MKL Q&A Forums

Professional advice
when you need it

Click Here

What We Use in China


Section I: Teaching English in China

China's Education System, Chinese Students, and the Foreign English Teacher

Most Westerners naturally assume that what they will encounter in China is a model of education that is more or less similar to their own, barring a few cultural differences: What they find instead is a unique amalgam of Confucian tradition and current political agenda interspersed with Western influence, and a population of students who face overwhelming academic demands, parental expectations, and fierce competition that are nearly impossible for any foreigner to fathom without having actually lived and taught here.

This overview of China’s educational system, related sociocultural and political dynamics, and how they impact upon the day-to-day lives of Chinese students was written as a foundation to better inform the first section of the guide: teaching English in China. It is organized across four main sections: historical antecedents; structure of the educational system; understanding the mind-set of Chinese students and, finally; the interplay between these factors and the role of the foreign English teacher in China. By reading this chapter, you will acquire a much better understanding of not only what you will encounter as a foreign teacher but why.

Historical Antecedents:
Zhou Enlai's Four Modernizations and Educational Reforms under Deng Xiaoping

In 1974, at the Fourth National People's Congress, Premier Zhou Enlai—in what would be one of his last public acts just prior to his death two years later—introduced what are referred to as the Four Modernizations (sì gè xiàn dài huà). Following Zhou's death, Deng Xiaoping assumed control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and, in December 1978, at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, Deng announced the official launch of these Four Modernizations, formally marking the beginning of the reform era. The Four Modernizations were in the fields of 1) agriculture, 2) industry, 3) technology, and 4) defense and were specifically intended to make China a great and self-reliant economic power by the early 21st century.

Premier Zhou Enlai
Internationally Beloved Premier
Zhou Enlai (1898 - 1976)

Shortly following the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, China reformed its educational system to explicitly achieve these Four Modernizations, which are viewed to this day as the underlying foundation of all its educational goals. Both the 6-3-3 system (six years of primary school, followed by three years each of junior and senior middle school) and the designation of "key schools" were restored (Surowski, 2000). Key schools are those that are intended to serve the most academically gifted and, on the secondary school level, are the equivalent of upscale Western college preparatory programs (or prep schools). At the post-secondary level, key national universities are those that are considered to be the most prestigious and are charged with awarding master's and doctoral degrees to China's educational elite. In all cases, key schools receive the lion's share of public funding (especially Project 211 Universities). A province may also designate a university as a key school which simply means it is considered to be the most influential and prestigious at the provincial level.

What all of this means is that the best education in China is provided by public or government universities and the competition to obtain admission into these best schools is fierce and omnipresent. Related, and unlike in the West, private schools in China are generally regarded as an academically weaker (and far more expensive) alternative for students who could not earn admission into the better public schools, for those whose parents can afford it. The reality of this dual-system of education is something you should definitely bear in mind when applying for teaching jobs in China.

Structure of Education in China

As is true of most Western countries, the Chinese educational system consists of five tiers: kindergarten; primary (elementary) school; junior middle school; senior middle school, and; post-secondary or college/university. National entrance exams are required for admission into senior middle school (Zhong Kao exam) and university (Gao Kao exam; literally meaning "tall exam," an informal abbreviation for China's National College Entrance Exam, often explained—tongue-in-cheek—that it is so abbreviated because it looms so large in the lives of all Chinese).

Vocational schools exist at the senior middle school and post-secondary levels for those who do not score high enough on their respective admission exams. As is true in the United States, a typical bachelor's degree can be earned from between four to six years, depending on major (for example, a bachelor's degree in clinical medicine is a six-year program). All four-year degree conferring universities also offer a 3-year diploma alternative for students who either didn't score well enough on the Gao Kao exam or didn't pass the CET-4 (college English test, band-4 for non-English majors). In 1986, the Chinese government promulgated a 9-year compulsory education requirement, so all nationals must stay in school through the end of junior middle school. Table 1, below, provides a schematic representation of the educational system in China.

Table 1: China's Educational System
National Key University
Project 211
General University; Provincial Key
Can Also Confer 3-yr Diplomas
Normal University
(Teacher's College)
Vocational College
Two Year
Gao Kao (College Entrance) Exam
Senior Middle School (15 - 18 yrs old); Key and General
Vocational School
15 - 18 yrs
Zhong Kao (Senior Middle School Entrance) Exam
Junior Middle School; 12 - 15 yrs old
Primary (Elementary) School; 6 - 12 yrs old
Kindergarten; 3 - 6 yrs old

High Cost of Education in China

Although the cost of education in China is negligible by Western standards, when you consider the country's GDP and the average national income, it weighs in as the most expensive educational system in the world. The typical cost of a university education in China is approximately 6,000 to 7,000 yuan per year (about $870 to $1015) in tuition (which also typically includes housing), and can increase to tens of thousands of yuan per year for special science and technology majors. These fees do not include the cost of food and books (Cai and Qi, 2006).

The problem here is that for the majority of families in China, these educational costs represent up to 60 percent of their annual household income, second only to their food budget. The annual expense of a college student is as high as a farmer's total gross income over several years. Consequently, many universities in China have adopted an unofficial policy of demanding advanced payment for the first year's tuition and then tolerating non-payment of tuition for the remaining three years until such time that the student wants or needs his or her diploma. In practice, most working class and poor families will borrow money for the first year's tuition and then worry about borrowing the rest around the time their child is scheduled to graduate. Of course, not all families are able to raise the initial tuition monies in time and, subsequently, the implications of China's relatively high cost of education are profound.

In the West, we have the opportunity to enhance our social status through higher education. Irrespective of who are fathers were or our family's socioeconomic status, we can improve our lot in life by going to and staying in school. Our respective Western governments have, more or less, made access to education available to anyone who truly wants it, whether that be in the form of grants, scholarships or deferred low-interest student loans. However, such subsidies are not available in China and the government only provides approximately 53 percent of the total cost of education, so 47 percent must be carried by the students' families (ibid). What this means is that social status in China is fairly stable across generations: Who your father is and how much income your family earns will be highly associated with what you can expect as well. In fact, this greatly accounts for why most Chinese have incorporated an external locus of control: 43 percent of low-income people believe that they cannot improve their social status through their own efforts (ibid). In effect, the rich are getting richer through greater and easier access to the best universities and most lucrative opportunities after graduation, while the poor remain shut out from partaking in China's rising economic growth and prosperity. It is one social problem, among others, that the Chinese government has begun to recently address through relatively new policies intended to provide greater opportunities and access to those who need them the most.

Understanding The Mind-set of Chinese Students

The social pressure on Chinese children to perform well in school is overwhelming: not only their futures, but the futures of their parents entirely depend on it. In fact, and particularly in light of China's 1979 single-child policy, excellent performance in school is typically the only expectation that parents in China have of their child—and it has proven to be a formidable one. Basically, performance on the Zhong Kao (senior middle school) exam determines how much, if anything, the parents will have to pay to send their child to a key senior middle school. A recent study conducted by the Beijing Institute of Technology estimated that one-fifth of all students enter these key senior middle schools by paying "sponsorship fees and school selection fees" (ibid), that is, they didn't score well enough on the admission test to attend these schools on full subsidy, so parents who can afford to do so must incur some of the fees.

Chinese student take national exam

Related, senior middle school students who are to have any hope of either attending the best public universities in China or even selecting their own majors, must score at the very top of their classes. Those who don't score high enough on the Gao Kao exam will have to attend a lower-tier school studying whatever major the university has selected for them and their futures will be quite uncertain. Students whose scores are low will have to attend a private university, assuming their families have the much higher tuition fees they typically charge for that luxury. With so much resting on the outcome of these exams, teachers are specifically instructed to carefully check for depression and withdrawn behavior among their students after the results of these national exams are released (Kersten, 2008) and this concern is not unfounded.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among China's young adults aged 18 to 35, with college students representing the fastest growing segment. In 2008, a record-breaking 63 students from 38 different universities ended their lives due to academic pressure, a sense of social isolation (common among students from the countryside who are studying in major cities), peer ridicule, and fear of future unemployment (Na, 2009). A 2009 survey study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences revealed that 17 percent of all 2008 university graduates had been unable to find work and that graduates from China's top 100 universities were the most likely to face unemployment with a concomitant 14 percent decrease in salary over the previous year, at an average income of 2,549 yuan (about $373), assuming they were even fortunate enough to find work (AP, 2009).

Students who do not become overtly suicidal may, in another attempt at escape, become addicted to technology. It is currently estimated by the China Youth Association for Network Development that one out of ten Chinese aged 13- to 30-years old is addicted to the Internet, especially online gaming. That percentage is even higher among those presently attending university, students aged 18 to 23 years old, at 11.39 percent (People's Daily, 2003a). This addiction is so extensive that some municipalities have even tried banning Internet cafés in an attempt at preventing what they view as a problem of epidemic proportions (Cody, 2007) and the Sunshine Community Youth Affairs Center in Shanghai opened a halfway house for young Internet addicts in 2006 (Watts, 2006a).

In addition, mobile phone dependency is a major problem in China. Statistics show that nearly 160 million Chinese people among the total population of 1.3 billion own mobile phones, the highest proportion in the world (People's Daily, 2003a). In great part, mobile phones have become something of a status symbol in China and most students, from junior middle school through university, seem to have one irrespective of how poor their families may be. Sending and receiving text messages (SMS; simple messaging system) has rapidly escalated into a national compulsion in China to the point where Chinese psychologists have reported classic withdrawal symptoms including agitation, excitability, and difficulty in concentration when mobile phone activity diminishes for an extended period of time (ibid).

A Typical Day in the Life of a Chinese Student

If I had to come up with just one word to describe a typical day in the life of a Chinese student, that word would be exhausting. They generally wake up around 6:30 to 7:00 in the morning and begin classes by 8:00 a.m. In many universities throughout China, classes begin as early as 7:40 in the morning. They will typically attend between four to five 40- to 50-minute periods in the morning, and as many as three to four 40- to 50-minute periods in the afternoon with a ten-minute break between each period. Primary and secondary schools usually close between 4:00 to 5:00 p.m., and many of these students will then attend some extracurricular activity such as music lessons after school before returning home and commencing their homework. Universities also schedule evening classes that typically end around 9:30 p.m. Many schools, including universities, impose mandatory study halls in the late afternoon or evening hours, and attendance is taken by a faculty monitor. The amount of daily homework they receive tends to be massive and students report usually having to stay up until 11:00 p.m. to midnight in order to complete it. Children will often be severely punished by their parents if they are caught "wasting time" by engaging in recreational reading (quite unlike the reaction many American parents would have if they joyfully discovered that their children were reading anything other than the daily TV program listings). At all but the university level, and for the most part, students remain in the same classroom (homeroom) throughout the course of the day and the teachers are the ones who circulate from classroom to classroom. Classroom size tends to vary between 40 to 60 students and, theoretically, no more than 35 students for English language classes.

The academic year in China runs on a two-semester system, fall and spring, beginning in early September and then sometime in late February or early March (depending on the lunar calendar), ranging between 20 to 22 weeks each in duration with a winter break for the Spring Festival and a summer break that usually includes most of July and all of August. Primary and secondary school students typically receive only three weeks of vacation time during the Spring Festival, while university students will enjoy up to six weeks (from the end of the fall semester's final exams to the first day of classes in the spring).

The student workload in China is enormous and the typical university student generally has to attend as many as 18 classes per week over the course of the first three years of school. Then, during the fourth and final year (for those who are in four-year degree programs), their workload starkly decreases to almost nothing and the students are typically required to write a practicum paper. It has been suggested that the principal reason students are disproportionately overburdened over the course of the first three years is so that universities can process a greater number of students through the system while simultaneously maximizing their profitability, i.e., students are paying full tuition for the fourth year although very few faculty hours need to be allocated.

The Case of the "Broken" Refrigerator Drawer

A classic example of the types of difficulties many Chinese have with lateral thinking (i.e., the ability to look at a problem from many different, novel or creative angles instead of tackling it head-on in a linear fashion) can be illustrated with what I refer to as the "case of the 'broken' refrigerator drawer."

A former Chinese girlfriend of mine had just returned home from grocery shopping. After pouring a bag of loose potatoes into one of the refrigerator's pullout drawers, she was unable to re-close it. For several minutes she repeatedly pulled out and then tried to push this drawer back in but to no avail. Finally, in utter frustration, she came running into the office where I was working to report that the refrigerator drawer was "broken." I entered the kitchen, examined the refrigerator drawer (noticing the new pile of potatoes), pulled it back out and when I tried to push it back in, I realized immediately that it was meeting with some resistance. I then completely pulled out the drawer and removed a small potato that had fallen behind it a few minutes earlier. The "broken" drawer was now fixed.

My girlfriend couldn't have been more impressed with my problem-solving skills. She remarked repeatedly and for several minutes about "how clever" I was. From her perspective, the fact that I was able to so quickly intuit that something was preventing the drawer from closing all the way was a mental feat worthy of Einstein, whereas, for most Westerners, it would be the very first thing we would consider.

This girl has an I.Q. of about 130, holds a bachelor's degree from a very reputable Normal University, and had worked as the head accountant for a major international shoe company for several years. But her educational background has trained her to think primarily in a very linear and concrete fashion: If the drawer is working, it will close all the way (uncontested fact) --> The drawer won't close all the way (verified by repeated trials) --> Ergo, the drawer must be broken: There could be no other explanation that would have to take into account unseen events (facts not in evidence); therefore, there was nothing else to consider or explore.

Teaching methodology basically consists of force-feeding copious amounts of required information directly out of textbooks (often teachers will simply read directly from the text) and students are discouraged from asking questions, particularly if those questions challenge ideology or anything regarded as factual. Teachers, including university faculty, mostly teach directly to the exams and "sample" questions are usually distributed (or former versions of the test are downloaded from the Internet) and the students are expected to memorize both the questions and the answers. In fact, the entire educational system is based predominantly (although not exclusively) on rote. Teachers receive bonuses for their students' performance on these exams, so there is a great deal of pressure on them, as well as economic advantage, for their students to score particularly well on all tests.

Understood in part as a consequence of the profound stress faced by students and faculty in China, foreign teachers at middle schools and universities will invariably receive first-hand experience with the country’s well-documented and rampant problem of cheating and plagiarism (see, for example, Xinhua News, 2009 and Ma, et al., 2007). When questioning students during class, friends will promptly whisper the correct answers to each other. If a term paper is assigned, it is treated as a “group project” by classmates and many papers will be copied verbatim from the Internet without proper citation. During written final exams, eyes will be seen wandering to neighboring papers, aside from other ingenious methods, and, if the exam is oral, students will immediately inform each other of the questions you just asked of them upon exiting the room. Unfortunately, the problem persists to the massive degree that it does because, despite all the harsh rhetoric about the severe consequences for cheating, students who do cheat are rarely confronted—especially, but not only, at private institutions. Foreign teachers who try to tackle the problem head-on will meet with a great deal of administrative and collegial opposition.

Unlike anything you would ever witness in the West, students everywhere and of all ages—huddled just outside their classrooms and prior to the beginning of class—can be observed reading small passages of text, then diverting their heads and eyes upward as they repeat to themselves out loud what has just been read in an attempt at memorizing the content. It takes a lot of getting used to for those of us who had taught back home. Consequently, as a direct result of their educational system, Chinese students—when compared to their Western counterparts—have a great deal of trouble engaging in lateral (creative) and intuitive thinking (not to be confused with abstract and analytical thinking, which are different), i.e., Chinese students have difficulty "thinking outside the box" (see, for example, Fan, et al., 2000, and insert on right). If presented with the same material in a very different context, they will often not be able to deduce the correct answer. Conversely, and not surprisingly, their linear and analytical thinking are perhaps among the best in the world and the majority of students in many first-rate American graduate engineering and computer science programs are Chinese nationals.

At all levels of education, political indoctrination has been incorporated into the curricula. For example, all university students must take several political inculcation classes such as "General Introduction to Mao Zedong's Thoughts." Finally, all university freshmen (boys and girls) must participate in a several-week long military training program in which they are taught how to wear the uniform, stand at attention, march and work as a unit, and fire a rifle. Interestingly enough, many students look back at that military training with very fond memories and report it as a highly rewarding bonding experience. Table 2, below, illustrates a typical schedule in the life of a senior middle school student in Guangzhou (derived from Zhang, 2004).

Table 2: Typical Senior Middle School Class Schedule
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
8:00 - 8:40 Class Meeting Chinese Physics Math Math
8:50 - 9:30 Chinese Biology English Chinese P.E.
9:30 - 9:50
Morning Exercises
9:50 - 10:30 Math Math Chemistry History Biology
10:40 - 11:20 English Chemistry Chinese English History
11:20 - 11:30 Eye Muscle Relaxation Exercises
11:30 - 12:10 History/Geography English Biology Politics Chemistry
12:10 - 2:00 Lunch Break
2:00 - 2:40 Math Elective Math Physics English
2:50 - 3:30 Politics Elective P.E. Biology Chinese
3:40 - 4:20 Physics Self-Study Youth League Activity Quiz
4:30 - 5:30 Extracurricular Activity, e.g., Piano Lessons
5:30 - 6:30 Dinner Break
6:30 - 12:00 Homework

Chinese Students and the Foreign English Teacher

If you have read this far, it shouldn't be difficult for you to anticipate the myriad of difficulties you will encounter as a foreign English teacher in China.

For starters, and as a rule, your students will be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Many will have difficulty even staying awake in your class, let alone attending to the material. Related, because they have such little discretionary time, they will typically attempt to use their required attendance in your oral English class as a "time-out" or break period. They will bring recreational reading material into the class and sit in the back of the room to avoid detection. They will chat away with a friend in the adjacent seat or will be frantically pecking away at the keypad of their mobile phones. At the university level, several may not even attend your class at all and will hope that you simply allow them to sit for the final exam at the end of the semester.

Related and second, you may have noticed that foreign languages, or any other disciplines in the humanities for that matter, are not among the list of Zhou Enlai's Four Modernizations, the foundation that drives the educational system in China. The truth of the matter is, learning English in China doesn't have much academic status or value and is regarded primarily as just a national requirement that no one takes nearly as seriously as they do the hard sciences and the fields of technology, industry, and agricultural science: This viewpoint is firmly held by university and department administrators (including the foreign affairs officers), your Chinese colleagues, and no less so by the students who quickly pick up these cues from their Chinese teachers. Everyone in China knows that the best students get assigned to those highly desirable, sought after, and relatively more lucrative disciplines, while the less fortunate must study foreign language or some other discipline in the humanities for four years (whether they have any interest in it or not). Try to imagine what it must be like, for example, to teach English to an unwitting "English major" who had desperately wanted to be nurse her entire life but didn't score well enough on the college admission test to pursue her dream and, instead, had to study this undesired major the university just arbitrarily assigned to her. Further imagine that this girl's hometown is a second-tier city where she plans to return after graduation and where virtually no one uses English on a regular basis.

There are, of course, exceptions to this aforementioned rule. Some students are Western-bound (they plan to study or work abroad) or otherwise perceive a real need to acquire functional English language skills, and they will comprise your best and most motivated students—but they are in the minority. Others will simply be fascinated by the presence of a foreign teacher in the classroom and will seek to learn as much about your culture as they possibly can. A few more may just happen to be naturally gifted at acquiring foreign languages (mostly the girls) and will genuinely enjoy learning English, but you'll be able to count that number of students on one hand (maybe two, if you're lucky).

What all of this amounts to is that, for the most part, the majority of your students will be unmotivated to learn English and, usually, are poorly prepared to do so even if they are genuinely interested (depending on the province they grew up in and, related, the caliber of the Chinese English teachers they were exposed to). Far worse, and this is especially true of junior and senior middle school students attending evening and weekend English classes at a private language school, most (more than 50 percent) will be terribly resentful of having to waste their very limited free time being forced by their parents to learn something they see no long-term use for—other than passing national entrance exams and landing their first job after graduation. And why should they have to attend even more boring English classes with a "stupid" foreigner who knows absolutely nothing about these exams when they are already studying English several times a week with a real Chinese English teacher who actually understands and knows first-hand what is required to score well on them??

It is for the aforementioned reasons that I believe the main task of the foreign English teacher in China does not lie in the facilitation of speaking and listening skills (even though, ostensibly, that is what we are hired to do) but, rather, in establishing meaningful and enduring relationships with one's students. You will have to get them to like you, despite the fact that most won't initially respect or value what you are trying to accomplish. As it turns out, this is not a easy task. To begin with, the entire educational system in China—not to mention the enormous fear of losing "face" (mianzi)—actively discourages students from speaking out, asking questions, or taking exceptions with the presented material. What you will quickly discover is that virtually none of your students will voluntarily answer a question if it is put to the entire class. You will need to walk around the classroom and specifically call on each student one at a time and, then, most will offer at least some response, usually in the form of one or two syllables.

To be effective as an oral English teacher in China, you will need a great deal of patience and you will have to be the kind of person who is a self-starter and works well independently with very little need for feedback, approval, or support. You will have to find more satisfaction in being a mentor, a role model, and a friend than an educator, in the traditional Western sense of that word. The reality is, you will have to be far more entertaining in class than educational and, as a rule, your "effectiveness" and success in China will be measured by how popular you are with your students—completely irrespective of whether they are learning anything or not. If this sounds like an impossible or particularly onerous mission to you, you will most likely be absolutely miserable teaching English in China.

The following chapters in Section I will discuss all the topics addressed above in great detail in order to help you determine for yourself if teaching English in China is the best choice for you, both personally and vocationally, at this point in time.

Related Chapters and Articles:


About Us

Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

Read More


Link Partners

Website administrators are invited to partner-up with MKL. Our link directory supports text links or banners and features thumbnail photos of your home page.

Add Link