Going against the grain

Rice-counting homework stirs debate about China’s educational ethos


One of the families in the new drama The Examination for Everyone

While it is hardly unusual for parents to help their children with homework, when a father from Jiangxi province posted a video of himself helping out his son last week, it turned into a media frenzy.

In footage that spread widely on social media, the father said his son’s primary school maths teacher made the entire class count out 10,000 grains of rice. The clip shows the boy and several family members huddling around a table counting the individual grains. At one point his son turns to the camera, giving a theatrical grimace of defeat. “This is homework from school; to count 10,000 grains of rice, my God!” the father also exclaims, adding that the effort lasted until midnight despite mobilising the whole family in support.

The family was systematic in its approach, accumulating tiny piles of five grains of rice on a desk at a time and then pushing them together to form a larger pile, all the time counting how many they had gathered in total.

Netizens questioned more why children were being made to count the rice in the first place. Some queried why anyone would take such an assignment so seriously. “I wish education experts would investigate whether homework is designed for children or their parents,” another netizen lambasted. “Wait until they are made to count 10,000 grains of sand,” another mocked.

In light of the case, the local education bureau explained that the reason for the task was less about getting to the final number and more to encourage students to think creatively about the counting effort. Other educators also chimed in – in a similarly less than convincing fashion – saying that the assignment was never meant to be taken literally.

The father later defended himself, saying that he had thought about using an electronic scale to weigh the rice to an estimated amount but the machine ran out of battery so the boy’s grandmother suggested counting by hand instead.

He also believed that the tedious exercise is good for the mind: “No matter whether the teacher will check or not, I think students should have a serious attitude towards their homework,” he told news site Express News Broadcasting. “Teachers are training students to have this serious attitude in everything they do.”

Indeed, there were other supporters for the rice counting effort. “If a student completes the assignment on his own, it suggests that he is a very determined and independent child. And even if the parents help out, it goes to suggest that he takes the homework very seriously and is very disciplined. Those are all good traits to have,” one blogger claimed.

Even though the Chinese government has tried to reduce the so-called “twin pressures” of excessive homework and extra tutoring for children at private classes, it seems that many parents are yet to embrace the more relaxed attitude to educating their kids. There are plenty of stories about parents adopting extreme measures in the hope it will give their children an edge in later careers. Some of these themes are featuring in dramas on television.

For instance, in the TV show The Examination For Everyone, which concluded its run on state broadcaster CCTV and streaming platform iQiyi recently, a father worries his son is getting too comfortable with life. In a bid to shock the boy out of his complacency, the father makes him work at his electronics factory and tells his staff to be tough on the high schooler. That soon causes trouble. The teen, overly confident about his engineering skills, tries to fix a piece of imported machinery, only narrowly avoiding breaking it completely.

Another high schooler on the show runs into a similar set of parental problems. In this case, it’s the boy’s mother exercising absolute authority over his education, refusing his wish to study art in college and insisting that the decisions she takes on his behalf are all made “for his own good”.

“Parents are the ones who don’t want to see their children suffer, but more often than not, their children’s sufferings are inflicted by their parents,” one TV critic reckoned.

Parenting in China is a topic WiC has covered frequently over the years, with dramas on the same theme appearing regularly on TV. These have included Little Dilemma – an elementary school drama from 2021 that focused on obsessive parenting – and A Little Reunion from 2019 that saw three families grappling with teenagers in their final year at school.

Then there was All is Well starring Yao Chen, which dramatised how a couple prioritised their sons over their daughter, and focused on the gender inequality that is still prevalent in many families (the parents sell their flat to send the eldest boy to college abroad but when Yao’s character asks to be sent to a tutoring class as part of an effort to get into Tsinghua University they tell their daughter to give up any hope of attending the top-tier institution).

The latest crop of parenting dramas show how the theme is still a favourite for producers and audiences alike – perhaps because it is also an area where newer educational concepts (often derived from overseas, with more of a concern about fostering creativity and social skills in the classroom) can clash with traditional methods that emphasise qualities like discipline, obedience and hard work.

Many modern parents in China – hopeful of getting their offspring into the best universities either at home or further afield – are torn between the two approaches. This tension fuels the debate around how best to educate the nation’s children, feeding through into popular parenting dramas that not only get large audiences but spark lively comments online.

© 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.