Micah on Creativity

Just in case it has escaped some of you, Micah is my friend and co-worker here in Shanghai. (If you have a compulsive need to follow “all things John Pasden” (ha!) you should keep an eye on Micah’s blog because my name pops up there from time to time.)

Micah recently wrote a thought-provoking entry on raising children in China as an expat:

> Having gone to Spanish public school for so many years has cocktail party utility, but I blame it for my near-absolute lack of creativity and critical thinking. I just wonder if Chinese school wouldn’t have the same effect on a kid but magnified a hundred times. And even if you think “American parents will mean that the child will be different from their classmates”, well, no matter how much influence you think you have on your kids, the place that you send them for 6 hours of 180 days each year is going to have a strong influence on their mental development.

> The other side of the coin is that not sending your kids to Chinese schools will isolate them from their surroundings in a much stronger way than it would in Spain because the written Chinese language is nearly impossible to simply pick up naturally. And I highly value the cultural education I got from attending a public school abroad, so it is important to me that my kids be culturally conversive (if not fluent) in the country where we live.

A real-life example from my friend Shelley: at one summer camp in China, the teacher was actually dictating to the young kids what color each item should be in their coloring activity. Dissidents were reprimanded.

Through my job I have come into contact with Chinese educational materials for young children which claim one activity which nurtures creativity is allowing your child to color a picture any way he likes. Of course, this one “free coloring” activity is sandwiched between ten other activities which demand strict adherence to guidelines.

It’s not that Chinese education is deliberately against creativity. In fact, they’re always talking about the importance of creativity in education. It’s just that the educators honestly have no clue as to how to foster its development. Like Micah, I find this scary.


John Pasden

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


  1. As a person who grew up in China, I can testify that your fear is really legitimate.

    As a new parent in America, i came across Motesorri schools the first time in my life, and is fasinated about it. I found it so exciting, and encouraging. But as I told my father about it (he works here in the U.S. as well), he absolutely killed it on the spot. To a traditional Chinese scholar, creativity comes after you have mastered all the basics (which is so much more than the “basics” you would define in American terms). “There is no need to re-inevnt the light bulbs.” my dad told me, “The kids should master what is available already, so they do not waste their time and energy on creating something that’s alrady created.” He actually said, “Creativity?! At a young age (my son at the time was only about 1 years of age)?! Are you crazy? What creativity?! He should learn that leaves and grass are green, not blue. He doesn’t even have the faintist idea of anything, what is he going to creat?! Without teaching him all the necessary subjects, how would he know which one he will like and be be better at? It’s too early to encourage a young kids to be ‘specialized’, or ‘excelled’ on any particular direction.”

    I didn’t really argue with him much. But I know in my heart, his thought is flawed, becuase I am the product of that thought, and I feel very very inadequate when it comes to creative thinking.

    I was teaching some 6-7 year olds Chinese last semester. That was my first time dealing with young kids. I struggled and struggled in classroom. My classes were boring, and lack of energy. The only thing I could do with them that they liked was making different origami every time, and “bribing” them with various prizes doing litttle games. I had no control over them. My assistant was a younger girl who grew up in the States. She would do silly things, wear silly outfits, and she really connected with the kids. I felt very bad for most of the semester.

    I realized that my style is exactly how my teachers were with me when I was in school. And school was not supposed to be fun, it was supposed to be serious. It’s not where you creat, but where you learn.

    Yes, the Chinese school also says “be creative” from time to time. But, like you said, it has no clue how to encourage that, and where to start.

    There are very good art students who can imitate any style of painting by any artist, but they can not creat their own style/identity.

    Although I agree there is truth in my dad’s way of thinking/values, there has got to be a balance somewhere.

  2. Jacques Aandy Says: April 29, 2005 at 1:15 am

    I observed similar ways of thinking when we lived in Japan. The mentality of the “nail that sticks out gets hammered” and the need for conformity (to achieve harmony).

    On the other hand, we had a very very good experience sending our daughter to a state run middle school in Beijing for two years. I don’t know about the availabilty of similar models for elementary schools, but I would recommend Beijing number 55 Middle School without any hesitation as a model school that combines the benefits of being a state run school with provisions that allowed foreign students from all over the world to be themselves for the most part and in many ways having the best of both worlds.

    We had transplanted our daughter in the middle of a school year from the US to China and she came kicking and screeming. So to lessen the hardship we sent her to the International School in Beijing where she had a less than satisfactory experience among brats and snobs, children of embassadors and wealthy ex-pats. Everything was done like in a typical American school with very little introduction to the culture of the new country she just moved to. On top of that, it cost us close to 20 thousand $US a year (not counting the endless other ways to raise money for this and that). Then we heard about Beijing #55 Middle school, and though she hesitated before saying yes (she was going to settle for the “evil she knew”), we bribed her by telling her that she can have the difference in tuition fees put in an account in her name, and she accepted to give it a try.

    They have this accelerated way of teaching the language at a location separate from the main campus. From day 1 she was taught Chinese, math and physics (all without a word of English), before she could say even a couple of words in the Chinese. The first week was just horrible and heart wrenching (for the parents specially) but within 5 months they were integrated back to the main campus, and within 7 months she was getting all A (s) and became our very fluent interpreter for the rest of our stay in the country. She had friends from all over the world but few spoke English, and they were all new to Chinese but it was the only language they knew in common and they used it all the time. I already wrote too much for a comment, but I just wanted to say that it was one of the highlights of our stay there and an extremely positive way to experience China for expat kids. My daughter will always cherish the two years in that school.

  3. Jacques: I love you for that comment, thanks for your encouraging feedback! I have heard especially good things about certain schools, especially ones attached to universities. It sounds like you found a jewel for your daughter.

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: April 29, 2005 at 2:45 am

    This problem is linked to a bigger question: are Chinese LESS creative than others? By “others,” who are these others? Japanese, French, Americans? I’ve taught the following group of kids:

    1) Romanian honors high school students.
    2) Romanian high schoolers at a Baptist school.
    3) Chinese college students.
    4) Low-income Mexican-American high schoolers.

    Of these four groups, the best students were the Romanian honors students; they were both hard-working and highly creative. The Mexican Americans were somewhat creative but intellectually incurious and incredibly lazy. The LEAST creative kids were the Chinese and the Romanian Baptists, and I believe both cases are because both groups live under a system of rigid conformity–one of communism, the other the church.

    However, are Chinese LESS creative than other groups? I’m not sure. It’s like the old lament that American high schoolers don’t know math whereas Asian kids supposedly excel in it. Then how would you explain that just about every major useful invention of the late 20th century has been American–personal computers, Internet websites, etc.? Same thing with Chinese and, by extension, all Asian schools. They are uncreative, yet how do you explain the cultural dynamism of East Asia? Anime, kung-fu movies, J-Pop, etc.? I’ve never felt that Asian culture is dying, whereas I very much feel most of European culture is–yet Europeans are Westerners and therefore supposedly more creative. Yet I feel Europe is very tired and old, and quite content to left to its own devices, barring the occasional jealous swipe at America. However, I certainly don’t feel China is old; I feel an energy there I didn’t sense in Europe. It’s the same energy I feel in America.

  5. schtickyrice Says: April 29, 2005 at 7:46 am


    What do you mean your father “killed it on the spot”? Who’s the parent here? You or your father? If you want to send your son to Montessori school, why don’t you just go ahead? Why is your father having a say in this? The Chinese thing is just an excuse. Your father may be miffed at first, but he’ll get over it. You are the one who has to make a stand for yourself and your son. Get with it! Sheeesh!

  6. Da Xiangchang

    I thought I would just point out that the WWW was invented by a englishman (along with a belgian) and not an american.

    That aside, I still agree with most of your post.

  7. Daniel, I fear there may be some controversy about who “invented” the WWW. I preseume, when you say an Englishman “invented” the WWW, you are referring to Tim Berners-Lee. Most Americans would counter that J.C.R. Licklider (an MIT guy) was the “inventor”, tracing the “invention” back to the early 1960s. What is important is not the “who that thought the idea”, but the “who that developed the idea”. Development comes from capital formation, and the WWW was American. The computer mouse is another example. It sat around a couple of places, an interesting curio, untill Steve Jobs saw in at PARC. He put money into changing it from an curio to something useful and marketable. How does this relate to “creativity”, I tend to agree with Alice’s father, but also with Alice’s searching for a balance. When I was a young boy in high school, I took an advanced physics class at the local observatory with bona fide physicists as the teachers. It was a School district wide program, and I believe there were 12 students from four high schools. The lab experiments were great, all that one would want from “creative” teaching, but the lectures were terrible, because they did not focus on the fundamentals and require strict analytical thinking. “creativity” comes from knowing the fundamentals, not from floundering around not knowing. I now come to Micah’s premise, and I agree with that, I think it is better to be put in the local school system than being educated outside of the cultural element that you live within. My thoughts. also, how Alice and her family organize themselves is their business, not mine.

  8. In regards to the question, are Chinese less creative? there are probably no straight answers. But it must be true that 5000 years of history affects the way things are done. Most of the research I’ve done on Chinese culture (by both Chinese and outsiders) concludes that the #1 value of the Chinese people as a whole is stability. Stability does not require a lot of creativity, but more conformity. There are cases of where creativity and difference have been used to bolster unity and stability, but not many.

    Why don’t other cultures value stability so much? Is it because of the huge upheavals in Chinese history where if something goes wrong it goes massively wrong? I’ve even heard people say that Chinese art is mostly just reproductions of elements of famous paintings in the correct way… any CHinese want to comment on how they see other cultures? Is stability #1?

  9. Da Xiangchang Says: April 29, 2005 at 1:57 pm

    Well, I don’t think stability necessarily counters creativity. For example, IMHO, the most stable big country in the world is the United States, and it’s also by far the most creative. The least stable countries–the ones in Africa–aren’t exactly lighting up, say, the international film festivals with their brilliance. And I’m always fascinated by the examples of Russia and China. Russia opted for shock therapy in its flight from communism, and the country went down the toilet. China, far wiser, is going at it gradually, and so far, it’s going quite well considering.

    Besides, forget stability or creative versus uncreative educational systems. The key to finding out whether a country’s going to succeed is figuring how money-hungry its population is. The Chinese today are incredibly money-hungry, and this trait, IMHO, is going to propel the country into the front ranks within a few decades. As long as the Chinese stay greedy and money-hungry, they’re on the right path. It’s only when they get complacent and content with their lot that countries lose their edge. (I find it absolutely amazing how “Chinese” the Western Europeans are today, and how “European” [the greedy Europeans of the past anyway] the Chinese are today! It’s like they switched roles!)

    In the end, love of money and materialism will do the Chinese populace a lot of good.

  10. I think Da Xiangchang, JFS and Kaili sorta missed the point of this post, but maybe that’s because the title included the word “creativity”. I take it as a given that the Chinese educational system in general doesn’t encourage creativity, and I don’t know anybody who would argue against that; I don’t pass any judgement on that, maybe it’s great for stability and that’s how Chinese people like it, maybe it’s bad and keeping them behind: I think there’s evidence both ways.

    My post was instead about “raising children in China as an expat“. As an expat, we have different values than the locals do, and I think that learning how to balance your own values against those of the society you live in is an important topic for anybody, especially for those who are considering living long-term in China, myself and John included.

    So when he says “I find this scary”, I don’t think he meant that Chinese uncreativity is scary, but the though of an American bringing up his children in an uncreative educational system is scary.

    But correct me if I’m wrong.

  11. Ooh, I think that first line of the post is directed to me. Psycho Shanghai blogger stalker

  12. Micah, I also think it is scary to raise children in China, not because of the uncreative educational system but because it is a different cultural system from America. I put my children in the American school system, a system that I am not particulary enamored with. It is a system with its genesis with Horace Mann’s Prussian system, modified by Dewey and is a state monopoly that is unable to respond to the needs of its customers. But I still used the system because I suspect the students can eventually overcome the shortcomings of the system. But I agree with you, I prefer to use the system that is enmeshed within the cultural system of the country wherein I live. Although I do not know any expats that use the local chinese system, I did know expats that used the Japan school system, the Taiwan school system and the French school system. All public educational systems today are state monopolies and have very similar flaws, they do not respond to the needs of its customers very well.

    I do agree with Da Xiangchang’s analysis above, but with one caveat. China does have intervention policies with the market system, all modern states do. Presently Europe commits the most significant intervention and consequently has very significant economic problems (high unemployment, etc.). The United States is not without its serious issues either. China does have some important interventions using their monetary policy (common for all modern states). This is causing a boom, called a bubble now a days. When the bubble bursts, the policy the Chinese take will determine what happens socially, I think. If they follow what the Americans have done recently, Regean about 20 years ago, Bush 1 and Clinton follow up about 12 years ago, and Bush 2 three years ago, that let the malinvestments made during the bubble be liquidated quickly, then their upcoming bust will only last about 18 months. If, on the other hand, they attempt to intervene, as Herbert Hoover-FDR did in the United States during the ’30s or the Japanese did 13 years ago, then the recovery (called a depression) will last much longer (10 years for America; so far, 13 years for Japan). So, Da Xiangchang, one cannot predict when the bubble will burst, but when it does, how the Government responds will determine what happens after that.

  13. Well, Schtickyrice, I did not say “I” killed it on the spot, did I? The outcome of that particular argument with my dad was not really revealed in my post. You are assuming too much.

    And Micah, the No. 55 middle school mentioned by Jacques Aandy is a very special school. One of my close firends from high school tranferred there during her senior year. And she had a very memorable experience as well (she is Chinese).

    There should be other nice programs out there in bigger cities now. If you are in Beijing, look into Beijing Jingshan School. That is a special one too. At least from the Chinese point of view, it’s different from most of other schools. It emphasized much more on extra cirriculum activities (non-academic ones are encouraged) than most other schools. It’s one of the first “experiemental schools” in China.

    Depending on what you are looking for, there should be plenty of choices. But I understand your concerns. Raising kids in a different culture/country has its added challenges on top of everything.

    Good luck.

  14. schtickyrice Says: May 1, 2005 at 3:58 am

    Well Alice, I’m glad to hear that it was an error on my part. Good for you.

    Kaili, creativity and stability are not mutually exclusive. In fact, isn’t creativity a necessary part of maintaining social stability in the face of change? China’s preoccupation with “stability” is the very reason why its historical instances of “instability” go so horribly, horribly wrong. Considering how poorly China has dealt with change in the last two centuries, it should be plainly obvious that creativity is the only way forward.

  15. I’d just like to add something I once heard: Japan registers for more patents than any other country except the US, and in some years it even beats the US even with less than half the population. If the Japanese education system kills creativity, then why do the Japanese make so many inventions?

    I think the Chinese can be creative too–just look at the ingenious ways they counterfeit! (joke)

  16. Yeah, I don’t think creativity and stability are mutually exclusive… just different emphases. Did miss the point of the post actually — and its relevant to me too, actually having considered what to do with kids if we ever a) contemplated a long-term move to China and b) ever get around to having kids. Yet I’m not sure I even want to put kids through our own school system without some at-home input.

    Da xiang chang, you should write IMO — since your opinions re USA are never Humble!!

  17. Da Xiangchang Says: May 3, 2005 at 2:24 pm


    True, true. But one can’t really have humble opinions about America–or China, for that matter.

    Speaking of which, Zhang Ziyi is on the cover of the American edition of Newsweek this week. The mag had a “special report” on China which, while hardly enlightening to any sinophile, nevertheless was entertaining to eat. Check it out:


    Check out the cool smaller articles too, especially the one titled “Education: The Future Doesn’t Speak French” (haha) about Mandarin-learning in America. And the coolest line from the main article: “How to handle China? The best guide is to listen to what French President Jacques Chirac says, and do the opposite. Chirac, the tired old dinosaur who seems increasingly uncomprehending of today’s world . . .” Haha.

  18. On the point of stability would not necessarily counter creativity, I would even say stability (peace) in the US is one of the very reasons people are creative. Other reasons include freedom of expression, wealth (which accounts for both overwhelming availability of funding for creativity as well as general absence of hunger among students, researchers, and artists), and open-mindedness towards immigrants.

    This also explains why, as described by many above, the good schools in China turn out high quality students, even highly creative ones. In fact, students who receive sound fundamental education in China and then go on to wrok in the stable, wealthy, and free environment of USA, do very well in terms of creativity.

  19. Creativity & stability are not exactly opposites. Nor are they necessarily always worthy goals in themselves. While creativity can help bring about positive change, creativity misdirected can create problems, and mere stability can stifle positive change.

    The Chinese obsession with stability comes from fear of negative change. Unfortunately, when such fear is not moderated properly by wisdom & insight, it can and does seek to prevent all change that it does not understand, even that which would have been positive, out of fear of the unknown, that it may be negative. What is really needed before a proper approach to change can be adopted is the wisdom & insight to distinguish between positive & negative change, between good & bad change. That is something every human culture is having some problems with, some more than others, some just in different ways than others.

    Even before the correct wisdom, the proper motivation is needed. One poster felt that greed will motivate the Chinese people in the right direction. However, history shows that greed makes people shortsighted and willing to hurt others. That ultimately brings more problems to society. No, love is needed first as the right motivation. Without love, all else is vanity.

    When love motivates people to develop and apply the wisdom needed to use their strengths and abilities in a way so as to bring about just and beneficial change, that is when things are working the way they ought to in a society, and that is what children should be educated in.

  20. I’d just like to add something I once heard: Japan registers for more patents than any other country except the US, and in some years it even beats the US even with less than half the population. If the Japanese education system kills creativity, then why do the Japanese make so many inventions?

    Looking at the number of patents registered, is a terrible way of judging creativity. The US patent system has been suffering increasingly large problems over the past couple of decades. The number of patents approved per year has been surging, and the quality of the patents has declined. Many who have had dealings with patents (especially software patents), feel that the current US patent office stifles innovation as opposed to nurturing it.


  21. Chaim Aish Says: April 2, 2007 at 9:02 am

    Hell in the world do you all judge creativity?
    For one thing, if any of you seriously study the history and culture of the chinese nation, you should know how creative it is in its own way. Robert Temple and Joseph Needham’s publish studies on the inventions and innovative ideas of China will amaze anyone. Not to mention how different the world would definantly be had gunpowder not been created. Not to mention the other Chinese ” half” of all the inventions in history that help modernize the world.
    Fast forward to today. The past 200 years of turmoil and natural disasters have created the necessary emphasis on stability. But don’t ignore the creativeness it’s “diaspora” has done during the past 200 years.
    Things are getting better, maybe at not the rate or style of change most people would want it but seriously speaking, if you had the size, population, and huge diversity in languages and customs in
    China, you think anyone can accept such a challenge? The only nation that faces similar problems would be India.

    Oh on the topic of Western Culture. I know this might sound a tad bit controversial, but frankly speaking how well would the west fare without the Jews?
    Without the Bible, Advancements in Science, Arts and the humanities, Social movements and business practices “created” by the these West Asian peoples, how different would the world be?
    The only way you can judge creativity is by seeing how much impact it has on people.
    Only history can show, not money, # of patents or selfish motivations.

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