just that. Facing external pressures and internal weaknesses, they never develop their self-determination and value. Their roles are functional – they can build railways, chemical factories or new buildings. But their influence is only limited to the surface of the Chinese society. They are too eager to be useful. They may be noble hearted, aspiring to save the motherland; they may also be calculating, seeking personal successes.

20th century China was just like the Soviet Union criticized by Andrei Sakharov: ‘our society must gradually find its way out from the dead end of non-spirituality. This non-spirituality is killing the possibility of development, not only spiritual, but also material.’

Generations after generations of Chinese overseas students rushed in to join the rank. They helped new China to acquire missiles and hydrogen and atomic bombs, and were recognized as national heroes. But how many of them have followed the line of Andrei Sakharov to question the meaning and value of these actions, and their relationship with the profound suffering of this race? The ability and knowledge they learned from the West turn out to be tools of oppression and illusion directed toward their fellow countrymen.

He Weifang: Under the Banner of Strict Professional Ethics

Bad day for Yuan Tengfei

“If you want to see Mao, you can go to his mausoleum at Tiananmen Square, but don’t forget it’s a Chinese version of the Yasukuni Shrine, which glorifies Mao, under whose hands many people were massacred.”

“Chiang Kai-shek was a dictator ruling with one party, but Mao was actually no different.”

“Less than 5 percent of the content of Chinese history textbooks is true, the rest is pure nonsense.”

These are just some of the comments from popular history teacher Yuan Tengfei that sparked a nation-wide debate in May with many major news organs carrying related stories. (More about Teng here, here and in this great post at chinaelectionsblog.) The public controversy centered around the damage Yuan could supposedly inflict on the image of national political icons and thereby erode the faith that Chinese people put in their leadership, with a lot of statements going something like “of course some of what he says is true but he really shouldn’t say it in such a disrespectful way, especially not in front of students”. It also illustrated how fast this nation can be polarized by one person openly questioning the consensual “historical truth”.

Incidentally the debate led up to the anniversary of a major political incident that is still a taboo in Chinese classrooms (and elsewhere). Even though the party regularly states that “the Chinese government has long reached its verdict on the June 4th incidents” even this seemingly clear position is faded out of the public discourse. In the days leading up to June 4th activists, intellectuals and netizens once again talked about the lack of open discussion and critical examination of the past. As one netizen put it: “In China everything has been wrapped in a cloak of silence for so long that we have almost lost the ability to speak. The problem is, how can we move on?”

But the area of silence seems to be expanding. On May 14th the Work Group for Education of the Party Committee and the Department of Education of Fujian province issued a new set of regulations concerning “professional ethics” of higher education teachers with the intent to effectively prevent “the dissemination of misguided or erroneous speech against the general and specific policies of the Party, the basic theory of the Party, the law and the constitution of the country during the course of teaching, which leads to a harmful effect on conveying correct ideas and political ideals to the students”.

In his excellent rebuttal judicial expert professor He Weifang not only points out how these regulations conflict with the Chinese law and the constitution but also analyzes the possible impact on creativity and the academic discourse.


Strong words still won’t make it a “law”

He Weifang
Originally published in Caijing Magazine, May 25th 2010

Let us first have a look at these passages of the constitution and the law:

Constitution of the Peoples Republic of China, Article 35: Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration. Article 47: Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the freedom to engage in scientific research, literary and artistic creation and other cultural pursuits. The state encourages and assists creative endeavors conducive to the interests of the people made by citizens engaged in education, science, technology, literature, art and other cultural work.

Legislation Law of the Peoples Republic of China, Article 8: The following affairs shall only be governed by law: … (5) mandatory measures and penalties involving deprivation of citizens of their political rights or restriction of the freedom of their person.

Higher Education Law of the Peoples Republic of China, Article 10: The state safeguards the freedom of scientific research, literary and artistic creations and other cultural activities in institutions of higher learning according to law. Scientific research, literary and artistic creations and other cultural activities in institutions of higher learning should abide by law.

Education Law of the People’s Republic of China, Article 28: Schools and other institutions of education shall exercise the following rights: … (8) to brook no unlawful interference in their educational and teaching activities by any organization or individual.

The reason why I emphasize these passages form the constitution and the law and cite them individually has to do with the “Regulations concerning the strengthening and improvement of professional ethics in higher education teaching personal in Fujian Province” ((The Chinese word 意见literally means “suggestion”, but since in the political context these “suggestions” tend to have a rather prescriptive character (you can’t really say “Dear higher level authority, thanks for your suggestions but I’ll just do it my way…”) I translated it as regulations. Especially since a series of workshops are held (some examples) on how to properly implement these suggestions.)) which were jointly released by the Work Group for education of the Provincial Party Committee and the regional Department of Education. Some “relevant people in the education circles” in Fujian refuted criticism [directed against these regulations] by stating that “they merely contain specifications of particular passages in the ‘Higher Education Law’ and the ‘Teachers Law’”. The strange thing is that these “relevant people” did not actually say what parts of the law they “specified”. And although every execution of government power [in order to modify existing laws] needs to be explicitly authorized, it was impossible to find out under whose authority the two organs introduced these “regulations”.

Decisively implement the regulations, strongly promote the building of teachers professional ethics!

In this document, which sounds like a law but is not a law, “the dissemination of misguided or erroneous speech against the general and specific policies of the Party, the basic theory of the Party, the law and the constitution of the country during the course of teaching, which leads to a harmful effect on conveying correct ideas and political ideals to the students” is determined as one of the 10 major issues concerning teacher’s professional ethics. It also states that teachers who bring about serious consequences and negative influences [by this kind of behavior] should have their teaching qualification revoked and their employment terminated. Without a doubt these [regulations] pose severe restrictions on the rights granted to teachers by the constitution and the law and a further discussion about its legitimacy is needed.

In regard to the actual implications we have to ask, what exactly does “the dissemination of misguided or erroneous speech against the general and specific policies of the Party, the basic theory of the Party, the law and the constitution of the country during the course of teaching” refer to? If this phrase isn’t further specified, it will inevitably lead to unbearable vagueness and general angst in the process of its practical application. The Chinese constitution states that citizens enjoy freedom of speech, the freedom to engage in scientific research, literary and artistic creation and other cultural pursuits. While this kind of freedom is admittedly restricted by the law it also can only be restricted by the law.

The crucial thing that we have to comprehend about this kind of freedom is that it means we are not confined to existing doctrines, but are able to engage in active discussions about traditional viewpoints, in order to overcome the old and achieve something new in our theoretic discourse. During the Cultural Revolution the specific policy of the Party was “Class struggle is our guiding principle”. According to this [principle] Deng Xiaoping’s policy and path of reform and opening signified a departure from and rebellion against the accepted belief. Just imagine, if the fundamental principle of the “continuous revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat” could not have been overturned, could we ever have achieved the economic progress and an overall relaxation of our society that we see today?

He Weifang teaching
He Weifangs lectures seem to be quite popular...

It is even more baffling and ridiculous that these “regulations” actually confine the law itself to the forbidden area [of discourse] by prohibiting teachers to “disseminate misguided or erroneous speech that is directed against the law and the regulations”. As someone who teaches law I am simply terrified by this. In my classroom I have in the past explicitly told students that our State Compensation Law should actually be called a “State Non-Compensation Law” and that article 306 of the Criminal Law poses a serious threat to lawyers exercising their profession. In 2003 I and some fellow scholars publicly criticized the “Measures for Custody and Repatriation of Vagrants and Beggars” as an abhorrent practice. If you follow the reasoning of the provincial Work Group for Education and the Department of Education I fear my behavior could all be interpreted as the “dissemination of misguided or erroneous speech” and even cost me my job. Just imagine how much a regulation like this can hinder and imperil the spirit of critical thinking!

In our modern society universities should be a hotbed for thought and innovation, a battlefield to cross swords, a place to talk and argue. If the aim is to foster creativity and innovation then you cannot just ban [acts of] expression under the label of “misguided or erroneous speech”. If everyone in the academic discourse stops before each statement to check for possible mistakes and [make sure they adhere to] the correct standards, this can only have the effect of stifling creativity and innovation. Isn’t the reason why the discourse of a new generation is considered innovative exactly because it breaches the boundaries of existing doctrines? You shouldn’t mistakenly think that promoting new ideas is only a privilege of the nation’s leaders. As a matter of fact it is rather teachers who, as a fundamental drive of the academic world, have to undertake this difficult mission. Because, on the basis of studying existing theories, their job is to bring forward new ideas, explanations and proofs. Moreover, the critical questioning of existing theories and doctrines and the exploration of new ideas has to happen in the course of their teaching. This in not only because education should always reflect the latest academic achievements, but also because students have to develop their critical thinking through exploratory work together with their teacher.

During his lifetime Qian Xuesen often sighed at the inability of Chinese Universities to foster talent ((The question that Qian Xuesen repeatedly posed and is also said to have been his last words was: “Why do our schools always fail to nurture outstanding talents?”. Read more about what became known as the “Qian Xuesen Question” here, here and here)) But if we do as those two departments in Fuzhou suggest and force all teachers and their students to crawl at the feet of current theories and doctrines and this kind of education still brings out real talents, that would be no less than a miracle. ((Somehow reminded me of these recent articles…))

The reason why I cited the Legislation Law at the beginning of this article was to question if the two departments actually have the authority to draw up regulations that concern the political rights of citizens. These “regulations”, which were put forward under the banner of strict ethical standards for teachers, impose restrictions on the freedom of speech, a basic political right, and thus override the Constitution. Therefore they clearly violate the Legislation Law as it stipulates that in these cases specific laws need to be introduced. But this also means that only the National People’s Congress or other standing committees can make adjustments to the law. Even regional legislative organs can not be allowed to encroach on this [principle]. Needless to say that this also applies to organs on an even lower level, like a work group for education of the Provincial Party Committee or a Department of Education.

Red guards classroom 101: Criticizing teachers

Finally I also observed that the two departments that drafted these “regulations” even followed due process and issued a “notification concerning the circulation of the ‘regulations’”. They demanded that each school should “establish and improve supervision mechanisms” by “urging students, parents and the public to carry out supervision and evaluation of the professional ethics of teachers in higher education.” Furthermore “every school should offer a hotline for complaints about teacher’s ethics to the public, put up complaint boxes or establish other ways to gather public feedback. ‘Supervision personal for teacher’s professional ethics’ should be invited to prevent and reduce behavior that violates the professional code of conduct for teachers.”

Seeing these kinds of methods – encouraging students to report on their teachers and even inviting so-called “supervision personal for teacher’s professional ethics” – I suddenly think of “concealing” and “hiding”, and I bemoan that these old practices of the Cultural Revolution still don’t cease to exist.


While the personal consequences for Yuan Tengfei have yet to be seen it is known that some of his lectures and public readings were cancelled, videos of his classes have wildly been deleted. Although he wasn’t thrown into prison or sent to reeducation through labor and instead got away with a mild warning by “the relevant departments”, something his opponents praised as a testimony to how open the Chinese society has become (although they didn’t sound entirely happy about that). At the same time there seems to be a chilling breeze in academic circles and an overall tightening. He Weifang makes a very good point by stressing that you shouldn’t lightly give up the freedom already achieved and basically invite a new Cultural Revolution in disguise.

Will China even face its historical burdens and openly discuss all aspects of its past, can these collective taboos be broken? Is open criticism a.k.a. freedom of speech important for creativity, innovation and overall societal development and democratization? Was Yuan Tengfei right when he said: “This country can only produce autocracies. If Chinese haven’t shouted ‘Ten thousand years’ for a while they feel hollow and meaningless and cannot go on.”

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.

How to Prevent More School Collapses

This post has been translated into Chinese for our Chinese site. 请点此看中文译文

Just like in Sichuan two years ago, students in Yushu died, crushed by the classrooms and hallways of their schools. Whether the school collapses were the result of shoddy construction or not is still not clear, but that people suspect corruption led to poorly-built schools is not unfair. Thousands of students died in Sichuan because the pockets of local officials were greased, and school buildings and building materials weren’t properly inspected.

This, of course, is illegal. But how can the central government stop it? Especially in regions like Yushu, which is both remote and impoverished, anti-corruption laws are difficult to enforce. And after the Sichuan quake controversy, local officials everywhere are likely to be worried and defensive, afraid they, too, will be accused of endangering children.

The truth everyone knows is that there are thousands, probably millions, of schools and other buildings out there that aren’t up to code or weren’t inspected properly in the first place. The government can’t magically fix them all, but there is something it could try that would both create jobs and ensure that at least some schools are more safely built in the future.

What I would propose is a two-step process. The first step is a general amnesty for all local officials, inspectors, and building companies. They, of course, know where they cut corners. The government should announce nationwide inspections (something for all those unemployed college graduates to do) will occur, and violators will be harshly punished, but that officials or builders who know they cut corners will be exempt so long as they fix the problem themselves in a way that is adequate to the new inspectors’ liking.

The second step would be nationwide inspections of schools. Of course, some of these inspectors will be bribed, and some of them will probably take the bribes, but with a bit of ideological work beforehand, I’m certain the government will end up with at least a handful of straight inspectors. Schools found to be improperly built should be fixed, and the local builders and/or officials punished accordingly.

The eternal question, of course, is where does the money come from for all of this. Certainly, the government isn’t rolling in riches, but I think they could take money off of some of their more useless projects (CCTV International, anyone?) and funnel it into school inspection and rebuilding to better effect. Frankly, for all their talk of soft power, a genuine push to modernize school buildings and cut down on corruption that hurts children would probably gain them as much, if not more, international goodwill than an infinite number of CCTV channels.

What do you think, though? I am exhausted and have been applying for jobs all day, so I’m ready to admit that there may be a gaping hole in this proposal somewhere, or many gaping holes. So how can the government affect real change in eliminating the “tofu-dreg buildings” that many students must attend classes in?

New on ChinaGeeks

Hiatus Over, Thoughts on New Oriental

I have returned from China, freshly jet-lagged and also — congratulations, stalkers, here’s your newest piece of personal information to twist — engaged. Yes!

Anyway, there will be more substantive posts later, obviously, but as I shake off the throes of jet lag and prepare to plunge into what promises to be a much busier spring work schedule (fair warning — I probably won’t be able to update as much), I wanted to link to this piece on Jenny Zhu’s blog because I find it pretty fascinating. Talking about the massive training school New Oriental [新东方], she writes,

Speaking of jokes, New Oriental is famous for its team of ‘edutainers’ who have mastered the art of engaging students. It is even said that the school partly evaluates teachers on the number of times they make students laugh during a class. Funny as it was, what really resonated with me is the teacher’s point of the lasting effect of GMAT prep, or in his words ‘America’s silent revolution in China’. He said that to do well in GMAT, Chinese students need to reverse their ways of thinking, namely to learn to think critically. To question, to reason and to separate facts from opinions are counter-intuitive for a Chinese student. But when they are exposed to these skills as young adults, there is no going back. According to the teacher, during his 10 years at New Oriental, only 10% of students end up going to business schools in the U.S. But regardless of the path they choose, the way they see the world is changed. They are not easily fooled anymore. That’s America’s silent revolution in China.

I find this interesting because it very much flies in the face of what I heard from a close friend who was employed as a New Oriental teacher for a brief time last year before quitting out of frustration. I can’t quote her directly as I have discovered recently that some readers of this site are attempting to use details from it to sabotage my personal life (incompetently!) and I don’t want to bring any friends into that; suffice it to say that the picture of New Oriental she painted was not one of free-wheeling “edu-tainers” engaged in teaching critical thinking skills. I’m curious, then, as to whether anyone else here has experience with New Oriental as a teacher or a student, and if so, what their experiences were.

(Apologies for the short and informal post. More coming soon, but there are some things I need to take care of and a lot of news I need to catch up on before I can dig into something more juicy than this…)

Will Americans Learn Chinese?

As an American who speaks Chinese and a high school Chinese teacher, it was with some interest that I read the NYT’s most recent Room For Debate blog entry. With the caveat that, if my experience when I was asked to write something for RfD was any indication, the editors are looking from specific things from the people who write their perspectives, lets jump in.

A high school Chinese class in Minnesota
First is Susan Jacoby, who, to be frank, did not acquit herself well. She starts:

The disproportionate media attention devoted to a mini-blip increase in Chinese classes in U.S. schools only underlines the parochialism and mediocre education standards that undercut America’s attempts not only to compete in the global economy but to lay claim to any cultural sophistication beyond the world of video.

Between 1997 and 2008, according to a survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics, the proportion of elementary and high schools offering some sort of instruction in Chinese rose from 1 to 4 percent. This is a meaningless statistic. Many of the schools rely on a Chinese government program that subsidizes salaries for teacher-ambassadors it sends to the lowly, economically deprived U.S.

Indeed, but the reason many schools rely on Hanban is that there aren’t enough qualified teachers in this country, not that there isn’t enough interest. Many schools without Chinese programs are looking to start them, and schools that have them are looking to expand them, but teachers are few and far between (hence the reason why I, with no formal Mandarin Education training or certification, could still get a job at an expensive private preparatory school). The relatively small jump from 1% to 4% is much more a measure of teacher supply than it is one of student demand. A more indicative measure of student demand might be found by looking at student enrollment in college Chinese classes, as most colleges can attract additional teachers more easily than high schools or middle schools. At my college, enrollment in the Chinese program more than doubled just in the four years that I was there.

Then Jacoby writes,

The fad for Chinese will pass — born, like the promotion of Russian studies during the cold war, out of the idea that we must know the language of our chief competitor.

The interest in Chinese runs a bit deeper than that, I think. China is not just our chief competitor, they are also an important economic partner in a way that the USSR certainly never was. Many of the students studying Chinese today have chosen the language because “it will be good for business”, not because China is “our chief competitor”.

The fad won’t fade because Chinese will be good for business. The instability of the CCP’s grip on power (if you think that exists) notwithstanding, no one thinks the PRC is going to retreat into real Communism again, and the world’s largest population (with its fastest-growing middle class) speaks the world’s most spoken language: Mandarin. Unlike the Russian fad, Chinese language education isn’t going anywhere. Enrollment is growing and will continue to, although it can only grow as fast as schools can find qualified teachers to hire.

Chinese Language Students at IUP

Jacoby continues,

Only 9 percent of Americans, compared with 44 percent of Europeans, speak a foreign language. The Web has only reinforced the smug American conviction that everyone worth talking to in the world speaks English.

But as Norman Matloff notes later in the story, that’s an unfair comparison, because Europeans, by definition, live in close proximity to places that speak other languages (how many Europeans, I wonder, speak non-European languages?). They share a common currency, so speaking multiple languages has obvious economic benefits. Until recently, Americans had little economic benefit to be gained from speaking any foreign language (that was the public perception, anyway), thus, most people didn’t really bother. But with the ties between the American and Chinese economies, not to mention the increasing number of Americans headed to China for business reasons each year, Chinese is becoming an economically beneficial language to speak. So says the current conventional wisdom, anyway. (I haven’t actually found it to be true, but I hear “Oh, you can speak Chinese? Boy, you must have an easy time finding jobs!” nearly every time I meet someone new.)

To be fair, the general point Jacoby is trying to make — and it’s one that several other debaters make, too — is valid. American schools place too little emphasis on foreign language, and they do it too late. Very few middle schools have Chinese programs (again, there is a lack of qualified teachers) and almost no primary schools have them.

foreigners learning Chinese at the Shaolin temple
Frankly, though, the biggest obstacle facing the growth of Chinese in US schools is the widespread misperception that the language is somehow impossible to study. In fact, I’d venture to guess that if you asked a bunch of Americans what they know about Chinese, they would tell you that it was very hard, but couldn’t say much more. People are generally shocked when I tell them that Chinese has no verb conjugation, and that its grammar is comparatively simple. More widespread understanding of how Chinese works would do a lot to take away the “mysteriously difficult oriental language!” mystique and, consequently, increase enrollment and reduce dropout rates. After all, if everyone is telling them a language is impossible, it sets children up with a good excuse to fail.

And in a country where children are coddled and their every deficiency is blamed on something external (by themselves, their parents, their doctors, even their teachers), another excuse is not what they need.

Your thoughts?

Also: My translation of Han Han’s recent post on the 50 cents party is now up at ChinaSMACK.

Education, Critical Thinking, and Creativity

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that Chinese citizens have “have the duty as well as the right to receive education [and that they] have the freedom to engage in scientific research, literary and artistic creation and other cultural pursuits.” Yet anyone who has set foot in a Chinese classroom — or any classroom, for that matter — knows that “education” can take many forms. Are Chinese people being taught to think critically, and creatively?

Chinese Secondary Schools

In educational circles, Chinese pedagogy is notorious for being outdated, but it’s hard to blame the government for not having found an apt replacement for the rote memorization that dominates Chinese primary and secondary schools. Furthermore, to say that all Chinese education entails rote memorization would be woefully inaccurate. China’s best high schools, for example, equal or even outclass America’s best public and private high schools.

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit an elite Chinese high school with a delegation of faculty and students from an American boarding school. Wuxi’s Shibei High School (website currently down) boasts educational facilities that take the breath away: rooms full of models that demonstrate physics concepts, working reproductions of historical artifacts, a veritable zoo of animal models, even an on-site earthquake measuring tool. One of my fellow travelers, an administrator at an expensive American private school, gasped when he walked into the first room of physics models. “We have nothing like this,” he said.

Shibei High School in Wuxi, China
Clearly, Shibei teachers understand the value of hands-on education and varied teaching methods, and their school’s elite status allows them access to the funding needed to build such top end facilities. But even here, the great weight China’s population places on its educational system is evident. Class sizes remain large — about fifty students to a class on average — and teachers are not free to write curricula as they see fit. Their students, like all Chinese high schoolers, must prepare for the Gaokao, China’s high-stakes college entrance examination. So, while Shibei students also have access to a full suite of artistic and creative classes, their days are mostly filled with academics. There are few discussions, and few opportunities for creative expression or critical analysis. In informal conversations with some of the teachers, it became clear to me that they understood the effect these limitations had on their students, but practical alternatives to the current system seem few and far between.

And, of course, schools with facilities and pedagogy as developed as Shibei’s are the exception, not the rule.

The American Education System

In the interest of comparison — and because there was no way to take myself out of this particular piece, anyway — I spoke with my father, who has been a secondary school educator in America for over twenty-five years, has worked for the College Board (the company that runs the SATs and other standardized secondary school tests), graded AP tests, and worked as a college counselor. Responding to my questions about how the US system teaches critical thinking, he said,

I think impediments to that sort of education keep cropping up. High-stakes testing, for example, forces teachers to teach to the test. If the test can somehow accurately measure critical thinking, etc, that is fine, but I do not have a sense that that is the case. AP courses and AP exams – at least in US History – certainly still put a premium on critical thinking, or try to, so it is possible to design tests (and therefore the curriculum that leads to them) in that way, but it is also very expensive. Other impediments include budget cuts, which put more and more students in a single teacher’s classroom, making it harder to assign and correct analytic essays, etc., and union contracts, which make it harder for school districts to reward creative teachers who stimulate critical thinking and to eliminate others who don’t.

The effort is certainly there; my sense is that the success rate varies a great deal.

Indeed, American schools have a long way to go before they can claim to be teaching critical thinking successfully, but they do seem to be ahead of their Chinese counterparts, even if both are far from perfection. What’s more, the American college application process requires applicants to be well-rounded individuals. Successful applicants to the most prestigious universities must demonstrate not only good test scores, but also creative thinking, productive interests and hobbies, athletic merit, etc. The Chinese system, in contrast, asks only for a single set of student test scores.

Chinese Higher Education

Having myself attended a college that, to overstate slightly, worshipped at the altar of the twin gods creativity and critical thinking, I was curious as to what extent Chinese higher education, where students and teachers are relatively unburdened by the threat of high-stakes testing, effectively taught critical thinking. To get some answers, I spoke to Alec Ash, who has been writing about young Chinese and China’s higher education system through his blog Six: young Chinese in new China, which follows the exploits of six Chinese young adults. Having studied at both Peking University and Tsinghua University, he explains his impression of the difference between China’s elite universities and its second and third tier schools:

I have friends in lower tier universities, all of whom have complained at one time of another of a restrictive and rote learnt education. One didn’t like it so much that he dropped out after three years of studying Food Sciences. He told me: “I don’t like education in school. It’s not free [自由, that is – intellectual freedom – not 免费, as in no charge]. You must learn political communism, the ideas of CCP, and must do what your teacher tells you. You can’t do what you want to do…I want to live my life, not another life.” From this and other conversations, I’d venture that at lower tier colleges, far too little emphasis is placed on critical thinking of the ‘think for yourself’ kind (this, of course, is very different from saying that none of the students there think for themself). Students at such colleges, I find, worship the very mention of a 名牌 (‘brand name’) school like Beida or Qinghua, taking for granted that it must be a world apart over there.

But is it? Well, I’ve certainly come across more cut-yourself razor-sharp critical thinkers during my two years at Beida and Qinghai than I can count – all of whom I’d happily compare to students at Oxford, a university which looks down on rote learning with the kind of disdain which sometimes only the English can summon up. They must be doing something right, even if it’s simpy attracting the one in ten thousand students who truly are the cream of the crop (that figure, by the way, isn’t pulled out of a hat – it’s an estimate based on how many students score high enough in their gaokao to get into Beida). But, I hear the same kind of complaints from Beida students as I described above: the learning is too rote; subjects are covered too broadly, without deep analysis; lectures are too ‘power point’. I heard that last phrase all the time. So I’d say there’s a strong feeling that Beida and Qinghua are great schools, but no exceptions to a flawed education system (and that’s without even touching the goliath issues of admissions and access equality). Or, if you will, it’s a difference of degree but not of kind.

Ash also related a friend’s experience with American elite higher education as a point of comparison:

A friend who studies international relations at Beida took a summer school course in Yale last summer. From America, he wrote me an email which I’ll bore you all by quoting at length. The courses there, he says, are “quite different from the lectures in PKU, which involve more people and less discussion. In Yale, we have more opportunities to raise questions and debate … Students step into a specific field of study through reading the first-hand publications instead of learning from powerpoints prepared by their teacher. In PKU, too many courses are squeezed into one semester (7-8 for me, maybe more for students from other schools) so that students prefer to memorize the main points during final weeks rather than read the original writings. And many Chinese students have lost their interest in discovering. They want to know “what it is” or “what it should be” more than “why was that”. I guess the education system is responsible for this. Yet there are many factors standing behind it, including a large population, a planned social framework and a big government, almost equal to the size of the society. I understand that it’s easier to blame this system than to revise it.”

On whether or not these schools foster creativity, Ash said,

Creativity I think is mostly up to a student to find themselves. And I saw plenty of it at Beida: empassioned environmental activism groups; skepticism of anything which looks too much like propaganda; witty xiangsheng performances […] There’s undoubtedly a lot of it at Tsinghua, too, even if it’s hard to see it past the buzz-cut-head-down engineering feel of the campus. I’ll pass on regular schools, but I’m guessing: ditto.

This said, in an elite school – indeed, any school – the pressure is very intense if you want to get ahead. We’re talking ten hours of study a day, all with a competitive job market at the end of the road which will look at your score, a number on a page, first and last. That’s not an environment which engenders creativity.

The Effects of Censorship

Another question worth pondering is to what degree censorship (both government-mandated and self-censorship) affects the academic and cultural discourse that’s happening in China. Popular Chinese writer, blogger, and race car driver Han Han had this to say in a recent speech:

We have too many restrictions. This is a restricted country. How can a restricted country produce a rich and abundant culture? I am a comrade who has very few restrictions. But when I write, I cannot help but think: I can’t write about the police, I can’t write about the leaders, I can’t write about government policies, I can’t write about the system, I can’t write about the judiciary, I can’t write about many pieces of history, I cannot write about Tibet, I cannot write about Xinjiang, I cannot write about mass assemblies, I cannot write about demonstration marches, I cannot write about pornography, I cannot write about censorship, I cannot write about art … I am unable to write anything elegant.

Ash agrees that censorship can have an adverse effect on academics:

[…] in an unfree academic environment, teachers are always going to be guarded, self-censorship will always lurk, and there will always be panderers to the Party line. So if Chinese officials are wondering how to push Beida and Qinghua up into the top ten of global university rankings* (Beida was number 50 in the Times, Tsinghua 56), academic freedom wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Rightly, Ash also cautions against misunderstanding the degree to which academic discourse is censored in China. “You can openly discuss most topics in class, from Taiwan to Tibet,” he writes, although some topics (Tiananmen 1989, for one) remain taboo.

Does Critical Thinking Matter? Does Creativity Matter?

Of course, the seeming superiority of American schools when it comes to educating creative thinkers may have its downside. American students routinely lag behind their peers internationally in math and science assessments, and overall, they tend to spend less time in class than Chinese students, too. So is fostering creativity and teaching creative thinking worth the trade off (if there really is a trade-off, which is debatable)? Is it worth teaching these more “abstract” skills rather more practical ones? My father thinks so:

I think teaching students to think critically and creatively is one of the primary goals of good teachers everywhere. I also think in these changing times it is even more important than ever. I am not among those who see education exclusively as “training” for what comes next, but in an environment where “what comes next” is almost impossible to predict, what training would be better than training to think critically and creatively, to communicate well and to solve problems?

What, then, will become of China, whose students don’t seem to be being well trained in critical thinking? Will it breed a generation of leaders who aren’t capable of thinking things through? Alec Ash doesn’t think so:

I’m not going to fall into the trap of despairing for China’s future because I don’t think its top universities foster independent thinking enough. Whoever will be deciding China’s future in thirty years will have had the time, regardless of the education they’re receiving now, to think for themselves what they consider best for their country (or, at least, for themselves. What’s more, I’ll bet that many of the next generation of leaders will have studied at top universities abroad, as well as at home. It didn’t seem to hurt Deng Xiaoping, or hinder what he did for China.

Ash makes a valid point. After all, Chinese schools have never been particularly focused on critical thinking, yet China has churned out its fair share of leaders, both competent and incompetent, just as all nations have. The cynic in me wonders, though, whether it isn’t somewhat deliberate. Critical thinking involves constant questioning, something that those designing the education system in China have no real interest in encouraging the Chinese population to do. At the very least, they want to control which questions are being asked, which seems a clear obstacle to implementing curricula that teach real critical thinking skills.

Han Han at Xiamen University
So critical thinking cannot be taught while there remain taboo subjects — subjects that cannot be questioned. But that doesn’t mean that critical thinking cannot occur in such an environment. Indeed, if what we read on the internet from Chinese netizens and bloggers is a fair representation, critical thinking is alive and well in China despite the fact that it isn’t properly taught in schools (and despite the fact that students still have to slog through thousands of hours of political ideology classes, according to Ash). As Han Han told his audience at Xiamen University:

I think that many of you present today are not silent — it is just that we are being harmonized.

Indeed. Let us know what you think about education and the importance of critical thinking in the comments.

I wish to thank Alec Ash and my father for their contributions to this article. -ed.