The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY DAVID DAW­SON

China's in­tense ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem keeps chil­dren stressed about stud­ies even dur­ing hol­i­days, but what hap­pens when that pres­sure over­flows? Mid­dle-class par­ents are not only in­creas­ingly tak­ing on their chil­dren's work­loads, but match­ing the com­pet­i­tive na­ture of the class­room with their own parental ri­val­ries—a race in which there are few win­ners

Af­ter a teacher asked vol­un­teers to bring a shrub to class, Ms. Chu gave her son a pot­ted snake plant she al­ready owned. “It was one that he could eas­ily carry to school. A week later, I asked about his plant and he com­plained, ‘mine is the small­est in the class.’ Ev­ery stu­dent had brought a plant; I think the par­ents had gone out and bought them.”

The teacher’s re­quest, it emerged, had trig­gered a com­pet­i­tive in­stinct among Chu’s fel­low par­ents, who vied to outdo each other in size. Some were so large, “the par­ents had to drive the plants to school. The big­gest was over a me­ter tall…the class­room looked like a for­est.” Within a week, the snake plant was wilt­ing. Over-wa­tered, and over­shad­owed by its larger neigh­bors, “it died.”

The anec­dote of­fers an apt metaphor for how in­tense com­pe­ti­tion can crush the spirit of chil­dren. But the more lit­eral take­away might be how China’s ed­u­ca­tion en­vi­ron­ment locks the par­ents in a sim­i­lar de­struc­tive cy­cle with one an­other, fu­eled by their own anx­i­ety, as well as their chil­dren’s.

The stress peaks dur­ing sum­mer va­ca­tion, when stu­dents are ex­pected to en­gage in a litany of ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties that of­ten re­quire parental over­sight.

This year, Chu’s son has been as­signed al­most 20 tasks. “There was one ac­tiv­ity re­gard­ing fire safety,” she re­called. “We needed to log onto a web­site and com­plete a test. My son couldn’t do it. It was far too dif­fi­cult.


I tried and only got 70 per­cent…this wasn’t my area of study, but I had to learn it as well.”

Stu­dents who com­plete the ac­tiv­i­ties are praised, at the ex­pense of oth­ers in class who do not. The is­sue came up in­di­rectly dur­ing par­ent-teacher in­ter­ac­tions. “They made it feel like I wasn’t his real mother, if I ‘cared’ so lit­tle about his ed­u­ca­tion,” Chu said.

In a 2015 Pew Global At­ti­tudes Project, China was the only coun­try in which most peo­ple thought par­ents put too much pres­sure on stu­dents—68 per­cent, in con­trast to 64 per­cent of US par­ents who felt there was too lit­tle pres­sure. A 2010 study by Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don at­tributes the prob­lem di­rectly to China’s grow­ing mid­dle class and com­pet­i­tive job mar­ket: “The as­pi­ra­tions of many par­ents, who had lim­ited ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties them­selves, are now in­vested in their only chil­dren,” the study con­cluded. In fact, as a re­sult of the one-child pol­icy en­acted be­tween 1980 and 2015, only chil­dren also of­ten carry the as­pi­ra­tion and over-at­ten­tion of four grand­par­ents as well.

Ed­u­ca­tion has been an im­por­tant cul­tural value in China for at least two mil­len­nia: As the Three-char­ac­ter Clas­sics《三字经》( ), a 13th-cen­tury dis­til­la­tion of Con­fu­cian wis­dom, states, “A child should be ed­u­cated, not just raised, or else the par­ents are at fault.” The Ex­tended Wor­thy Apho­rism《增广贤文》( ), a Ming dy­nasty (1368 – 1644) primer of Daoist ed­u­ca­tion views, states, “A child’s ed­u­ca­tion must start in the womb.”

In the mid-tang dy­nasty (618 - 907), the im­pe­rial civilser­vice ex­am­i­na­tion be­came stan­dard­ized, and ed­u­ca­tion had an im­me­di­ate, real im­pact on a fam­ily’s for­tunes: As the only path to be­com­ing a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, pass­ing the exam was a gateway to up­ward mo­bil­ity. To­day, the big exam is the gaokao, or Na­tional Col­lege En­trance Ex­am­i­na­tion, a make-or-break, three-day gaunt­let for high school se­niors that de­ter­mines which univer­sity they can at­tend. A good univer­sity, in the eyes of many par­ents, gives an edge in their off­spring’s fu­ture ca­reer, po­ten­tially mak­ing up for the par­ents’ own short­com­ings in ed­u­ca­tion, con­nec­tions, or fi­nan­cial re­sources.

Many par­ents be­lieve that the best gaokao re­sult, how­ever, is con­tin­gent on a selec­tive high school, which in turn de­pends on at­tend­ing a com­pet­i­tive mid­dle school—to­day, the na­tion’s top preschools have wait­ing lists and ad­mis­sions in­ter­views. The high stakes push par­ents to send their only child to cram classes out­side of reg­u­lar school hours— and in­creas­ingly, a litany of ex­tracur­ric­u­lar projects and ac­tiv­i­ties that prom­ise to cul­ti­vate well-rounded ge­niuses with each dance recital and ex­tra English class, be­sides sig­nal­ing an en­light­ened, mid­dle-class ap­proach to par­ent­ing.

The pres­sure-cooker en­vi­ron­ment caused by the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem echoes through all age groups: a 2010 pa­per in the Bri­tish Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion’s Archives of Dis­ease in Child­hood found that chil­dren in Zhe­jiang as


young as 6 were suf­fer­ing from se­vere anx­i­ety at school; 80 per­cent of 9-to-12-year-olds sur­veyed by the re­searchers “wor­ried a lot” about ex­ams, and one-third ex­hib­ited phys­i­cal symp­toms as­so­ci­ated with stress, such as headaches and stom­ach pain.

While gov­ern­ment spend­ing on ed­u­ca­tion has in­creased steadily by about 19 per­cent each year, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 Xin­hua re­port, house­hold spend­ing on ed­u­ca­tion has bal­looned. Mar­ket Re­search groups ICEF Mon­i­tor and the Mckin­sey Global In­sti­tute (MGI) in­di­cate that the in­crease will soon af­fect the global econ­omy. “Be­tween 2015 and 2030, China is ex­pected to spend 12.5 per­cent of over­all con­sump­tion growth on ed­u­ca­tion for those un­der 30—a higher share than in any other coun­try in our sam­ple, save Swe­den, the coun­try with the largest share at 12.6 per­cent,” ICEF stated, cit­ing the MGI. “On av­er­age, ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing makes up nearly half of the per capita con­sump­tion of a 20-year-old in China, as op­posed to less than 25 per­cent in the US.”

It’s not just univer­sity stu­dents. The pres­sure to per­form starts young in China, and ac­cel­er­ates re­gard­less of cir­cum­stances. Im­proved per­for­mance only raises ex­pec­ta­tions.

Sara Zeng, a teacher at an English train­ing in­sti­tute for chil­dren, cited one “typ­i­cal par­ent” of a 6-and-a-half-yearold boy. “His English is ex­cep­tion­ally good for his age,” she said. “He never speaks to us in Chi­nese and he can read lengthy sto­ry­books. But when his mother saw an­other child pass the Cam­bridge KET exam at age 7, she be­came very anx­ious and asked us to give him more classes.”

It’s of­ten worse for those who strug­gle. One for­eign preschool teacher in Bei­jing, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied, said that par­ents who sit in on their kids’ classes get up­set if their child is not among those reg­u­larly rais­ing their hand to an­swer ques­tions; in one ex­treme case, a mother pinched a child to force them to an­swer. “Of­ten I see this when a child has an ob­vi­ous learn­ing dif­fi­culty which could ben­e­fit from pro­fes­sional help,” the teacher told TWOC. “But when­ever I speak to par­ents about this, they dis­miss what I am say­ing and point out, in­cor­rectly, that other chil­dren don’t need help, so it’s nor­mal.

“Par­ents might know that their child needs help but they won’t take this ex­tra step,” she added. “When pressed, they change the sub­ject. I can see that they are strug­gling, worn out, and stressed. It’s a hard sit­u­a­tion be­cause there isn’t much in­for­ma­tion or as­sis­tance.” Then there is com­pe­ti­tion be­tween par­ents. Chu, a work­ing mother, ob­served that any fight that pit­ted work­ing moth­ers against stay-at-home moms could have no win­ner—the ex­tra time and at­ten­tion that house­wives lav­ish on their chil­dren may only serve to make them more likely to see a child’s aca­demic suc­cess as re­flect­ing their own worth. “There is so much com­pe­ti­tion,” she sighed. “I try to do my best but I can only fin­ish about two-thirds of

my son’s sum­mer ac­tiv­i­ties each year, yet there are al­ways fam­i­lies who can fin­ish them all.”

Like many work­ing par­ents in China, Chu is helped by her par­ents, who take her son to ac­tiv­i­ties while she is at work. Fam­ily plan­ning pol­icy has meant many chil­dren may be the sole fo­cus of two sets of grand­par­ents. This can be a re­source, but one that not ev­ery child has ac­cess to.

The off­spring of mi­grant work­ers— par­ents who have moved from ru­ral ar­eas to find work—al­ready face a num­ber of dis­ad­van­tages be­cause they only have ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion re­sources where their hukou (house­hold reg­is­tra­tion) is reg­is­tered. They face added ob­sta­cles reg­is­ter­ing their chil­dren in ur­ban schools, and are less likely to have grand­par­ents around to help out, lead­ing many work­ers to in­stead leave their chil­dren for the grand­par­ents to raise in the coun­try­side.

In this com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment, com­pa­nies that of­fer ex­tra ed­u­ca­tion out­side of school have be­come be­he­moths, in­flu­enc­ing the sys­tem it­self and fur­ther in­ten­si­fy­ing com­pe­ti­tion in money, emo­tional in­vest­ment, and time.

Ed­u­ca­tion gi­ant TAL, listed on the New York Stock Ex­change, runs a menagerie of fa­cil­i­ties in China in­clud­ing Xue’ersi Ex­cel­lence Ed­u­ca­tion, which of­fers math­e­mat­ics, English, and Chi­nese evening classes for most ages, and re­lies on com­pet­i­tive par­ent­ing as a mar­ket­ing strat­egy.

Xue’ersi’s en­trance ex­am­i­na­tions are de­lib­er­ately lim­ited by “hunger mar­ket­ing,” a tech­nique typ­i­cally used by tech com­pa­nies such as Ap­ple and Nin­tendo, where sup­ply is kept ar­ti­fi­cially low to stim­u­late de­mand: Par­ents who were too slow to sign their chil­dren up for the test miss out, with no sec­ond chances. Ac­cord­ing to a Xin­hua re­port in May, some pres­ti­gious mid­dle schools in Guangzhou were qui­etly us­ing Xue’ersi’s com­pe­ti­tion re­sults for their ad­mis­sions process.

Strik­ingly, Xue’ersi el­e­vates parental in­volve­ment by per­mit­ting them to at­tend classes. Al­though vol­un­tary, the op­tion is openly en­cour­aged by the com­pany, which says that parental par­tic­i­pa­tion can help stu­dents re­view the com­plex ma­te­rial that Xue’ersi prom­ises to teach at faster speeds than the typ­i­cal school. On its web­site, the com­pany cites a third-party sur­vey claim­ing that 83.3 per­cent of clients ap­prove of parental at­ten­dance, with only 13.3 per­cent op­posed and 3.3 per­cent neu­tral.

“Par­ents who at­tend Xue’ersi


classes can learn more about the course and un­der­stand their chil­dren bet­ter,” the site claims. “This way, the par­ents will not sim­ply blame the child for not study­ing hard enough if they fail to un­der­stand cer­tain points dur­ing class.”

As a main­stream com­pany, Xue’ersi is a rel­a­tively safe op­tion; there are plenty of du­bi­ous com­pa­nies of­fer­ing to mirac­u­lous re­sults for a steep price. In 2012, one com­pany was ex­posed af­ter charg­ing par­ents 100,000 RMB to teach chil­dren to “read books in 20 sec­onds,” and per­form sketchy card tricks. The Guardian cited one an­gry father who said his daugh­ter be­lieved she could read poker cards by touch. An­other par­ent com­plained, “I found that my child learned noth­ing ex­cept how to cheat.”

With all the in­tense fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion, it’s no won­der par­ents are get­ting tired of it. Chu, af­ter fail­ing to get a spot for her son at Xue’ersi, in­stead sent him to foot­ball camp.

“He likes foot­ball. This, at least, is some­thing I can do for him that he will en­joy.”

Par­ents queue with chil­dren out­side a pri­vate school in Hangzhou in May, what may be their last op­por­tu­nity to at­tend a good school

Par­ents look for their child's name on the list of el­i­gi­ble en­trance ex­am­i­nees to a pres­ti­gious Nan­jing mid­dle school, de­ter­mined by lot­terys

Ramshackle spa­ces of­fer af­ford­able rents for lo­cal busi­ness, like this key- cut­ting and shoe-re­pair work­shop Im­pro­vised store­fronts are in­creas­ingly seen as an ur­ban blight by city plan­ners Dur­ing a blaz­ing hot July day, par­ents line up for class...

A grand­fa­ther packs up one of his grand­child's seven af­ter-school en­rich­ment text­books

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