When talking about China, many people are astounded by its enormous and mysterious performance in recent decades. Since the implementation of economic reform and opening-up policies in 1978, China has become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies with the GDP growth rate averaging between 7% and 8% a year, despite a bit slowdown in recent two years. Nevertheless, standing as the world’s second biggest economy in terms of its nominal total GDP, China successfully inspires the world’s curiosity. What kind of government and/or policies that make China such a huge turnover immediately following the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which is a sociopolitical movement that paralyzed China politically and economically? How it significantly reduces the desperation of hunger and poverty not only in its own homeland but in many other countries’ land? What is the role of education in playing to inspire its people to reconstruct the nation as well as the economy? To answer these questions, let’s start from overviewing the education in China.
Being a country of the world’s largest population, China organizes and operates the largest education system with almost 260 million students and over 15 million teachers in about 514,000 schools, excluding graduate education institutions (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2014). China’s education system is not only immense but diverse. If you compare the education in rural areas and urban areas, in poor families and rich families, in northern regions and southern regions, in interior cities and coastal cities, you will get dramatically different conclusions about what is China’s education and how it performs. Education in China is always assigned a high value by the government, holding the belief that it is the fundamental of national development and modernization. In recent years, the share of government expenditure on education has grown to more than 4 percent of national GDP, reaching the goal set by the National Medium and Long-Term Educational Reform and Development Programme (2010-2020). Education is state-run, with little involvement of private providers in the school sector, and increasingly decentralized. The Ministry of Education is the agency of the State Council that oversees the education throughout the country. At the provincial level, there are departments of education or commissions that are in charge of education. At the county level, bureaus of education are in charge. The responsibility of basic education lies with county-level administrations, hence efforts are made to integrate the development of education and the labor force with the development of local economy and the advancement of culture, morals and living standards.
The Law on Nine-Year Compulsory Education, which was enacted in 1986, stands as a milestone in China’s education reform of achieving the mission of universal primary education for all citizens. According to the Law on Nine-Year Compulsory Education, all school-age children with Chinese nationality have the right to receive at least nine years of education (generally, six-year primary education and three-year secondary education), and parents are responsible for enrolling their children in school and making sure they complete nine years of compulsory schooling. The Law was revised in 2006, and it now stipulates that all students in compulsory education are exempted from tuition and miscellaneous fees. According to UNESCO-UIS3 2016, the gross enrolment ratio for primary education in 2014 was 103% compared with 104W% in 2006, while for secondary education gross enrolment ratio was 94% compared with 64% in 2006. Up to 2014, China has progressed to allow over 140 million students to get the basic education.
The reform of higher education was not that reassuring. In the periods of political upheavals, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, ideology was severely stressed over professional or technical competence. Universities were forced to shut down as college students were out for political activities. A whole generation of talented people was ruined at that time because of political repression. In 1977, prominent Chinese political leader Deng Xiaoping made a resolute decision to resume China’s National College Entrance Examination (NCEE, also known as Gaokao) across the country. Starting from 1978, the examination was uniformly designed by the Ministry of Education and all the students across the country took exactly the same examination.
Reforms on the content and form of the examination have never stopped, among which the permission for individual provinces to customize their own exams has been the most prominent. Permitted by the Ministry of Education in 1985, Shanghai took the first step in employing an independent exam, following by Guangdong, Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. Till now, there have been 16 provinces and municipalities adopting customized exams. In 1970, less than 1% of Chinese people had attended higher education, far behind the world average level. In 2015, more than 40% of Chinese people had attended higher education. Though it is still quite low compared to the percent attendance of higher education in the Western developed countries, China has made its amazing progress of surpassing the world average.
Needless to say, with such a crowded population, the fierce competition for getting into universities never stops. In 2015, there are 9.43 million students across the country registered for the NCEE. According to the 2015 report from the Ministry of Education, the college gross enrolment is about 74.31%, meaning that 2.42 million students were not recruited to get the higher education. If take a further look at the provincial/municipal situation, it is even worse in the more populous provinces and municipals, such as Henan, Shandong, Anhui, Beijing, Shanghai. Acknowledging its life-influential consequence, both teachers and students have undergone tremendous pressure in preparing for and taking the exam. Because of the social focuses on the university admission rates, teachers have to pay more attention to each student’s ability to take the exam by training them with tons of tests and exams. Students are told that their destiny is made by the score that they can achieve in the NCEE and if they fail, so as their life. This is a really painful must-to-go experience. There is no other choice but to fight it with all efforts.
However, few teachers and students realize that Gaokao is not just a simple entrance test for Chinese students and their families, which might determine their happiness for life, it’s also a huge investment in learning and studying that lasts years. In fact, Gaokao perfectly explains what it means from quantitative outcome to qualitative outcome. Though we ourselves call our learning for exams as cramming, we know that this is more than simply cramming. A study conducted by researchers at Stanford University found that Chinese freshmen in computer science and engineering programs began college with critical thinking skills about two to three years ahead of their peers in the United States and Russia. Yet Chinese students showed virtually no improvement in critical thinking after two years of college, even as their American and Russian counterparts made significant strides, according to the study. This is to say, the biggest problem is not Gaokao, it is our rigid and obsolete higher education that may really alter Chinese students’ life track.
Somehow, we ignore it. We ignore the role it plays as a huge investment in learning and studying that lasts years. Take myself as an example, the saying I heard the most when I was in senior high school is, “Try every effort and try harder. Once you win the Gaokao, you win your life and all the rest is whatever you want to do and enjoy.” What an inspiring promise. As long as I endured the Gaokao, I would win back all my freedom of doing whatever I like to do. Is it really the truth? Ironically, it never is. After getting into college, I suddenly realize that teachers just paper over the cracks – they just forget to tell (or they actually forget the real truth) that Gaokao is only one of the important challenges in our life and after getting over it, we still have to fight for the next and the next and the next challenges. We still have to keep fighting for what we dream of and care about.
Without realizing the reality (or more possibly, without accepting the reality after realizing it), many students lose control of themselves and drown in endless games or sleepings, wasting their precious time in college. This is, as in my understanding, a consequence of lots of reasons. Years ago, students that graduated from universities were easy to get a job as there were not too many people having a higher education experience. Now, things are different. With the fastest growing and opening economy, having a graduation certificate with a college degree is no longer enough to make oneself excel for competing for a job. More factors are taken into consideration, such as specific abilities and experiences. Things change, so as our vision of what the higher education should give us.
In changes of the forty years. How many can we expect? Using exams as standards for selecting qualified experts in various vocations has been a tradition for more than one thousand years (The imperial civil examination in China, the earliest civil service examination in the world, was established and developed in Tang Dynasty). It is never easy to abandon the tradition even though it’s of little use in the current era. We respect our tradition, that’s why we want to spend more time portraiting a better way to revise our higher education in the contemporary context but still keep in align with the moral traditions.
In changes of the forty years. It never is a mystic surprise, it an earthly step-by-step progress. Though not yet enough to get rid of everything rigid and obsolete, but it keeps making its way. China has experienced miserable times as well as flourishing eras. China has gone through peaks as well as troughs. China accepts the defeat in the last century and China takes its time to revive in the coming century. China holds the belief that, as in The Work of Mencius, Mengzi, Gaozi, part II,
“Whenever Heaven invests a person with great responsibilities, it first tries his resolve, exhausts his muscles and bones, starves his body, leaves him destitute and confounds his every endeavor. In this way, his patience and endurance are developed, and his weaknesses are overcome.”
The suffering generation of the Cultural Revolution has gradually recovered from the unforgettable experience. They also gradually moved out of the historical stage. Now, the new generation is raising. We realize the importance of open dialogue instead of suppressing various voices. We uncover the hideous political-social-ideological disentangles and embrace the suppressed voices. We bravely face the history and deal with it. No matter how tough it is, We keep going. We understand that, at the ever-changing era, not only need we keep in eyes with the historical leftover, but also with the emerging technology and opportunity. Thanks to our devoted leadership as well as our hard-working citizens, we’ve made it a great starting remark.
During these years in America, I really enjoy its culture of openness, diversity, and inclusiveness. I enjoy its education of various voices from various groups of people. I enjoy its authentic and sincere relationship with each other. I enjoy the mindstorm inspired by all kinds of differences. While enjoying them, I understand that some of them may not be able to implement/advocate in China. Because we are still different. Like I may not understand why religion is so important in America, you may not understand why family is so important in China. That’s why we are Chinese and you are Americans. We do have some misconceptions and misunderstandings for America, so as you have them for China. Hence, when we come to America to reshape our perceptions of what is America, how about you go to China to take a close look at what do you see and feel in China.
To the end, as time goes by, China goes on. Through peaks and troughs, through ebbs and flows.
1. Education in China, China Highlights, updated March 30, 2017.
2. Education in China: A snapshot, OECD 2016.
3. Overview of Education in China, Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, updated December 19, 2016.
4. UNESCO – World Data on Education, International Bureau of Education, 6th Edition.
5. Javier C. Hernandez, Study Finds Chinese Students Excel in Critical Thinking – Until College. The New York Times, July 30, 2016.
6. Javier C. Hernandez, Weighing the Strengths and Shortcomings of China’s Education System. The New York Times, August 6, 2016.
7. National Centre for Education Development Research, National Report on Mid- Term Assessment of Education for All in China, Beijing, China, 2008.
8. Guodong Wei, On the Reform of China’s NCEE since 1977. Dissertation, Hebei University, China, 2008.
9. Lichao Sun, Gaokao or Bust. Office of International Affairs, May 1, 2013.
10. Lan Yu and Hoi K. Suen, Historical and Contemporary Exam-driven Education Fever in China. KEDI Journal of Educational Policy 2005 Vol.2 No.1, p17-33.
11. Benjamin A. Elman, Civil Service Examinations, Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, 2009 by Berkshire Publishing Group LLC.
12. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – Institute of Statistics, 2016.
13. Development of National Education Report, Ministry of Education, China, 2016.