By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW
Published: January 26, 2010
BEIJING — It’s known among a small circle of scholars in China as “the Qian Xuesen question.” Four years ago Mr. Qian, the rocket scientist and genius architect of China’s space and missile programs who died in October at the age of 97, asked a prominent visitor a troubling question: “Why does China produce so many clever people, but so few geniuses?”
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s answer isn’t recorded, but my friend Bai Hua thinks she knows.
“Our education system is like ancient Sparta. Not physically, but mentally,” she said over coffee in a Beijing mall, where white marble sparkled under powerful lights. “Our children learn to calculate fast, play the piano, to do everything well. They have a lot of skills. But when they grow up they are lost, because no one ever asked them to think about what they want.”
The agoge of Sparta took 7-year-old boys and molded them into an elite corps of disciplined warriors loyal to the state. At Chinese school a powerful blend of Communist and Confucian ideologies demands obedience to hierarchy, bone-hard study and uncritical thinking.
Starting at 6, children are buried under an avalanche of studies until they graduate from high school. Twelve-hour days (less on weekends, but no days off) are common among first-graders. For his first Chinese New Year semester break, my 6-year-old son was given 42 pages of math and 42 pages of Chinese homework to complete in four weeks. The goal? Entrance to an elite college like Peking or Tsinghua University.
Yet once there, laziness can set in. Many students kick back, relying on their elite network to smooth a path through life. After the slog of the previous 12 years they feel they deserve a break. Perhaps they do. But it’s no incentive for academic brilliance.
Hua, a financial sector I.T. specialist who took the unusual step in China of giving up her job to raise her family, also has a son at elementary school.
She is part of a tiny minority that worries about the implications of all this for her child and her country. People overseas might worry what a highly skilled, ambitious and uncritical Chinese population means for the world. But here, most parents think things are working just fine and, if they follow the formula, their single child will emerge an honor to the family and not a dreaded deadbeat.
To justify a study routine Hua calls “miserable,” parents have begun framing the system as imparting “kangya nengli,” or the ability to resist pressure. Tough is good, runs the logic. Only wimps can’t cope. At the bottom lies an intense fear of failure, often expressed thus: “He won’t even be able to find a wife.” There is no equivalent for a girl, but in a deeply patriarchal society that doesn’t matter.
Hua sees only mediocrity. “We don’t produce Bill Gates, or the Google guys, or Steve Jobs, because we don’t let these people grow. We don’t even come close. Everyone says Chinese people are clever. But where’s the evidence?”
When I was growing up in the colony of Hong Kong, my British headmistress would glare when we asked to learn Chinese, and hiss: “If you want to learn Chinese, go onto the streets!” I learned later, at college. Writing, especially, was years of hard graft, and the process is never-ending. Even Chinese who don’t regularly read and write forget how. So for me, raising two children here, learning the language was nonnegotiable. We chose the local state school.
Yet there is a price. The penny dropped one day when I heard my son sitting on the toilet. “Piping! Wo piping ni!” (“Criticize! I criticize you!”) he trilled in his boyish soprano.
I rushed over to ask what was up. “Oh, nothing, Mom, just that’s what teacher says,” he answered, little legs kicking. Hurled at class enemies for decades after the 1949 Communist revolution, the phrase drips moral and political censure. It’s a part of the deep psychological and linguistic fabric of the nation. Coupled with regular scolding (“ma”) and, in the worse kind of schools, a slap or shove (“da”) it is a powerful weapon in a teacher’s arsenal of instruction. “If teachers don’t scold, people think they aren’t doing their job,” Hua said.
Every autumn, China frets that once again it hasn’t produced a Nobel laureate. The 2009 physics laureate, Charles Kao, was duly noted as the sixth China-born laureate, though all became foreign citizens and only Gao Xingjian, the free-thinking 2000 Nobel literature laureate whom the party despises, was entirely educated in China.
There is little pressure to change. After all, isn’t this system producing a superficially impressive generation of people? Retail clerks memorize 11-digit mobile phone numbers in a flash and can recite orders faultlessly; perhaps they play the piano quite well, too. Yet, young Chinese struggle to think for themselves.
“I’d sit there in tutorials and tell myself, ‘Don’t just write it down, think about what the professor is saying,”’ said a Chinese friend who studied at the London School of Economics. She found the experience daunting but deeply rewarding.
The obedience system also produces a herd instinct. Once, the nation’s elite wanted to be scientists and build their country. Today they want to be bankers, or stick with safe state jobs.
“They don’t know what they want, but they hear bankers make the most money and everyone else is doing it, so that’s what they want to do,” Hua said.
This year, too, 130,000 university graduates applied for jobs with the People’s Liberation Army. In a politically controlled society without access to independent justice, where freedom exists only around profit-making and personal consumer choice, money is more than king — it is the biggest determiner of destiny. A job in the state sector guarantees guanxi, or personal contacts, which can protect your family from an unpredictable system.
Creativity is a nuisance and China doesn’t need a Bill Gates, runs the thinking. What it needs is cheap labor and factories, and no one to rock the boat. That Qian Xuesen’s exceptional genius grew during his two decades in the United States, where he did a Ph.D. and experimented widely, is forgotten.
Though not by everybody. Prominent educators like Zhu Qingshi, first president of Shenzhen’s new South University of Science and Technology, long to set up more liberal universities where academics, not party members, are in charge, and students can think and experiment freely.
As for my son, it’s not all bad. His teacher is personally kind, his times-tables are impressive and he can already write hundreds of characters. I’m counting on a more democratic, Athenian-style of thinking at home to balance Sparta. Then hopefully, by 18, he’ll have some idea what his passion is, and how to follow it.
A version of this article appeared in print on January 27, 2010, in The International Herald Tribune.