Tea Leaf Nation

Tears for Fears

Chinese educators are rethinking the learn-and-churn model.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The United States is growing increasingly anxious about losing its educational competitiveness to countries like China — but the grass seems greener from across the Pacific. When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a December 2013 report on worldwide student performance, the United States found its students trailing far behind Shanghai, the top scorer in reading, math, and science. While Shanghai is of course a city, their students did so well in math that their scores put them two years ahead of their peers in Massachusetts, the United States’ strongest-performing state. But just as more Americans begin to look approvingly at China’s educational model, the traditional Chinese parenting and teaching style — with its emphasis on high expectations and strict discipline — is facing a backlash at home.

With a Confucian tradition that puts heavy emphasis on filial obedience and academic achievement, the stereotype of strict Chinese parents wringing the best out of their children through harsh techniques certainly has its basis in truth. Indeed, sometimes the line between tough love and child abuse becomes blurry, and a "tiger mother" — a term referring to an aggressively ambitious parent popularized by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua — becomes potentially toxic. Now, there are signs some Chinese have had enough.

On the popular Chinese social network Douban, a group calling itself "Anti-Parents" has more than 77,000 members, where users share stories of childhoods spent under the thumbs of controlling parents. In a survey on the forum, almost all of the roughly 1,600 responses named development of self-confidence or self-esteem as the most precious thing the respondents’ parents hindered during their childhoods. In one story typical of the forum, a user wrote that her mother used to slap her "for every mistake in my homework" and gave her a tongue-lashing "in front of neighbors and classmates" for failing to win election to the class council. Indeed, entire Chinese schools have been built around this type of "oppressive, utilitarian, and humiliating" style of education, wrote Li Xuan, a doctoral student of developmental psychology at Cambridge University. In a June 2012 public letter, Li accused teachers at her elite elementary school in Nanjing, a large city in southern China, of engaging in corporal punishment, screaming at students, and throwing their backpacks out of school windows. Such "chronic humiliation, social aggression, and attacks on self-confidence" brought about a "life-long sense of insecurity," she wrote

But some of China’s would-be tiger parents are now opting to purr rather than roar. So-called appreciation education, which encourages adults to celebrate children’s successes instead of focusing on their failures, is now in vogue. Chinese publication Southern Education Weekly wrote in June 2013 that Shenzhen school officials were considering rolling out the program among all city high schools, although they have not yet done so. Some elementary and middle schools around China have already revamped their curricula around this philosophy. Jishui Number 1 High School in central Henan province linked teachers’ bonuses to their ability to embrace these new methods, while Xilin High School in Shanghai designated every Monday "appreciation day," when teachers must compliment at least 20 students in class. And more wealthy Chinese parents are sending their children overseas to study — not only to improve their English, give them an international outlook, and improve their chances of getting a coveted foreign passport, but also to benefit from a more holistic approach to education. It’s all part of a "rising tide" of Chinese parents "who care more about their child’s well-being than his or her test score," Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of Tsinghua University High School, one of China’s top secondary schools, wrote in December 2013.

But that shift has yet to show in China’s uber-competitive college admissions process, which continues to place overwhelming weight on entrance exam scores. That means anxious parents planning their children’s future feel they have little choice but to steer them, sometimes with heavy-handed scolding or prodding, toward exam preparation, to the exclusion of their hobbies and other interests. In May 2012, photographs went viral on the Chinese web showing high school students in central Hubei province studying for the Gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, while hooked to intravenous drips of amino acids. In June 2012, a young man named Shen Fei in the hardscrabble eastern province of Anhui learned only after completing the Gaokao that his mother had died in a car accident over a week earlier; family members and several in the surrounding community told Anhui television they had hidden the truth so that Shen could focus on his test. In January 2013, state-owned newspaper People’s Daily carried a story describing how one 9-year-old girl would stay up until 10 o’clock each night working on her homework, then get up at 3 o’clock in the morning to finish it.

Chinese education authorities have plans to lighten the workload for school children with measures that include mandating less homework and scrapping the entrance examination to middle schools in major cities. But reforms to the school system will take time to materialize, and the cultures of overwork they have created will not go gently. For Chinese children currently in the state-run school system, a break from the grind — much less appreciation — may still lie a long way off.

Yiqin Fu is a regular contributor to FP's Tea Leaf Nation.