Exporting Chinese Education

“The top priority of the Chinese school system is to bring in the future leaders of the world, and being able to indoctrinate them in a way that Oxford indoctrinates the future leaders of the world.” –Xueqin Jiang

This come from a very interesting article about how Chinese mathematics education, in particular, is being exported to the UK. Extra bonus: it has extensive quotations from Dr. David Moser and Mr. Xueqin Jiang, two of our distinguished speakers while we were in Beijing.

Time and space in Mandarin Chinese

Language learning and teaching are the focus of my career, and learning a new language is one of my greatest joys in life. So it should be no surprise that I loved every moment of our Chinese classes (not to mention the additional tutoring sessions that I arranged!).

One of the aspects of Mandarin that struck me as different from English or any other European languages I know is its metaphorical relationships between time and space. (I’m just going to avoid discussing Japanese here because it exhibits some of the characteristics I mention below, but not with the consistency that I’ve seen in my limited exposure to Chinese.) As one example, the same character/morpheme is used to indicate front and past (前 qián). Similarly, the same character/morpheme is used for behind and future (后 hòu). To clarify:

Space Time
前 qián = in front of 前天 qiántiān = the day before yesterday (= past)
后 hòu = behind 后天 hòutiān = the day after tomorrow (= future)

So, under this metaphorical system, the past is in front of you, and the future is behind you. This is logical if you think that you can clearly see the past but not the future–although I have no idea if any Chinese native speakers actually think this way. Of course, in English we also talk about the past as being “before” (= in front?) and the future as “after” (= behind?). Even so, from the perspective of a native English speaker, this metaphor is difficult to fully grasp.

What about other characters/morphemes that refer to both space and time? We’ve also got a character/morpheme that indicates both on top of and before/previous (上 shàng) and another that indicates both under and after/next (下 xià).

Space Time
上 shàng = on (top of) 上周 shàngzhōu = last week
上午 shàngwǔ = late morning (“before noon”)
下 xià = under 下周 xiàzhōu = next week
下午 xiàwǔ = afternoon

This logic is much easier for a native English speaker to follow. Instead of thinking of time as passing from in front of you to behind you, now we visualize time as moving from top to bottom, much as you would picture a calendar or timetable.

I am looking forward to learning much more about the metaphors inherent in the Chinese language as I sit in on Chinese 101 at Gettysburg College in the fall and work with the Chinese learners to start up the Chinese Reading Club.

Etiquette dinner

Gettysburg College Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad Chinese Etiquette Dinner

To prepare for our meal together in Gettysburg and future meals in China, we watched a few videos:

Then, on May 8, we met at Li’s Buffet to apply what we’d learned. We had a special menu of Beijing cuisine prepared just for us!

Michelle Rodriguez checks out the duck
Michelle Rodriguez checks out the duck

In addition to discussion the etiquette involved in where each person should sit, we also learned to use chopsticks.

Chris Fee using chopsticks
Chris Fee using chopsticks

And we practiced using Chinese to order food.

Meredith Piatt enjoying shrimp
Meredith Piatt enjoying shrimp

Huge thanks to our special guests, Dr. Junjie Luo, Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies; Ms. Yingjia Zheng, Lecturer in Chinese; and Mr. Brad Lancaster, Director of International Student Services, who came to help us learn proper etiquette and answer our questions about China. We are also grateful that they helped to consume the enormous quantities of food!

Chinese economics

Professor Zhining Hu was kind enough to present an overview of the recent economic situation in China. She also brought along two of her students, Jieran Liu and Eve Li, who shared information about Chinese food and delivery services.

Here are some notes from Dr. Hu’s presentation.

  • Although China has many modern cities, there are still many people living in poverty.
  • Prior to 1978, when the country was under Mao’s leadership:
    • closed, planned economy
    • central government control
    • no incentives or motivation to work hard because salaries and situations would not change
    • everyone treated equally
    • tiny salaries had to support big families
    • stagnant economy with no competition
    • poor living standards compared to developing countries
  • Mao died in 1976, and there were a few transitional years
  • After 1978:
    • China launched economic reforms in 1979 to encourage investment
    • introduction of free-market principles
    • price and ownership incentives for farmers–permitted to sell a portion of their crops on the free market -> farmers got rich
    • In 1979, four special economic zones were created to attract foreign investment and promote import/export.
    • In 1980, another special economic zone was created, and with success, more such zones were developed.
    • The reforms led to a “socialist market economy” and great economic development.
  • Basic facts about China’s current economy:
    • World’s fastest growing economy with a growth rate of 9% of GDP per year.
    • 40% savings rate (very high)
  • Major causes of China’s economic growth
    • The high saving rate provides capital for investment. The reason for the high saving rate is cultural. Parents tell their children to save for an uncertain future.
    • Manufacturing plays a more important role than in the US or Japan.
    • Infrastructure development (e.g., preparation for the 2008 Olympics).
    • Foreign direct investment (FDI)
      • increases employment
      • bring new technology
      • FDI is increasing over time, and spiked in the early 90s
  • However, recently, economic growth is slowing for the following reasons
    • Increase in labor prices
    • State-owned companies have decreased, but still play an important role, get special privileges and protections–even if the companies are not performing well.
    • Banking is still largely centrally controlled, which presents a continuing challenge.
    • Lack of strong rule of law, which leads to corruption and financial speculation.
  • The 13th 5-year plan in the Age of the “New Normal” addresses the following:
    • Pollution, green development
    • Rule of law
    • Innovation
    • Poverty relief
    • Open economy: equal rights, opportunities, and rules
    • Supply side reform

Chinese history

Professor Dina Lowy of the Gettysburg College History Department was so kind as to give us a brief overview of Chinese history on March 20.

She started with some basic facts about China (中国).

  • China’s population is the largest in the world.
  • Its land area is the 3rd largest.
  • The land area is similar in size to that of the US or Canada, but the population is much larger.
  • 14 countries border on China.
  • Its coast line is very long.
  • It has large, uninhabited desert areas and large areas with low population density, including desert areas and the Tibetan Plateau.
  • The Tibetan Plateau is at the highest elevation in the world.
  • The coast has high population density.
  • The early Chinese dynasties started in the east, around Beijing.
  • China has a great variety of climates, leading to varied agriculture, and therefore, varied cuisine. You traditionally find buns and noodles in the north and rice in the south.
  • Beijing is at a similar latitude to Pittsburgh.

As an introduction to the history of China, Dr. Lowy showed a brief segment of 2,000 Years of Chinese History from Crash Course. She is also planning to provide further resources to share with us. Then, she provided further information about Chinese history and culture.

  • Confucianism: Society will only function if everyone performs their proper roles. People have the right to rebel again bad leaders. Superiors must earn their status by taking care of those below them. In the 20th century, the Chinese tried to reject Confucianism, but ultimately failed.
  • Yin and Yang are complementary elements making up a whole in harmony.
  • The dynastic cycle is based on the Mandate of Heaven. Earthquakes and foreign invaders may mark a loss of the Mandate.
  • The Great Wall (長城) is not a single wall, but many, built over the course of many dynasties. The various pieces of the wall intersect in places and allow for communication by travel along the wall. It was made to keep out invaders from the north, protect the capital, and protect the Silk Road. It also promoted the power of the dynasties. Dr. Lowy recommends good walking shoes when you visit the wall!
  • The Forbidden City, built by the Ming in the center of Beijing, is entered via Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace). Mao’s tomb is in Tiananmen Square, which faces Tiananmen (gate). There is shopping and dining south of Tiananmen Square. The Chinese have various associations and memories of Tiananmen Square.
    • On May 4, 1919, there were protests against the Treaty of Versailles because China was poorly treated in the deal. Despite China having supported the Allied side, the treaty left Chinese territory in Japanese control. Around 3000 students protested this in Tiananmen Square, and the protests spread to other cities in China. Ultimately, China did not sign the treaty. This is a key moment in the May 4th movement.
    • Mao proclaimed the founding of the PRC in Tiananmen Square in October 1949.
    • In August 1966 in the square, Mao greeted the Red Guard, who were young people being influenced by Mao to begin the Cultural Revolution. This generation had not experienced the previous revolution. Mao intended to use them to “clean up” the party, which resulted in the Cultural Revolution. The traditional was rejected, and the Communist Party was purged. Over 1 million people were killed, and many millions of lives were disrupted.
    • On May 4th, 1989, the 70th anniversary of the demonstration in 1919, another demonstration was held in Tiananmen Square. Students wanted more of a voice in government. This movement spanned from April to June.

Education in China

On February 27, we were pleased to welcome four experts from different areas of Gettysburg College to talk about their experiences of the Chinese education system:

  • Dr. Bruce Larson (Political Science) spent 6 months in Beijing in 2013 as a Fulbright scholar.
  • Dr. Yan Sun (Art History) was born, grew up, and completed her undergraduate studies in Beijing (at Peking University).
  • Irene Harris (student in Chinese Studies and English) grew up in Boston and recently spent a semester studying at CET in Beijing.
  • Xue Dawei (student in Cinema and Media Studies) was born in Anhui, grew up in Beijing, and graduated from high school in Beijing before coming to college at Gettysburg.

Dr. Larson started by providing some general information about living in Beijing.

  • The pollution is worse in the winter because of the coal being burned for heat. The pollution is not as bad in the summer, and some days may even be clear.
  • “There is no better food on this planet.”
  • Be careful of cars. Try to cross the street with big groups.
  • Beware of motorcycles on the sidewalks.
  • It’s better to use the subway than to take cabs:
    • The subway is cheap (about $0.40 to go anyway) and clean.
    • You can easily buy a reloadable subway card at the airport when you arrive.
    • Cab drivers may not be able to speak English.
    • You will be more likely to get where you are going via subway because cab drivers don’t use GPS and may not know how to get to your destination.
  • Not that many people speak English. Younger people may.
  • Don’t bring up Tiananmen, Taiwan, or Tibet because it makes people feel awkward.
  • People don’t talk much about politics, other than anecdotally.

He also provided some more specific information about education in China.

  • The PhD students he taught loved Americans and were eager to practice their English with him.
  • The university he worked with did not release its schedule until about 3 days before the semester started.

Dr. Sun also spoke about Beijing generally.

  • Recommended museums:
  • Baidu Maps is useful in China. (Remember, we cannot access Google! But note that the web version of Baidu Maps is not available in English. It looks like the mobile version is(?).)
  • The food is good, fresh, and cheap.
    • Foreign food is available.
    • Supermarkets have imported food.
    • You should try the Beijing specialty breakfast.

She also provided more specific information about education in China.

  • The focus is on memorization and building up background knowledge, which was boring when she was in school, but important in retrospect.
  • There is little focus on creativity and students’ opinions in undergraduate programs in China, but they provide a good foundation for graduate school in the US.
  • Students in China are very obedient. They take a lot of notes in order to do well on exams.
  • Previously, all Chinese students needed to compete to get into the best colleges so that they could get the best jobs.
  • Currently, Chinese students can instead choose to study abroad.
  • English education
    • Begins in kindergarten or elementary school.
    • Everyone learns the Gettysburg Address in high school.
    • Most younger people understand English, even if they cannot speak it.

Dawei said the following about education in China:

  • You can change your life/fate through education.
  • Good schools offer English starting in kindergarten.
  • The education system is hierarchical.
    • Students treat their professors with respect.
    • It’s not easy for students to ask their professors questions.
  • Students take a lot of notes to memorize for tests. They are tested on facts, not perspectives.
  • The Gaokao is a college entrance exam that is taken in the senior year of high school.
    • The senior year is spent taking tests, which are graded quickly. Then another test.
    • Studying seriously for the Gaokao seems like the only option because it is only offered once per year.
  • Companies hire based on the name of the college of your degree. If you go to one of a group of elite schools, you are guaranteed to get a well-paid job.
  • US education is viewed through this lens, i.e., based on the college name. For that reason, Gettysburg College is not famous in China.
  • There are no liberal arts schools.
  • The funding from the government is dedicated to the elite schools.
  • There are disparities between the education available in Beijing and Shanghai versus other areas of the country. For example, the teachers may not answer questions so that students must pay them for lessons outside of school times.
  • Corporal punishment exists.

Irene talked about her experience at CET.

  • She had a Chinese roommate who helped her with many things:
    • Getting a phone.
    • Getting useful apps (e.g., for checking air quality).
  • She lived in a hotel dorm. Walmart was nearby.
  • Intensive Chinese classes
    • The teachers came to the dorm building.
    • The students had close relationships with the teachers.
    • Classes were based on grammatical structures and characters.
    • The textbooks used were good for cultural comparisons and history.
  • Tutors were available for more free talk and for help.
  • She recommends Pleco for a dictionary app.
  • She went to an elementary school to teach English.
    • They taught a lesson plan about the US (e.g., testing and personal space).
    • The kids asked questions.
    • They talked with the kids during recess.
    • Elementary schools are in session through June or July.
  • There are not really addresses, so you have to use landmarks to navigate.
  • People you meet may speak slowly because you look like a foreigner.
  • The food is good.

After each presenter spoke, we had time for more questions and answers. I am not sure exactly who said the following!

China/Beijing generally

  • Chinese treat foreigners well. In fact, it is a Confucian ideal to treat foreigners better than yourself.
  • Chinese do not hug, but they may touch you while talking.
  • Dazhong Dianping is like the Chinese Yelp. The web version is only available in Chinese. (The mobile version may be available in English?)
  • Pronunciations and tones are important when speaking Chinese.
  • Use cash, not credit cards. The largest cash denomination is 100 yuan (approximately $16). You can also use your phone to pay using PayPal.
  • There are great wealth disparities between the city and countryside.


  • Kindergarten is not mandatory. There are 6 years of elementary school, 3 years of junior high, and 3 years of high school. Students begin elementary school when they are 6 years old.
  • Students are placed into schools by vicinity, but there is also an exam system that allows them to go to better schools.
  • There are tracks within schools, such as honor classes. Honors classes have an accelerated pace and are higher level. The classes are based on the Gaokao.
  • Public schools are the best in China because they have the best resources. Many private schools are scams (other than international schools).
  • Homeschooling is allowed, and it is becoming more common. However, parents do not teach. Instead, they hire private tutors.
  • There are (probably) not online schools. China does not have the same pedagogical diversity that the US has. The curriculum is centralized for equality. However, China is huge, so there is bound to be variation.
  • Teachers are not evaluated based on test score of students, but they get stipends for having more students attending elite colleges.
  • Some high schools have direct routes to certain US colleges.
  • All students try hard to get into elite schools, but only a few get accepted.
  • When they take the Gaokao, students makes a list of their three preferred schools, then the schools choose the students.
  • China is currently experimenting with changes to the college application system.
  • The Gaokao can be thought of as a continuation of the civil service exam.
  • Test scores are posted in hallways of schools. If you do not do well, you shame both your family and yourself.
  • Economics and international affairs are currently very prestigious majors.
  • Arts is a differ track that must be started from elementary school. Some schools may have an audition in addition to the Gaokao.
  • In schools, students can become class monitors, which is a Communist Party role and an honor. They are “Young Pioneers.”
  • Cram schools are optional in the city but more common outside the city where education is worse.
  • Teachers and professors have high status and are highly respected.
  • To become a professor, you must go to a normal university. In the past, the government paid tuition, room, and board.
  • There is a close relationship between graduate students and professors.
  • Students focus on tests and don’t worry about attendance.
  • Because of the pressure to be successful, suicides are common at universities (or high schools?). So, they are not so shocking.
  • On the other hand, students put effort into studying for the Gaokao, and once they get to college, they have a more relaxed life.