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Fight to Free Young Minds
by Kim Wu

³Endless rote learning kills students¹ creativity, but it is the creativity of countless individuals which drives the development of any society or nation.²
‹Middle School Teacher Wang Li

What is the radical of the character ‘Õ, and is its seventh stroke a dot or a turning stroke? What is its initial consonant and its compound vowel? While you are thinking about such things, is º…ˆº‰‹¤ jîméinòngyân (make eyes, wink) a term of expression or action?

If answering these riddles doesn¹t sound like fun to you, consider yourself lucky you are not a Chinese primary school student. Chinese language classes are the major component of primary and high school education, and knotty linguistic questions are the heaviest component of the homework Chinese children carry home every day in their Sailor Moon knapsacks. Chinese youngsters find their work heavy going, but what is more worrying is that many adults‹including poets, writers and journalists‹struggle to answer these questions too.

It would be nice to think that the people who set the questions could also answer them, but this is not always the case. At times, it seems as if the education system is more concerned with proving that educators have an impressive command of Chinese than with providing an education that creates productive citizens. This is something that worries many Chinese parents.

³My little daughter already stays very late to finish off her Chinese language homework. The result of all this hard work is that her imagination is withering, her compositions become increasingly boring, and she hates studying Chinese ,² says Zhou Jingzi, herself a poet who finds it difficult to help her daughter answer the perplexing questions in her school books.

A recent story from Wuhan illustrates the effects of this type of education, which has changed little since the end of the (1966-76) Cultural Revolution almost a quarter of a century ago. At a middle school in the inland commercial center, more than 50 students handed in identical compositions for their final exam. Ironically, they had all painstakingly memorized a story about a blocked drain: ³The toilet is broken and we go fix it.² All 50 compositions ended in exactly the same way: ³Though my hands get dirty, I feel happy indeed.²

Qian Liqun, a professor in the Chinese department at Beijing University (Beida), is also worried about the quality of the students the education system is churning out.

³I often give lessons to first year students. They are all top students from the best middle schools across the country, but sadly I have found that they lack imagination and creativity. This is the result of a rigid, formulaic and generalized form of Chinese language education.

³You can see this very clearly at Beijing University. The school¹s old personality, creativity and spirit are dying. Of all issues, the one that gives me most cause for pessimism about China is education. Human resources once lost can never be recovered,² Qian says.

Fortunately, widespread concerns about this issue are at last being aired in public. In November 1997, Beijing Literature magazine (Beijing Wenxue) published three articles in a single issue criticizing the state of Chinese language education. The articles sparked more media reports and acted as a trigger for real action. Local newspapers and television channels used the texts as the starting point for reports of their own, and readers and viewers wrote in and telephoned with a unanimous response: primary and secondary education are in dire need of reform.

A respected middle school teacher named Wang Li from Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, wrote one of the original articles. With 15 years of experience of teaching Chinese language, but no social activism experience, Wang found herself thrust into the limelight after the article¹s publication.

During her years of teaching in her hometown, Wang always tried to break out of the rigid framework set by the textbooks and teach students more about her understanding of and feelings about literature and life itself. She says the main reason to be a teacher is to nurture understanding in others. Teaching first in her hometown and then in one of the top middle schools in Beijing, Wang has seen the effects of the current education system first hand.

³Chinese language education is the core subject. It directly influences children¹s spiritual growth. But the current Chinese language textbooks are very boring and they serve as a tool for political ideology, trying to mold students¹ mentality in a certain way.

³Then there is the endless rote learning for standardized exams. These things kill students¹ interest in studying Chinese language and they go on to kill their ability to feel, understand and imagine. At the end of the day, this kills their creativity, but it is actually the creativity of countless individuals which drives the development of any society or nation,² Wang says.

Wang has continued to campaign so that the issue continues to receive widespread attention. Armed with ¥5,000 in sponsorship, Wang set off to interview more than 20 intellectuals in Beijing and Shanghai. She discussed the issues with them, and published 11 articles in Beijing Literature, after which she edited and published the book, Crisis in Chinese Language Education (Zhongguo Yuwen Jiaoyu Yousilu).

Media such as CCTV and the China Youth Daily started paying attention to Wang, and eventually, government departments also responded. A reader clipped one of Wang¹s articles from the Xinmin Evening News (a Shanghai newspaper with more than 2 million readers) and sent it to Vice President Li Lanqing, who is responsible for education. Under orders from Li, the Ministry of Education carried out an investigation into Chinese language education, a process which included interviews with Wang Li. The ministry¹s Basic Education Department even sent Wang¹s articles to concerned officials and held a conference last year on the reform of middle school exams, in which Wang participated.

Even more encouraging is the fact that the State Council released ¥100 million to be spent on the reform of Chinese language education‹the most generous government allocation ever directed at education reform.

As with any reform in China, there are all kinds of difficulties and obstacles. Apart from the objections of political conservatives, rewriting textbooks, changing the examination system, updating teaching methods and raising the level of teachers¹ qualifications are complex issues that require insight, planning and money. There is much work to be done. Wang sees the most difficult challenge as changing the way Chinese people view education.

³We need to move away from seeing students as memory machines, and toward seeing them as independent individuals. This is the only hope for Chinese education and for China¹s future,² she says. In spite of all the obstacles, Wang¹s efforts have already produced some impressive results. This spring, the Basic Education Department held a national conference on the reform of textbooks. More than 30 education specialists attended the meeting, and Wang addressed the conference.

At the meeting, the department¹s vice-director Zhu Muju emphasized that the focus of reform would be to create the necessary conditions to nurture creativity in students. In particular, Zhu pointed out that the initiatives would differ from previous reforms by being more open, democratic and scientific. Some real changes could be on their way for China¹s education system, and not only for Chinese language teaching. If that happens, Wang Li will be remembered as an inspiring teacher and significant force for change in contemporary Chinese education.


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