The Education System

The Chinese government have introduced nine years compulsory education for all. Students are required to complete primary and junior middle school education. Thereafter, students who pass the appropriate entrance examinations go on to senior middle schools or middle-level vocational schools. They may then  take the national college entrance exam which gives access to tertiary education.

Despite claims made on many websites (including official Chinese sites) education is no longer  free in China. Tuition is free during the nine-year compulsory part of education. However, students are required to pay for textbooks etc. Post junior school parents must pay for tuition. Some limited help is offered to the poorer students, but this seldom covers all costs. As a result, particularly in the countryside, some children still do not attend school. Also, 'illegal' children under the one-child policy and children of rural parents who have travelled without permission to the larger cities in search of work are often unable to attend school.

China Daily reported in late 2006 that all fees were to be abolished in some of China's poorer areas.


Primary education is a six year course in which pupils study core subjects such as Chinese, Maths, History, Geography, Science etc. There is also a certain level of  elementary political and moral education. A strong emphasis is also placed on Physical Education.


Junior Middle school (junior high) is really a continuation of the primary system, with students studying the same core subjects at higher levels. Again there is an emphasis on sports and physical education, alongside moral and political education. At the end of the three years, all pupils take an examination, which for successful students leads to senior middle school or vocational school. These examinations are considered to be very important as the pass level determines the quality of senior or vocational school into which the students may be accepted..


In Senior Middle school, students elect whether to follow science or humanities curricula. These courses are designed to lead to the important National College Entrance Exams. Again sport and political education are part of the curriculum.


Whatever type of higher education students wish to undertake, they must first take the National College Entrance Exam. This is held in early July and there are separate exams for science and humanities candidates. University and College admission is administered nationally and by admissions committees at provincial level, under the Ministry of Education. Students apply for the institution and departments they wish to attend, listing choices in order of preference. Admission is decided mainly on the results of the entrance exams, but can also include an investigation into the candidates' "social behaviour and moral character."


There are literally hundreds of universities in China, but these vary immensely in the level and quality of education. At the top of the pecking order are the key universities such as Beijing University and Shanghai's Fudan University. These rate alongside western universities in quality. Below these are various provincial and local institutions which have been awarded the title of university. Somewhat confusingly, there are also a large number of "normal" universities. These are teacher training universities.

Most universities offer four to five year courses leading to bachelor's degrees.

It is also possible to continue to master's and doctorate level. These courses also require further entrance exam passes.


In addition to the universities, there are colleges, offering two or three year diploma courses in various vocational subjects. There are also 'normal colleges' which again are teacher training establishments. Many, if not all of these, aspire to be upgraded to 'university' status.

How education works in practice

The Chinese take education very seriously and students are often under great parental and peer pressure to succeed. For centuries, education has been seen as the key to future prosperity. Confucian thinking introduced the Imperial Exam System, under which civil servants, government officials etc. were obliged to pass exams in order to be employed. Often the exams had no practical element and officials were selected on their ability to write poetry or on the beauty of their calligraphy.

Today, under the Communist Party, the exam system is still paramount.  Students spend most of their time memorising, and 'listen and repeat' is the main method of instilling knowledge. Teachers are held in high regard (if not rewarded highly in financial terms) and are very much seen as authority figures. Unlike in western schools, where it could be said that the primary goal of the teacher is to direct the students towards knowledge, the Chinese method sees the students as empty containers to be filled from the teacher's store of knowledge. This leads to a number of problems for foreign teachers entering the system.

Chinese education is fact based. Students are continually trying to 'remember' the facts. Walking around the campus of any Chinese institute of higher education, you will meet students sitting under the trees reciting their text books in an effort to memorise them. They will 'learn' page after page of English conversation by heart, yet be unable to use the language. Success in language learning is not measured in fluency,  but in the volume of 'vocabulary' and grammar rules you have memorised. 

Classes in junior and middle schools tend to have 50-60 students and they spend much of their time reciting. "Listen and repeat" is the teachers' main instruction. Many teachers are aware that the class size is a serious problem, especially in language learning, but there is little they can do to counter it.

This dependence on memory leads to a situation in which the 'teacher is infallible, the text-book is infallible." Students often report that they 'haven't learned the book yet.' In one teacher training college I was asked, "What do you do if something terrible happens in class?" I couldn't imagine what calamitous event the student was predicting so I asked for an example. "What if a student asks a question and you don't know the answer?" For a Chinese trainee-teacher this was the most appalling thing that could happen - loss of face.

This leads to perhaps the most common complaint from foreign teachers. Chinese students generally show a complete lack of study skills and there is an almost complete absence of critical thinking. For example, literature students memorise the names of western authors and their works. They seldom actually read the texts. When studying a poem, they will be told the meaning and interpretation by their teacher and are expected to repeat this interpretation verbatim in the examination. I once asked a group of university third year students what they thought of a poem I had asked them to read and was told,

"We don't know. You haven't told us yet."

Opinion is not valued. Only passing the exam is relevant. Students will ask in the first class of  a three year course, "What about the exam?" This leads to what is seen by many foreign teachers as a situation in which students are taught how to pass the exam rather than taught the subject. And once you have passed the examination, you can forget everything and move on to the next one.

Many, if not most, college teachers are hopelessly under-qualified themselves. This doesn't seem to matter as they can always read the textbook to the class. 

Such a teacher led system also leads to the students taking little responsibility for their own education. Motivation is often quite low. Students may have aspired to a key university and ended up in a provincial college. There is little incentive to better themselves.

One method used to try to raise motivation is the competitive element. Chinese schools, universities and colleges all have regular competitions. These occur in the college, at city, provincial and national level. It seems that there is nothing which cannot be made into a competition. English speaking competitions were the bane of my existence when I was teaching. Thirty or forty students make cliché-ridden speeches which they often do not understand. No-one listens, least of all the judges. And the prize is awarded to the teachers' favourite party member anyway. But the proverbial biscuit was taken the day my evening class was cancelled because my students were taking part in a 'morning exercise competition'. Yes, in the evening!

Lack of personal responsibility is not only in the classroom. University and college students live in on-campus dormitories and every aspect of their life is controlled from dawn to dusk when they are locked in for the night. For more on this see below.

The upside of all this for the foreign teacher is that the students often find this 'karaoke education' incredibly dull, so find the foreigners' more interactive teaching methods very interesting. At first there is often great resistance to the new methods, but soon the students work out what is expected of them and appreciate the more active environment. However, if one is not careful, there is a danger that the foreign teachers' classes can be seen as 'entertainment' and not treated seriously. This accusation can come from students, parents or school authorities.

The Chinese education authorities are aware of these problems and are introducing reforms. Unfortunately, the current system is highly entrenched and the teaching staff are often unable or unwilling to introduce the reforms. The exam system, and the lack of creative and critical thinking are the two main areas desperately needing change, but these reforms take time.

So why would you want to work in this situation? Well, so far I have mainly painted the down side.

Chinese University Students

Daily Life

All Chinese university and college students live in on-campus dormitories. These are generally large blocks of rooms containing eight beds in two sets of bunks. Between them is a table for the students to work on. There are no cooking facilities and in the south of China many are unheated. The sexes are strictly segregated.

The day begins early, around 6:00 a.m., when everybody is wakened by bells and public address systems playing music at deafening levels. Between distorted renditions of Cantonese pop songs intermingled with the more sugary western hits and Richard Clayderman tunes, come various announcements. These consist of national news, school notices of meetings and blatant propaganda. Occasionally they are brightened up by reminders to pay your phone bill or adhere to the one-child policy. These last two are aimed at the teachers, who also live on campus. The dormitories have pay phones and sexual relations between students are not merely frowned upon, but are actually illegal. Pregnancy while a student leads to automatic expulsion.

Next comes compulsory morning exercise. This is carried out to the same tune at every college in China and every foreign teacher (yes, they live on campus, too) comes to hate it. The exercise consists of jumping up and down for a few minutes, and I seriously doubt if it is of any real physical benefit. But that is not the point. Control is everything.

Following exercise, students head off to breakfast. This is  taken in the school canteen or in a number of small privately run places outside the school gates (most of them run by teachers' families). Steamed buns and soya milk seem to be the favourite round here, although deep fried dough sticks come close.

By 7:30 all the students are expected to be in class. Classrooms are laid out with screwed-down desks and chairs and generally each class has its own classroom. The peeling white-wash covered walls may sport a few notices, propaganda slogans and pictures of revolutionary heroes (Mao, Marx, Deng Xiao Ping, Lenin and Stalin), but nothing educational. Windows are broken and flap in the breeze. Most teaching is done in these classrooms. Lectures are much less frequent than in western universities. One student in each class is designated as the class monitor, normally elected by the class. They are responsible for administration of the class, liaising with the department, organising class events etc. There are other students responsible for  study matters, living arrangements, sports etc. These are useful people to identify. A message to one of them saves the teacher having to contact each student to pass on information.

In most colleges there are four periods in the morning. These are organised into double periods, so there are two lessons. Each period lasts 45 or 50 minutes with a ten minute break. There is a long lunch break, especially in the south where the break can be three hours in the summer months. In the afternoons there are a further two to four  periods, followed by a compulsory activities period. Activities can consist of sports (the Chinese are VERY big on sports) or dance practice or sweeping up the campus.

In the evening, the students return to the classrooms for 'study time.' This means that they all sit in their classrooms memorising textbooks or completing homework assignments. They are generally unsupervised, although there is a teacher on duty each evening who has at least a cursory look-in on each class to make sure that they are all there.

At night, the students have a strict curfew. At ten-thirty or eleven, dormitory doors are locked by the staff employed to 'look after' them. If they fail to beat the deadline, they are locked out for the night.

And, so to bed.

Chinese Students and the Foreign Teacher

For most foreign teachers, the great joy in the whole China experience comes from the students. In Chinese culture, the family is paramount and so family ties are strong. For the average Chinese student, the idea of leaving the sanctity of the family, travelling half way across the world and living in a culture where the language, food and daily life are completely alien, is beyond understanding. It would terrify many of them to take on such an undertaking. As a result, they are generally extremely grateful that you have made the journey. 

At first contact, you may find that the students are incredibly shy. Certainly, much more so than their western counterparts. They can also seem somewhat immature in comparison with western students of the same age. This, I expect, is a result of the extremely sheltered and controlled upbringing they have. Never make the mistake of talking down to them however. Like students everywhere, they take great exception to being patronised. 

In time, the students will thaw out and begin to ask you questions. This can be interesting at first, but can also get tedious. Chinese people in general tend to be very interested in your life and will question you remorselessly. However, they all tend to ask exactly the same questions in the same order. At first, I thought this was a result of their limited language skills, but as I learned more Chinese, I realised they ask the same questions in their own language (and of each other.) I will not list the questions here - you will know them soon enough - other than to say that there are no taboos on asking your age or salary in China.

Before long, you will find that a small self-selected group of students will have become much more confident and will even go so far as to visit you in your apartment, offer to accompany you on shopping trips etc. Most do this quite genuinely out of friendship, but there are a few who may 'use' you as extra language lessons. You quickly learn to differentiate. 

As you live on campus, and as most of the teaching staff spend most of their time with their own families, the students can become your main social group. 

Many many students have become firm friends. I am still in contact with a number of students who graduated up to twenty years ago, and a few have become real friends. That is more than can be said for the teaching staff.

Chinese University Students


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