Do Chinese kids really work that hard?

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Do Chinese kids really work that hard? 

If you were asked to think about some of the characteristics of Chinese society, what comes to mind? For most people with no prior China experience, this might be quite a difficult question to answer. There is one stereotype, however, that most westerners might jump to if asked this very question. Chinese kids work so hard! All work, no play! After school classes, there’s homework, more classes, more homework, sleep, and then it’s time to go to school again. Not only might people cite the grueling nature of the Chinese education system, but also the way in which Chinese kids are taught. It’s all learning by rote, they say! No creativity, they scream! Well, while these stereotypes are true to a certain degree, the context through which Chinese education has been shaped is arguably a little misunderstood by those in the west. What’s more, the appetite for a more ‘western’ or ‘international’ style of education is growing bigger and bigger, particularly among the rapidly increasing Chinese middle class.  So, do Chinese kids really work that hard?

China‘s a pretty big place, and yeah, in case you hadn’t heard before, there are quite a few people here too. 1.4 billion, to be precise. A number so large that, as westerners, we actually find it pretty difficult to truly comprehend. There are over 4 times more Chinese people than there are Americans on the planet, over 20 times more Chinese people than there are Brits, 60 times more Chinese people than there are Aussies, and over 140 times more Chinese people than there are Swedes. 140 times! Chinese people make up one fifth of the world’s population….that means that one in five of every person in the world is Chinese! These stats are nothing new and have been repeated ad nauseam, but when you actually *think* about them, these numbers are mind-boggling.

What it means for China domestically is as significant as what it means for the world globally. Competition is fierce and, when the livelihoods of elders in the family are dependent on the younger ones in the workforce, families will go to every possible length to give their children a competitive advantage. This cycle became exacerbated by the  one-child policy that ran from 1979-2016, where the burden, responsibility, and expectation of a generation of only-children became far greater.

The money that has since been poured into Chinese childrens’ education has risen commensurately. Competition for places in the best schools, universities and, subsequently jobs, is extremely strong, leading to an educational arms race where Chinese students attend a raft of after-school and weekend classes in a subjects across the academic spectrum and beyond. Observing the raw mechanics of this from our perch in the West, it’s easy to see why the arguments against the Chinese education system gain traction. Chinese kids work bloody hard.  The scales of the study-life balance are tipped heavily to the former rather than the latter. As a consequence, it leaves little ‘free time’ for some of the things that us in the West might consider sacrosanct (although it’s worth questioning how much of the ‘leisure time’ students in the West enjoy is really time spent productively!)

While it’s easy to join the chorus of critics who pour scorn on – what seems to be from the outside – China’s one-size-fits-all educational assault course, realising the context – the pure economics – through which it is shaped goes a long way towards being able to accept and understand it. Demand dwarfs supply. Competition is fierce. Parents simply can’t risk letting their children slip behind. It is the very embodiment of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. What it means, however, is that by the time Chinese students leave school or university, they are equipped with a work ethic and body of knowledge that’s now the driving force behind the Chinese motor that’s taking a leading role in a whole number of both technical and non-technical industries. It should be noted that this is healthily supplemented by the ranks of wealthy Chinese students who’ve had the privilege of studying abroad at leading western educational institutions. Indeed, for the rising numbers of wealthy Chinese, this educational arms race becomes an international game, with families providing a roster of financial support to finance their child’s education from a young age, not to mention the exorbitant college fees they’re forced to pay once their child goes to college. Worryingly for the rest of the world, the Chinese government is now going to great lengths to lure the best and brightest overseas Chinese college graduates back to China.

So, do Chinese kids really work that hard? Yes! They really do. But attempting to understand the reasons why this is will hopefully help you analyse the situation from a slightly different perspective.

 

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