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Chines Education, American Education. How Are They Different?

This is an article that I wrote for China Education News 中国教育报(中文版文章) which was subsequently translated and published in English in China Daily back in 2012. In light of the increase in emphasis on test scores and competitiveness in the U.S. and the effort to include more non-academic activities into education in China, this content is still as relevant as ever.


The Appearance of Tiger Mom touting “Chinese Parenting” incited more copycats in China as media attention focused on the circus-like nature of animal training in “Chinese parenting”.


Wolf Dad and Eagle Dad quickly followed Tiger Mom, each more severe in his treatment of his offspring in his efforts to induce “success”, which in the case of Chinese style parenting means perfect grades and an offer of admission into a name brand university.


Wolf Dad proudly claims that he physically beat all three of his kids into Peking University, while Eagle Dad proudly uploaded unto the internet a video footage of him making his four year old son run in the -13°C New York weather with 8 inches of snow on the ground wearing nothing more than an underwear for 30 minutes while this boy cried for his father to hold him.


Following the media storm that drew all kinds of heated debate of his extreme methods of child training, Eagle Dad got his son tested for IQ at this tender young age, enrolled him early into elementary school, and announced that he will aim to get his son admitted into Tsinghua University by the age of 10.


Increased globalization makes this a time in history where there’s a collision of both educational philosophies and systems with merits of each side being hotly debated on both sides of the Pacific. Chinese parents feel a greater sense of ownership over their children even after they’ve become grown adults. American parents allow their children to explore and decide on their own based upon own their interests rather than what the parents think is best for them, and these parents expect their children to live separate and independent lives when they are grown.


Chinese parents stress high performance in academics, and place a higher premium on discipline. American parents stress the development of interests in education and place a higher premium on freedom and creativity.


To understand either Western or Chinese “style” parenting, we must examine the origin of higher education in each culture and understand its significance to the Western and the Chinese worldview. This is because many Chinese parents seem to measure one’s success in parenting on what name brand university their children graduate from.


Western universities formed at the grassroots to enable groups of commoners to acquire knowledge for various purposes. Institutions of higher education were heavily influenced by various monarchies and the church, which were inextricably tied together. The word university combines two words to form the idea of diverse people in the unified pursuit of truth and knowledge, thus unity in diversity. A look at the school mottos of some of these top English speaking universities attest to the Christian roots of these universities:


Oxford (Established circa year 1096): “The Lord is My Light” (Psalm 27)

Cambridge (1209): “From This Place, We Gain Enlightenment and Precious Knowledge.”

Harvard (1636): Originally "For Christ and Church", later changed to simply Veritas: “Truth”

Yale (1701): "Light and Truth"

Brown (1764): "In God We Hope"

UPenn (1740): "Laws without morals are in vain"

Princeton (1746): "Under God's Power She Flourishes"

Columbia (1754): “In Thy Light, Shall We See Light”

Dartmouth (1769): "The Voice of One Crying In the Wilderness" (Isaiah 40)

The purpose of higher education in the West was the pursuit of knowledge and truth for the sake of better understanding creation and its Creator, thus enlightening the mind.

The Chinese did not have institutionalized schools or advanced centers for learning, but children were educated in home based classrooms where wealthy families hired tutors for their children while children of poor families would study on their own.


However, China instituted the world’s first ever meritocracy with an imperial examination system, or Ke Ju (科举). Established in year 605 during the Sui Dynasty using the Confucian classics as the basis for the examinations, scholars with the highest examination scores were qualified to become bureaucrats and officials in the Imperial government. A spot on the government means a life of security and status for the entire clan of the official, thus also signifies redemption for an entire family system out of toil and poverty.


A famous poem composed in the Yuan Dynasty (c. 1271 – 1368) under the reign of Genghis Khan summarizes this mindset well: “10 years of frozen obscurity by the window, one action gains fame under the big sky”, meaning that even though you spend 10 years studying hard by the cold window without anyone noticing you, when you succeed in one examination, everyone under the sun will know your name.


Education carries a far weightier and significant meaning than just the mere acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. An exam score can mean the difference between endless toil in the fields and lifelong servitude to the emperor, or a life of prosperity, power, and fame for an entire family system. In an agricultural society where the fate of a family is at the whims of nature, this can mean the difference between life and death! As the scholar becomes a government official, he is then obligated to help his family members obtain positions that would ensure their comfort and security, because his family members have sacrificed and helped him to be able to bypass family responsibilities to focus exclusively on studying. In other words, he is their bet on a future meal ticket!


The examination system continues today for civil servants in China, despite the termination of the dynastic system of government. With the establishment of the republic under Christian Sun Yat-Sen, the examination system was revived for government posts. However, the modern Chinese university and medical system was established by missionaries from the West, mostly from Great Britain and America. Many of these missionaries graduated from the top universities of Great Britain and America. Because they were not seminary trained, they were called Student Volunteers. 20,000+ such volunteers came from America, and over 1/3 of them landed in China to do what they do best: run schools and hospitals.


Notable among these Student Volunteers were the Cambridge Seven, who caused an uproar in England at the time by forsaking their promising futures to sail for China. Therefore, Chinese universities are reflections of their founders’ universities from the West. With the exception of Peking University, which evolved from a school for children of nobles in the imperial court and later on co-opted famous Yanjing University founded by missionary and diplomate Stuart Leighton, most other top Chinese universities have Christian roots.

Tsinghua University was founded as a result of missionaries to China who returned to Washington to lobby for the $30+ million Boxer restitution fine paid to America by the Qing Government to be returned to Chinese soil for the benefit of the Chinese people. This fund was administered by the Presbyterian denomination, and Tsinghua’s first president was a Yale University graduate who founded the YMCA in China. Fudan (literally meaning “Heavenly Light Shines Day After Day”) University was established by the first Chinese Jesuit priest in China.


Even though the university systems of both countries have the same root, entrance into and education in these universities carry very different meanings for Chinese and Westerners in light of their cultures and what an education means to them.


In China, it’s also true that a 10 point difference on the High School Examination score can doom one to a life of poverty as a farmer or lift one into a life of prosperity as a white collar worker in a big prosperous coastal metropolis. Education and redemption has been so deeply intertwined in the Chinese mindset and psyche as a way out of hardship and “eating bitterness” that to not put one’s all into educating one’s child is almost sacrilegious.


To the mind of Chinese parents, their children’s academic performance is a direct reflection of the success of their parenting. With this thought in their subconscious, there is a layer of fear and anxiety to this kind of parenting: fear of failure, and anxiety about whether or not the parents themselves will measure up. It’s the cycle of performance based parenting perpetuating itself.


The main difference in mindsets has to do with the distribution of resources. In the West, there was an abundance of land and an abundance of opportunities to all. The main point of education is one of stewardship of what gifts and talents we are each given to maximize our potential in order to enrich society in general. The Chinese mindset is one of scarcity of resources and opportunities in a highly stratified society. The distribution of resources is unequal depending on one’s station in life, with the top 1% of the pyramid having access to the majority of resources. While the opportunity to get to the top is equally available to all, there are only so many seats available to occupy those seats of power and access to resources. Society exists as a funnel where the education system seeks to eliminate the bottom 99% rather than equip all 100% with the skills needed for learning and self-advancement. The tool of elimination is a cold hard exam score cut-off point where only the number can decide one’s fate. Likewise, people tend to be evaluated based upon this external yardstick rather than any unique or intrinsic value. No wonder there is much fear and anxiety!


As China opened up in the past 30 years, Chinese people in general have gotten much more prosperous. However, many Chinese mindsets are still stuck in the resource scarce past where one raw test score can change your fate for the rest of your life. To add fuel to the fire, with the one-child policy, now there is only one chance, and once your child “fails” to make the grade, the entire family system will also lose face. What Chinese people need to remember is that there are now many ways to success and prosperity, including dropping out of school to start your child’s own business, or even becoming a celebrity chef.

Chinese parents inherently know that the only things we will treasure are those we expend effort to acquire, whether it’s an object or a skill. They also know that practice makes perfect. Anyone who’s learned both languages will know that English is auditory (listening to a word will generally give people clues to write and spell it) while Chinese is visual (there is absolutely no relation between the sound and the appearance of the Chinese character, so the only way to grasp the language is through pure memorization). Just like Malcolm Gladwell described in his book “Outliers” with the “Rule of 10,000”, even Mozart did not become a master until after he had accumulated over 10,000 hours of experience in practice and composition. While Chinese parents can work on overcoming our fears and anxieties, Western parents can benefit from motivating our children to not fear repetition and its accompanying boredom, and to persevere in learning something and becoming good at it. After all, all marathon runners know that the “Runner’s High” does not come until after the runner pushes on after hitting that wall that makes you want to quit.


As both a Chinese and a practicing Christian who’s a beneficiary of both kinds of education systems, I would like to suggest that we look beyond the styles and methods of child-raising and examine the real complex underlying reasons for why we want our children to succeed. If we can recognize and own up to our own fears and anxieties about our performance as parents and disengage them from how we go about educating our children, and if we can encourage our children to not fear repetition and raw discipline to persevere and become good at their interest and passion, perhaps we can then finally be able to extract the best of both East and West to ensure their future long term happiness.

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