No nation in the world emphasizes education more than China. Most secondary school students in China get up around six in the morning and then attend morning classes until noon with breaks for lunch and a mandatory nap. After their nap, students have afternoon classes until supper time. After supper, they attend evening classes or do homework, not going to bed until eleven at night or sometimes midnight.
Teachers and parents carefully attend to their children’s educational needs. On weekends, parents send their children to all kinds of tutoring programs. For the sake of education, parents, teachers, and students barely have time for anything else.
Why would a nation drive its young so fiercely to get an education? What is the nature of education in China? What are the pros and cons of the system? What can the West learn from the Eastern educational system?
The earliest known schools in China were set up to train wealthy children for future service to their kings and empires. Notable developments came during the Han Dynasty, but it was not until the early Tang Dynasty that, to facilitate the selection of the best officials for the empire, a strict hierarchal examination system was introduced which ran until 1905 when the late Qing Dynasty abolished it.
In the early twentieth century, Western democracy, science and technology had a major impact on China and a Western educational system was introduced, particularly affecting the humanities, math and science. Western Christians helped to establish some excellent Christian schools. After thousands of years of a rigid, monopolistic, educational system, the Chinese finally had some choice of private schooling. During that period, China produced a number of fine pastors, philosophers, scientists, writers, and statesmen. Several leading universities and hospitals in China today have Christian roots from the West.
From 1949 to 1966, the new Communist government under Mao Zedong started to ban Western influence in its educational system. The central government gradually took control and started the so-called gaokao or college entrance exam system. In essence, it was the return of the old imperial system in the format of communist ideology.
During the so-called Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, most schools were closed. Teachers, like pastors, were mostly labeled as “evil” and were jailed or sent to do manual labor as part of the government’s corrective measures. During this dark period, a number of well-known scholars and teachers lost their lives.
After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping initiated a series of reforms including restoring the educational system of the 1950s which was Mao’s educational system with a new ideology. In 1978, the country held its first nationwide college entrance exam after its having been interrupted during the Cultural Revolution.
From around 1978, Deng initiated the “Open Door to the West” policy. With some interruptions, over the past four decades China has experienced the biggest economic boom in human history. China’s GDP is now second only to that of the U.S. With this growth, demands for high quality education in China have constantly been on the rise.
Today in China, public schools dominate the entire educational system. Public education is a monopoly and no one dares to challenge the system. The government dictates the curriculum, school calendar, ideology, and even college entrance exams. In the past decade or so, there have been some private schools across China, but private education is still less than one percent of the overall education in China. In almost all private schools, ideology and curriculum are still strictly controlled by the government. Children seldom talk about freedom, equality, privacy, and individual rights because they are brought up believing in the government, patriotism/nationalism, collectivism, and the public good.
Current attitudes to education are still significantly affected by traditional ideas. Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are all interrelated and are deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Confucianism says education is the top trade among all trades and teachers/scholars ought to be honored at all times. Indeed, Chinese religions, philosophies, and values are all about morality. Interestingly enough, the morality-based education throughout Chinese history is also largely compatible with Christian values and Christian education. Nevertheless, Chinese education has a substantially different worldview from that of the West.
So, what are the major differences in terms of Chinese worldview and Western worldview? To answer this question, we use the work of Dr. Philip Holtrop, professor emeritus at Calvin College.
Dr Holtrop argues that postmodernity has brought about “an age of internationalism and global interdependence” and “a worldwide movement—the first ‘age’ or ‘paradigm’ shared, in some sense, by virtually all nations on earth.” However, he also points to many commonalities in Western worldviews that are still distinct from the East: “Throughout, we see a strong rational, logical, legal, and ‘definitional’ tradition—an accent on dialogue, argument, apologetics and defense; the priority of what is regarded as ‘truth’ over relationships; competition and political power struggles; and finally the breakdown of vertical ‘hierarchical’ thinking in favor of more horizontal democratic accents, with a focus on the dignity of each person; and eventually the secularization of what was once seen as ‘spiritual’….. Western postmodern Christianity also reflects the pragmatism and relativism of the cultures around it.” Thus, “subjectivity pulls rank over objectivity.”
By contrast, Dr Holtrop suggests Eastern worldviews have “a holistic and more mystical way of looking at the world,” which is relational rather than analytical. The East “does not ‘analyze’ issues so much as it wants to ‘live with them.’ It is less active than passive. It is passionate about ‘inner circles’ (especially families), but patient about the ‘bigger things’ that ‘we cannot change’—like the so-called ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ It stresses that people should ‘know their place.’ It has never assigned individuals the ‘rights’ that Westerners inherit from their main sources of culture—the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions, along with the Bible.”
In summary of these worldviews, Westerners tend to have an “either… or” approach about things. Good versus evil is usually a major theme in Western literature. Politicians quite often say either you are with me or against me. Westerners go to sports games and select a team to cheer for. Easterners, on the other hand, tend to have a “both… and” approach about things. Yin and Yang are two opposites and they tend to coexist. When Chinese go to a sports game, they tend to relax and cheer for both sides.
Finally, what are the differences between Chinese education and American education? How do we compare and contrast qualities of American and Chinese students? How might cultural differences impact the work of expatriate teachers?
Dr. Holtrop argues that Chinese and Western students have contrasting strengths. Chinese are eager disciplined learners, respectful of teachers, using memorization abilities to excel in tests. However, Western students are more creative, able to think independently and critically, and are better equipped to carry out individual research. At a relational level, “Being indirect, sensitive to others in the community, and loyal to family and country are all good virtues in China. Being direct, honest, and valuing equality and individualism are good virtues in America.”
Dr. Holtrop concludes that, given the contrasting strengths of Chinese and Western education, mutual respect and interchange is important. “Learning and fun, content and form, should not be opposed to each other. In the best education they should go together. But creativity (very important!) should be in the interest of community, and individualism (very important!) should be in the interest of society.” Thus he wants Western educators to learn from China’s educational emphases. At the same time, he wants Chinese educators to develop greater sensitivity to the needs and potential of each individual.
The two cultures and educational systems have almost opposite features and characteristics. Western students tend to spend much time on art, music, sports, and other social activities, while Chinese students tend to spend much time on academics or test preparations. No wonder Chinese students tend to score very high on tests but low on hands-on lab work or creativity. Today, Chinese students are in most major Western schools. Most of them only care about academics. Rarely can one find Chinese students on sports teams, but they are increasingly involved in music, art, and robotics events.
For Westerners working in China, it is important to understand that the people are more relational. Things work through personal relationships rather than rules, and it is relatively difficult to “get into” others’ lives. China is a “high context” culture: there are constantly hidden meanings in what is seen. By contrast, Westerners are more individualistic: it is easier to get to know each other, and law is more important. It is a “low-context” culture in which things are much more as they seem. These observations relate to the well-known contrast of shame and guilt in different cultures: in China, shame is a big deal; in the West, it is guilt.
Because the educational system is very rigid in China, Chinese students usually like teachers from English-speaking countries in the West. They love a Western style, student-centered learning approach in classroom instruction. They tend to appreciate ideas such as individualism, analytical thinking, freedoms, and so on. Western teachers usually like Chinese students because they are generally serious learners, and they appreciate and respect teachers. However, Western teachers sometimes get into trouble in China because they do not like to work with authorities or other teachers in the same school. In China’s hierarchical system, things work from top down rather than bottom up as in the West. Losing face is sometimes more important than losing life in China. No-one wants authorities to lose face. Hence, expatriate teachers in China can criticize authorities in the West but never authorities in China.
Sometimes Western teachers bring Chinese students to church. This might be a red flag for Chinese authorities; they do not want any religious influence on Chinese students. Any ideology different from the teaching of communism in China will be seriously monitored and controlled.
Some expatriates are surprised that Chinese students often like to “copy and paste” others’ research or statements without any citations. That’s because the system emphasizes collectivism instead of individualism. As a result, in China “copyright” means the right to copy; it is the way people are brought up. However, under the impact of globalized education, China is gradually changing in this respect.
Nowadays most leading public or private schools in China have beautiful campuses and state-of-the-art facilities. The educational philosophy, however, largely remains the same; that is, hierarchical and teacher-centered. This means that for Westerners teaching in China, there are both opportunities and challenges. Expatriate teachers certainly have great opportunities to learn about Chinese history and culture, to build relationships with students and other colleagues, and to bring the distinctive contributions from their Western heritage. They also have to endure culture shock, loneliness, limited freedom in education at times, and a deeply unfamiliar way of how many things are done in China.
The ancient Chinese made many notable inventions: gun powder, paper, printing, and the compass. However, their feudal society created an educational system for the rich which hindered further development in creativity, critical thinking, innovation, freedom, and equality. The essence of this system continues under the present regime. Thus, China’s educational system cannot be sustained because it holds educators, parents, and students hostage.
Democracy and capitalism also have flaws, reflected in their Western educational systems. In short, the East and the West need each other. The effect of globalization so far has been largely one-way, but China’s resurgence is likely to lead to some re-balancing. In different ways, both East and West need to reform their educational systems so that the young around the world can maximize their potential. Expat teachers in China have the potential to contribute not only to China, where education will always be important, but also to this global development.