People often wonder why Chinese people seem to be so smart. Westerners are often amazed at how good their math and science skills are, and find it hard to comprehend why so many Chinese are increasingly proficient in the arts, such as music. The answer, really, lies in education.
Education in China is vastly important and has been emphasized for thousands of years, stretching back to the civil service examinations or imperial examinations of China as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). Traditionally, China was made up of merchants, farmers and government officials, with the highest form of living being associated with an official due to the status, salary and benefits associated with such a position.
To achieve a position as a government official, people had to be fluent in traditional texts, history and many other theories, which gradually expanded and in many ways peaked after the time of Confucius and Laozi. By the Tang Dynasty, the amount of information Chinese had to study and memorize in order to pass a civil service exam was so immense it was said that people studied from a young age well into their thirties non stop to pass. Passing meant a secure lifestyle and investing from parents was important, as it would later allow them to be taken care of and better treated due to their child’s (in this case only applied to sons) success.
Those who were raised in families well off were able to hire tutors for such preparation while others made great sacrifices to support their kids’ studies when in fact they needed help in the farms and running local businesses. But due to the reputation of officials and their lifestyle as having high status and ostensibly a life set out for them that was paved and secure, parents often encouraged their sons to study night and day, memorizing and reciting over and over.
It is said in various historical texts the imperial examination often lasted up to a week straight, with test takers forced to enter solitude and only to come out upon having completed the examinations. Few passed the examinations and for all the rest that failed, it meant a life back with the plebeians, one of which was often greeted with shame and loss of face.
In a way, both the notoriously known stereotypes of why Chinese memorize so much and why so many excel at school extend from this culture. Chinese parents throughout history have emphasized drastically on the importance of education and the obtaining of degrees, for they represent status and a means of obtaining a better life. Until now, the concept of earning a degree is considered very important and has not been questioned like it has in Taiwan and Hong Kong in that many people in these two places feel that a degree is no longer a means to an end, and that the degree does not secure you a job.
But how much do Chinese Study?
When discussing the extent of which Chinese study, there are major differences that coupled with pressure from elders that distinctively point out why Chinese can excel at various subjects in today’s world.
- School sessions are longer. In China, most students go to school from 8am-4:30pm or 5pm, while many students in the West get out as early as 3:30pm in elementary school and 2:30pm in high school. Chinese are required to study much harder or at least longer throughout the day and the concept of a study hall is almost unknown. Upon leaving school at the end of the day, they usually spend time in cram schools also known as buxiban in order to review or catch up on English lessons etc.
- The competition in China is immense. Chinese depend on good grades from the minute they enter school. In China, the school systems are different in that good grades determine the school you get into all throughout middle school into high school just as it does the way one’s grades in high school effects the result of what university someone gets into in the West. Chinese treat their whole schooling experience the way sophomore and juniors in high school in the West treat their studies in order to get into their ideal university of choice.
- Standards are high. Chinese standards for math, history and science are high and in order for Chinese to pass from grade to grade they need to prove high levels of understanding in these subjects all throughout their studies. This is also why if and when Chinese need to test the SAT or GRE it is easy for them.
- Tutoring is highly emphasized. Chinese parents often hire private tutors if they can afford them for their children for classes on the weekends or as a replacement of cram schools.
It seems dumb to say Chinese are smarter than people from other nations but it is legitimate in the sense they are trained more. However, quantity doesn’t necessarily beat quality and innovation isn’t emphasized as much as it is in the West so the argument isn’t really justified, rather interesting to observe.