Education in China: Chinese students and how they study

What you need to know about the Chinese education system


An old saying in China is that ‘to enrich your family, there is no need to buy good land, as books hold a thousand measures of grain’ and it’s true that many Chinese are fixated on educational achievement, or perhaps more accurately by the view that people who study hard get ahead in life.

Households there typically spend more than twice as much of their income on education as families in other emerging markets, despite the fact that they have fewer children. The wealthiest pay for their kids to go to private schools or send them abroad to university at a later age. But there’s a huge range of services available to families of lesser means too, including after-school tutoring and internet-based teaching, which has emerged as another new frontier for parents who want their kids to study hard.

Online platforms from companies like New Oriental and VIPKID have built up multi-billion dollar brands by tapping into deep demand for their services.

The bigger picture is of a culture that is captivated by personal improvement – and probably one that gets a bit too crazy about it at times.

Last year we heard from a British woman who was teaching ‘tiger toddlers’ in Shanghai – and, in some cases, their parents were already planning applications for the kids to study in China at leading universities like Peking or Tsinghua.

At about the same time, the curriculum vitae of a five year-old boy was causing a stir on social media. There were 15 pages of his achievements, including the details of the books he had read and the places he had visited, as well as his personality traits (“strong willed” and “good at recovering from setbacks” were two that featured).

That sounds over the top for such a young child but the pressure on kids to succeed actually increases with age. The results can sometimes be disastrous, with stories of pupils getting hooked on drugs that help them work harder at school. In one case in Beijing last year, a teenage girl was given Ritalin by her mother when she dropped out of the best performing group in her class. Her grades began to improve but she started to suffer from insomnia and hair loss. When her mother took her off the drugs, the girl couldn’t give them up, going online to buy them herself.

Confucius: China’s headmaster

The best of China’s high-school students generally score highly in standardised tests at an international level (they took top spot in last year’s Program for International Student Assessment, which tests 15-year-olds around the world in maths, reading and science, for instance).

Commentators often seize on a deep-rooted explanation: that ‘chopsticks societies’, or those with Confucian heritage, put a higher value on schooling than others.

Confucius, a philosopher who lived from 552 to 479BC, is arguably the most influential person in Chinese history. He introduced a system of social ethics that has survived into the modern day. Filial piety and moral behaviour were the core tenets in his philosophy but he was also a huge exponent of education. Before Confucius, schooling and study was reserved for aristocrats, but the great sage broke the ruling class monopoly by arguing for education for all.

In the traditional Confucian view, education is interpreted in a broader way, however. The family is the main place for children to learn and the primary goal is that they grow into adults that contribute to the world around them, ridding themselves of childish whims.

Taking that approach in households higher up in the society might mean aspiring to educational achievement in its more academic sense. But at a lower level, it was more likely to imply the mastering of a skill so that the person could contribute financially to the family’s wellbeing.

Confucius is still lauded today for his lessons on personal improvement but his detractors pick out some of the more negative connotations of his teaching, saying that it puts too much emphasis on social hierarchy and obedience to elders. This influence has also constrained China’s more creative instincts, his critics say.

It’s the kind of sentiment that contributes to long-running laments in the business media, such as why the Chinese haven’t created more creative geniuses like Steve Jobs. Often, the education system gets much of the blame for curtailing independent and creative thought. And plenty of people chastise Confucius for that – even though he has been dead for thousands of years.

Confucius, still a major influence today

Confucius, still a major influence today

How China gets exam fever every summer

Another reason why exam-takers from China do well in the international rankings is that their school system is geared towards taking high-pressure tests.

In cultural terms, there’s a throwback here to the recruitment system that emerged under the Han Dynasty for positions in the service of the emperor.

Confucius again played a role, this time in wanting to replace hereditary rule by the aristocracy with a civil service more steeped in learning. For centuries after his death, applicants for positions in the imperial court and senior ranks of the government were expected to make the grade in gruelling examinations, often with an emphasis on memorising his writing and classic works.

The focus on exam-taking lives on today in China in the form of the gaokao, an annual college entrance exam that is seen as pivotal for the prospects of millions of high-school students.

The perception is that great grades in the gaokao open up a good chance of white-collar careers. Poorer marks portend a more grinding, blue-collar future.

Of course, that cranks up the tension over a few days of tests each June, when much of the country grinds to a halt as students sit their exams. Roads are closed to guarantee a quieter time and parents gather nervously outside the examination halls. Because of advances in technology, exam invigilators have to battle with ever-more-sophisticated efforts at cheating, as well.

Is the gaokao a good thing?

The gaokao’s supporters say that its raw competitiveness makes it as egalitarian as possible. It doesn’t matter if you are a farmer’s daughter from a rural backwater or the son of a top government official – if you score well, you reserve a spot at a university.

In fact, the test is modified in recognition of the differing quality of the local schooling: students from bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing gripe that entrants from less developed provinces get easier questions and there is also a quota system that helps students from outside the big cities get into better universities.

All the same, the statistics on university entry highlight the urban-rural divide. Students from cities have a much better chance than rural candidates of advancing into higher education.

One of best performers in the gaokao two years ago summed it up while talking about his own success, commenting on his background, as the son of two diplomats from Beijing. “It is harder for children from rural areas to do well. People like me are from middle-class families. We do not have to worry about food or clothes. Our parents are educated,” he told the local newspapers.

The education ministry has tried to make things fairer by warning wealthier families against the arms race of extra-curricular coaching that promises better results. It has also ordered the media to stop championing the students who achieve the best gaokao results, something that has been happening since the exams were launched in the 1950s.

“We need to end the blind worship of high scores,” the People’s Daily warned again last year. “We must remember other skills are important too.”

Judgement day: students taking the gaokao

Judgement day: students taking the gaokao

Criticism of how the gaokao skews China’s school system is still growing, especially from reformers who see it as an obstacle to a more rounded education. Yet it doesn’t look like being replaced in the foreseeable future because of the challenge of overhauling a system that handles ten million exam-takers every year. Policymakers also insist that standardised tests are still the fairest way to filter such a large number of college applicants.

Making the grade, globally

Talk of so many top-performing results from Chinese students in international examinations raises another question: if China’s education system is one of the best in the world, why are so many students so eager to study elsewhere?

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese are going to school and university in other countries, making up a large proportion of international students in higher education in places such as Australia, the UK, Canada and the US.

In part, it is because many parents aspire for their kids to get some kind of western education, in much the same way that foreign brands have traditionally enjoyed cachet with customers in other industries. The perception is that an international education is a more-rounded, high-quality experience, bringing status and advantage to those that receive it.

That attraction persists in different forms – including the strong reputation of British boarding schools, which have been active in promoting themselves in China.

The local media contributes to the trend with a relentless commentary on some of the shortfalls in domestic education, including complaints about a culture of “teaching by cursing and beating”, as well as a growing debate about questionable standards in some areas of higher study.

In the past, the chance of studying overseas was limited to the children of the Chinese elite (including its senior political leaders, who have often sent their offspring to Western universities). In many cases, the Chinese students were also encouraged to return home to work and help China’s economy to grow faster (they were known colloquially as haigui, or sea turtles).

Chinese students spend heavily on overseas study

Chinese students spend heavily on overseas study

But higher incomes are making international study more of a possibility for a bigger share of the population. For many kids that might mean English language coaching in towns and cities around China or shorter study programmes overseas during their school holidays. But for others it is a bigger commitment, extending to full-time study at schools or universities outside China for years at a time.

The result is that larger numbers of students have been heading overseas every year: at least 660,000 Chinese were educated internationally in 2018 by the Chinese government’s own count, with 370,000 said to have joined higher education programmes in the United States in the 2018/19 academic year, according to data from the US government.

These students are pouring billions of dollars into the economies of their hosts and their tuition fees are crucial to the fortunes of many of the universities they attend, especially in Australia (where there were 212,000 Chinese students in the most recent academic year).

Indeed, such is the reliance on Chinese fees in Australian higher education that one researcher has likened the situation to the risk profile of the big banks before the global financial crisis. The outbreak of the coronavirus made the dependency even clearer over the last few weeks, when tens of thousands of Chinese were banned from coming back to campus after the Christmas break. Revenue lost from students who give up on their courses or from future candidates who decide not to apply for a university place will be significant, administrators warn.

China’s students overseas: welcome or not?

Despite their financial contribution, the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students that study overseas haven’t always been welcomed. There have been allegations of a subsequent dumbing-down in academic standards, as well as a crowding out of candidates from other backgrounds. In other instances, more nefarious activity has been alleged, including the conduct of a network of institutes funded by the Chinese government at hundreds of schools and universities around the world.

The Beijing-backed Confucius Institutes are tasked with promoting Chinese language and culture and their proponents say that they foster cross-border understanding, particularly in countries where an insight into Chinese culture is more limited. Yet critics have derided the programme as more of propaganda effort, a threat to freedom of expression at the host institutions, and even as a potential source of spying.

Some of the institutes have already been disbanded after political pressure and at least two dozen American universities have closed their own Chinese-funded centres over the past two years.

The suspicious response to the Confucius Institutes was an early sign of some of the tensions surrounding the surge in Chinese students overseas. Sentiment has soured further over the last 18 months, especially for the Chinese studying in the United States. Last summer, we looked at some of the reaction in China to the increasingly hostile mood, which was feeding in part from the worsening rows over trade and technology policy between Washington and Beijing. Soon afterwards, there were reports of visas being refused to Chinese graduates proposing to study in areas regarded as sensitive to US national security, as well as cases in which existing students were being denied re-entry after their trip home for the holidays.

In the last six months American universities have also been reporting a drop in applications from potential students, with some candidates choosing to apply in the UK and Canada instead.

Chinese policymakers would like to find a future in which the best and brightest of their young people see less need to study away from home. Currently there aren’t many Chinese universities near the summit of the global rankings from compilers like Times Higher Education, which put Tsinghua University in 23rd place in its assessment last year (Peking University was a place below).

Tsinghua in Beijing, China’s top-rated university

Tsinghua in Beijing, China’s top-rated university

However, China’s better universities have been climbing the league tables and the results reveal the steady ascent of a number of institutions that were ranked outside the top 200 five years ago.

Five schools that placed between 200th and 350th five years ago have graduated into the elite top 200 group, while six others joined the top 400 in the same period.

Part of that progress is due to sustained financial support from the state, which is boosting scores for academic research, citation impact and teaching environment. And as ever, there are long-term goals for government policy, including a plan to transform the C9 League, a cohort of the nine best universities in China, into a major rival to the Ivy League in the United States.

Critics will counter that China’s political culture isn’t conducive to the kind of environment in which world-class teaching can flourish in every subject. But the institutions in the C9 group have advantages of their own (they are already said to get a tenth of China’s national research budget, for instance). There are indications too that the best universities are starting to have more appeal to non-Chinese in some areas of study – both in terms of attracting international faculty and generating more applications from students from other parts of the world.

If that process persists in the years ahead, perhaps it will lead to a partial reversal of the situation today as more international students choose to come to study in China.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.