"Are Chinese students like the Japanese, automata, very good
at repeating what they are taught, but without the application
of imagination, inventiveness and the other qualities which
distinguish the good learners from the brilliant intellects."

Here follow a variety of personal reflections and other viewpoints.

A) China

  • Within living memory they had the "cultural revolution", a period of political insanity not too dissimilar to what happened in Cambodia under Pol Pot, though without the extreme accompanying classicide. Even so, many families today have parents and grandparents who suffered cruelly during this period.

  • Also within living memory, China was catastrophically poor, and millions indeed remain so. However, it IS now possible to heave yourself out of this poverty with 1) the right education and 2) the right connections. (guanxi)The first you can try to do something about, but the second is more tricky - being in the Communist Party is a big help .....

  • In China there is next to no social security as we know it. The idea of the state looking after you from cradle to grave is a sick joke. Capitalist countries make a better fist of that than do Communist ones. Nobody is going to bail you out if you have a kid you can't afford to look after. You may be lucky if you can get your kid a decent education; ditto health. So, to avoid catastrophe, you have to get on.

For these reasons, education is primordial for many Chinese families, essential for survival in the rat-race that is as true in China as in the worst capitalist countries.

Most families can only have ONE child, which leads to the not-infrequent murder of girl babies, since if you can only have one you want a boy, no? There is a severe sex imbalance in China, with around 100 million more males than females - which is not a great recipe for psychological health.

Many students coming from modest families are sent to Europe and/or the USA to be educated, but (though there is a small minority of now mega-rich) the financing often comes from a very large extended family. Many Chinese students feel the weight of this on their shoulders.

B) Japan

Japan has few natural resources. Only 17% of the island in habitable. The people have learned that only ferocious hard work will help them overcome these obstacles. There is also a very strong group-conformity ethic; few like to stand out; decisions are often taken collectively. A western company hoping to do business with a Japanese one often welcomes a much larger delegation from Japan than would go in the opposite direction.

C) My personal, anecdotal experience of Chinese students, inevitably involving a considerable degree of generalization.

They are also human, so in many ways are no different from students anywhere else, though the above-mentioned considerations must not be forgotten. Some work very hard; others are lazy. There is indeed a tendency to regurgitate material; thinking-out-of-the-box doesn't come naturally. There is usually an extremely strong respect for authority, elders and therefore teachers. For some, this can soon wear off once they are in a western milieu. However, others never overcome their reluctance to question teachers, to try to put them on the spot, to question their own beliefs. They accept what they are told, write it down, learn it and re-spout it in exams.

They rarely ask probing questions to extend their own understanding. Teaching tends to be didactic, not discursive. Passing the exams and getting their "Master's" is really the only thing that counts.

Flexibility? Not their strongest point indeed. For example, it is next to impossible in my experience to discuss Tibet or Taiwan rationally with Chinese students. Firstly, they are taught from an early age that China is the centre of the world and that outsiders are basically barbarians. Not unsurprising when you consider the Mongol, Western and Japanese invasions for a start. There is also endless and one-sided government propaganda telling them that Tibet and Taiwan are inalienable parts of China, and there are no rational arguments that you can bring to sway them in this belief. They are quite incapable of stepping outside their nationalistic box.

D) A short comment from a great personal friend and former colleague at the school where I taught Asian students for ten years.

"In my opinion, Chinese students have same problems as the Japanese, owing to the archaic education system, an inheritance of Confucian traditions."

E) The verdict of a former teaching colleague and expert on Asia.

"Regarding Chinese educational system, I would say that it is strongly embedded in Confucian values, and creativity is not the primary goal. Emphasis in not on individual , although there is a very strong competition among students, sometimes encouraged by teachers, and a high pressure from parents and family environment in general. Education is considered as a highly-rewarding investment and even modest families are determined to send their children (or rather only child) to the best schools and universities. The elite has many ways to send their offspring abroad. According to the ranking made by OECD in their comparison of world educational systems, I do not remember the name of the survey but you can check it easily, China was not faring so bad, especially when scientific matters are concerned.

This said, there is no in dependant intellectual tradition in China. This has not been imposed by communism. The pressure exerted by orthodoxy was very heavy during the Empire, and I think it would be extremely difficult to find a Chinese Galileo, a character able to defy the highest authority, and to submit to deliberation the most established positions ....

I am sure that you will disagree on that, but I do think that combination of the Jewish tradition of controversy on theological and legal issues, mixed with the theological debates on the nature of God in the early Christianity, and the strong rationality we inherited from the Greeks all combined to produce a unique chemistry which has been the ferment of the western intellectual and scientific tradition - which we do not have to be ashamed of ..."

F) Relevant links

Are Strict Chinese Mothers the Best?
It's not only in Asia that kids feel pressure, but isn't it unavoidable?
Professor Amy Chua of Yale - a Chinese living in America
An answer to Amy Chua
Sonny Leong on
Michael Gove - "The Telegraph"
In a recent article, Sonny Leong reported on British Education Minister Michael Gove's comments on return from his visit to China.
"I am happy to confess I’d like us to implement a cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China. Like Chairman Mao, we’ve embarked on a Long March to reform our education system."
Idiotic. The "cultural revolution" was an inhuman nightmare. Cretinous spin-blather wistfully longing for a "Long March" is beyond belief. Yes, he should have been sacked at once as a moron. Unfortunately, we see a succession of morons paraded before us and rarely is one ever sacked. Just look at Gordon Brown and Ken Clarke for a start.
Sonny Leong
Whether it is maths or reading, the more you practice, the better you can get.
Indeed, and OUR KIDS certainly don't have enough practice. In this respect, Gove is right.
Sonny Leong
They are taught to memorise, parrot fashion and regurgitate what they have studied for exams.

Yes, attention to memorisation ONLY is bad, but A CONSIDERABLE DEGREE OF MEMORISATION is essential, and there ISN'T ENOUGH OF IT because (as you clearly indicate) it is VERY NON-PC. It's also "hard work", and so must be avoided at all costs; there must of COURSE be NO PRESSURE on kids.

Oh, how would you like to have a heart-valve replaced by a doctor not really very hot on "memorisation"?

Sonny Leong
These students fail abysmally at non-standardised tests – open-book; open-notes; Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs); and True/False assessments. Why? Because they do not know how to pass exams that they have not practised for. Their incapability to apply knowledge acquired in a classroom to real life or non-standardised exams is a cause of concern for many parents and educators.
And our kids are so much better? The problem is, I don't see this reflected in a lack of Chinese achievements. Have you seen their bridges?
Sonny Leong
Students grow up lacking social interaction; interpersonal; teamwork and communicating skills because they have not been allowed to acquire or develop these skills.

UK kids are on average so much better of course. And electronics is making this far worse. Accepting to teach in some schools that "there is a correct way to textspeak" was a SYMBOL of the UTTER IDIOCY of many teachers and managers who have their PC-ridden hands on the throat of state education. The idea that school time should be devoted to teaching kids "how to text properly" is so surreally lunatic that I ALSO am "in total despair".

The latest news is that kids are giving up e-mail as it is "too long and boring" - Twittering and Facebookspeak are now all the rage. And we expect them to be able to WRITE properly? Ha Ha ....

Sonny Leong
In Singapore, from the strict design of pedagogies and curriculum to the series of standardised examinations, students are moulded into productive units of labour for the future. The introduction of more testing and streaming for younger students is leading to an overheated pressure cooker further damaging their youth and future generation.
Indeed - it is often OTT in Asia, but the mirror-image is our kids being damaged by their low levels of reading and mathematics, by the general dumbing-down, by the LACK of rigour and discipline.
Sonny Leong
The recent deaths of two junior college students have once again highlighted the primary ramification from a highly-competitive and rigid education system: tremendous stress and pressure.
Indeed; we should avoid stress and pressure in life. Experiencing and managing them are clearly utterly futile. Better pretend they don't exist, that there is no such thing as competition for jobs, that all kids are "equal" and ensure that excellence is frowned upon as it is unfair to the weaker. What is your solution? Eliminate pressure in human existence? Is Big Brother's "SOMA" the answer?
Sonny Leong
Another cost worth considering is the dearth of creativity like research among Singaporean students. The other problem which almost never gets any attention is the complete lack of development of critical thinking skills among Singaporean students. They are unable to read texts critically, offer interpretations, construct good arguments, and communicate clearly.
Our kids are of course so much better. And I haven't noticed Singapore failing as a state, have you? See here  -  and here
Sonny Leong
As a Chinese father, I would not be happy at all in schooling my four-year- old daughter in Singapore or Shanghai. I wouldn’t want my child to go through the ‘pressure cooker’ educational system where she is taught just to pass exams and incapable of any further comprehension.
Exaggeration. "incapable of ANY future comprehension"? You are overdoing your argument. Would you prefer your kid to be taught in an inner-city comprehensive where classes are constantly disrupted and it is impossible to expel anyone even if they attack a teacher? Where did Blair's kids go to school? Half the Labour Cabinet went to public schools. Easy to be PC and pontificate about how bad things are elsewhere if your own kid doesn't have to experience a school for which you are responsible. Yes, in Asia it has perhaps gone too far; in Britain not far enough.
Sonny Leong
We should all take pride in our schools and teachers.
ALL of them? A vast generalisation. Why not give credit where it's due but not where it isn't? I gather than in FORTY YEARS only EIGHTEEN teachers have been sacked for incompetence. If what you say is true (that by implication things are sooo much better in the UK), why do employers constantly complain that they can't find young jobseekers who can spell, add up and/or talk properly? Why do universities complain that they often have to repeat in the first year stuff that used to be mastered in the sixth form? Why despite this has the proportion of university students getting 1sts and upper second rocketed in recent years? Are you HAPPY with all this dumbing-down?
Sonny Leong
Any analysis, discursive or exploring other concepts or ideals are alien to their learning processes.
Some truth in this - see comments at the top of this page.


  • Life is not "fair"; some kids will be academically stronger than others; their lives will most often be dominated by intense competition. They'd better get used to it, unless of course you want a Pol Pot, Maoist or Cuban solution where the ruling class has wealth and power and the rest are dirt-poor and all "equal".

  • Children are individuals; each deserves the chance to develop his or her potential to the fullest. This isn't easy at the best of times, let alone in large classes without discipline.

  • A happy life and society is one where there is "BALANCE". In Asia, they are struggling to catch up and overtake the west economically. Their parents and grandparents mostly lived lives of abject poverty and misery, and they know that only education can help their kids avoid the same. Theere is a certain frenzy to succeed in Asia (which indeed has gone "too far" - Few Chinese students care any more about Tiananmen Square - they just want to make money ....). However, we could do with a bit more "desperation and frenzy" in Europe instead of the stifling conformity, bureaucratisation, dependence ont he state to bail us out and of course the sloppiness in many schools.

  • However, in Asia, it is clearly true that for the above-stated reason many of their education systems have become unbalanced. In Japan, over ONE MILLION KIDS (mostly boys) have withdrawn totally from society and live as recluses in their bedrooms; some hardly ever see their parents. They have cracked because of the pressure. Suicide rates are high, and "Yes", this is undesirable.

  • In the west, it is almost the mirror image. Dumbing-down, lack of rigour and discipline, lack of ambition, courses on "Texting", crap university courses, lecturers absent half the time, believing that "research" comes before their teaching, which in some cases is delegated to PhD students.

  • Gove said some moronic things about China. However, it certainly IS true that we need more discipline and rigour and "back to basics". NO, we DON'T want the extreme unbalance of Asia but YES, we need more rigour than we have at present.


Gove is certainly a moron for saying what he did about the cultural revolution and Long March in China. For his policies, the jury is still out, though having a moron in charge YET AGAIN is certainly worrying.

And finally:

  • Educational problems are totally and utterly linked with the history, structure, politics, culture and ethos of a society.

  • Nobody seems to have the definitive answer, but we seem very bad at learning from best examples. Look at FINLAND, for a start ......