Enter the Dragon China's educational system can enlighten us, even if it is not always worth emulating.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World

By Yong Zhao (2014, Jossey-Bass) 272 pages with notes, graphs, bibliography and index

China’s increasing economic prosperity has led people to explore the reasons behind that country’s recent rise. One plausible explanation for China’s success is its educational system, considering Chinese students’ impressive performance in international tests. Many people in the West have been eager to learn from China in order to emulate its success. Many view China’s successful education method that emphasizes standardized tests and the importance of core subjects such as reading and math to be instrumental to the country’s economic advancement. Opposing this view is Yong Zhao, who analyzes the origins, strengths, and failures of the Chinese educational system in his recently published book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon. By critically analyzing the authoritarian nature of Chinese style education, Zhao tries to ease the concerns of people from other countries, who may feel pressured to follow the China model.

Zhao’s book has eight chapters. Chapter 1 suggests that Chinese economic success and the Chinese educational system are separate: economic growth does not necessarily prove a successful educational system. Chapter 2 discusses various aspects of the historical imperial examinations, including a claim that the examination system throughout history was “a perfect machine for homogenization.” In chapter 3, continuing his focus on history, the author then explores the economic recovery after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and argues that the educational innovation that occurred in China did not allow for the production of “creative individuals.” Chapter 4 portrays China since the 19th century as a “hesitant learner” from the West by reviewing its struggles and unsuccessful westernization. The author cites examples such as the Qing state’s sending students to study in the West but recalling them later in the 19th century, as well as Mao’s conservative and anti-foreign turn in the 1950s. Chapter 5 elaborates on the current problems related to gaokao, the standardized college entrance examinations. As the only path for students to enter college, the author argues, gaokao has been narrowing the definition of success among students and their parents. Chapter 6 continues on this theme by providing a case study of a college prep school that helps students survive the highly competitive college entrance examinations. Chapter 7 moves on to review recent educational reforms and setbacks. The author points out that China has been trying to develop various policies to de-centralize the gaokao system but has had very little success. One example of an attempt to reform the gaokao system has involved awarding bonus points to students demonstrating talents in art, music, and sports. However, this “further disadvantages poor students and students in rural areas” since those students do not have the resources to pursue those expensive extracurricular activities. In the concluding chapter, the author questions the measurement method of PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). The author summarizes that the China model cultivates excellent test-takers but fails to produce “independent thinkers” and “creative individuals,” the types the author feels can thrive in the global culture. Once again, the author reassures his western readers that emulating China in education is unnecessary.

Zhao’s book is worth reading for anyone interested in current Chinese issues. One of the book’s best features is the fascinating set of anecdotes Zhao provides. Among the best is the account of “Mao Zhong,” the aforementioned college entrance test-prep school in Anhui province. Zhao displays a vivid picture of this “hell to [the] heaven.” In addition to the hard-working students and teachers, many parents took an entire year off from work to reside in this place in order to care for their examination-preparing children. Because of the examinations, the village becomes, as Zhao describes, a “test-prep town,” with businesses all focusing on the school and the families’ needs. The town forbids all construction in order to provide students an absolutely peaceful environment for studying. Hotels and restaurants all have auspicious names to bring good luck to examination candidates. As the author comments, this is a perfect example of “high-stakes accountability, and an entire society dedicated to serving the needs of the students.” This chapter is solid, and eye-opening, to both Chinese and western readers.

What makes this chapter fascinating, though, makes other parts of this book inadequate in comparison. The book has many anecdotes, but they remain only simple anecdotes without substantial examples, analysis, and data like the “Mao Zhong” chapter. Additionally, some terms that the author uses could cause confusion in an English context, which makes this work disconnected with scholarship in English. Many terms that the author refers to already have standard English translations and are widely accepted in academia. For example, instead of referring the three main levels of the imperial examinations as county, provincial, and metropolitan, the author lists them as “local, provincial, and national” throughout the entire book (see studies such as Chung-li Chang, Chinese Gentry, 1955; Ping-ti Ho, The Ladder of Success in Imperial China, Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368-1911, 1962; and Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, 2000). Historians must be very careful about using the word “national” to describe this official selection system that started in the 10th century and was retired in 1905, as “nation” and “nationalism” are more recent concepts.

One of the book’s best features is the fascinating set of anecdotes Zhao provides. Among the best is the account of “Mao Zhong,” the aforementioned college entrance test-prep school in Anhui province. Zhao displays a vivid picture of this “hell to [the] heaven.”

In addition to terminology issues, the book’s main argument, that the modern Chinese education system based on memorization and test scores represents a legacy from the imperial examination system, making the Chinese education authoritarian in nature, is controversial. The author grounds his statement in current communist critiques of the imperial examinations. Many people believe that the memorization of Confucian classics and the writing of highly formulated examination essays limited people’s creativity. The following discussion should help to re-assess and re-consider the examinations and provide a more critical understanding of Chinese education in the past and present.

One must first ask, what were the examinations for? The civil service examinations, (“imperial examinations” as the author refers to), were intended as a way to allow the most talented men to rise through the officialdom and serve in the government. Many historians believe that by providing shared knowledge to adult males, the examinations preparation served as an efficient way to hold the massive empire together. A shared knowledge base, however, was not necessarily a “homogenized machine” as the author describes. People’s life and career choices were much more diverse and flexible than was previously thought. In one chapter, the author states “even those who failed at the exams became defenders and promoters, because often they were hired as teachers to help prepare future generations for the exams.” This is an over-simplification. The examinations were highly competitive. It is estimated 5 million males attended different levels of the examinations every year. The passing rate was no more than 1-2 percent to earn even the lowest official titles. Thus many candidates engaged in various professions to support themselves while preparing for the examinations, including teaching, tutoring, editing, and commercial publishing. They utilized their literary skills to continue to “stay in the game,” which is actually very similar to today’s academia (for example, people take adjunct jobs while continuing to look for tenure-track positions). Being involved in those professions also provided power and authority for candidates to reinterpret classics and helped form new literary circles through editing, commenting, and circulating texts (See Kai-Wing Chow, Publishing, Culture, and Power in Early Modern China, 2004). This platform that the examinations made was no less than a “public sphere” in late imperial China.

Although taking the examinations was a promising way to climb the social ladder, not everyone took the examinations. People were more rational and pragmatic than is often portrayed. Since the passing rate was extremely low and preparing for the examinations was a time-consuming and expensive process, families relied on strategy. Even within a single lineage, usually only one son took the examinations while other sons were trained to pursue other professions such as merchants and peasants (See Hilary Beattie, Land and Lineage in China: A Study of T’ung-ch’eng County, Anhui, in the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties, 1979). Many guide books taught people how to behave like a gentry scholar by appreciating antiques and beautifying their households, no matter whether they studied for the examinations and earned degrees (See Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, 1991). Some people in Guangdong, the southernmost province of China, even organized lottery games to help people bet on candidates that would pass the examinations. On the one hand, the imperial examinations were not mandatory tests. They were often treated more as a rational socio-economic decision to better a family’s position, much like the ACT and SAT. On the other hand, it was deeply woven into Chinese society and was an important part of the social, cultural, and even entertaining life in the past.

In addition to providing people a relatively fair way to climb the social ladder, the examinations opened up other possibilities. In one chapter, the author generalizes that “after decades of studying the Confucian texts, even if a man did not become a believer, he would have little time, energy, and resources left to develop the skills, knowledge, and independent ideas needed for a rebellion.” It is not made clear what kind of schools could provide the skills, knowledge, and independent ideas that the author envisions in the late imperial world. In fact, it could be argued that the examinations prepared good rebels, if “rebels” is taken to mean the major forces for social revolution. Exploring the profiles of famous rebels in Chinese history (for example, Hong Xiuquan [1814-1864], the Christian who started the civil war in the 1850s), many of them rose through the examinations. Through studying for the examinations, they obtained literary skills (so, for example, Hong could read the Christian texts he obtained). They were also exposed to some ideas about how society should run. They then earned lower level degrees than anticipated, causing further frustrations (so, in our example, Hong was unhappy and looked for alternative paths). They could then find like-minded individuals, as they had established networks and gained experience in mobilizing different groups of people (taking the examinations was a good way to get to travel around and meet people, otherwise what else could bring adult males outside of their hometown from working in the fields?) Thus, instead of the “skills, knowledge, and independent ideas” that the author puts on the checklist of an ideal rebel, it could be argued that it was more important to possess literary skills, be inspired by visions of social reformation, be made impatient and morally justified by frustration, and have a network, although this is not necessarily what the examinations were originally designed for.

Lacking historical understanding of China’s past, the author romanticizes the West to criticize China’s present.

Even the examination system itself experienced significant changes and reforms. The author claims that “in two thousand years, virtually none of the hundreds of regime changes were started or finished by scholar-officials or anyone else with the highest level of Chinese education.” Thus, he considers Chinese society to have been stagnant. The author overlooks serious intellectual debates such as the Neo-Confucian movements in the late Ming period, the “evidential turn” to encourage reinterpretation of classics in the eighteenth century, the empire-wide compilation of the Emperor’s Four Treasures (1773-1782) to collect and circulate knowledge in the center and the locale, and the western influence and updated examination materials in the 19th century.

Lacking historical understanding of China’s past, the author romanticizes the West to criticize China’s present. The author considers PISA to be problematic. He states “examinations such as the PISA assess cognitive skills. But creativity and entrepreneurship have a lot more to do with non-cognitive skills.” His revered concepts, such as independence and independent thinking, remain little more than buzz words without further clarification. This book makes large assumptions about the best methods of measurement in educational systems, a highly controversial subject that has no clear answer. Measurement itself is competitive in nature. Any competition needs measurement. There are many examples of standardized tests in the West, especially for highly competitive professions such as medicine and law, both requiring extensive memorization and numeric scores to distinguish test takers from each other.

The author seems to overemphasize the creativity and underestimate the value of discipline in western education. It could be argued that education in the United States has no less, if not more discipline, than in China. In American college classrooms, reading materials are often extensive and outside research is almost always required. In order to receive good grades, students are encouraged to go for additional reading, to say nothing of surviving the multitudes of weekly quizzes, papers, extra writing and rewriting. The room for creativity may not be as spacious as the author imagines. Appropriate citation of written work is extremely important in western education, forcing students to respect the written tradition. In order to become the “independent thinker” that the author idealizes, a Ph.D. candidate must write a dissertation that contains thousands of footnotes and a tedious bibliography in order to show mastery of the filed.

Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution for China’s present. Zhao’s final suggestion, which is to give up college entrance examinations and let individual institutions decide which students to admit, to decentralize the control of educational institutions and allow them to be completely autonomous, and to give up control of what is taught in all schools, all proved to be unsuccessful in his earlier narratives, ironically provided by Zhao himself. For example, those experiments already contributed to further chaos during the Cultural Revolution and resulted in corruption afterwards by abandoning measurements and the value of meritocracy.

Just looking at the current crop of academics in China can lead one to the same conclusion Zhao gives and that is often seen in popular sayings: history repeats itself. Although the imperial examinations ended more than 100 years ago, a majority of college graduates in China still take the “new” imperial examinations in order to serve the Chinese government.

Zhao’s previous work reveals him as the perfect person to compare Chinese education with that of the United States. He could have made a more provocative and convincing argument. Born and raised in China, Zhao taught English in Mainland China for many years in the 1980s, giving him first-hand experience on the Chinese school system. Migrating to the United States in 1992 as a graduate student, Zhao later served as associate dean for global education and professor in the Department of Education Measurement, Policy, and Leadership at the University of Oregon. Zhao has the authority, theoretical tools, and methodology to evaluate any educational measurements. Zhao is also a father of two children who attend school in the United States, granting him the unique opportunity to experience the clashes of ideas between generations and cultures from a valuable personal perspective. How does Zhao experience discipline and creativity as a student in China, an educator in the West, and a father of two American-born Chinese students? How does Zhao view Amy Chua, who also writes about the conflicts of different styles of education and whose works are so controversial (See Amy Chua Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, 2011)? Perhaps more could be expected from Zhao. Instead of an ambitious but scattered overview of current problems in Chinese education, perhaps Zhao’s readers would be better served by a book that promises to compare the educational systems in two of most powerful countries in the world: the United States and China.

Zhao is not the first writer to try and explain China’s rise and he will not be the last one to criticize China. Zhao’s book might make one yearn for a more fair way to evaluate China and its education and how one should see those who come from the “other” system when there exists ample opportunity to interact with each other in today’s world. Just looking at the current crop of academics in China can lead one to the same conclusion Zhao gives and that is often seen in popular sayings: history repeats itself. Although the imperial examinations ended more than 100 years ago, a majority of college graduates in China still take the “new” imperial examinations in order to serve the Chinese government. Others take the “foreign” examinations—TOEFL and GRE to enter graduate schools in the United States, and continue to compose highly formatted academic essays in English. Examinations will continue to exist, not because China and the Chinese educational system are authoritarian in nature, but because China is and will continue to be overpopulated, making competition inevitable. The “One Child Policy,” the hukou system (household registration that prevents people from freely living and working in the country), and the ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor will continue to intensify people’s sense of competition and their anxiety to alter their own individual fate, making education one of the biggest investments and life decisions among those people.

Going to school in China might not be the most pleasant thing in the world, but people who rise from those standardized examinations should not feel lesser compared to their western counterparts. Many westerners would not want their children educated in the Chinese system. A person, however, cannot choose where he or she is born and educated; instead, they seek to maximize the gain from whatever system they inhabit. The Chinese, then, need not feel ashamed of their test-taking abilities. In my own experience over the past several years, studying abroad, pursuing a doctoral degree, and struggling in the academic job market, all require great discipline, persistence, and endurance. When I look back to the past, gaokao represents just the end of the beginning. I have come across many more “hells to [the] heaven” after leaving China. Ironically, I believe it would have been difficult to survive in the United States, or even have had the opportunity to knock at the door of the United States, without having traits I obtained from the notorious “Chinese education.” In comparing China against the United States, does China have the best or worst educational system? Different people will give different answers, but to anyone who knows both, the answers are definitely more complicated than simply designating the best or worst. Learning from each other would be invaluable. Understanding is the first step.

En Li

En Li (Ph.D. in Asian History, Washington University in St. Louis) is an incoming assistant professor at Drake University. Li’s current research uses the practice and licensing of lottery gambling, to investigate social, intellectual, and geo-political changes in the transitional period of 19th-century China and its overseas communities. Li’s next project continues her interests in material culture and diaspora. Born and raised in Canton, China, and dancing hula in Midwestern U.S. for the past decade, Li hopes to connect with her ancestors in both scholarship and life’s journey.