Mao-era literacy poster
The importance of education has been a hallmark of Chinese culture for millennia and remains so with the Chinese Communist government. The population of China has become more educated and literate under the Communists. Literacy rates have jumped from around 20 percent when the Communists took over in 1949 to around 91 percent today. But that means that 85 million Chinese still can’t read and write.

Low education levels have traditionally been obstacles to China development. In many rural areas people who could read or write and had a middle school education were regarded as wise and educated and people who had a high school education and didn’t do manual labor were considered intellectuals. These conditions continue to exist in the countryside while people in the cities are becoming more educated. These days there are many Chinese with university degrees who have attended university abroad.

According to China’s 2020 census and the National Bureau of Statistics of China: There were 218.36 million persons with university education. Compared with 2010, the number of people with university education went up from 8,930 persons to 15,467 persons per 100,000 persons. the average years of schooling for people aged 15 and above increased from 9.08 years to 9.91 years.The continued improvement of the educational attainment demonstrated the achievements in promoting higher education, eradicating illiteracy among young and middle-aged adults and raising the population quality through hard efforts over the past ten years. According to the 2010 census, the proportion of college-educated Chinese went up from 3.61 percent in 2000 to 8.93 percent in 2010. In 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then the president, announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities and colleges produced 830,000 graduates a year. In May 2010, that number was more than six million and rising.[Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China, May 11, 2021]

Websites and Sources: Center on Chinese Education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College ; China Today on Chinese Schools ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Education Wikipedia ; China Education and Research Network (Chinese Government Site) ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) ; Book: ““Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World” (2014) by Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon.

Education Statistics for China

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English textbook
Education expenditures: 3.5 percent of GDP (2018), 123rd in the world (compared to 5 percent of GDP in the United States, 7.6 percent of GDP in Norway and 2.8 percent in Pakistan.
Literacy (15 and over can read and write): total population: 96.8 percent; male: 98.5 percent; female: 95.2 percent (2018)
School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education):total: 14 years; male: 14 years; female: 14 years (2015). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Gross enrollment primary: 100 percent (2019)
Gross enrollment secondary: 88.2 percent (2010)
Out of school children, primary age (1997): female: 7,254,031; male: 6,490,524; total: 13,7440,570
Gender parity index from gross enrollment ratio, primary: 1
PISA Age 15 (2018): Math: 591; Reading: 555; Science: 590.
World Bank]

Expenditure on education as a percentage of total government spending:
Expenditure on education as a percentage of total government spending: 12.6 percent n 1999.
Expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP: 1.9 percent in 1999.
World Bank]
Expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP:

Adjusted net attendance rate, primary education: 95 percent.
Adjusted net attendance rate, lower secondary education: 73 percent.
Adjusted net attendance rate, upper secondary education: 60 percent
Completion rate, primary education: 97 percent
Youth literacy rate (15-24 years): 100 percent

According to the China Statistical Yearbook, by 1998, China had a total population of 1,248,100,000 people. Among those over age 15, an estimated 83.22 percent were literate (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). In 1998, about 139,538,000 Chinese were enrolled in primary school; 63,010,000 were in middle school, among them 9,380,000 were high school students; 3,409,000 were students attending a university; and 198,885 were graduate students (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Education and Success in China

In China and Asia, effort rather than talent has traditionally been seen as the key to achievement and success. An old Chinese saying goes: “If there is no dark and dogged will, there will be no shining accomplishments if there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement.”

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: In China, there is one sure way to get ahead and that is through education. The government has done an excellent job identifying the best and the brightest, no matter what remote part of China they live in. Focus on Education One aspect of Confucian values which continues to have a very strong and largely very positive effect on Chinese culture is the traditional Confucian reverence for learning. This is a large factor behind China’s literacy rates, among the highest in the developing world (and in urban areas among the highest in the world), and behind her growing prowess in engineering, math and science. It is also, by the way, one of the central factors in the complex ‘model minority’ status that overseas Chinese tend to have in the US and other countries, for good or bad. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Based on the performance of students in top high schools and universities, Chinese students “overwhelmingly” outperformed students in both Japan and South Korea on mathematics, science and English tests. Japan and South Korea usually do very well in international mathematics, science and English tests.

In 2014, a study said the children of cleaners in the Chinese city of Shanghai outperformed the children of US and British professionals such as doctors and lawyers at mathematics. OECD analysts said. "In the United States and the United Kingdom, where professionals are among the highest paid in the world, students whose parents work as professionals do not perform as well in mathematics as children of professionals in other countries," they stated. "Nor do they perform as well as the children in Shanghai, China and Singapore, whose parents work in manual occupations," they added. The findings are contained in an analysis of the global Pisa test rankings in 2013. [Source: AFP, February 19, 2014],

Literacy and Illiteracy in China

Mao-era literacy poster
Literacy (15 and over can read and write): total population: 96.8 percent; male: 98.5 percent; female: 95.2 percent (2018) According to China’s 2020 census and the National Bureau of Statistics of China: illiteracy rate dropped from 4.08 percent in 2010 to 2.67 percent in 2020. [Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China, May 11, 2021; CIA World Factbook]

The adult literacy rate in 2004 was about 90.9 percent: with 95.1 percent for men and 86.5 percent for women (compared to 34 percent for females and 64 percent for males in India; and 99 percent for males and females in Russia, the United States, Japan and much of Europe). Literacy in China is defined as being able to read and write 1,500 Chinese characters in rural areas and 2,000 in urban areas — a fraction of the 7,000 to 10,000 required of university graduates. To read a newspaper one needs to know around 3000 characters.

After a 50 year campaign illiteracy was declared nearly wiped out in 2000. The number of illiterate people reached an all time low of 87 million in 2000 (around 9 percent of the population). The Communists were able to reduce illiteracy by launching education programs and simplifying Chinese characters. Many of China's illiterates are old people or people who missed the chance to get an education because of the Cultural Revolution when children didn’t have to go to school.

China has developed some novel approaches to combat illiteracy. In the villages of Wiping County in Henan Province in central China, visitors who can not read a few characters on blackboard outside of villages are not allowed in. As a result many illiterates have enrolled in special reading classes offered in the village.

Retaining literacy was as much a problem as acquiring it, particularly among the rural population. Literacy rates declined between 1966 and 1976. Political disorder may have contributed to the decline, but the basic problem was that the many Chinese ideographs can be mastered only through rote learning and are often forgotten because of disuse. After 2000 illiteracy rates rose. Between 2000 and 2005 the number illiterate Chinese increased 33 percent from 87 million to 116 million, wiping out progress that had been made over the previous decades. China accounts for roughly 12 percent of the world’s illiterate population. The increase in illiteracy was blamed on increasing numbers or rural poor dropping out of school to find work in the cities and the high cost of rural education. Illiteracy rates are particularly high among village women. Many village women are too tired from chores to attend literacy classes.

As signs of progress the government points to higher class enrollment figures in primary and middle schools and the fact that 10 million adults were taught to read and write in adult education. But statistics are misleading. People who are functionally illiterate can often pass tests that are supposed to measure literacy and the way literacy statistics are gathered is a little suspect. Literary is defined according to an exam taken in the fourth grade. Those that pass the exam. often don’t pursue their education any further. Having no reason to read and write they forget their skills, This is especially true among ethnic minorities.

Literacy and Language Reform in China

Campaigns to eradicate illiteracy have been part of basic education. Chinese government statistics indicated that of a total population of nearly 1.1 billion in 1985, about 230 million people were illiterate or semiliterate. The difficulty of mastering written Chinese makes raising the literacy rate particularly difficult. In general, language reform was intended to make written and spoken Chinese easier to learn, which in turn would foster both literacy and linguistic unity and serve as a foundation for a simpler written language. In 1951 the party issued a directive that inaugurated a three-part plan for language reform. The plan sought to establish universal comprehension of a standardized common language, simplify written characters, and introduce, where possible, romanized forms based on the Latin alphabet. In 1956 putonghua was introduced as the language of instruction in schools and in the national broadcast media, and by 1977 it was in use throughout China, particularly in the government and party, and in education. Although in 1987 the government continued to endorse the goal of universalizing putonghua, hundreds of regional and local dialects continued to be spoken, complicating interregional communication. [Source: Library of Congress]

A second language reform required the simplification of ideographs because ideographs with fewer strokes are easier to learn. In 1964 the Committee for Reforming the Chinese Written Language released an official list of 2,238 simplified characters most basic to the language. Simplification made literacy easier, although people taught only in simplified characters were cut off from the wealth of Chinese literature written in traditional characters. Any idea of replacing ideographic script with romanized script was soon abandoned, however by government and education leaders.

A third area of change involved the proposal to use the pinyin romanization system more widely. Pinyin (first approved by the National People's Congress in 1958) was encouraged primarily to facilitate the spread of putonghua in regions where other dialects and languages are spoken. By the mid-1980s, however, the use of pinyin was not as widespread as the use of putonghua.

Chinese Students Excel in Critical Thinking?

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Students inspired by Lei Feng
A study by researchers at Stanford University released in a preliminary form in July 2016 suggested that Chinese students who reach college have some of the strongest critical thinking skills in the world but that they lose this advantage in college.. Javier C. Hernández wrote in the New York Times: “The study found that Chinese freshmen in computer science and engineering programs began college with critical thinking skills about two to three years ahead of their peers in the United States and Russia. Those skills included the ability to identify assumptions, test hypotheses and draw relationships between variables. [Source: Javier C. Hernández, New York Times, July 30, 2016]

“Yet Chinese students showed virtually no improvement in critical thinking after two years of college, even as their American and Russian counterparts made significant strides, according to the study. “It’s astounding that China produces students that much further ahead at the start of college,” said Prashant Loyalka, an author of the study. “But they’re exhausted by the time they reach college, and they’re not incentivized to work hard.”

“The Stanford study, based in part on exams given to 2,700 students at 11 mainland universities, does not account for people who are not enrolled in universities, a large swath of Chinese youth. It looks exclusively at students in computer science and engineering programs. In addition to examining critical thinking skills, the study looked at how Chinese students compared in math and physics. While testing for the United States is not yet available, the researchers found that Chinese students arrived at college with skills far superior to their Russian counterparts.

Education Costs in China

China spends less on education that most developing countries. Only 2.4 percent of China's GNP is spent on schools, compared to 6.7 percent in the U.S. and 7 percent in Taiwan. China spends less than India. According to a survey it ranked 99th out of 130 counties on per capita education spending.

Free education was a hallmark of the Mao era. For the most part that era is over. In the old days people often worried about having enough money to pay school tuition. In the early 1990s, the central government began cutting off funding for rural schools.

The central government still promises a free education for every child for nine years but it provides little money for education. Most funding comes from local government. In poor rural districts in particular schools need to charge fees or come up with money other way to pay for school expenses. Fees vary from district to district. The education system in many rural areas has virtually collapsed.

In some cases schools force their students to help in harvests in return for food and grain and money that helps pay for school cost. To raise money, some schools rent their space to factories, shops, restaurants, and karaoke parlors and employ students in them. Teachers sometimes earn as little as $12 a month, if they are paid at all. But as poorly paid as they are teachers often use their own money to pay for school supplies and individual student fees.

Many have argued that China could better serve its people if it spent more money on education and less money on grandiose infrastructure projects like Three Gorges Dam. In March 2007, the government announced it would increase spending on primary and secondary education by $5.02 billion over what its spent the previous year, increasing funds for scholarships and doing more to help university graduates find jobs. It has also earmarled more money for rural education.

In 2007, the Chinese government announced the removal of tuition fees from primary and middle school students. In 2010 a program was announced to provide financial aid to poor rural high school students, who typically attend boarding schools away from the their villages. Students that receive aid will be exempt from tuition fees. Some of the funding will come from national sources; some from local and province governments.

In 2009, the central government approved an education fund of about 198 billion yuan (around US$21.19 billion). About 28.7 million children from poor families received financial aid for their schooling. The government plans to increase the ratio of education expenditure to gross domestic product to 4 percent by 2012 from 3.48 percent in 2008. “By pledging to increase public expenditures on education and promote fair distribution of education resources, [the plan] has laid a solid foundation for China to develop into a powerhouse of human capital,” argued state-owned Xinhua News Agency. “China will no longer be able to rely on ample supply of cheap labor for economic growth.” [Source: : Mitch Moxley, Asian Times, July 2010]

Women and Education in China

left The gap in educational level between women and men has narrowed and there are now more girls in secondary school than boys. According to the World Bank, 53 percent of graduates from tertiary education were women in 2018. Enrollment in secondary school was 94.2 percent for males and 95.9 percent for females in 2013. In 2005, women made up 47.1 percent of college students, but only 32.6 percent of doctoral students. [Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Statistics Division,; C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

In the past it was not unusual for girls to be pulled out of school when they were ten or so to work in the fields. When they were 14 or 15 they were shipped off to work in factories far from their home towns. If a Chinese family only has enough money to educate one child, they almost always chose a son over a daughter. One Chinese feminist told Newsweek, "There is an attitude that girls are going to get married and won't be part of the family anyway, so why waste the money?'" One migrant worker woman told U.S. News and World Report, "In the countryside, even if you finish high school, you still end up doing the same work."

Discrimination continued through university. One Chinese feminist told AFP, "When I applied for university, I found women needed higher grades than men to be accepted and, when I graduated, government units and private enterprise made it very clear they didn't want women." Many men are still reluctant to marry women with more education than them. Women with master’s degree who are looking for a husband or boyfriend often don’t mention their education when they visit matchmakers or dating services.

The China Family Panel Studies 2015 report by the Institute of Social Science Survey at Peking University found “Discrimination against girls has weakened, but it remains a powerful factor in the opportunity for schooling, the study also found. On average, boys receive 1.5 more years of schooling than girls. [Source: Chris Buckley, Sinosphere, New York Times, January 27, 2016]

Female Education Statistics for China

Literacy (15 and over can read and write): total population: 96.8 percent; male: 98.5 percent; female: 95.2 percent (2018)
School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education):total: 14 years; male: 14 years; female: 14 years (2015).

Out of school children, primary age (1997): female: 7,254,031; male: 6,490,524; total: 13,7440,570
Gender parity index from gross enrollment ratio, primary: 1
World Bank; CIA World Factbook]

Female university students in tertiary education: (percent of gross, which means the value can be over 100 percent): 64 percent (compared to 68 percent in Germany, 102 percent in the United States and 7 percent in Uzbekistan)

School enrollment, tertiary: 58 percent
School enrollment, tertiary, female: 64 percent.
Tertiary education, academic staff female: 45 percent.
Educational attainment, at least completed short-cycle tertiary, population 25+: 8.8 percent (cumulative); male: 10 percent (cumulative); female: 7.6 percent (cumulative)
Educational attainment, at least Bachelor's or equivalent, population 25+: 3 percent; male: 4.1 percent; female 3 percent (cumulative)
Educational attainment, at least Master’s or equivalent, population 25+: 0.4 percent; male: 0.4 percent; female 0.3 percent (cumulative) [Source: World Bank

Female Enrollment Rate in 1999: Primary: 123 percent
Secondary: 66 percent
Higher: 4 percent
[Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

History of Women’s and Girls Education in China

Confucius famously said that a good woman is an illiterate one. Not so long ago things were much worse for women seeking an education and are still bad in some rural areas. In the 1990s it was estimated that 70 percent of China's 140 million illiterates are female. In rural areas, girls were often so busy doing chores they didn't have time for school. The New York Times reported on a school in Youyan, a village in the poor Guizhou Province, and found only four of the 100 or so students were girls. "Girls at 5 to 6-years old begin a life of farm work," a teacher said.

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: “Although the philosophy of Communism dictates that women should enjoy equal rights with men, in educational life there have been consistently fewer females than males both overall and at each level of education throughout the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC). [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Female inferiority was enshrined in the Confucian ethic nan zun nu bei (male honorable, female inferior). This concept of female inferiority remains firmly entrenched in the basic social structure of modern Chinese society. Overt institutional discrimination occurs in the admission of females to both secondary and higher education. In the post-Mao Era, technical schools have been particularly active in this area, imposing quotas on the proportion of females enrolled. They argue that while girls mature faster intellectually than boys, they begin to fall behind at the later stage of junior middle school or in senior high school. More importantly, they use employment demands to justify gender discrimination. Since potential employers prefer male recruits, female graduates would have a hard time finding jobs. In addition women are considered less committed and are viewed as having less energy for their work because of their domestic responsibilities. Family attitudes and behavior also present obstacles to female education. Throughout the history of post-1949 China, the family has continued to favor the education of sons over daughters, especially in rural areas where both traditional attitudes and the virilocal family structure have persisted. Girls are often withdrawn from junior high school and even primary school to assist with domestic chores, accounting for their lower participation rates in education (Epstein 1991).

“Despite the continuous disproportion of enrollment, female participation in education has increased over the period as a whole. Up to the mid-1980s, women's participation in formal higher education improved rapidly, from 23.4 percent in 1980 to 38.3 percent in 1998 (China Statistical Yearbook 1999). It is important to note, however, that free-market reforms have not always benefited women. Since the mid-1980s, female graduates have faced increasing discrimination in employment, as the centralized job allocation system has been modified to allow for greater autonomy on the part of employers. Because employers now have a choice, many choose to hire males over females to avoid paying maternity benefits. A new law protecting women's rights was passed by the national People's Congress in 1992, specifying that "schools and pertinent departments should ensure that females and males are treated equally when it comes to starting school, progressing from a lower-level school to a higher one, assigning jobs on graduation, awarding academic degrees, and selecting people for overseas study." But this is increasingly difficult to implement since educational institutions have less and less control over the employment of their graduates.

“Masculinity Crisis” in Chinese Education

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After China’s annual college entrance examination, the gaokao, took in 2017, Zeng Yuli wrote in Sixth Tone: “Although many provincial ministries of education discourage people from drawing attention to the nation’s top scorers, such admonitions cannot completely quash public interest. People are curious about not only the identities of the top scorers, but also gender: Are the girls scoring higher, or the boys? According to statistics published online, over the last 40 years of gaokao examinations, boys accounted for 56 percent of all top scorers in China’s 31 provinces. At first glance, this would imply that boys generally have the edge over girls. However, if we look at statistics from just the last decade, the proportion of female top scorers jumps to 53 percent, giving them a clear majority. [Source: Zeng Yuli Sixth Tone, July 30, 2017]

“In China, the term nanhai weiji, or “boys’ crisis,” refers to the fear that boys are not performing as well as girls in a variety of fields. The crisis manifests itself in two ways. First, boys have fallen behind girls in academic performance. This is particularly the case during their compulsory education, although boys have begun to lag behind girls in higher education as well. Second, it has been claimed that boys are increasingly losing their so-called masculine temperament, or nanxing qizhi, and are becoming more and more effeminate. More conservative Chinese observers believe that boys are supposed to be boisterous, daring, and bold; they should be eager to try new things and shoulder new responsibilities. But now, their detractors say, boys have become fragile and weedy — they are “soft as sheep” and suffer from “muscle weakness.”

“The notion of a boys’ crisis has become an increasingly global topic: Such discussions exist in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. Yet whereas most Western commentators decry the fact that underperforming boys turn to petty crime and violence, Chinese voices tend to bemoan their loss of masculinity. This crisis, they say, threatens the future of Chinese society and even China as a nation. To conservative commentators, manliness is not merely a personal affair. How boys behave is thought to reflect the changing disposition of Chinese people more generally. Confucian concepts inherent in traditional Chinese culture — such as loyalty, fealty, benevolence, and wisdom — supposedly inform the masculine disposition central to the notions of shi, the “noble scholar,” and da zhangfu, the “true man.” As Lin Shaohua, a well-known writer and translator of Japanese, has bemoaned: “A people lacking masculine vigor has no hope; a nation lacking masculine vigor has no future.”

“In response, a number of experts and scholars in China have launched a movement aimed at “saving our boys,” which has, in turn, been taken up by local education bureaus and integrated into teaching methods. An elementary school in Wuhan recently set up a “male teachers’ workshop” in which “dialogues between men” are regularly held. Meanwhile, a self-styled “male-oriented” experimental junior high school in Shanghai has set up classes composed entirely of boys, as well as added classes in subjects that are thought to be particularly manly, such as martial arts, Chinese chess, and rock music.

Education of Minorities in China

Minorities make up about nine percent of China’s population. Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: “ Because the Communist Party wanted to promote a unified country, it maintained that non-Han populations had the right to preserve their own languages, customs, and religions over a long period of time until all minorities would ultimately "melt together." In the meantime, the government also insisted that minorities were backward in their customs, economy, and political consciousness. Therefore, they needed assistance from the Han people to achieve a developed socialist country. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“As a result of these contradictory policies, China has developed one of the oldest and largest programs of state-sponsored affirmative action for ethnic minorities. By 1950 the government had established 45 special minority primary schools and 8 provincial minority secondary schools. The minority students in these schools were provided free education, books, and school supplies and were subsidized for food and housing (Hansen 1990).

For the long-term political goal, the government also focused on the education of minority cadres. An important institution to accomplish this goal is minzu xueyuan (special minority institutes), which trained minority cadres to work in minority regions as representatives of the Communist party and government. In college entrance examinations, minorities are given additional points to give them greater access to higher education—20 points are automatically added to their scores if they apply to minority institutes, or 5 points are added if they apply to other schools. Also, in many cases, minority students are allowed to take the examinations in their indigenous languages and later enroll in classes taught in Mandarin.

China and Shanghai Ranks No. 1 in International Academic Tests

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China (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang) ranked No. 1 on the PISA international tests of academic achievement
PISA Test for students age 15 (2018): Math: 591 1st out of 79 countries, ahead of Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan. In comparison the U.S. was ranked 38th with a score of 478.
Science: 590, 1st out of 79 countries, ahead of Singapore, Macau, Vietnam, Estonia, Japan and Finland. In comparison the U.S. was ranked 19th with a score of 502.
Reading: 555, 1st out of 78 countries ahead of Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Estonia, Canada, Finland and Ireland, In comparison the U.S. was ranked 14h with a score of 505 and Japan was ranked 16th with a score of 504.[Source: Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), OECD, Wikipedia ]

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of both OECD and non OECD countries. It was first performed in 2000 and has been every three years since then. Each student takes a two-hour computer based test. The aim of TIMSS is to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading, providing comparable data to assist countries in improving their education policies and outcomes. It mostly measures problem solving and cognition.

In 2009, China as represented by students from Shanghai ranked at the top in reading, mathematics and in science out of 65 countries in the OECD academic aptitude tests conducted under in 2009 the Program from International Student Assessment (PISA). In the test 5,100 15-year-olds in Shanghai outperformed students from the other countries on an international standardized test that measured math, science and reading competency. American students came in between 15th and 31st place in the three categories. France and Britain also fared poorly. Although it was the first time China had taken part in the test, which was administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris, the results bolstered this country’s reputation for producing students with strong math and science skills.

Though the programme covered every education level in the city, from elite schools to below-average suburban ones, most of the 5,100 15-year-olds who took part were consistently good academic performers with a strong motivation to do well. "Educational authorities hold this kind of international assessment programme in high regard," one high-school headmaster told the South China Morning Post. "We made sure students understood the significance of the test and tried our best to field good students."

David Barboza wrote in the New York Times: “Experts said comparing scores from countries and cities of different sizes is complicated. They also said that the Shanghai scores were not representative of China, since this fast-growing city of 20 million is relatively affluent. Still, they were impressed by the high scores from students in Shanghai. Many educators were also surprised by the city’s strong reading scores, which measured students” proficiency in their native Chinese. The Shanghai students performed well, experts say, for the same reason students from other parts of Asia — including South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong — do: Their education systems are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation.” The Japanese newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. “Curriculums at Shanghai schools reportedly focus on helping students improve their ability to apply their knowledge and academic skills, and they are closely linked with university entrance exams there.” The success of students in Shanghai, analysts said, reflects fierce competition for entry to higher educational institutions in the city. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, December 29, 2010]

The reaction to tests in the United States was alarm. President Barack Obama talked of a "Sputnik moment", referring to the launch of the first satellite in 1957, when the Soviet Union beat the US into space, and warned that "America is in danger of falling behind" again. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reacted by saying: "We're being out-educated", and called on Americans to "wake up to this education reality". [Sources: Frank Ching, South China Morning Post, January 19 2011]

Frank Ching wrote in the South China Morning Post. “Interestingly, however, within China there was not much exultation. Certainly, there was pride in Shanghai's achievements but there was also a great deal of introspection as to the real significance of the test results and the need for reform of the Chinese education system. Chinese media widely cited the findings of a 2009 survey covering 21 countries conducted by the International Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed that while Chinese students excelled at maths, they were in last place when it came to using their imagination and were fifth from bottom where creativity was concerned.

Many people in Shanghai regarded the result as quite natural. "It isn't surprising," a female middle school teacher said. A local reporter on education issues in Shanghai told the Yomiuri Shimbun: "It wasn't a result that represents the whole of China. It only indicates how getting into better schools in an urban environment is highly competitive." "We introduced school curricula that placed importance on how to apply students' accumulated knowledge, which is linked to university entrance examinations," a Shanghai city official told the Yomiuri Shimbun. In Shanghai, school entrance exams have become more competitive each year due to the difficulty in students finding jobs following the increased academic achievement levels. Examinations are held almost every month at middle and high schools, and lists of higher ranking students are posted on school walls at terms' end. The higher the percentage of students who go on to prestigious schools, the more teachers reap additional income and benefits — so the incentive among teachers to raise student achievement levels becomes heated as well. China's one-child policy is another social factor inflaming the fervor for education. [Source: Takanori Kato, Tetsu Okazaki and Yasuhiro Maeda, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 9,2010]

Shanghai Schools’ Approach Pushes Students to Do Well in Tests

David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “In Li Zhen’s ninth-grade mathematics class" in Shanghai in 2010, "the morning drill was geometry. Students at the middle school affiliated with Jing’An Teachers’ College were asked to explain the relative size of geometric shapes by using Euclid’s theorem of parallelograms. “Who in this class can tell me how to demonstrate two lines are parallel without using a proportional segment?” Ms. Li called out to about 40 students seated in a cramped classroom. One by one, a series of students at this medium-size public school raised their hands. When Ms. Li called on them, they each stood politely by their desks and usually answered correctly. They returned to their seats only when she told them to sit down. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, December 29, 2010]

“Educators say this disciplined approach helps explain the why Shanghai students outperformed students from about 65 countries on math, science and reading competency tests in 2010. Public school students in Shanghai often remain at school until 4 p.m., watch very little television and are restricted by Chinese law from working before the age of 16. “Very rarely do children in other countries receive academic training as intensive as our children do,” said Sun Baohong, an authority on education at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “So if the test is on math and science, there’s no doubt Chinese students will win the competition.”

“Shanghai is believed to have the nation’s best school system, and many students here gain admission to America’s most selective colleges and universities. In Shanghai, teachers are required to have a teaching certificate and to undergo a minimum of 240 hours of training; higher-level teachers can be required to have up to 540 hours of training. There is a system of incentives and merit pay, just like the systems in some parts of the United States. “Within a teacher’s salary package, 70 percent is basic salary,” said Xiong Bingqi, a professor of education at Shanghai Jiaotong University. “The other 30 percent is called performance salary.” Still, teacher salaries are modest, about $750 a month before bonuses and allowances — far less than what accountants, lawyers or other professionals earn.”

In Shanghai, most students begin studying English in first grade. Many middle school students attend extra-credit courses after school or on Saturdays. In 2003, Shanghai had a very “average” school system, Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA exams, told the New York Times. “A decade later, it’s leading the world and has dramatically decreased variability between schools.” Thomas L. Friedman wrote : He attributes this to the fact that, while in America a majority of a teacher’s time in school is spent teaching, in China’s best schools, a big chunk is spent learning from peers and personal development. As a result, he said, in places like Shanghai, “the system is good at attracting average people and getting enormous productivity out of them,” while also, “getting the best teachers in front of the most difficult classrooms.” [Source: Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, October 22, 2013]

Problems with Shanghai Approach to Education

David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “Many educators say China’s strength in education is also a weakness. The nation’s education system is too test-oriented, schools here stifle creativity. An article in the Chinese-government-run China Daily said that the grooming of "superb test-takers" comes at a high cost, "often killing much of, if not all, the joy of childhood". Chen said the system that created high scores denigrated students who are little more than "test machines" who lack imagination and creativity.

Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of the Peking University High School wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “These are two sides of the same coin: Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests. For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.” He pointed out that China's most promising students still need to go abroad and "unlearn the test-centric approach to knowledge that was drilled into them". The current Chinese education system, he said, is holding the country back. "Shanghai's stellar results on Pisa," he wrote, "are a symptom of the problem." He added: "One way we'll know we're succeeding in changing China's schools is when those Pisa scores come down." [Sources: Frank Ching, South China Morning Post , January 19 2011]

Jiang told the New York Times produced students who lacked curiosity and the ability to think critically or independently. “It creates very narrow-minded students,” he said. “But what China needs now is entrepreneurs and innovators.” This is a common complaint in China. Educators say an emphasis on standardized tests is partly to blame for the shortage of innovative start-ups in China. And executives at global companies operating here say they have difficulty finding middle managers who can think creatively and solve problems. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, December 29, 2010]

Frank Ching wrote in the South China Morning Post, “A visit to see relatives in Shanghai confirmed the pressures that most children are under to do well in exams. Their mother sympathises but sees little alternative to the endless cycle of preparation for one exam after another. In fact, most Shanghai children are made to attend after-school and weekend classes, with little time to play or even sleep. “Because Shanghai is the most advanced city on the mainland, its children are competing against the best and brightest, and the pressures on them are greater than those on schoolchildren elsewhere. As a result of the intense competition, parents seek to uncover special talents in their offspring in other areas, such as playing the flute or other musical instruments, so they can be one step ahead of their competitors.” [Sources: Frank Ching, South China Morning Post , January 19 2011]

Martin Zhou wrote in the South China Morning Post: While Shanghai students scored well above average in overall reading capabilities, they were poor at capturing information from charts, tables and lists. They also ranked well below average in independent reading strategies, which means they rely on teachers' instructions on what to read. Those two categories hold the key to practical problem solving and research capabilities, which don't feature prominently in early studies but are crucial to success in higher education. Imagine the damage a university system notorious for plagiarism and result faking can wreak on straight-A students. [Source: Martin Zhou, South China Morning Post, January 8 2011]

“Across the mainland, the education system is still vulnerable because of a lack of investment, variations in teaching quality and school access, and integrity issues. In the same month that the PISA results emerged, media reports said more than half the pupils in Guangxi primary schools weren't able to use dictionaries. Many could not afford one. This shows the yawning gap that has to be overcome before a genuinely well-educated generation can be nurtured. And even if all the teens score in maths and know the periodic table like the back of their hand, more fundamental changes are needed, such as improving character building and physical fitness, to truly upgrade mainland education.”

Image Sources: Landsberger Posters ; Columbia University, University of Washington; Ohio State University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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