Navigating the System: A Deeper Look into Chinese Education

How does a student in the Chinese education system navigate moving towards higher education?

这个研究的话题是中国教育和美国教育的区别。因为我们在一个中国学校上了一年学,我们看见很多教育的不同,所以我们对这个话题很感兴趣。我们有四个重点:教育的历史、学习习惯、性别差别和报考大学的过程。在美国人眼中,中国学生特别努力,但是他们不知道为什么中国人这么重视教育。我们就这个问题采访了一些老师和高中生。他们觉得这是因为如果你要找到好工作,你得接受教育。在我们的博客上,你可以听我们的播客 , 看我们的视频,读我们的博客,这样你就可以了解我们组的话题。


Part 1: History of Education in China — Jessica

Why do Chinese students study so hard? When we interviewed a professor she said “It’s not just one person who decided it, but cultural roots run very deep.” It’s in Chinese culture to study and work hard. This is because of events that have happened in Chinese history.

In Chinese History, dating back to the Han dynasty around 200 BCE, people, in particular men, would acquire a formal education in order to pass the civil service exam. The Imperial education and examination process allowed for a meritocratic means of training and choosing civil servants. Professor Zhang at Beijing Normal University explained, “Back then, reading books and studying was necessary because the government would only let those people become officials. This created a connection between power and education.”

Image on Left: Famous Cultural Revolution Propaganda photo of children standing on wheat. Image on Right: Photo of a field of wheat growing at the Institute of Crop Science Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Haidian, Beijing

The reason why Chinese people value education is because they really value doing things well. A cram school teacher said, “Do you know Chinese History? In Chinese history, they all heavily emphasized Science and Education, but also to do it well.” He was referring to the Great Leap forward; science was greatly valued to increase crop yield, and was taught to all the farmers and peasants. The teacher continued to explain how that mentality has moved to every field, “Military, culture, industry, they all want to do it well, and to do that you need education.”

We still see traces of what happened many years ago in today’s classrooms. Though the civil service exams were abolished in 1905, in 1952 the Gaokao was introduced. Gaokao test scores are used a method of admitting students into colleges, similar to the civil service exam which was used to choose officials.

Education in China hasn’t evolved much compared to schools in the West. But, even though the government invests money into developing their education system, traditions are still very strong. For example, in rural areas, many students still go to monasteries to study, and classrooms are still using traditional teaching methods. In classrooms, Chinese students sit in rows and listen to a teacher lecture from the front of a classroom. Professor Zhang said, “This is due in part to two cultural differences between the U.S. and China and their way of seeing things. In China, we give the students a lot of work, and teach them specific things. This is different from other countries where students are encouraged to think of their own ideas.”

Though the strong attachment to tradition has become an obstacle to the development of education, it has also contributed to the amazing worth ethic of students in China.

Part 2: Studying and Stress — Katie

A strong culture of academic achievement has famously existed in China. This idea is rooted around one exam: the Gaokao. A test that determines where Chinese students go to college, and ultimately, their futures. But how do the Chinese students cope with the pressure behind this one exam? What sort of effect does this exam have on the minds of the students? And most importantly, in the long term, what kind of toll will this process take on the Chinese education system?

After talking with many different educators, students, and education experts, I’ve come to a conclusion: Chinese students are a product of their individual environments. When talking to a college graduate about her experiences she said “I liked high school, it was fun. But I don’t like reading books, I don’t like studying,” she, unlike many others, didn’t find the pressures of school to be so overwhelming. A recent study done by The Education Review, found Chinese students test scores were some of the highest on the international level. This doesn’t come unwarranted. According to the Chinese Center of Disease and Control, suicide is the top cause of death among Chinese youth, with stress over school being a major factor. Fang Yuwen, a young working teacher said, “But I did have one classmate, she killed herself. It could have been because she thought the pressures too much. This was in high school.” This is not uncommon in China. There is a current stigma around Chinese education that the pressures on the students are too much to endure; that the system exerts certain kinds of radical pressure. Fang Yuwen, had a different opinion. She thought that the pressures put on students fall on the shoulders of the people: the parents, the teachers, and the administration. This is partially due to that the older generations usually don’t have more than one child per family. This leaves all the pressures of familial success to fall on that one child, which then leads to extreme pressures of high performance in school and subsequent life success.

A lot of these pressures can be attributed to the preparation of the Gaokao, the universal college entrance examination used throughout China. A test Chinese students spend all their schooling years preparing for, the Gaokao is seen as a one-way ticket to success among the youth of China. One education specialist at Beishida University described, Gaosan, the year Chinese students take the Gaokao as, the “game of the brave.” The preparation for this exam is ruthless. Cram school, or 补习班,is not uncommon among the Chinese students preparing for the Gaokao. While some find it necessary, others don’t. Fang Yuwen found the entire process to be a waste. “I don’t think cram school is important. I think it’s the teacher’s job. If the teacher is bad, this is bad,” Fang Yuwen believes the basis of the students education should take place in the classroom.

Throughout China parents push their children into cram school, while others simply attend regular schooling. Every child is educated differently, and while the toll on students stress levels and health might not rest on one individual aspect of the education system, I’ve found that certain aspects of the system do support an unhealthy environment. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese students are all different and, at times, can just be products of their individual environments.

High School Students studying for the Gaokao (National Higher Education Entrance Exam)

Part 3: Boys vs. Girls — Chase

In China, there has always been a gender bias in education. In Imperial China, the level of education a child would receive was completely based on gender. For a lot of families, it was socially acceptable to invest their attention and resources only on sons rather than daughters. This became the still prevalent preference for boys. However, both Mao Zedong’s Cultural revolution in the 1960’s and the rise of China’s market economy in the 1980s, would encourage more involvement of women in society. Despite many accomplishments in the movement for women’s equality in society, gender inequality still exists. Now, you might ask, “Why does China still continue to have this problem?” The answer is simple: “balance.” The one-child policy, along with the strong preference for male children has caused a large gender imbalance — with about 118 boys per 100 girls. This has led to problems within society: becoming more male-centric, and influencing education women receive.

The situation of gender inequality varies depending where the person was brought up. In rural areas, the education of a child is decided at the moment of birth. Many poor families will prioritize their sons’ education over their daughters because daughters traditionally give up their family name after marriage. In sharp contrast, boys and girls who are from well-off socio-economic statuses, have equal access to schools and are surrounded by a plethora of resources. Although girls have to freedom to study whatever academic path they want, they are still influenced by their teachers, students, and peers. The classes are are split into two academic paths: math/science and liberal arts. Even though girls are given a choice, the ratio of boys to girls in these academic tracks are unequal. After talking with two Gaosan students, I discovered that there is a large number of female students and a small number of male students going into the liberal arts classes vs. math/science classes. This could be due to female students believing that they’re “more suited” for courses that aren’t too logical. However, some students at the school believe that the math/science track is becoming more gender balanced in recent years.

On left: Albert, a Gaosan student in the math/science track. On Right: Pauline, a Gaosan student in the liberal arts track.

Although the application process to college which uses a student’s gaokao score, has become much more fair, this method of admitting students has led to the rise of a highly competitive academic environment — as both male and female students girls in high school battle for the highest gaokao score and spot in one of the top colleges. Along side of this, some college have set-up quotas for women in certain universities and certain majors.

While China has not yet reached a completely gender-inclusive environment, the steps that have been made in recent decades show the potential that China has towards achieving this goal.

Part 4: Applying — Dino

So how does this culture of education translate into actually getting into college? The answer is essentially the Gaokao, the National College Entrance Exam. Every year in early June, nearly 10 million students throughout China’s provinces take the Gaokao over a period of three days. Though the test itself doesn’t differ too much from SAT’s and other standardized college entrance tests you might be familiar with, there are a few significant differences. When asking a student or reading online, you’ll see that it’s often described as being much harder than other standardized tests. However, this makes a bit more sense when you realize that unlike other tests, the Gaokao score is often the only item considered by China’s colleges when admitting students. This importance has created an entirely unique environment in China compared to other countries, with preparation for this test starting as early as 10 years in advance.

The Gaokao and whole college process is made all the more intense by the two track education system. Nearly all students have selected to study in a math-science or literature and liberal arts around the start of high school. As it is very difficult to switch courses later on, the track they choose often decides what opportunities they will have to study or even their available professions. One senior student said “If I wanted to choose a to become an artist instead of staying on my liberal arts path, I would be choosing to not make money.” This environment based on rigid education tracks reflects the similarly strict application process, enforcing uniform education in order to give a fair chance to all students demonstrate their knowledge to colleges.

This description of the system might make it seem like students are forced down a path without much freedom or time to develop their own interests. Though this is the case with some students who devote all their free time to studying, most still value their friendships over education. Though extracurricular activities do suffer with the higher focus on education, there is yet another path to college if a student is especially gifted in sports, art, etc. With so many students, the requirement to succeed as a “prodigy” is very high, with gifted students often selected before the age of 10. They will often receive passes on some academic classes to make more time to study their talent. Colleges often have a separate “Independent Application” where students can display talents through means other than the Gaokao in interviews and essays. In the end, still, the result of this auxiliary recruitment is usually only helps as a small supplement to the Gaokao score. The extremely talented among the non-traditionally academic students will usually go to colleges specializing in whatever talent they possess, or even accepted straight into top colleges. This small, elite group of students is usually a tiny fraction, making up far less than 1% of applying students each year (~27,000 out of over 9 million 2016).

In the end, most students will take the Gaokao and attend a college based on their score. It is unclear to say whether this system will change anytime soon, though teachers in more developed regions of China such as Beijing and Shanghai are starting to point out flaws with the 50+ year old Gaokao system.

Closing Thoughts