July 2009

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No, views of Britain in language textbooks doesn’t make the cut.

The firstcompulsory political thought classes comprise much too much study time – I’ve pretty much covered before. To clarify, my point has nothing to do with what is being taught in those classes. Let’s simplify things by leaving competing ideologies and above all the patronising word “brainwash” out of the debate. I only argue that the long hours students must spend in these classes every week is way out of proportion to their benefit. It’s an unjustifiable waste of study time: if a student spent two hours a month rather than two hours a week studying Marx-through-Jiang, that free time could be put to so much use.

The second: access is far from equal according to where you are and how rich you are.

This is the one criticism which an average Chinese person would agree with above all the others (that’s an educated guess … if you’ll forgive the pun). The money side of it is obvious: besides bribes and so forth, more money (or abused influence) gets your kids into the better schools and the better schools get them into the better universities.

But it’s also unfair by location: a top university like Peking University (PKU or Beida), where I study, accepts different quotas of students from province to province. Take Marie for example, who’s from Yunnan in China’s less-developed south-west. In her subject’s year, she tells me, there are 100+ students from Beijing, 100+ from Shanghai … and only 30 from Yunnan. Mind, I don’t have the figures on these quotas so this is anectodal for the moment. But it’s well known that this inequality exists, and Beida certainly takes more students from Beijing than from countryside provinces. Marie thinks the inequality is only worsening, and assumed things were the same at Oxford – she was surprised and delighted when I told her it isn’t.

Like Leonidas says, “the fact is that students in different provinces and cities have different opportunities to be educated”. He and I both wonder why the government isn’t pumping more money into scholarships and bursaries to address this problem, but I’ve no numbers to back this up so I’ll again zip up for now. I should also mention that we’re not talking about ethnicity here: in fact, students from ethnic minorities in China get an automatic percentage increase on their college entrance exam scores, helping them get into the best universities.

The third is more of a side-note than a productive criticism: the idea that China must educate its population better before it can be democratic. It’s Leonidas’ idea not mine:

“In a country whose population has [a] high education [standard], democracy is good. But if a people’s education is not high enough, it isn’t. If I’m not educated, I don’t know how to choose which opinion is right, which is wrong. … I would prefer to listen to only one opinion, and do it. Now, of course, it’s the government’s opinion.”

I disagree. High standards of education is necessary for a democracy to function well, but shouldn’t be taken as necessary to have a nascent democracy at all. And unless I’m misrepresenting Leonidas, he’s implying that until China’s education gets up to scratch (we’re mostly talking about the countryside here, which is comfortably over 50% of the population), democracy would be create more problems than it would fix. But that’s a great excuse for a single power to postpone indefinitely the ultimate curbing of its power. And surely the bigger stumbling block in choosing which opinion is right and which is wrong is not how educated you are but … there only being one opinion you’re told about.

Of course, the other point Leonidas is making is that education must be a priority for China. He thinks of it as China’s “biggest problem” and better education as the first step to freedom of speech. Well first step or no, freedom of speech tends to be more productive if the free speakers know what they’re talking about.

For the fourththe system and teaching methods it promotes can stifle creative thought – I’ll let an email from Tony suffice to begin with. He’s in America at the moment doing a summer school at Yale, taking a Foreign Policy Decision Making course taught by a Yale professor. I asked him how the experience compared to the teaching at Beida. Here’s his word or two:

There are two interactive seminars each week, quite different from the lectures in PKU, which involves more people and less discussion. In Yale, we have more opportunities to raise questions and debate. …

I appreciate the learning style here. Students step into a specific field of study through reading the first-hand publications instead of learning from powerpoints prepared by their teacher. In PKU, too many courses are squeezed into one semester (7-8 for me, maybe more for students from other schools) so that students prefer to memorize the main points during final weeks rather than read the original writings. And many Chinese students have lost their interest in discovering. They want to know “what it is” or “what it should be” more than “why was that”. I guess the education system is responsible for this. Yet there are many factors standing behind it, including a large population, a planned social framework and a big government, almost equal to the size of the society. I understand that it’s easier to blame this system than to revise it.

But blame – lots of blame – is necessary to convince a bureaucracy to revise itself. Otherwise the system, like many of the over-pressurized and under-stimulated students it seems to produce, will continue to resemble this Ming dynasty civil service hopeful:

To continue whining about the Chinese curriculum, I would like to address the pressing issue of what the enemy’s schools are teaching this generation of impressionable Chinese youth about my motherland, fair Britain. Marie has just showed me – in the spirit of cross-cultural exchange – Unit 6 Lesson 4 of her Peking University English tingli (listening) textbook, summarised in this helpful chart:


From the opinions of ‘Paul’ and ‘Cindy’, if those really are their names, I can only infer (by extension) that the 1.3+ billion population of China considers Britain really really dull – with the exception of yours truly, who as a member of ‘the young’ is both ‘alive’ and ‘on fire’: a dual state difficult to maintain, some might argue.

President Hu, I formally object to this two-dimensional characterisation of our nation. How would you like it if our educational board ran around releasing school textbooks listing Chinese interests as ‘in the past: opium. now: money; being oppressed’? Recall and pulp those textbooks, Mr Hu! Exhibit A:

Interviewer: And have you had much opportunity to eat English food?

Cindy: Yes, I avoid it, because it’s dull. I think it’s dull. And I think the English eat a lot of sweets and greasy food like chips.

Yes, our food may be dull, Cindy. Nethertheless, I got your point the first time. There’s no need to rub it in. Or just look at this libelous and oddly worded exchange:

Interviewer: Now what do you think about English people and their way of life?

Paul: The older generation of English people are really snobbish – the snob-nosed English. But the youth of England today – they’re really alive, you know, they’re more vibrant, on fire, alive. They are much more free than their parents, crazy!

I say good sir, who you calling snob nosed, man, crazy!

In the heat of a Beijing July, I’ve ironically been a bit snowed under recently, but here is a question which has been on my mind for a while:

Is there genuine justification (i.e. the time couldn’t be better used elsewise) for the number of hours China’s students spend note-taking while tired teachers give lectures on communist theory in their compulsory ‘Political Thought’ classes?

Matilda told me the more-or-less of how many hours this is, across China:

Primary school: 1hr a week

Middle school: 2 to 3hrs

High school: closer to 5hrs

University: 2hrs a week

Grad students: 1 to 2hr

N.B. A student risks being kicked out of school is he doesn’t show up for these classes. For a breakdown of what those classes consist of in university, here’s a sneak peak I had once of the class schedule of a Chinese friend doing her Masters at Beijing’s Mining and Technology University (in hours per semester):

Marxist Philosophy Principle (32hrs)

Marxist Political Economy Principle (32hrs)

Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought (24hrs)

Introduction to Deng Xiaoping Thought (40hrs)

Military Training (32hrs)

Anyway you tot that first set of numbers up, it comes to comfortably over a thousand hours by the time a Chinese student graduates from university. A thousand! Think of how a student could spend that time instead:

1) He could watch 666 episodes of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ on Youku.com and wonder at how much sex doctors have with their colleagues in American hospitals.

2) He could eat 7,347 packs of instant noodles.

3) He could mine 89,558,324 gold in World of Warcraft.

4) He could … oh I don’t know … study something else? Like Adam Smith! And the founding fathers of America! (Kidding.)

I will not be so cocky as to call this time wasted, but you all know I’m thinking it.

To understand communist ideology and how it has been applied by China’s leaders is, of course, to understand much of where modern China has come from. But this could surely be done in much less time. Leaving more time to study the other keystones which have built Chinese culture, state and society. A thousand hours could go a long way to ensuring the connection between China’s youth and the country’s long and rich history is not lost (as many Chinese intellectuals and, well, old people warn it is currently in danger of).

The problem, as I understand it, is not that China’s kids are being “brainwashed” (as much as many in the West seem to like the idea of China’s population being a homogenous Manchurian candidate in a Mao suit) but that many students attending these classes simply find them too boring to pay attention, and so zone out on a lot of hours they could better spend swotting the gao kao – or better still, getting enough sleep while swotting the gao kao.

Matilda described a typical homework assignment for one of these classes: take Marx’s saying “the road is long and with many obstacles” and apply it to different situations – the expected answer being how after last century’s revolutions China now has a bright future. My concern isn’t that this is communist propaganda so much that it sounds mind-numbingly boring. Matilda for one hates these “so so boring” classes, and would prefer to study her favourite philosopher Kant in them. And Tony tells me his politics teachers often use these classes to back-handedly (or up front) criticize current government policies.

Just some preliminary thoughts on a topic I’ve yet to really prod at…


UPDATE: Tony just emailed me with this:

haha, I sometimes skip those classes (military training only appeared twice in that semester thus having a bad grade). Students usually surf the net or do other reading in class i.e. just physically appear in the classroom. But then the final week is tough and I forgot almost everything after finished the exams. However, I guess one of the strong influences of political education is the dialectical thinking pattern of the Chinese people.


Oh, and Leonidas drives the point home:

These political classes are just for show, it doesn’t work. The students don’t take it seriously. The teachers don’t take it seriously.

Q: What does the bedroom of a 24 year old Chinese entrepreneur who buys clothes from Guangzhou factories then sells them on the internet look like?

A: A Guangzhou factory.

That’s just one angle of a 12 square metre apartment … the other side is just the same, except with a bed somehow fitting around the clothes. Ben moved into this flat in April because his old one was, literally, too small. That it really does look more like a storage space than a lived-in room is a testament to either his work-ethic or his OCD, or most likely both. Here’s another shot of Ben with the catalogue he orders his clothes from:

Mary, married

Congratulations to Mary, just married. She met and got to know her groom to be – Adam, an American pastor in training – in Wenling, Zhejiang last year and they’ve had an internet relationship ever since. I always did wonder why she was online on Skype quite so much.

It was a simple Christian ceremony, held in a private restaurant room by an American priest flown up from Hong Kong – in Chinese (including translations of Christian hymns … Ni Zhen Wei Da! for How Great Thou Art!), presumably for the benefit of Mary’s parents and much to the chagrin of Adam’s mum who had to follow the bilingual program.

Mary and Adam are now off to honeymoon in Thailand before settling in Wuhan. I wish them every happiness, and wonder if they will still be living in China in six or seven years. This will be the last post on this blog about Mary.

This Shang dynasty light sabre is on display in Kunming. The museum claims it once belonged to Luke Skywalker’s great granduncle, who was of Chinese descent and settled in a village near Lijiang in approximately 1800BC.

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