All in all I’m just another…

On a bridge across the Nanming River, which river splits Guiyang into north and south, is Jiaxiu Tower. Built in 1598 during the Ming Dynasty, the tower’s purpose was to encourage scholars to do well in the Imperial Examinations. The name jiaxiu means getting the very best in the imperial examinations.

My experience in the classroom, though limited, seems to indicate that a teacher, at least for a while, learns as much as his or her students. Teaching English in China, I learn about China. The teenage and adult students, especially those who are pretty fluent, are a rich source of information about the People’s (sic) Republic. I’m learning all the time. One morning, at the end of curriculum, I had one of the classes discuss the Chinese education system.

Here’s what I learned: Bang. Children begin kindergarten at three-years-old – the day begins at 8AM, finishes at 5PM. Bang. Six-years-old to twelve is dominated by primary school, 8AM-6PM, Monday to Friday. Bang. Middle School, thirteen- to fifteen-years-old, 8:30AM to 4:55PM, Monday to Friday. Bang. High School, fifteen- to eighteen-years-old, 7AM to 6PM, Monday to Friday, Monday to Friday, Monday to Friday… And Saturday and Sunday strangled by extra classes.

Because my opinion shouldn’t really matter in the classroom I tried, probably without success, to not show my surprise. What’s the worst part of the system? I said.

They talked and pretty quickly came to a unanimous decision. High School’s the worst. All the students – Crystal,Koly,Lydia, Sandy, Teddy, Matt, Ashling, Peter, Ranger – agreed that High School’s the worst. Eleven hours looking up at a blackboard and then a whole evening’s homework, all geared towards the dreaded and ominous NATIONAL HIGHER EDUCATION ENTRANCE EXAM.

Commonly known as the Gao Kao, which means Big Test, the exam is spoken of in tones of dread. Admission to university in China is pretty low – in 2007, ten million students fought for 5.7 million university places – compared to the West, where availability of third-level education is higher. The exam, therefore, is highly competitive, and the students and their parents experience massive pressure. Clouds ploughing down. Pray they don’t break? Pray they do?

The exam takes place over three days in June. Througout the prior months, exam authors are confined to secret compounds while the test is being written, and the papers are printed by inmates at maximum-security prisons. Bang. The irony.

Bang. Students hoping to attend university will spend practically all their waking moments before the exam studying. Fear of failure is a massive psychological problem. Bang. ‘Most pressure-packed examination in the world.’ Bang. Job competition is ferocious in China. Bang. Pressure to land a prestigious degree can be unbearable. Bang. Every year there are tales of exam-time suicides.

For safety, to warn of potential devastating storm, a barometer should be installed in every Chinese student’s brain.

Pressure is the word probably most often used when the students talk about High School. The system puts them under enormous pressure. And because the ‘better’ schools, if you can afford them, are so expensive, because the parents spend so much money, the kids feel even more pressure to do well, and pass the exam. And even then if they do get to Uni and graduate there are not enough jobs – I don’t know the ratio of jobs to graduates – which results in yet more fierce competition, which competition for limited opportunity bleeds back into the entire education system: Uni, High School, Middle School, back even to Kindergarten; kids locked all day inside rooms, bleary-eyed rote-learning, told by teacher to keep quiet, keep quiet, keep quiet…

A student, Teddy, said, After University I want to move to Finland.

Why? I said.

Because there I can make children and the children can grow up with their own mind. I like China but I don’t like the Chinese government.

They asked me about my schooldays.

I said, My secondary school opened at 9:30AM and closed at 4:15PM.

There were gasps among the students of what I guess was both amazement and maybe envy.

I told them to pretend they’d been appointed to make four changes to improve the Chinese education system.

Less homework, they said. More free time. More discussion. Reform the exam-oriented education system…

What changes are most likely to be implemented? I said.

None, they said, impossible, we are daydreaming.

Kindergarten was the best part of school, they said.


Because, they said, because we played games.


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