It’s Sunday night in Dali. I’m standing outside Tang Dynasty on Foreigner Street, the famous bar street here, where I work as a greeter, waving at tourists passing by and inviting them in.
At around 10:30 p.m. a long line of teenagers in blue uniforms starts walking down the street.
“Hello, please sit down,” I say.
“Don’t say that to them!” my waitress colleague says to me. “Students don’t come to the bar. It’s bad for studying.”
What are students doing getting out of class at 10:30 on a Sunday night?
Students in Chinese high school study hard, and you can see it in Dali. On weekdays, they are in class from 7 a.m. until 10:30 p.m., with breaks from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. On Saturdays, they have class from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., and on Sundays, they have class from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. With a study schedule like this, it’s no wonder that China topped the PISA international education test scores in 2010, an event that some American education analysts called a “Sputnik moment” signaling the rise of China.
But is it really good for students to be studying this long? What’s it like for the students?
In Dali, like many small rural towns in China, there is a lot of pressure on the students to advance themselves.
“In Shanghai, it’s more relaxed. We just have class from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” said Fancy, a Shanghainese student. “The poorer the area, the harder they study.”
As the capital of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, Dali is relatively wealthier than the surrounding villages, and the school in Dali Ancient City is better than most of the village schools. Many students come from surrounding villages.
Competition for acceptance into top schools in China is intense. Entrance to high school is determined by the “zhong kao” (中考), the high school entrance exam, a precursor to the “gao kao” (高考) college entrance exam students take at the end of their senior year. However, like most things in China, there is a way around regulations. Many of the parents use their relationships, or “guanxi” (关系), to get their kids into a better school than they qualified for.
According to two of the Dali high school students, test rankings are publicly printed, showing every students’ zhong kao score, and they estimated that about 200 of the 1,000 students in Dali’s high school got in with lower scores because of guanxi. One of them is a student named Yang. She is originally from Chendgu, but she didn’t test into a good school, so her parents relied on some former classmates who work in the Yunnan education department to get her assigned to a school in Dali, where her aunt lives. Her friend, Luo, tested into Dali high school from Yangbi Yi minority prefecture on the west side of the Cangshan Mountains. However students get into Dali high school, they all live together in the dorms, under strict regulations.
The Chinese education system puts many restrictions on its students, both in school and in the dorms. There is an 11 p.m. curfew every night, and students must report to the school at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday evenings and stay there for a few hours to study or play sports.
The education method is based largely on memorization and test-taking.
“Chinese education destroys independent thinking,” said Matt Zhu, a student from Yangzhou who is attending college in the United States.
The restrictive education style is deep-seated in Chinese Confucian culture. Chinese culture is very respectful of authority, so the education system is based on a top-down approach, following mandated guidelines, discouraging questioning authority.
“In high school, you can’t select your classes. You must follow the fixed education path,” Luo said.
She went to Thailand as part of an exchange program for a few weeks, and she said she liked it because, “In Thailand, you can select whatever languages and classes you want to study.”
A restrictive social environment isn’t limited to Chinese education, but part of China’s society and children’s upbringing as a whole. Chinese children have a lot of pressure on them from their parents to live up to a certain standard–getting a good job, getting married to a good man or woman, and being successful. That is why some Chinese young adults hire fake boyfriends or girlfriends to take home to their parents over the Chinese New Years celebration.
Karen, a Shanghainese student who attended high school and is now attending college in the United States, said she feels America is more open than China. In China, she says, other people judge her appearance, and her parents are critical of her, causing her to develop an eating disorder.
In China, there is a concept of “losing face” (“diu ren”- 丢人) , if you do some things that are out of the social norm. For example, “Having a relationship in high school is shameful,” Yang said. “If the teachers find out, they will tell your parents.”
That’s one reason a lot of students want to go to the West to study abroad.
“I don’t like other people looking at me and judging me,” Luo said. “I really like freedom, so I want to go to the United States and study and then raise kids there.”
After going abroad, many students find the experience changes them.
“I’m scared of going back,” Karen said, anticipating the conflicts that might arise with her parents as she visited them over Spring Festival in 2013.
“Living and studying in America for one year, I feel I have experienced freedom. I feel that I have grown up,” Matt Zhu said. “Then I return to China [over the summer], and my parents want to control my life. So we argued a lot.”
But not all Chinese students are prepared for study abroad life.
“There are two types of study abroad students: those who want to go abroad themselves and those whose parents force them to go abroad,” Dora Chen said, a student studying in the United States at Indiana University. “The first type really enjoys this kind of life. The second type isn’t accustomed to the freedom and always wants to go home.”
The Chinese education system doesn’t prepare students well for the freedom of the study abroad life.
From primary school, students are taught English, but of 163 countries with students taking the TOEFL English foreign language test, China ranked 105th in 2010. In Education First’s 2012 English Proficiency Index, China was classified as “low proficiency,” ranking 36th out of 54 countries.
Many students want to practice English, but they are too shy. At Indiana University, where I graduated, nearly 3.5% of the students in 2012 were from China. I made a lot of Chinese friends because I could speak Chinese, but some of the students stayed in a Chinese student bubble and only spoke Chinese with each other. Why did they speak Chinese rather than practicing English? “Because it is weird to speak English,” they would say, laughing.
Dora Chen said, “Our traditional education system causes most Chinese people to have an inborn shyness, and we don’t dare speak our minds. We always fear that we will speak English poorly and cause people to laugh.”
Chen speaks English well and has been a tutor for business classes and an international student orientation volunteer, but she also struggles with trying to understand and get involved with American cultural activities.
“Actually, I also want to play with Americans more often,” she said, “but the biggest problem is that we don’t have common topics of conversation. A lot of things they say, I don’t understand, and I don’t know how to express a lot of things I want to say. I fear they will find me boring and not like me. A long time ago I decided to play with other Chinese people.”
Overall, the kind of restrictions imposed by Chinese education and Chinese culture have caused many Chinese business and education leaders to worry that they are stifling the kind of creativity necessary to create innovation and grow the economy.
Former president of Google, China Kai-fu Lee, said after Steve Jobs’ death that China would never have its own Jobs, because Chinese education puts too much focus on memorization.
The gao kao college entrance exam is the big focus that all of a Chinese student’s experience leads up to. One test determines where students will attend college. Attending a good college will lead to getting a good job. Students will do anything to pass the gao kao, including receiving IV drips so they don’t have to eat, and, of course, using their parents’ guanxi. In 2011, a number of students’ tests were thrown out after it became known that they used connections with government officials to fake minority status and receive affirmative action benefits.
Doing well on the test involves a lot of hard studying and memorization. There are two tracks to the test: science track and humanities track. One student quoted in a Wall Street Journal article said, “For science track, a good score is over 720 – it’s much harder to get high marks on humanities because so many of the questions are open-ended rather than multiple choice.”
The pressure on rural students is much greater than city students, because rural students have to score higher to attend a good university. Most of the top universities, such as Beijing University and Fudan University (Shanghai) are in big cities, and local residents require lower scores to qualify for attendance.
“Beijing University is called ‘Beijing People University’, because they enroll more local freshman than students from small cities,” Frank Chen, a Shanghai resident said.
Children of workers who moved to a different city have to return to their hometown to take the gao kao. Migrant parents in Beijing, many of whom are middle class white collar workers who have lived there for years, have been protesting lately, and Beijing is slowly experimenting with changes to their local gao kao policies.
There are a number of factors that can result in students having points added to their gao kao results. Members of one of China’s 55 minority ethnic groups, many of which are poorer as a whole than the Han majority, get points added, and a lot of the students in Dali are members of a recognized minority culture.
Luo, who is Yi, and Luo Sang, who is Tibetan, will both get 20 points added to their gao kao. Yang is a Bai person, but she won’t get any points added. The Bai make up a huge amount of the population in the Dali area, and Yang said, “The Bai people here are already like the Han,” so the government doesn’t think they need any more “encouragement.”
After graduating and getting accepted, students can coast along in college.
“We don’t even have to do our own homework,” Fancy said.
Zhou, a student at Chengdu University, said, “College is just play. We can cut classes whenever we want. We can even plagiarize essays, and the teachers don’t care.”
Almost everyone acknowledges that China’s education system needs to change.
“95 percent of people realize it [the education system] needs to change,” Frank Chen said, “but there’s nothing that we can do. It will require leaders pushing from above.”
Whenever the topic of reform comes up, there’s always one major problem: “China needs to reform its education system, but there are too many Chinese people,” Yang said.
“Although there are a lot of bad things about the gao kao, it does ensure fairness. There are so many people in China,” fellow student Zhao Wenhua said.
“If everyone studies in a free way like in the United States, there is no way to control it,” Luo said.
According to an article in Digital PC magazine, there is a shortage of places in Chinese universities. With that in mind, the rural students are the ones who lose out the most with no reform, at least as far as the gao kao goes. Shanghai and Beijing parents want to protect the privilege their children are afforded by living in a big city, shielding them from competition among the whole country. Fears of competition among the huge population is a major sticking point for reform.
“There are too many people,” and “There is no way to control it,” are arguments often used in favor of moving slowly on reform in China, but it is starting to happen. Some major universities are starting to evaluate potential students in part based on interviews, not just the gao kao.
Back on Foreigner Street, its 10:30 again, and students start streaming down the street. “Hello,” I say to some of them. Girls blush and run away laughing as I wave. Most of the students are too shy to respond. Then one student runs up to me. “Hello,” he says, “I want to make some foreign friends to practice English.”