Shanghai Education Story

28 Dec 2005

Recently I was discussing the Chinese education system with a Shanghainese friend, and she told told me a story. [Note: This is just one person’s story, not a blanket generalization. I’m sharing it because I found it interesting.]

> When I was in fifth grade, there were two girls that were at the top of the class. One of them was my friend. The other was the teacher’s favorite. I remember that there was a big test, and my friend got an amazing score of 98%. The other girl had earned a 95%, but the teacher had given her five extra “neatness points” giving her 100%.

> I really didn’t think that was fair, so in front of everyone, I pointed out to the teacher that my friend’s test paper was every bit as neat as the other girl’s, and if it weren’t for those five extra “neatness points” my friend would have the highest score in class. The teacher rewarded my sense of justice by making me stand for the rest of the class.

> When I went home, I told my mom about the incident. She told me that I shouldn’t have opposed the teacher, and that I had a lot to learn.

Chatting in that coffee shop, I had felt quite at ease. But then when my friend came out with that story, I suddenly felt so foreign again.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. i’m not surprised by her mother’s response.
    teacher’s should receive the utmost
    respect. (i wish we gave as much respect
    to our teachers in america.)
    it’s the teacher’s behavior that
    is lacking. i’m sure all teachers play favorites,
    but not in such a blatantly unfair way.

  2. John, you may take it as a blanket generalization, It’s quite true.
    I also wrote a similar story happened in the school.
    Why you find it’s interesting? This kinda education really KILLs freedom.

  3. If I could go back to year 7, I wouldn’t let this happened.
    I don’t think those people’s behavior (no matter what honor they get in teaching) assorts with their profession, so maybe we’ll stop to think if they can be called teachers.

  4. wow, that attitude is the extreme opposite of the sense of entitlement many students exhibit in the states. i can see where the chinese attitude applied over all aspects of life can lead to a real dearth of justice, initiative, and creativity.

    what happens when a parent confronts a teacher in china about this sort of thing?

  5. Hathai,

    what happens when a parent confronts a teacher in china about this sort of thing?

    Furious kung fu fighting?

  6. I’m wondering if this is a Commie thing or if this type of stuff happened in the “traditional” Chinese societies of HK, Singapore, and Taiwan (OK, Singapore and HK are influenced by British culture, plus Singapore is legendary for not condoning corruption, so maybe they’re not great examples). I’m curious because being partial to favorites is a strong tradition in Chinese culture. Yet having scrupulously uncorruptible major examinations (whether they be the examinations to become an official during the Qing, Ming, Song, Tang dynasties, etc. or the ROC’s college entrance exams) is also a strong tradition.

  7. you know that kinda crap is what makes me glad my parents immigrated to sydney from shanghai. Neatness points, pfff, i’ve also heard that its possible to get more than 100% on tests due to “bonus” marks. And if you and your family aren’t on good terms with the teacher will then you can kiss top marks goodbye.

    the chinese education system really stifles creativity and individual thought. I look at my cousins and then i look and myself and my brother and i go…whoa!

  8. Is authoritarianism part of Chinese “tradition”? Is this a fair question?

  9. William:

    Yes, it’s central to Chinese tradition; that goes back to Confucianism and how it shaped Chinese society. Even though losening up in many ways nowadays, most parts of Chinese life are still very authoritarian: politics, business, but also family and education.

    Guys, let’s not fool ourselves with labeling this kind of behaviour a Chinese thing. I went to school in Germany and I went to school in the States, and I’ve seen these stories happening all the time. I’m sure they’re more common in China due to cultural differences, but it’s not like our schools were a refuge for democracy and fairness.

  10. Guys, let’s not fool ourselves with labeling this kind of behaviour a Chinese thing. I went to school in Germany and I went to school in the States, and I’ve seen these stories happening all the time. I’m sure they’re more common in China due to cultural differences, but it’s not like our schools were a refuge for democracy and fairness.

    I’m not buying that unless you can give some examples. If any teacher tried that shit in the US, they’d be lucky to last a year without litigation threats. I’m not saying that makes the states a “refuge for fairness”, but teachers can’t just arbitrarily give their favorite student enough “neatness points” to get the top grade and then force anyone who speaks out against it to stand for an hour. Heck, they’d probably be sued by both the top student AND the poor kid who spoke out.

  11. John, you said earlier that you saw this happening as early as kindergarten. Why should you be surprised that it continues? Perhaps the teacher isn’t so smart; she should have just put grades on the paper w/o extraneous comment. Then again, maybe she wants to have her favorites known. Of course, in the US that might make them ‘targets of opportunity’ in the playground & after school.

  12. Tim P,

    I wasn’t surprised. I was merely reminded.

  13. Honestly, I can 100% imagine this happening in a US 5th grade class. I remember extra credits for neatness, and of course students aren’t supposed to talk back to their teacher – I would have gotten dirty lickings!

  14. Too bad the pinnacle of education was achieved by the Greeks 2000 odd years ago… 😉

  15. The mother’s behaviour itself doesn’t really shock me. She is technically right: the teacher should be listened to, and the pupils should not have every right to contest a decision made by a teacher. Is it better how it happens in the West, with more and more illiterate parents telling their children “your teacher is a dork, you can tell him to f*ck off?”… At least Chinese parents still remember what the word “respect” means, and they’re the last ones to teach its meaning to their children. At least they are still aware of their own capabilities, unlike so many western parents who think they know everything better.
    The problem is that they’re maybe too modest, and this is a not a good thing either; but many western parents would have to learn to respect teachers’ work and position…

  16. Fifth grade! Right! For some reason, I was thinking high school. Still, I must have grown up in an unusually litigous area, even for the US. I have some friends who became teachers in the public system after graduating, and I know all of them are pretty concerned about doing anything that can be construed as “unfair”.

    While I was at Littleton high school, our curriculum changed to an “outcome based curriculum”. 20 parents banded together and sued it out of the school system. Later, the school was sued by an atheist family because our English lit. anthology included passages from the King James bible (as literature, not history). Two health-ed teachers were also sued over “promoting” birth control, but settled outside of court. Later, an English instructor was dismissed because of parents threatening legal action over unfair grading practices. Finally, after the Columbine shootings it was a rabid frenzy of everyone and his red-headed step-child looking for someone to sue. Teachers, security directors, near by game store owners, police officers, and who knows who else were threatened with lawsuits. I hope China never gets like that.

  17. Perhaps the teacher isn’t so smart; she should have just put grades on the paper w/o extraneous comment. Then again, maybe she wants to have her favorites known. Of course, in the US that might make them ‘targets of opportunity’ in the playground & after school.

    This topic reminds me that somehow I heard about this when I lived in China, but I can’t remember who told me or why. But I seem to remember that the teacher did want her favorites known. You’re right about what would happen to the favorite after school or in the playground in the USA. Public school culture can really deeply imbed some values… part of the reason that the favoritism and cheating in China bothers Americans so much.

  18. I think the source of that girl’s problem may lie in the same place as the reason you felt it necessary to put your “disclaimer” at the beginning of this post.

  19. Agree with you Ben, of course it happens – and probably just as much – in other countries, including Western countries. Favouritism, incompetence, etc are just things you have to deal with at school and in life. The big difference is it is much more acceptable for kids to question a teacher here and the fact kids are encouraged to question – this is probably just liberal values pushing conservative values to the side tho.

  20. John-

    Furious kung fu fighting?

    if that’s the case, i wanna attend some parent/teacher conferences!

    i’m kinda wondering how the chinese deal with confrontation and whether chinese teachers would deal with confrontation with a parent any differently than the teacher did with this child. although, from what you’ve written, it doesn’t seem that parents often intervene in the education of their children.

  21. Well, over the New Year holiday coming up, I am supposed to be going to visit my brother in law’s English teacher (he’s 13) so that his teacher can practice speaking with a foreigner…why? So that she will then take better care of him and give him better marks!

    My wife and mother in law already took the teacher out for dinner and gave her some ‘presents’ (they didn’t tell me if they came in little red envelopes or not), and asked if the boy could stay at the teacher’s home for a semester to improve his english…….she said no, but not because it was an outrageous suggestion, but because she already has one student’s family paying her to have their son live with them, and there is not enough room in their place for another boy!

    Jesus…my headmaster almost ended losing his job because he accepted a donation from a wealthy student, but here the teachers are allowed to take money from parents and have students stay at their homes for special tuition.

    When I asked if that wasn’t just a bit unfair, my in-laws said it is common practice here.

  22. ooookay, never mind. i guess chinese parents do intervene on their children’s behalf, only intervention often involves bribery…what a great lesson for the kids.

  23. Hathai,

    Well, yeah, it’s a great lesson! If their parents don’t teach these kids essential bribery skills, who will?

  24. dace, I was talking with some parents on the train back from Hong Kong last time, and they mentioned the “kids staying with teachers” thing. Apparently it’s common: teachers have small incomes that can be well-supplemented by this “boarding” thing, and parents just want to give their kids a leg up in the rat race. I dunno, I sorta like the idea of private tutors, but I wish the parents weren’t so busy that they can’t do it themselves.

  25. I am an ESL teacher in an elementary school in the US. I’m lucky because I get to teach nice foreign kids with nice, polite parents. Occasionally I am called upon to sub when a classroom teacher is sick. Subbing is pure hell. 80% of American kids and their parents are fine, but there is this hardcore 20% with serious behavioral issues. One day, I told a 1st grader to sit on a chair away from the group after warning her three times about fooling with a classmate. She started screaming “NO!!!!” and stomping her feet on the floor. I had to pick up the child and carry her kicking and screaming to the chair. I found out later that another sub got yelled at by a parent for doing something similar. Both our principal and our dean of students are trained in restraining techniques and both of them had to sit on a 2nd grader recently in order to restrain him. A fellow teacher training program grad worked in a Washington DC school where a 3rd grade teacher was beaten unconscious by the kids.

    No American teacher would dare pull a stunt like boosting the grade of a pet student. We have too many real problems to deal with every day.

    I think there is validity to the belief that the teacher’s behavior may have roots in Confucianist “teacher is god” thinking. A few years ago in Korea, there was a story in the newspaper about a Korean teenager whose parents sued the school after the teacher threw a book at the girl’s eye and caused permanent damage to her vision. Shockingly, the class showed their support for the teacher by harassing the girl at school and at her home.

  26. The custom of slipping envelopes of cash to the teacher exists in Korea, also.

  27. Hey, hey hey, Here are a lot a criticism going on here.
    First teachers are humans and its normal if they have favorites and if that influences their judgement. thats part of human nature.
    Next If you want to keep a class the right way, students must not be allowed to contest or challenge the teacher in any way or in any form during the class. even more, in this case that student wasn’t directly involved.
    Doing that after class is acceptable but certainly not during otherwise the doors to anarchy are wide open.

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