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Only Scholars Are Noble Cut

9 October 2006

In old days, Chinese children in school began with reciting some verses that promote the importance of academic study, such as Three Characters and Boy Genius.

In the opening lines of the Three Characters, it reads:

人之初, 性本善.
性相近, 习相远.
... ...
养不教, 父之过.
教不严, 师之惰.

Origin of people, innocent by nature.
We born similar, we grow different.
... ...
Not to educate, fault of father;
Not to progress, failure of teacher.

In the opening lines of the Boy Genius", it reads:


Son of Heaven rewards men of learnt,
Those who study classics by heart.
No life deserves to be praised,
Only scholars are noble cut.

Kids in traditional Chinese dress reading Three Characters at a family-run school in Wuhan

Entering 21st century, China no longer has a Son of Heaven, but the scholars remain. And the Chinese society has polarised, but the perceptions that the academic excellence is the only measurement of a noble success stay.

Chinese children today are under constant pressure to high-level academic performance right from the pre-school years. The general assumption is that only when youngsters get a good start in kindergarten, they’ll be able to enter a "key primary school" (重点小学); only when they receive their education at a key primary, they’ll have a chance to enter a "key high school" (重点中学); only when they study at a key high, they’ll have hope to gain admission to a "key university" (重点大学); and only as graduates of a key university, their career future along with social status and financial security will be guaranteed.

Picture how hard for someone who has to maintain his or her peak performance and engage in constant battles for a top spot for twenty years. And when this very someone is only a child, imagine …

The current Chinese job market actually doesn’t agree with the popular assumption. Like what happens in the West, it is sound working experiences rather than impressive degrees giving youngsters an edge in job hunting. In short, a degree from a top university is no longer a guaranteed route to top earnings.

For easing the unbearable pressures on children, Chinese authority lately has halted the practice of raking schools, and now students can only attend a school in their neighbourhood.

But none of these deters the determination of the Chinese parents to do everything they can to get their children into a school of their desire. Can’t go to a school in another neighbourhood? Then we move our home into that neighbourhood - only virtually of course, not actually. In Urumqi, Xinjiang, according to reports by local media, 180,000 families (one in every 15 families in the city) have obtained a home address away from their actual residence to be near a school previously marked with "key". In another extreme case, a teacher of an old "key" school found more than ten new students in his class share a same address, and what’s truly amazing is that the address belongs to a public toilet.

It seems unless the general population changes its perception regarding success and fulfillment of life, Chinese children will continuously be slaves to endless tests and exams, because that’s the only way to get them staying in competition. If they fall behind, then it would be seen as the fault of their parents and the failure of their teachers.

In a small way, the appearance of family-run schools that concentrate on classic learning but pay little attention to standard tests and exams is, among many other things, a reaction against this social trend. But how far can they go?

"No life deserves to be praised, only scholars are noble cut," remember?

Ladies in traditional Chinese dress practicing ink painting at a family-run school in Suzhou


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