Why Chinese students put us to shame

This summer, I spent 7 weeks teaching English in Jiangsu province, China. While I was there, I became progressively more and more Chinese. The superficial, cultural traits I picked up – driving like a maniac, clicking my fingers at waitresses, proposing a toast every five minutes to anyone I’m remotely enjoying having dinner with – are proving that they can be unlearned (which is probably just as well, as “when in Rome” is generally a good mantra). Certain ideological traits which gradually permeated my way of thinking in the course of two months, leaving me wondering things like “would there be these crazy riots in London if we had proper media censorship?”, were erased by my reassimilation into English modes of thought almost immediately on my return. But the lessons I seem to have learned permanently are the ones I learned from my students. Chinese students have a work ethic of dedication, resilience and self-discipline which quite frankly puts us – not only British students, but also Oxford undergraduates – to shame, and they’re learning it from age three. If I’d grown up with that attitude, I’d be earning more by now.

The programme I interned with, Oxbridge China Student Education Programme (OCSEP), boasts that English teachers from Oxbridge can introduce Chinese students to “the western way of learning”, and thus potentially ease the transition for an outstanding Chinese 15- to 18-year-old from Chinese High School to Oxbridge. There is certainly merit to the notion that our “western style” of teaching benefits Chinese students by encouraging them to actually speak in class, and by developing their confidence and their presentation skills. Many of them study in schools where the English language is read, written and listened to, but where there are 65 pupils in a class, which makes a classroom style whereby each pupil is asked to speak aloud in turn essentially impossible. Some of my students could write complex essays in English, but had never spoken English except in an English exam. Okay, fine: there are some things Chinese students could really benefit from in a British style of teaching. To put it bluntly, however, we have more to learn from them than they do from us.

The Chinese work ethic involves a degree of dedication which British students, and even Oxbridge students, would find at best hard to swallow, and at worst outrageous and possibly unhealthy. Earlier this year, Amy Chua, Chinese mother of two and second-generation immigrant to the United States, published her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It’s an autobiographical account of the way she has always worked her two daughters into the ground in order to instil what she sees as a work ethic which prioritises future fulfilment, rather than temporary happiness growing up. It’s not too difficult to sympathise with on principle. After all, what is the amusement of watching two hours of Nickelodeon every day as a child, in comparison to the satisfaction of attaining your dream job, and fulfilling your potential within your career?

Of course, we ought to treat the concept with some caution. Does a parenting technique under which a B-grade is considered so disgraceful that your mother might not speak to you for a week really make for happy, well-rounded children? After all, you need to know that your parents love you even if you don’t have a straight-A report card. In Taizhou, I taught an evening class of four-year-olds their first ever English lesson, with flashcards for “dog”, “cat”, “panda” and so on. At the end of the lesson a mother brought her child back into the classroom and demanded a demonstration of what her daughter had learned, and then had me write down every word that  this little girl (who would definitely have been playing with colourful bricks in a British nursery) couldn’t remember. And at 8.30am the next morning,  the woman brought her daughter to school to demonstrate her memory of all the English animal words she hadn’t known twelve hours earlier. I didn’t quite know what was more concerning: the fact that this woman had clearly spent the previous evening drilling her toddler in a foreign language, or that the four-year-old herself looked so incredibly anxious that I praise her for her work, and so relieved when I did.

And yet this kind of parenting, almost draconian to British or American eyes, doesn’t appear to provoke resentment at all. Almost all of my students, at one point or another, expressed unprompted admiration for their parents. In a written homework about family, fifteen-year-old Kelvin wrote “My father is a mechanical engineer who is always strict both in his work and with himself. He once told me “the best to do is to do your best”. Whenever I’m bored with my study I’ll think of what my dad have [sic] told me and try my best to work harder.”

More than that, this unrelenting and yet loving parental pressure seems to instil not only a dedicated work ethic, but also a sense of pride, aspiration, and responsibility. I asked my class of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds to prepare a presentation each about their ideal job, explaining why they wanted it, and what they would have to do to get it. Lily declared that her dream was to become an architect “because China is developing so quickly, [and] the government needs more talents in this way”. What British fourteen-year-old girl is planning her career based on the welfare of our country? Kelvin announced his plans to become President of China, including a whole set of coherent policies on education, employment opportunities and the environment, and rounded off his presentation (which somewhat resembled an election speech) with the conviction “It’s my duty to work hard and devote my whole life to building a richer and stronger China.” If British teenagers grew up feeling like that about the United Kingdom then maybe I wouldn’t have had to sit in China watching TV reports of opportunist rioting in London and feeling somewhat ashamed of my countrymen.

– Sarah Gashi



  1. Pingback: Chinese students work ethic puts UK students to shame | Ones to Watch

  2. Max Harris

    13th September 2011 at 23:32

  3. L

    20th September 2011 at 01:43

    So you feel ashamed to live in a culture where the search for “harmonious society” (everything in its right place) and a sense of shared national endeavour is not prioritised above individual happiness and free intellectual development? I don’t and I’m sure most readers would agree with me; riots or no riots.

    Personally I’m not sure that constant striving and bad faith from the age of four is any way to go about living; even if you can parrot out the (CC) party line to explain why it is important that you do so. For me therefore this mother, and in many ways China as a nation, is raping the childhood of a generation and thereby trading a pivotal source of the good (in the joy of simple contentment and naive joy) for material development. Okay encouraging altruism is a good thing but surely giving over our lives to serve our community is infinitely more fulfilling when it is the result of free independently formed choice rather than cultural brainwashing?

    The lesson we should learn from the Chinese education system, particularly in a time of slashed funding for Arts departments, is in my opinion primarily that of a warning of the risks of taking the search for quantifiable achievement too far and steering education away from intellectual fulfilment and towards automata.

  4. Sarah Gashi

    20th September 2011 at 19:41

    I’d like to distinguish between the attitude of Chinese students toward their work, which I believe is commendable, and the Chinese education system on the whole, which does contain elements of ‘automata’ and which I’m *not* promoting as some kind of educational model.

    The classes of 65, as mentioned in the article, and also the way in which college and university entrances depend entirely on a numerical score in national exams, are unfortunate difficulties stemming largely from a staggeringly enormous population. Some ten million Chinese students (that is a rough estimate, but it gives you an idea) apply for university in China each year, and at the moment the magnitude of that necessitates that only ‘quantifiable achievement’ i.e. score in the college entrance exams is taken into account, rather than each student’s ‘free intellectual development’. Essentially, it is impossible from an administrative point of view for every student to showcase his/her individuality in a personal statement, and so in that regard you are unfortunately correct that the Chinese education system expects its student to prioritise quantifiable achievement rather than free intellectual development.

    Chinese students are aware of this. I actually held a debate in class – “This House believes that the Chinese college entrance examinations should be abolished” – and Tom lamented that “we practice repetitive memory skills and study hard, but we don’t extend our creative abilities”, and Niko argued that “the number of other activities students organise and take part in should be taken into account, in addition to test scores”.

    I believe that their attitude to work essentially transcends that. That sense of responsibility and personal pride that I mention isn’t born of some kind of organised cultural ‘brainwashing’ – their parents have taught them to be altruistic, and to use their lives to serve their communities, like all parents (ideally) should. Furthermore, they work so hard, albeit within the constraints of the need to have quantifiable achievements, in order to facilitate their own personal fulfillment, as well as in order to serve their communities. A high score in the college entrance exam is a ticket to a top university, which opens up doors for a student to his/her dream career. There is certainly a personal ‘intellectual fulfillment’ to be found in fulfilling your academic potential and thus attaining a job that fully utilises your abilities. If you can then use that job to serve your community, like your parents rightly taught you that you should, that is a further kind of fulfillment for the individual, even before we consider the benefit to society.

    Let me know what you think. =)

  5. L

    20th September 2011 at 21:03

    Yes okay I think I better comprehend the core message of the article now thanks. You do raise a very interesting point which is infact whether it is simply the scale of the competition Chinese students face which drives them to work so hard rather than simple state campaigning. For my part I have no first-hand evidence to go on so it doesn’t pay to speculate.

    While I admit it IS all well and good for me to sit in my college library, one of 400 extremely privileged students to have the luxury of doing so, and read whatever takes my fancy on the internet and choose options without much regard to their usefulness, it is an interesting thought that perhaps if I were competing for a graduate job with 10 million other students I might well right now be beavering away in the dark recesses of the “Management and Finance” corner.

    So I think in many ways you do make a very subtle point underlying why we here at Oxford are so lucky to study in the creative environment we do. Yes there are lessons to be learned from China’s story as you set out; we should appreciate how lucky we are – and yes I agree the vision of the collective can be a lesson to those parts of our society who practise the worst excesses of radical individualism – but we shouldn’t get away from the fact that our educational culture is simply superior to that of China.

    Thus I believe while we may look at the plight of China’s young Stakhanovites with a pang of guilt (I wouldn’t personally go so far as “shame”), the overriding emotion we ought to feel is one of pity.

  6. Dan @ Proofreading Services

    7th October 2011 at 13:27

    I also spent the summer teaching English in China, and I encountered the same thing. The students arrive early, say good morning in impeccable unison, and stand up when they want to say something in class. They also shine with enthusiasm during the breaks and crave positive written feedback on their writing. Their evenings involved a couple of hours of largely unsupervised self-study… I can’t imagine that in England. I have to say they were the best students I’ve ever taught.

  7. Leon Purvis

    14th March 2012 at 11:39

    So you’re an expert on Chinese education is seven weeks? And during those seven weeks you “became progressively more and more Chinese”, and acquired traits such as “driving like a maniac, clicking my fingers at waitresses, proposing a toast every five minutes to anyone I’m remotely enjoying having dinner with…”.

    All that in seven weeks? How did you get a driver’s license in such a short time?

    Try teaching in China for seven years.

    You state that “we have more to learn from them than they do from us.”

    I don’t think so. These kids spend most of their lives studying for the gao kao, a test which pretty much decides their lot in life. The single-minded study of mostly unimportant information almost completely subordinates all creative and critical thinking. You need to spend more time in Chinese class rooms in different schools and in in different kinds of schools.

    The undisciplined students who waddle through school and seem not to realize how privileged they are and spend more time trying not to work than actually pursuing an education could use some Chinese discipline, but I would hardly prescribe it for all students and for all school systems in the western world. (I am an American).

    Return to China and report back with a little more substance backed by a lot more experience.


  8. Sarah Gashi

    15th March 2012 at 01:06

    I think that the comment exchange between me and “L” above addresses most of the issues raised in your post.

    Although you clearly have many more years experience of Chinese schools than me (and I respect that), I think you will find that our views are really quite similar. I’m not advocating their school system, I’m advocating their work ethic, and perhaps also “Chinese discipline”. See the comments above yours.

    Finally, I was driving an e-bike, not a car. No license necessary. Sorry if I misled or offended you.

  9. Leon Purvis

    15th March 2012 at 02:34

    The scholastic work ethic is not typical of all of China. There are some kids who just don’t have the intellectual capacity, yet they are pushed through the machine and wind up thoroughly disinterested in/incapable of engaging in meaningful intellectual discourse. They could have prepared to become what they have a natural predisposition for. Instead, they find themselves confronted with years and years of mind-numbing drudgery with a test at the end. If they don’t drop out of school before the gao kao, they get low grades and then, if they’re lucky, they are admitted to a lower-ranked university (but more likely) a third-rate community college with no real direction.

    Many children whose parents have the wherewithal are sent to “learning centers” where they receive intensive training in either math or English (or both). These kids succeed academically because their parents push them very very hard. They are papa’s little dividends, their retirement future. These kids go on to prestigious universities and usually wind up with cushy jobs with which they support their parents in their old age.

    What most summer interns see are real performers. Most of the young kids who attend the Cambridge school chain are truly phenomenal in their English abilities. I’ve met ten year-old Chinese kids who speak as well as educated twenty-five year-olds. Those kids are the ones whom the western students should emulate, but for different reasons. (There are such western kids around— and a lot of them— but most off us don’t see them because we don’t teach at the hoidy-toidy schools or at the high- priced international schools.

    I won’t deny that I myself have taught Chinese students whose verbal abilities are truly astounding. I’ve taught others who were less than stellar too.

    I agree that we could learn something from many Chinese about the drive to succeed academically. Many of these kids represent their parents’ only source of income in their old age, hence the desire of couples to have girl babies, and hence the continual “support” from their parents to succeed academically.

    I have met relatively few who study and read out of a natural curiosity. Others merely memorize and tend to retain less or they remember what they have memorized, but they cannot think critically. They do this at their parents’ urging.

    Again, I agree, that we can learn a lot about Chinese learning processes, their motivations, and their ability to think critically. There’s a lot of veneer to peel back before we see what’s really going on.

  10. Leon Purvis

    17th March 2012 at 10:25

    Errata: the following sentence should read:

    “…Many of these kids represent their parents’ only source of income in their old age, hence the desire of couples to have BOY babies, and hence the continual “support” from their parents to succeed academically…”

  11. James

    19th March 2012 at 23:03

    L: ‘giving over our lives to serve our community is infinitely more fulfilling when it is the result of free independently formed choice rather than cultural brainwashing’

    What is the difference between a UK parent teaching their child how to think and a Chinese parent teaching their child how to think? Is it ‘cultural brainwashing’ that my parents instilled Western, British values in me as a child? What exactly makes the choices you have made ‘independently formed’ – perhaps you raised yourself, far-removed from all of society?

    As for the ‘individual happiness’ vs. ‘shared endeavour’ point: I think the community- and family-centric values of much of South East Asia are highly admirable. A UK with stronger community bonds probably wouldn’t have looted and burned its own shops for no real reason last summer.

  12. LeeiZ

    28th May 2012 at 22:45

    As a person of Chinese ethnicity,(although not from China or Hong Kong but am actually from Malaysia), I feel that I have to step forward and say something with regards to:

    @Leon Purvis –

    “These kids succeed academically because their parents push them very very hard. They are papa’s little dividends, their retirement future. These kids go on to prestigious universities and usually wind up with cushy jobs with which they support their parents in their old age.”

    This is in my experience patently untrue and completely minimises the dedication and sacrifice put in by Chinese parents, while totally misrepresenting their motives. While growing up, my parents spent countless hours helping me with my studies at home, sending me for extra tuition, showing up at school/sporting events and essentially being a private chauffeur for 16 years. They were tough on me, no doubt, but it was coupled with unconditional love, and both my parents frequently made sure I understood that what grade I achieved had no relation to their love for me. Instead, they wanted me to succeed for myself to build my self confidence, but would love me regardless of whether or not I performed. At no point in my journey from childhood to adulthood did they ever make me feel as if I was extension of them to be put on display or for bragging rights.

    Also, with regards to grades, to my parents, it was not the “A” that mattered so much as what the “A” represented: the determination to succeed, persistence, dilligence, time management, self sufficiency etc. These values were the point of studying, as I was told many a time when I was on the brink of throwing my hands in the air and walking away from it all, and not the grade itself. These were the values they were trying to instil in me, and by God have I come to realise that these values are important.

    My father has also told me on multiple occasions that he expects nothing from me: no monetary support, no “dividends” as Leon so crudely put it, but that all he wanted was for me to be happy and successful, so that I would be able to take care of myself and my (as yet non-existent) family in the future should I have one. He repeated this in no uncertain terms at various stages of my life growing up.

    As to why you might be of the view that the sole or overwhelming reason Chinese parents push their kids to be strong academically, I put down to the polar opposite cultures of the West and Asia (I’m generalising here, cognizant of the fact that that no family is exactly the same) causing differing viewpoints. Having completed both my undergraduate and postgraduate studies here in the UK, I have come to the sense that people here are a lot more individualistic. For example, having both read up and spoken to locals during my time here, many people I have spoken to are of the view that money should be spent, and that since I (as a parent) have raised you for 17+ years, retirement is my reward and I’ll spend whatever I have, leaving little if at all to pass down to my children (this doesn’t reflect everyone’s attitudes, just many I have spoken to and what I gather from reading newspapers, studies etc). In Asia, however, familial bonds are usually very strong and families are very tightly knit. The focus of parents are to ensure the child is successful and to make sure he has tools with which to compete in life, and to put him in the best position possible (hence the pushing, tuition etc). This is evidenced by the culture of moving back in with your parents after graduating, something frowned upon in the West, and by the fact that many parents provide financial support and planning to their children even after they obtain a steady job.

    Therefore, the child grows up knowing that the parent is only pushing him to succeed because they want him to succeed in life (which I admit may be their definition and not his) and this is done out of love. Any monetary support given by children to their retiree parents, are frequently done out of the same sense of love, and a deeper understanding of the great personal sacrifices and deprivations undergone by the parents to ensure the child will have said “cushy jobs” in the first place.

    In a nutshell, it is not about Return on Investment, but simple, unadulterated love.

  13. Leon Purvis

    29th May 2012 at 02:37

    To LeeIz

    I don’t doubt that your parents love you or that mainlander or HK parents love their children. This however, is the social reality at the moment: there is little or no social safety net for aged parents. If you lived on the mainland and knew people there, you would know that MOST parents depend upon their children financially. Those who have pensions are less dependent upon their children in their old age. Those who have no pension are almost totally dependent upon their children when they become too old to work. This is a fact of life in the PRC.

    I have Chinese male friends who are postponing marriage largely because their parents are approaching the age at which they must retire or they can no longer work. They must decide: postpone marriage or marry and live in with their parents.

    This is not at all about ethnicity. This is about the reality of the PRC.The problem is worsened by the ever-widening division between the haves and the have-nots. Those who are fortunate enough to be sucked up in the current economic updraft can afford to support their parents, sometimes in separate housing. Those who who are less fortunate face a struggle until the day their parents die. Even then, the surviving child’s future is not assured.

    I did not intend to offend when I stated that the child is papa’s little dividend, but it is true. On the mainland, most Chinese children (especially the males) are treated very very well. The parenting is excellent in most of the families that I have known. Each Chinese married couple who has a child that I know admits that they realize that their child will shoulder the burden of taking care of them in their old age, so they do their best for their children. It is good parenting and a smart economic investment.

  14. Anonymous

    12th October 2012 at 14:27

    My god this is so incredibly naive…

  15. Pingback: CNN Shaming Chinese Students? Let the Witch-Hunt Begin! | The East-West dichotomy

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