Everyone knows that bit: Chinese students are good at doing math. I can’t say I disagree; we are. But do you know why that is?

I’m a freshman in Beijing Language and Culture University (which you’d think was a school for students primarily interested in the liberal arts, judging from the name, but I was actually a science student back in high school) studying the teaching of Chinese as a second language. I left my high school in Shandong province eight months ago. My high school life was starkly different from that in the UK.

There are several types of senior high schools in China: Regular senior secondary school, vocational high school, and foreign language secondary school. And within the regular senior secondary school category, there are private and public high schools. My high school was a combination of the two. With the exception of a handful of really excellent, expensive schools, in China, “private” doesn’t suggest better education, nor does it mean it’s an institution only available to upper-class kids. Being private just means it is out of the control of the state’s education department, which implies that the school has total control over its own schedules and curricula. Sometimes some of the public schools even do this kind of thing under the government’s radar.

The matriculation rate of Chinese key universities is just a drop in the bucket compared to the total population of high schoolers that graduate. For instance, PKU and THU only accept 300 of the 680,000 students from the Shandong province and 400 of 980,000 in the Henan province; meanwhile, the entire pool of graduates wish to go to one of these institutions. Unfortunately, in Chinese culture, it is believed that admission to such schools is the only stepping-stone to success. Most of you, I’m sure, can imagine how fierce the competition is among the students and what the resulting school life might look like.

High school, for me, was a nightmare. We only had half a day off per month; weekends just meant you had different classes to attend. We counted the date instead of the day of the week. As for the statutory holidays, like the National Holiday, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Labor Day, we simply didn’t observe them (except if we got good grades in the joint exam across the whole city).

My typical day looked like this:

5:30 Wake-up call (No one is allowed to get out of bed before that, but still some of my roommates would wake up at 5am to have additional half an hour to study more)

5:50 – 6:40 Study period (You can review any subject you want to recite on these class without supervision)

6:40 –7:10 Breakfast

7:10 – 7:50 Oriented study class

8:00 – 9:40 Two classes with one break

9:40 – 10:10 Morning exercise (1.5 km square running in spring, autumn and winter, Tai Chi in the summer)

10:10 – 11:50 Two classes with one break

11:50 – 12:20 Lunch

12:20 – 13:40 Afternoon nap (No speaking or being up and about is allowed)

2:00 – 5:50 The morning timetable, repeated

5:50 – 6:15 Dinner

6:15 – 6:50 Lecture

6:50 – 8:50 Two classes with one break

8:50 – 10:10 Self-study

10:10 – 10:25 Wash time

10:25 – 11:00 Self-study in the dorm

Days repeat themselves for three years.

We had 5 mock entrance exams every two weeks, and a rank was given for every student. My headmaster asked us to keep a notebook and record our grades with a line graph to record. It was horrible to watch the line going down. My chemistry teacher even gathered all the exam papers of every province from 2008-present and taught us extra lessons from his time at university.

As you can see, the main focus of the Chinese education system, at least in my experience, was placed on tests and exams. The system is criticized for being brutal and producing “robot” students instead of “learners.” You might say it’s insane, but it sure has changed a lot of students’ fates in China. Poor going rich, rich going poor. Education is, at least ideally, the way one can best change their social class and better their life.

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