Chinese schools need to tune in and chill out

Updated: 2011-12-06 09:29

By Ellie Buchdahl (

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Chinese kids don't have time for sport. Chinese kids work too hard. Asian-American kids are being refused university places because they are stereotyped as "boring" and "overworked". In other words, they are labeled as typical Chinese kids.

Monday's cover story in China Daily included nightmarish stories of kids forced to be in the classroom almost solidly from 5:30 am until 9:30 pm. It was yet another variation on a theme that has characterized the past few weeks – China works its kids too hard.

I went to a private school in the UK. It couldn't have been more different from exam-factory China. At my school, hard work was the worst, most cardinal sin imaginable.

No matter whether you were reciting pi to 450 decimal places, playing Prokofiev's Petrushka with your left foot, running 10 miles in three and a half minutes, or copying the ceiling of the Sistine chapel onto the roof of the school hall, the last thing you wanted was to be seen to be making an effort. The rule was simple: long as you didn't give a toss, you would go far.

That went for teachers as well as students. My German lessons consisted of listening to The Magic Flute until the arias were stuck in our head more firmly than Wheatus' Teenage Dirtbag. When studying British post-colonial literature, my English teacher took us for a curry in East London, and my main memories of reading Hamlet are of shouting matches across the classroom about who was "more of a loser" – the ghost, the evil king, or Hamlet himself.

Despite this, kids from my school got some of the best grades in the country. In reality, of course, everyone was working hard. But while pressure for success was there, staying cool was much more important. I don't remember learning a thing from school – but somehow I got into Oxford university which is listed as fourth on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

China, along with other Asian countries like Japan, Singapore and South Korea, recently vowed to "crack" the top positions on the esteemed magazine's rankings. Currently the pole positions are held solely by US and UK universities, with the University of Hong Kong coming in a disappointing 34th.

One Chinese student I know who just started at a Beijing university described to me what angered him most about the Chinese school system. In his words, "Chinese schools teach you facts. But at University you need to know how to think."

I'd be the last to sing the undying praises of my school on the basis of it being a) private or b) British. Even so, in an odd take on that British "stiff upper lip" that discourages any display of emotion, its students force themselves not to panic about grades or success – and in the process manage to stay calm enough to succeed. If Chinese schools want to excel in the education world, then maybe they should just chill out.

Ellie Buchdahl is an editor on 21st Century newspaper. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect of those of the China Daily website.