Tea Leaf Nation
China’s Wealthy Parents Are Fed Up With State-Run Education
Forget rote memorization and pressure-packed tests -- Western, alternative learning is the new rage.
BEIJING — In the northern outskirts of Beijing, past the jungle of high-rise apartment buildings and vehicle-clogged streets that comprises the Chinese capital, sits a sprawling compound ringed by rows of hawthorn and walnut trees. It is home to Ri Ri Xin, one of several alternative schools that have sprung up around the city in recent years. Opened in 2007 by a local couple, the institution has more than 70 teachers and 300 students, and runs from kindergarten to eighth grade. “We put out no advertisements at all,” said Zhang Dongqing, a co-founder of the school, whose name means “renewal from day to day” in classical Chinese. “Parents sought us out from the very beginning, and soon came their relatives, and then their friends.”
Ri Ri Xin and schools like it demonstrate the growing interest among young, middle-class Chinese parents in alternative education, often based on liberal Western ideas, even as state authorities have clamped down more tightly on Western values in Chinese higher education. On Jan. 30, China’s education minister demanded that universities shun “Western values,” in what seems the latest move in President Xi Jinping’s sweeping campaign to tighten up the ideological sphere. But Western pedagogies like Waldorf and Montessori, which a few years ago might have been mistaken for clothing brands, now adorn the fronts of elite kindergartens and elementary schools. Parents hope to spare their children the dull, stressful grind of the state education system by finding them something more laid-back that affords greater freedom for intellectual exploration. Some, like Zhang, have established private academies featuring curricula inspired by ancient Chinese philosophies from Confucianism to Daoism; others have opted for home schooling. With some schools costing up to $8,000 a year, more than three times the average annual income of a Chinese household, alternative education is an option only for a wealthy minority. It has thrived on the growing desire to drop out among those Chinese best positioned to lean in.
One weekday afternoon last March, Ri Ri Xin’s concrete playground was abuzz with student activities: Two dozen third-graders practiced a set of martial arts drills, chanting cadences with each move, while another group took turns shooting hoops. Girls tiptoed in the woods, playing a game of hide-and-seek. In a first-grade classroom, at the far end of the airy, star-shaped school building with glass walls, around 20 students engaged in a story relay. A young, red-cheeked teacher announced the first line: “There is a lion who knows how to use a gun –” and a boy in the first row interjected: “But he never uses it!” The story continued. The teacher occasionally paraphrased students’ sentences, though the students often interrupted if they did not like the new version.
Wang Xiaofeng, Zhang’s husband and the school’s principal, said they originally started Ri Ri Xin out of concern for their younger daughter’s education. Wang’s older daughter, after toiling unhappily in the state system for over 10 years, had decided to drop out of high school at the age of 17. She later attended a vocational college and became a professional gamer. Her experience drove Wang to reflect on the homogenizing tendency of Chinese education, which he believes suffocates individuality. “Each child is like a seed,” said Wang. “Some are supposed to grow into maize, but we force them to grow into millet. Why?” He threw up his palms. “Because millet is more expensive. But if we do that, we will end up with nothing but millet.”
Many of the well-connected and affluent parents who have opted to remove their children from the Chinese state education system have themselves often emerged as winners from that system. That means they understand its drawbacks and perils better than most. Nicholas Chang, a former IBM sales manager, attributes his decision to quit his job and home-school his 8-year-old son, Felix, to his personal experience with Chinese schools. Bespectacled and with a youthful smile, not to mention an engineering Ph.D. from prestigious Tsinghua University, Chang exudes the self-assurance of a scholar. But he remembers his time in the classroom as one of ennui and confusion. “I never understand what the purpose of school was,” said Chang, who easily mastered its required routines but felt little interest in learning. “I spent most of my time wondering what one gains from the practice, and what should be the meaning of a true education.”
Chang is seeking the answer by experimenting with his son’s schooling. Chang had enrolled his son in a top-ranked public elementary school, but it was rigid and monotonous; Chang then tried a swanky private academy, but found it too conscious of status and wealth. “The primary role of education is to produce workers and consumers,” Chang said of these schools. “It is a factory.”
Drawn to the philosophy behind the “unschooling movement,” which grants children full autonomy in deciding what to learn in an environment free from institutional constraints, usually at home or within their local community, Chang is testing the method by degrees. His son, Felix, spends his morning memorizing German vocabulary and practicing guitar chords. (“Rote learning is still a crucial skill,” Chang reiterated). In the afternoon, Felix roams the spacious apartment, thumbing through books such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the popular Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Young foreign expats stop by now and then to provide private lessons in piano, drums, and playwriting.
Chang says he plans to expand the experiment. He named his project Armada Education, embodying his conviction that learning should resemble a joint voyage between the adults, who are the proverbial aircraft carriers, and the children, who are the boats. “They are free to explore,” he explained, “but we are there if they need to come back for fuel.” Asked if he believes his method could be widely adopted in China, Chang strikes a more ambivalent tone. “I believe the way to cultivate a general is not the same as that to train a soldier,” he said. “A true general definitely does not walk such a conventional path. It requires a different set of skills.”
Chang’s view echoes the traditional belief of elite Chinese scholar-officials that education is a vehicle for self-cultivation. In the past century, as China came into increasing contact with the West, this belief often found expression through an admiration for progressive Western ideologies. A few days before the 1919 protests that sparked the May Fourth Movement, the famous American educator and philosopher John Dewey had arrived in China to promote his theory. Among the intellectuals intrigued by Dewey was a young Mao Zedong, a fresh graduate from a local teachers college and Dewey’s stenographer in Changsha. Mao, later to become the figurehead of China’s communist revolution, called Dewey’s thoughts on education and democracy “worth studying.” He carried the philosopher’s books when he opened a revolutionary bookstore in Hunan in 1920.
That flirtation with liberalism ended in 1949, when China’s new communist leaders introduced an education infrastructure closely based on the Soviet model. Teaching instead focused on inculcating a communist worldview and developing skills that would help graduates fulfill assigned social roles. Though the ideological component faded after Mao’s death, today’s education system, with its emphasis on math and science and its tendency to funnel students into narrow academic paths early, still bears a Soviet imprint.
At Ri Ri Xin, the course design largely follows that of the public education system, with emphasis on Chinese, math, and English, while examinations are symbolic rather than an end in themselves. Classes are loosely organized to allow more student-teacher interaction, although they sometimes devolve into mild anarchy. In a fourth-grade astronomy class, a young female teacher struggled to keep her voice audible above student chatter while trying futilely to draw their wandering eyes to a slideshow of the nine planets in the solar system.
Wang sees his education model as a work in progress. That has not discouraged other parents, who share his frustration with the Chinese education system and appreciate his open-mindedness. They seem to identify more with Wang’s educational philosophy than with the nuts and bolts of his approach. “Here, students and teachers are like friends,” said the father of a third-grader named Xiaoyu, who gave only his surname, also Wang. “The environment is more humane, which is what attracts me.”
For decades, China’s state education has offered many young strivers the chance to realize their ambition through hard work, but strictly within the system. An emphasis on rote learning and memorization achieved remarkable results in the past three decades, creating legions of learned bureaucrats and an army of literate workers to fill various roles necessitated by the country’s booming economy. But public discontent with the system has recently been spreading. The competition to enter elite colleges, always fierce, has come to resemble a Darwinian survival battle; a May 2014 government report that looked at 79 cases of suicide among Chinese students in 2013 concluded that over 90 percent were caused by unbearable academic pressure.
The system, in other words, seems to be yielding diminishing returns against the huge tolls it exacts from its participants. After the expansion of higher education, which saw a quintupling of the number of college graduates in the past decade, college diplomas no longer guarantee respectable white-collar jobs, which are often snatched up by those with the best connections. Meanwhile, Chinese studying abroad, who numbered 300,000 in 2013 alone, often return with superior foreign language and critical thinking skills and are generally favored over peers who lack such experience.
Influenced by this trend, parents are now racing for their children to acquire skills imparted by Western pedagogies starting at an early age. Li Yue’er, a painter-turned-educator, still remembers the moment she discovered Montessori, a popular Western pedagogy that advocates respect for a child’s intellectual independence and natural psychological development. It was in 1999, and “it was like a beam of light shining into my dark world,” Li told me one spring afternoon. She quit her job shortly after and opened a Montessori classroom on a busy pedestrian street in Yinchuan, the capital of her home province Ningxia, trying to persuade passersby to leave their children there while they did their shopping. The theory was a hard sell then, in a poor province where elite universities in faraway Beijing held more appeal than terms like “the absorbent mind” and “valorization of personality.”
But Li’s institution, named Ba Academy after a utopian school described in a best-selling Japanese children’s book, is now thriving. It has 500 students and 200 teachers across two campuses. Started as a kindergarten, it just opened a second grade this fall. Walking into the school building, one sees bright-colored classrooms decorated with Waldorf toys and art studios equipped with Montessori materials. “Education is just a tool,” Li explained about her approach of cherry-picking Western pedagogies in an interview with a Chinese magazine in April 2014. “Its purpose is to help people lead a better life.”
Li is already planning to incorporate another approach into her school system. She said she had just signed a contract to rent a two-plus-acre plot of land in northeast Beijing. It’s the future site of an elementary school that will apply the Finnish model, Li said. “After elementary school, there will be a middle school and a high school,” she said. “I spent 10 years building up this kindergarten. I have another 20 years. I can do it.”
At 4:30 p.m. at Ri Ri Xin, school was out. Students dashed out of the main gate and climbed one by one into a row of posh vehicles that lined the driveway. The teachers stood by the door and waved goodbye as the cars pulled away. In her office, Zhang, the school’s co-founder, betrayed a feeling of anxiety as she mused on the future of Ri Ri Xin.
Like a number of other alternative schools, such as Ba Academy, Ri Ri Xin is registered with the district government, which shields it from the immediate risk of forced closure. But Zhang says it lacks full legal status. A local government plan to appropriate the land rented by Ri Ri Xin for commercial use has always loomed in the background. “Things are outside our control,” she said.
Equally challenging for the school is the procurement of academic accreditation from the government. In most cases, students at alternative schools are allowed to enter the state system midway through their education, as long as they pass relevant standardized tests or hold degrees from state-approved private academies. Yet the ministry of education does not recognize diplomas granted by independent institutions like Ri Ri Xin. This has discouraged many interested parents from sending their children to her school, Zhang said.
Committed parents have made a conscious choice to forgo such misgivings. Wang, the father of Ri Ri Xin third-grader Xiaoyu, said he simply hopes for a happy, fulfilled life for his daughter. Education should provide knowledge as well as a foundation for spiritual contentment, he believes, not the exhausting climb he remembers. “In my first day of college, I remember thinking, I’ve finally made it,” he said. “I don’t need to work anymore. I was so burnt out.”
Soon after he enrolled Xiaoyu in Ri Ri Xin, Wang quit his job as a reporter for the state-owned network China Central Television, which he had held for more than two decades. “Others look at me and thought I did well, except all I did was buckling down and walking ahead,” he said. “We think we can’t resist, when in fact we can.”