Book Reviews

Glorification of Educational Success

Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in China by Andrew Kipnis. University of Chicago Press (Chicago: 2011), 174 pp. ISBN 13:978-0-226-43755-2; $27.50.

Reviewed by Lisa Nagle

Newsflash: Chinese and Western societies are different. There is a debate swirling around radio programs, talk shows and parenting blogs about the difference in the educational system and parenting styles of Chinese and Western cultures and has been fueled by Yale law professor Amy Chua’s recent book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In her book she points to recent research:

In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.”

However, this review is not about Amy Chua’s book. It is about Andrew Kipnis’ book, Governing Educational Desire. Like Chua, Kipnis delves deeply into the intense desire that Chinese parents have for higher education for their children. Of course, the desire for good education for our children is a value that is present in most cultures, but it seems to be more intense in Chinese culture. Kipnis provides an excellent analysis of education in China. The book examines educational desire and its consequences by exploring China’s birth control policy, patterns of governance, household and national economic priorities and culture. For the most part, this book focuses on the causes of educational desire by asking: Where does this desire come from? What are the specific cultural, economic, political and social circumstances that frame its emergence?

Kipnis conducted most of his research in Zouping County, Shandong Province. He asked parents why they wanted their child to attend college. Some would mention better jobs and more opportunities, but others either could not reply or suggested that university attendance was an end in itself. Most Zouping residents sensed a prestige that goes with a university degree that outweighs the economic cost. This idea of “prestige” and “social standing” demonstrates that culture, as it relates to social dynamics, is part of the desire for educational success.

The residents of Zouping have consistently demanded three things from the education system: schools should provide basic academic skills; they should promote upward societal mobility; and they should contribute to the character formation of the students and teach them how to manage social relationships. To achieve these goals, some parents will spend more on their child’s college tuition than they make in a year. University tuition in China has increased dramatically over the last decade. In 2006, most Zouping County households with a child in college were paying between 11,000 to 15,000 yuan per year for tuition, room and board. It has become clear that university education has replaced housing costs as the most important large-ticket item for many families in China. How do they do it? Most parents borrow from relatives to finance their children’s education. Extended family members figure that if the college-educated child can get a good job in the city, it will be good for the whole family.

Andrew Kipnis provides research and analysis on the educational desire of parents in Zouping County and China more broadly. We discover that students are pressed to the limits of human endurance in order to consume as much information in their short years of middle school. It is an intensely competitive experience. Students do little else than study. Exams are introduced at a very young age and exam scores have large financial consequences for the families of students who wish to continue their education. This intensity surrounding exams reflects and magnifies the glorification of educational desire.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a new phenomenon emerged in rural countiesboarding schools. Kipnis notes that 100% of the Zouping senior middle schools and 100% of the junior middle schools are boarding schools. In 2005, students at senior middle schools were allowed to visit home one Sunday a month, and even this privilege was revoked during the four months leading up to exams. At junior high schools, ninth-grade students were allowed to return home one Sunday a month. This disciplined schedule at the boarding schools makes it an attractive option for urban parents. Urban high schools are usually day schools and do not match the discipline found in the boarding schools. Those students who attend these highly-disciplined boarding schools, however, lose the ability to regulate themselves and their time because every waking moment is already determined for them.

China’s birth control policy has a serious affect on educational desire in China. The reality of fewer children has heightened parental ambition for those children they do have, in rural and urban households alike. A common saying repeated by parents, teachers and officials is: “Hoping one’s son becomes a dragon and one’s daughter a phoenix” (wang zi cheng long, wang nu cheng fei). This hope was described as both the cause of educational desire and a result of the birth control policy. Becoming a “dragon” or a “phoenix” involves more than just economic security. It means becoming a real high-level leader in their career and being respected in their communities.

Kipnis documents a growing movement of education reformers called the “Education for Quality” movement. These reformers recognize the harmful effects to human development that the intense competitiveness of the education system fosters. The “Education for Quality” movement emphasizes excessive amounts of homework, drilling and memorization. Today, education leaders and officials are debating what type of education will enhance the quality of people for modern China. The question asked by many education reformers in China these days is: “How can China possibly produce a Bill Gates?”

Another cultural phenomenon of educational desire in China that Kipnis addresses is exemplarity. This involves various typesessays, artworks, people and behaviorsthat can be shown to the public as examples to follow. These have ideals that everyone should seek to imitate. These models are used beginning in the early years of education when children learn to write characters, when they learn to write essays and they continue into adulthood. There are model workers, husbands, mothers-in-law, students, teachers, corporations, villages, birth control advocates and so on. For example, the word xue () means “to imitate a model in a process of mental or bodily memorization.” Just as a young person imitates model characters when learning how to write, so does one “study” how to be a person (zuoren) by imitating the behaviors of teachers.

For the Chinese governing system, education is as much about a way to rule as a way to teach, explains Kipnis. The author does not agree with the theories of the scholars he mentions in his book who argue that rote memorization of Chinese classics improves the moral character of young school children. Kipnis is neutral in the debates over styles of education but he does have opinions on certain pedagogic practices and policies. He favors vocational training, for example, which makes economic sense for families in light of China’s position as a world manufacturing center.

A trend dealing with educational desire that Kipnis did not address is the desire of parents to send their child abroad for education at younger ages. We have witnessed an increase in university enrollments among Chinese undergraduates over the last five years. Chinese families are sending their sons and daughters to the United States for high school and college in record numbers. A recent Open Doors report highlighted this by studying Chinese enrollments in American universities. The report noted that China sent 26,275 undergraduates to the United States in 2009 compared with 8,034 undergraduates just five years prior. Today, an increasing number of Chinese parents in urban areas are enrolling their child in younger grades in programs called 2+2 which means they attend grades nine and ten in China and attend grades eleven and twelve abroad (usually the UK, US, Canada and Australia). Their hope is that a diploma from the school abroad will increase their chance for a top university enrollment.

These are interesting and important themes, and, although Kipnis says a good deal more about them than these sentences convey, they represent only a preliminary acknowledgement of the deep cultural desire among Chinese families for education. Kipnis weaves stories of real families as he uses social science theory to explain the desire for education in China. This book is a bit complex but with a little effort it will inform the understanding of organization leaders who provide educational services to Chinese families. Let us join the author in listening to the stories of families in China so that we can have a richer and more comprehensive understanding of the effects of their educational desire.

Lisa Nagle has been working in educational programs serving Chinese youth and families since 1991. She is the President of Pacific Link International Educational Services (PLIES) which organizes study abroad high school programs, Compass to Campus and online learning social networking websites ( and

Image credit: Ye Wen Yi

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Lisa Nagle

Lisa Nagle, BA, MA, has been working in and around China since 1991. She has lived in Changsha, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Lisa is founder and executive director of Pacific Link International Educational Services (PLIES, which provides short-term and long-term study abroad experiences for youth from China. View Full Bio