The Dragon’s Tutelage: Chinese Students in Their Own Words

The Chinese education system, as witnessed by those who grew up through it

Andrew Johnston
6 min readSep 29, 2021
Courtesy of the author

Over the years, I’ve seen no shortage of American pundits singing the praises of China’s education system. They eyeball a few stray statistics and come away decrying the failures of the United States, then — after ritually condemning China as all the pundits must do — writing odes to the glory of schools in the Middle Kingdom. These individuals seldom know anything about those schools, or indeed about China in general beyond a few stereotypes, but they know enough.

I, too, have an interest in education, but in my case that stems from hands-on experience. I’ve taught in China for a total of around 5 years, and spent the last two years working in universities. This has given me access to a resource that, to my eyes, is more interesting than standardized test scores: The students themselves. They’ve given me insight into the system from the inside out, a perspective seldom sought by pundits in the West.

On occasion, I’ve had my students write essays giving their own take on the topic — their views on the education system, what doesn’t work, and what they would change. Today, I’m going to show you just a sample of their thoughts on this ever-contentious topic.

The excerpts below were collected in 2020 and 2021. I do not have specific demographic data on the individual essays, but in general my students are 18–20 years old, overwhelmingly (85–90%) female, and enrolled in language programs. I have slightly edited some excerpts for clarity but otherwise they are exactly as they were submitted to me.


A common thread throughout most of the essays regards China’s testing regime and the pressures that accompany it. While few students are willing to criticize the tests directly (some even going so far as to praise them for their “perfect” fairness and accuracy), many make mention of problems related to high-stakes testing: A lack of free time and psychological stress.

There is a saying in China: One test determines a lifetime! It is the college entrance examination, which can almost determine your future choice. Some people fail the test due to various factors. Although there is an option to repeat the exam, the psychological and physical stress of preparing for the exam during the year makes many reluctant to try again.

A much smaller group of students actually do express problems with the entire testing regime. Here, the complaints match criticisms I’ve heard elsewhere, including the risk of social segregation and an undue focus on only a few subjects.

As we all know, Chinese school recruit students in a single way: the entrance exam. It leads everyone to pay too much attention to grades and belittle the importance of other abilities. So I think schools should train students to develop morally, intellectually and physically.

Scholastic subjects

Speaking of which, many students call for education to include a more varied curriculum. Schools can vary in the breadth of their educational content, but a combination of educational tracking and a traditional by-rote pedagogical approach mean that a lot of students have a rather narrow educational experience.

We can improve our education model, not only based on scores, so that every student has the chance to develop. Such as sports, music, painting, broadcasting and so on. The purpose of our education is to cultivate talents better rather than squeeze children.

Some of the desires are very specific, suggesting that schools could be improved by the introduction of humanities courses (usually art) or, alternately, practical hands-on education. The most common remark, though, is more cryptic: A desire to see more “moral” education. At face value, this would seem to refer to ethics or something similar. In either case, variants on “moral education” were among the most frequently used phrases in the essays.

In my view, this kind of education isn’t scientific, because the real education should include many aspects: not only the cultural knowledge on books, but also the developing of the morality, character, they need the principle of behavior as a citizen. The physical quality, the mental quality, are all needed to be developed during the education.

A few students lament a lack of opportunities for physical fitness. As strange as this may seem, Chinese students often remark that American society seems to offer more opportunities for physical exercise. In part because of the emphasis on the testing regime, Chinese schools tend to downplay physical health, either lacking physical education classes altogether or offering only token calisthenics and stretches.

First-class students have weak physique and poor cooperation ability, and the heavy homework burden makes students have no time to take care of quality education.

And while it’s rare, it’s worth noting that a few essays mention a need for sex education. Such topics remain highly taboo in public life.

I think it’s necessary to link the life with study, such as, it’s really necessary to make sex education a compulsory course, so that students can fully understand sex knowledge and then protect themselves to a certain extent.

Teachers and cram schools

Some of the students have a lot to say about the quality of teachers, with calls for assessments to root out bad instructors. I have the impression that the students suspect that some of their teachers were either unqualified or apathetic about their jobs.

Increase the assessment of teachers. Unqualified teachers are eliminated every year. The city-wide teacher elimination rate reaches 5 percent every year.

Several students believe that teachers were not providing adequate instruction because they could make more money by offering the same classes in cram schools — schools that can be prohibitively expensive for many people. Given the recent policy shifts regarding private learning centers, it seems that they aren’t alone here.

There are too many tutoring agencies. As a result, teachers do not teach well in class and only use tutoring to collect students’ fees. There should be fewer tutoring agencies.

Broader educational issues

A few essays go beyond the students’ immediate experiences. For example, some of them make reference to inadequate resources in rural and isolated areas, a problem throughout the country.

First, we should solve the problem of regional differences in education. For example, we can invest more in educational resources in remote areas to improve teaching quality. And sending great teachers to volunteer school in mountainous areas.

Part of this includes calls for modernization. Comments about the use of modern equipment appear in quite a few essays, but they are most common in those that addressed these educational disparities. Having worked in a few rural schools, I can certainly appreciate this.

Schools should popularize electronic teaching equipment so that every student, even those from rural areas, can use intelligent learning equipment. Students can find all kinds of instructional videos online and learn from different teachers, which can expand their way of thinking and also interact with teachers to make learning more interesting.

General takeaway

Perhaps the most telling aspect about these essays is their very broad focus. While American complaints about education are often based on first-hand experience and tend to focus on close issues that may affect the speaker personally, the complaints in these essays take a more society-level approach. Even when my students have what is obviously a personal issue, they are likely to expand it outwards to the entire country. This may speak to a difference in values and self-assessment between the cultures, with the Chinese being more likely to think of themselves as members of a group rather than as individuals.

If you found this article interesting, you may enjoy “A Crisis of Harmony,” my documentary short on cultural tensions between China and the West. The short features interviews with normal people and uses their opinions and experiences — rather than media stereotypes — to reach its conclusions.



Andrew Johnston

Writer of fiction, documentarian, currently stranded in Asia. Learn more at