Exam Pressure and Ancient Traditions

Junior high school schedule, 7:40 to 5:00 pm

Zheng-Zheng and his friend bent over their first grade homework at the small table in the family apartment, fingers pressed against pencils as they meticulously made each line in the day’s new characters. Their concentration was absolute as they repeated the intricate patterns over and over again placing them neatly into squares on their paper. When they finished they moved on to practice the lesson in their Chinese reading texts until they knew it confidently, and finally moved on to math. When they finished everything, Zheng-Zheng’s sixth birthday party with long noodles could begin.

Xu, Zheng-Zheng’s father, said the transition from preschool to first grade is as hard for parents as for the children. No more relaxed atmosphere like preschool. They must sit tall on backless benches, concentrating on lessons and, when no birthday party awaits, they do at least two hours of homework a night.

“If they don’t begin to study like this now,” Xu said, “they’ll never get into college.”

These stories go on and on. Junior high school students need to study four hours a night throughout the school year; most children go to Saturday cram school starting in the primary grades if their parents want them to go to college. Parents insist children excel in their schoolwork so they will score well on all the tests leading to the all-important college entrance exam. A high score is the sole ticket for entering university and getting a desired major.

The last year of senior high school is the worst. Life for friends in Beijing was held hostage during their son’s last year. Time and again they apologized for not inviting me to dinner. Although their son had studied diligently throughout his school career, he still had to spend every single minute for one year cramming. And much of it is memorization.

“Every minute of our lives,” they said, “is aimed at helping him succeed. It is essential. This is the Chinese student’s life.”

“This is the Chinese student’s life,” seems to echo off school walls and down alleys. It’s in the air. Education tradition is long and deep in China, and though it is impossible for a cultural outsider like me to trace all the threads back in time, some are fairly obvious. Many Chinese, while lauding Confucius’s influence for the value placed on education, also attribute both academic pressure and the need for volumes of memorization, in large part, to Confucian tradition.

Despite ups and downs of popularity, Confucianism formed the cornerstone of education and imperial exams for two millennia. A passionate learner and natural teacher, Confucius (551-470 B.C.E.) devoted himself to instructing others on how to follow a virtuous life by arduous study, following the proper alignment of relationships, and learning to respect others. He appears to have been a taskmaster. The Analects, his teachings written down by his disciples, include such comments as –

“The Master said, ‘Only when someone bursts with eagerness of learning do I instruct; only when someone bubbles to speak but fails to express himself, do I enlighten. If I show a man one corner of a subject, and he can not by himself deduce the other three, I will not repeat the lesson.’”

His teaching is peppered with references to diligence and perseverance. His disciples quote him as saying, “I wasn’t born with innate knowledge. By learning from the ancients, I sought it through diligence.” “Pursue study as though you could never reach your goal, and were afraid of losing the ground already gained.’” The pressure to study harder seems to well up from his directives.

Standing room only – Students wait for a guest lecture

Confucian ideas might not have endured if it had not been for the imperial exams. Confucius sought answers for his time by turning to ancient texts that predated him several hundred years and from them compiled what became known as the Confucian classics. The 1st century B.C.E. Emperor Wu Di decreed Confucianism the official state philosophy, and created five institutes aligned with the Confucian classics—The Book of Songs, The Book of History, The Book of Rites, The Book of Changes, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. From then on, for over 2000 years, these were the fundamental school curriculum memorized by students and also the content of the imperial civil service exams.

In later centuries, as literacy spread, more and more people took these exams, including individuals of humble means. Men (women were not allowed) often began with classical Chinese at age six and continued daily drill and memorizing through their twenties or thirties or even longer, until they were ready to tackle the exams that provided dynasties with civil servants. Families sacrificed to allow one of their own to do this, and a man who failed could disgrace his relatives as well as himself. The fear and pressure of disgracing their families continues to haunt students today.

By middle school, students are well aware of their need to succeed in order to uphold their family honor. Their parents often depend on them to obtain a good job and provide for them in old age. Although school topics are now modern, fierce competition continues and the long history of pressure to do well falls on their shoulders.

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