The Chinese Education System: The Pressure of 1.4 Billion


Pressure from 1.4 Billion People: A look at the rigors of the Chinese education system.

As China has increasingly become a world power, it sometimes surprises me how little people actually know about what’s going on there. Of the many conversations I’ve had in Annenberg, I’ve learned that many know that Facebook is blocked in China, but few seem to think that China would have its own social media platforms. Air pollution, another hot topic, when brought up, elicits more smirks than signs of empathy. “China is polluting the world!” is a phrase spoken with no sympathy, no understanding of how the very real consequences this problem creates in the very country that causes it. To demand some pathos, I throw out statistics like: “breathing the air in Beijing for a day is the equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes,” or “on the worst days in Beijing when the PM2.5 exceeds the max of 500 and shoots up to 1000, the visibility on the roads is no more than 2 to 5 meters.” If the conversation has proceeded thus far, I am already satisfied. If anything, it is a sign that people care and might want to hear more. All of this is to say that in this article I proceed with one issue I am relatively well versed in: the education system in China.

I like to talk about my experiences in one of the well known “art prep schools” in China if whomever I’m talking to seems like an artist of some sort. “Have you heard that there are such things as standardized test prep for drawing, the kind you have for SATs and APs?” I ask. “Cheating is rampant too. Just like you might scribble the definitions of a few SAT words on the margins of your desk before the test, students write down ‘Left 1, light brown, left 2, light yellow etc.’ on their palettes to make sure the colors they use to draw an apple are ‘correct.’”

On other occasions, I give my take on the notorious college entrance exam and the Chinese education system. My sister, who is in fourth grade, is taking Olympic Math two times a week, and she already knows her x’s and y’s. Her best friend in class, who is 10 and has never been abroad, speaks English without an accent and can sing Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” while improvising the tune on the piano. However talented these kids are, they will have to drop these activities during middle school or high school—that’s when everyone gives up most other things, for the college entrance exam, which we call “Gaokao,” the one thing that will determine the trajectory of their lives.

Before I flew to Boston, my cousin, who’s my age, told me about her 12th grade Gaokao experience in China. “I would wake up at 6:00 to study and eat breakfast. My mom would drop me off at school at 7:00 for morning recital and classes would begin at 7:20. We had four classes in the morning, each 40 minutes, with 10-minute intervals in between. As soon as class ended, students would swarm in front of the teacher with questions. So there really weren’t any breaks other than the two P.E. classes we had each week, which in the end, weren’t really breaks anymore because we had to run laps the whole 40 minutes in preparation for the senior year unified P.E. test. We then had lunch period for an hour and a half, but most of my classmates skipped lunch to line up in the teacher’s office for questions. We had four more classes in the afternoon, which consisted of doing multiple mock tests. These were graded immediately after, with rankings posted on the corridors before evening self-study period, which began at 6:00pm and ended at 9:00pm. I would run out of class as soon as the last bell rang, and my mom would pick me up and drive me home. I usually eat a little snack and then study until 1:30am. During the second semester, I realized I needed more sleep to study efficiently so I started sleeping at 1:00am.”

This daily schedule of hers, when told to students here at Harvard, often stirs intense emotional responses that run the gamut from pity to disbelief to horror, reactions that are almost too serious for Annenberg. People don’t know how to respond to something so foreign and out of touch. As an act of guidance, I gently remind them that yes, this was indeed the reality for my cousin, and is still the reality for millions in China.

For someone who knows no other system, my cousin says she is really thankful for the experience (“It was an once in a life time opportunity!”) and learned a lot from this process. She said the Gaokao taught her that the only way to succeed in an incredibly competitive environment is, paradoxically, to refrain from comparing yourself to others all the time. Despite the rigid and repetitive schedule, and the narrowness in vision it generates, the Gaokao trained her to be able to withstand enormous pressure and stress. In the recent years, the Gaokao has been evolving. The newly revised version demands less rote memorization (what the Chinese education system is infamous for) and more critical thinking with a global perspective. In order to score high on the Gaokao, and quite possibly in life, students now need to know that they aren’t just citizens of China, but citizens of the world.

People here talk about thinking critically all the time, but how often do people respond critically when I tell them about real things happening to real people? Has it ever crossed people’s minds that there are 1.4 billion people in China and only one Peking University and one Tsinghua University, both of which are ranked far behind “the Ivies” globally? In America, the population is far lower than in China, yet all the best Universities in the world congregate here. With less resources and more people, it comes as no surprise that students in China have to work extra hard to get into equally good schools.  Yet, discussion often comes to an end because people do not know how to respond or talk effectively about what is happening globally. Harvard is, first and foremost, an American University, but it is also a global name, college, and resource. Only if students start realizing that Harvard is one of the best universities in the world, will we go on to be truly great leaders.


Sophie Wang’19 ([email protected]) hopes students will take a greater interest in issues affecting China.