Educating the Masses: China vs. the U.S., Part I

February 19, 2011

This post is a continuation-piece.  Please read the first “Educating the Masses” post prior to reading this one.

China vs. the U.S.: The Long, Winding Road of EduCultural Development

Now that we’ve taken a look at a very simple example of the effect of culture on any educational institution, we’re going to “go broad” here and compare two “competing” educational systems – those of China and the U.S. 

Part I: China

Let’s look at China and how its educational system got to be the way it is:

When it comes to education, it all begins with language, as, without a written language, a true, formal education system is an impossibility.

Therefore, it makes sense that China was pretty much the birthplace of formal education (as China has had a written language system for about 3,000 years).  By the 600s AD, Chinese citizens were studying fiercely for the standardized Imperial Exam; one in which success could lead to earning a position as a government official – from a (relatively) lowly minister to a governor or aid to the emperor.

These exams were created as the first merit-based systems, so that, in theory, anybody at all (even a poor farmer) could ascend to a position of power if they did well on their tests.  Do poorly (no pun intended), however, and it was back to nothing for you (or worse – as all the time you had “wasted” on study with no results would set you further behind those who had never tried to begin with).

Therefore, from the very beginning, education in China has been designed as a competition with high stakes.  Do you gamble on your child’s abilities and have them focus on study – over earning a livelihood – in the hopes of a big payoff?   This has been the root question behind  Chinese education for thousands of years – and the broadening of access to education has only strengthened this concept in the Chinese cultural pysche.

On top of this, the Chinese language is like few others out there, in terms of it being character-based.  This means that for almost every single word, there is an individual character that represents the word.  With 3,000 characters necessary for basic conversation – and up to 10,000 for more specific comprehension – that’s a lot of memorization to do to be able to read.  And to write?  Hours of practice writing for every character – and hours more simply to avoid forgetting a previously-learned character.  There’s simply no way around it.

As a result, to be able to master written language – a key to academic success – typical Chinese students  have had to rely on  a level of mental discipline and memorization in and out of class that those with alphabet-based written languages simply have not. (*1)   Subsequently, the foundations of Chinese schools and teaching philosophies have been built on these concepts of discipline, memorization, and practice – as literacy alone is an impossible achievement without them, and further academic success is impossible without being fully literate.

Of course, other subjects are taught in school, as well – and when we’re talking about China, the two that pop into most people’s heads are math and science. (*3)  This is because these are the subject-areas that China has been so consistently successful in (in recent years), and – after breaking down how language and culture has affected education in China, it becomes pretty clear why:

Because the Chinese education philosophy, built off the form and function of the written language, is so perfectly conducive to these subjects.

Take math, for example.  What is math mastery, at its most basic level, other than successful memorization and practice of facts and concepts?  Being able to add or subtract, divide or multiply efficiently comes down to simply memorizing how particular numbers combine together.  I go from counting my fingers to just remembering that “6 plus 5 equals 11.”  “Four plus four plus four” turns into the rote fact that “three times four equals twelve.”  The facts change and get more complicated, but the basic tenet remains the same – being successful at math means spending the time memorizing facts and practicing solving equations.  Of course, at higher levels of study (late secondary school and beyond), this is no longer true – but this is, not coincidentally, when China stops leading the way in academic performance.

So you’ve got the necessity for disciplined study, memorization and practice  for any sort of academic success.  And you have that pursuit of  “success” as a high-stakes competition against other students, nationally.  Push that for three thousand years, and you have a pretty strong base for the current Chinese educational system.  Then add in 1.3 billion citizens and recent educational reforms, and the competition only gets so much fiercer.  (*4)

This all creates the current situation where Chinese students spend the majority of their lives, six days a week, focusing on core academic subjects – because any time spent on other things is time that your competition is spending getting ahead of you – and there is plenty of competition. (*5)

This, of course, then places extreme importance on the role of teachers – and gives them real power.  At any stage of academic development, a single teacher can derail a student’s future (and again – in China, it really can be their whole future).  As a result, teachers must be shown utmost respect (up to the giving of monetary “gifts”) to have any chance of moving past one’s classmates.  This subsequently feeds the notion that a teacher’s word is irrefutable – nobody dare question a teacher, because the risks of “getting on their bad side” are simply too high.  (*6)

So taking all of these cultural and historical pressures into account, the real question is: how could the Chinese education system have ended up any different?  And on the flip side – is it even possible for it to change to take on more U.S.-inspired characteristics?

With China  – unlike most other nations in the world – the answer to the latter question is actually . . . yes.  Because there is one huge piece I’ve left out of this equation: the current system of government.

This is a single-party, centralized government – it’s not a representative democracy like the States.  This is a country where the government can decide to build, then plan, budget, and carry out the construction of the world’s fastest commercial rail system, covering thousands of miles – in a fraction of the time it would take the U.S. government to approve a smaller-scale project.

Say what you will about the Chinese government, but it is efficient in a way that no other government in the world is capable of being.  (*7) When the inner-circle at the top make a decision, it happens, and in the case of the education system – and even culture – if the government makes the decision to truly shake up the current state of things, I have no doubt that it could pull it off.

It wouldn’t be easy, by any means – but it’s possible.  And as my current work gets me some inside-knowledge on the direction Chinese education is headed, don’t be surprised to see some major changes in the next 10 or 20 years.

Of course, this all brings us to the U.S education system – the one the Chinese government wants to better emulate, all while the U.S. is trying to be more like the Chinese system.

The Chinese system can become more like the U.S. system.  But can the U.S. system become more like the Chinese one?  And should it even be trying to do so?

All that and more in the next installment, “China vs. the U.S., Part II: the U.S. and Global ‘Competition.'”

(*1)  In the 1950s, acknowledging the difficulty of learning the Chinese written language, the government chose to “simplify” the characters.  Although this did make the system much easier (in relative terms) to learn, this still left thousands of characters to memorize to achieve literacy.

(*2) The same concepts apply to other character-based languages and subsequent education, and this seems to play out consistently.

(*3) Although, in relative terms, the focus on science has been a “new” addition to the Chinese curriculum – starting around 1905.

(*4)  These numbers – 3,000 years of cultural history and a population of 1.3 billion – are far beyond the comprehension of any U.S. citizen, who thinks a single generation is “a long time.”  In China, the entire history of the U.S. has the same significance as any one year does to the States.  A “small town” has 1 million people living in it.  The top 30% of Chinese students totals the same amount of ALL U.S. students.  A U.S. native simply cannot truly understand the kind of weight these numbers bring to bear on how this country became the way it is.

(*5) The stereotype is becoming less and less true – as most Chinese kids can no longer spare the extra time to learn to play an instrument, for instance, in the current competitive academic climate.

(*6)  I know many would argue that the “respect for teacher” and general authority comes from Confucian tenets, but – to me – this is a “chicken and egg” scenario.  I would argue that the whole culture and history of the education system and “Imperial Examination” actually led to this – Confucius simply starting out as one more teacher in this system.

(*7) As far as I’m concerned, this is the real reason China is poised to leave the rest of the world, economically-speaking, in the dust.  While U.S. infrastructure falls to pieces (how’s that “Big Dig” coming?), and Republicans and Democrats pettily stop each others’ attempts at actually doing anything, China is doubling its economic capabilities every decade.



  1. Enjoyed the post. Just one off-topic note from a Bostonian… the Big Dig is finally over, and has been for a few years. And it’s kind of awesome, having totally opened up the whole downtown and made it MUCH easier to get around. And added a park. Larger point taken and agreed with!

  2. I’m really glad that you provided a historical background for how the Chinese educational system began, rather than coming up with some kind of catch-all cultural determinist explanation. (I mean, I do believe that cultural beliefs do play a part eventually but it’s not the only thing.)

    Just to add on: media and society also emphasize that it’s “cool” for kids to be smart and get good grades. It’s usually the smart kids with good grades (although they also have to be outgoing and sociable) who are popular in schools (unless it’s an international school), and this is supported by pop culture. People aren’t usually mocked for intelligence here, like they seem to be in the West.

    And also, just a thought: do you really think it’s the US system that the Chinese government wants to emulate? Don’t you think that label is misleading (and has implications of Western superiority)?

    If anything, I would say that the Chinese government has 2 separate goals: for the peasants and the rural communities, to provide them with a basic education to combat illiteracy. With the urban/richer schools, it’s to include elements of classic, “elite” Chinese education with its focus on “refined arts” such as calligraphy, classical literature and music (similar to Taiwanese education, and, to a certain extent, in Hong Kong, as well).

  3. @glotto – My bad on the “Big Dig” reference . . . not saying it wasn’t a good idea, rather how ridiculous the process was.

    @Maloy –
    Definitely agree with you on the status associated with doing well in school as a cultural difference here. In the U.S., folks definitely try to play off good grades to be “cool.”

    As far as the system, most of what I hear pretty directly references the U.S. system in regards to educational changes here. In that regard, it’s usually about how China very badly wants to start being known for innovation, and sees aspects of the U.S. system (and specifically U.S. over other “Western” countries) as a means to attaining that. Most of the folks I’ve talked to about it don’t really seem like they want a “classic” education for their kids at all (nor has that been emphasized by the government in my dealings/readings). Of course, my background probably dictates the messaging I receive, so I definitely wouldn’t rule it out, either.

    And I agree, the emphasis on the “U.S. system” definitely relates to notions of “Western” superiority – that’s exactly what it’s about, sadly. Of course, the U.S. emphasis on the “Chinese system” is about the same notions, academically-speaking, as well – so it’s not one-sided (this time).

    • Yeah, I’m glad(?) that it’s kind of a two-way eyeballing contest between China and the US, rather than China just imitating the US.

      I guess regarding the US system, from what you know, what is China exactly implementing from the US educational system, like any actual programmes? Over here in HK, I teach arts programmes that have become required subjects for all public and private schools, and the programmes are Western in approach (like developing multiple intelligences) but local in application (for example, I’m discouraged from discussing Halloween and asked to focus on Chinese festivals).

      My parents sent me to Taiwan to study for a few years, and my school was quite similar. It was ostensibly “American,” but I’m pretty sure Americans don’t learn to play erhu, do an hour of kung fu every morning and clean the school during recess. We also had unisex toilets — which led to a lot of shenanigans — which I think is also something Americans would be shocked by.

      Anyway, I’m looking forward to your next installment of this series.

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