A Crash Course on the Chinese Education System

A Crash Course on the Chinese Education System
Jul 24, 2012 By Jessie Chien , eChinacities.com

"Benjamin Franklin said, 'early to bed and early to rise, can make a man healthy, wealthy and wise.'"

A class of forty 11- and 12-year olds stood at attention with their heads held up towards the ceiling, eyes straight ahead and hands at their sides, reciting a passage from memory. This was just a peek I had at an English summer camp in one of China's largest cities, where students were enrolled for an intensive 10 days of English training. Starting with morning exercises at 7:00 and ending with oral testing around 8:30, these students were drilled with rote memorization of inspirational (and often nationalistic) quotes and proper elocution of English passages.

At the end of the 10-day camp, after the closing ceremonies, kids wept with grief as they were pulled apart from their classmates and new friends. They exchanged QQ numbers and promised to keep in touch with each other during the next school year. As they returned to their hometowns – some as far as Zhengzhou, Wuhan, and Jiangsu – I recognized what was genuine sadness as they departed campus. In the course of 10 days, in the form of endless hours of studying, memorization, practice, and testing, education in China was purposefully, deeply engrained in their lives.

Education in China today is a serious matter, to parents, students, teachers, government, and everyone alike. Western views often consider Chinese methods such as rote memorization and the intensive focus on hard sciences and mathematics as too strict, too inflexible, and with too much pressure placed on students. Class time and study time are indeed less a priority in the U.S., where students are also more involved in after-school activities. But in a recent international study, the United States was placed 15th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math. Guess who topped the charts in all three? China.

The Chinese must be doing some things right. Here's a look at the successes and shortcomings of the Chinese educational system.

Government reforms

From the instating of national examinations in 1977, to the recognition of 'special education' in 1985, to as late as 1998 when the development of world-class higher education truly began in China, the government has been active in engaging its youth. It has tried to strike balances between normal secondary education and vocational training, to provide a balanced economy, allowing re-urbanization and modern industrialization. China has done remarkably well in moulding its system according to the times – especially compared to attempted reforms in other political arenas such as food safety or free speech.

It is no secret that education, and the discipline that comes with it, is a prized facet of the Chinese culture. School is mandatory from grades 1-9, with an estimated 80% attendance rate for primary and middle school. The ministry of education has estimated there are about 200 million elementary and high school students, which equates to 1/6 of China's population. That is one large student body.

Since education reforms began in the late 70's, the Chinese educational system has made great strides to constantly ensure its economy and population benefit from education and its ensuing opportunities. China spends 1.9% of its GDP on education, and since 1999 spending has increased a whopping 20% every year. This can be compared to the UK, where a mere 0.7% of its GDP is spent on education. Under today's laws, mandatory education for primary and middle school is free, though parents generally pay nominal fees for books and uniforms- and more for preschool (starting at age 3), extracurricular activities, and tutoring classes. Even those in remote villages have access to education, as 95.2 percent of all elementary schools, 87.6 percent of junior high schools and 71.5 percent of senior high schools are in rural areas.

Between 1999 and 2003, enrolment in higher education increased from 1.6 million to 3.82 million. In 2010, China estimated 6.3 million students to graduate from college or university, with about 63% entering the workforce. Though China has its own problems with over-educated job applicants and white collar job shortages for a more educated working class, it nevertheless continues to improve its place in the world of business, finance, and technology by means of educating its population.

Zhongkao and gaokao testing

In primary school, even the youngest of children are in class for over eight hours each day, with a rigorous curriculum of math and Chinese making up 60% of class time. General knowledge of politics and "moral training" cannot be forgotten, and schools place an importance on teaching love for the motherland, love of the party, and love of the people. Meanwhile, humanities classes such as nature, history, and geography make up a mere 8% of class time. Starting from grade 3, students begin to learn English, which has become an important part of Chinese education.

Further along a students' academic career, the testing process becomes the most emphasized and widely acknowledged facet of Chinese education. After primary school, to exit out of each grade, students are required to pass testing. If they do not pass on the first try, they are allowed to test again, but repeated failures can unfortunately mean the end of a child's education.

The zhongkao examination determines the high school a student may attend. Admission to high schools is similar to admission to university, and there are top high schools in every city along with the bad. Once in high school, a student will spend the next three years preparing for the gaokao, which is overseen by the China Ministry of Education and determines college admissions. Every student must be processed by the Ministry of Education in order to attend a school of higher learning. This is perhaps the most famous illustration of the importance and sacrifices of test taking in China. Held every June for high school students finishing their senior year of secondary school, test results are a direct indicator of where a student will attend, if they will attend, university. An entire career of education culminates in one single test, which takes over the course of 2-3 days in June. Chinese, mathematics, and a foreign language (often times English) are the main testing subjects, with six other supplementary subjects in science and humanities also tested.

The gaokao is essentially the only criteria for attending higher education in China. A successful score means an applicant can attend the university of his or her choosing.  Thus, students in their last year of high school spend most of their waking hours studying for the exam. Many forego all extracurricular activities in favour of studying for the test, and teachers begin to proctor practice tests early in the year.

The Chinese methods

Chinese testing methods, like its study methods, are a very touchy subject that can easily be misinterpreted by Western society's more laissez-faire approach to education. Imagine the difference between a Chinese school system and a Western school system. In the U.S., for example, students are in class for six to seven hours a day, at most. Curriculum stresses a liberal arts education, meaning history, social sciences, literature, and physical education are given just as much time as math and hard sciences.   

The do-well-or-be-shamed mentality on testing and classroom curriculum may seem extreme. As a direct result of the zhongkao and gaokao, many classrooms place grave emphasis on testing abilities, and not enough on innovation and creativity. But, this is a subject that doesn't only plague China. Plenty of outdated and controversial standardized testing occurs in countries other than China, none better exemplified than the 'No Child Left Behind' policy in the United States.

Chinese adults, educators, and students also aren't completely ignorant to the problems within their system. Students I have talked to complain about the endless rote memorization techniques (though they know better than to diverge from that system). Young Chinese adults have wished their education system would include more innovation and creative outlets that can make them more competitive in the world today. I've had fellow Westerners who are English teachers tell stories of students who seek them out after class to discuss issues of stress and anxiety- topics that they dare not discuss with their Chinese teachers.

The good news is that the late 2000's saw even more reform of university and higher learning system. In 2007, Fudan University as well as Shanghai Communications University became the first of China's colleges to accept independent recruitment, outside of the College Entrance Examinations. Additionally, since 1999, the number of Chinese applicants to top schools overseas has increased tenfold. China's students and teachers are starting to realize there are options out there for education.

The future for Chinese education is looking a little more promising, with dreams of slightly less testing and memorization and a little more innovation. There are certainly areas that the Chinese can stand to improve. But in more cases than not, for the benefit of the future generations, perhaps a rigorous academic stance should be an approach more Western countries should consider.

Related links
A Chinese Teacher's Perspective: China and the U.S. Education Systems Compared
Netizens React to Peking University President Criticising U.S. Education
5 (Harsh) Things China Can't Live Without

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Keywords: Chinese education gaokao China Chinese students problems China education


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Some students end up at some random university studying a course they have no interest in purely because that's what they are supposed to do.

Oct 12, 2015 11:13 Report Abuse



"Though China has its own problems"??? I would bet that the writer has never seen the Chinese education system first hand; this article is mild at best in an attempt to show both sides of a very clearly one sided system. Talk about riding the fence and spewing pages of empty nonsense.

Jun 06, 2015 18:22 Report Abuse



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Feb 19, 2015 23:37 Report Abuse


Hugh G Rection

Funnily enough recently in the UK the government has allowed the setting up of independent schools, these schools have to fill various criteria, but once they do they are funded directly from government and do not have to follow the national curriculum. A significant majority of these are organised by parents (often middle class but not exclusively so by any means). One of the common themes amongst these schools is a strong desire to return to knowledge based, tested 3Rs learning, often with latin and classical studies. i.e. a return to the 'old ways'. This appears to be what parents want and with industry and universities saying the students coming out of schools are just NOT prepared in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic for a live in employment or higher education they appear to have a point.

I think the Chinese system has a lot of positive aspects and a fair few negative ones. Positives, a concentration on knowledge, and getting the basics right. Negatives, corruption and cheating. I think the creativity, or lack of, is overplayed, that could be introduced at University level once the high schools have taught the level of knowledge of the facts required to use creatively.

So, in my opinion, the Chinese system has a lot of problems, but they need to take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Jul 25, 2012 22:40 Report Abuse



The Western system is so good that it took them, ("educators" parents etc), to realise that the students going to University were actually illiterate, so (in Australia) they had to implement the three "R" back into the school system, especially the state schools. Try and have a conversation with a twenty plus person and you might see what I mean. Of course the young people aren't to blame, it's the "educators" who dictate, what students, and how students should learn. I can't understand why people think young people are so smart, when they lack the basics. When I went to school (private) like DD, we had to learn in all sorts of ways, rote, reading, writing about the topics or subject, responsibility respect etc. The one thing we didn't do was learn the exams the way they do now. I only saw an exam paper at exam time! To the detractors, what can a young person teach you?

Jul 24, 2012 20:46 Report Abuse



China topped the charts in all three? sorry to say that, but that doesn't mean Chinese students mastered any knowledge, it only means they mastered texting. We (I use "we" here coz I'm Chinese) have been trained from a very young age to obtain high marks in texts. I remember my mom onced told me so and so was a good teacher, because she is a good guesser of wha't on the exam. Does that mean she helped student gain high marks? Yes. Does that mean she helped student gain good understanding of the subject? Not necessary.
Even though I am a Chinese, but I have to say I have little faith on Chinese education system. I'm not saying there's nothing good about it at all, it's fine for younger kids, when they still on the stage of memorizing written characters and math formula; but for college and university students, they should know better than copying standard answers. But well, I will be surprised for a govenment appricates full control and oppress people's free will, would implement critical thinking in its education system.

Jul 24, 2012 12:47 Report Abuse


Alex Schofield

What the test results of Chinese students prove is that testing alone is completely inadequate to gauge the abilities of students and the superiority of an education system. I have been a teacher here for three years and it amazes me how little Chinese students know about the world outside China, and their completely inability to think creatively or critically will do themselves absolutely no favors in a world that will increasingly rely on innovation due to progress toward a knowledge economy. Educated Chinese are more than aware of the shortcomings of the education their children receive, which is why the ones who can afford it will do anything to gain their child an overseas education. The fact that Western governments are admiring the Chinese system is just proof that they can't look beyond the surface.
On top of all this political indoctrination, plagiarism, outright cheating and corruption are present at all levels of the system. It is actively widening the countries problem with income inequality as well.

Jul 24, 2012 08:51 Report Abuse