What Can We Learn From the Chinese Education System and “Tiger Mothering?” [VIDEO]

This week, Chinese President Hu Jintao is scheduled to make a state visit to Washington, D.C.. According to some experts, his visit is the most important by a Chinese leader to the United States in years. The focus of Hu’s visit will be on economic and diplomatic issues, as well as the controversial area of human rights. But many are also asking what is it about China that Chinese students regularly rank #1 in the world in the math, science and reading, according to recent results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)?

A ‘Confucian reverence’ for Education in China

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggests that these results are due to the Chinese system of education with its “Confucian reverence” for education that is indeed “steeped” in the culture: “In Chinese schools, teachers are much respected, and the most admired kid is often the brain rather than the jock or class clown.”  
Noting that he has been visiting schools in China and Asia for the past twenty years, Kristof writes that “education thrives in China and the rest of Asia because it is a top priority — and we’ve plenty to learn from that.” When teachers are ineffective, they “can get extra training for less effective teachers” or be assigned other jobs, such as being gym teachers. “In China, school sports and gym just don’t matter,” Kristof writes, with an unspoken reference to the emphasis many American schools give to school sports and athletic achievement.

Kristof is surprised to find that the Chinese themselves criticize their own education system for stifling creativity and, as one father who has sent his son to an international school put it, pretty much “[training] seals.” Indeed, Kristof writes: 

“Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.”

This self-critique is all very well, according to Kristof. But he suggests that he prefers, and certainly admires, whatever it is in Chinese culture–”the passion for education and the commitment to making the system better”–that leads to Chinese students performing 26 notches above American ones.

Education is #1 in My Chinese-American Family
I’m third-generation Chinese-American and, indeed, education has always been an unspoken priority in my family. My grandparents on both sides all emigrated from southern China; my mother’s father received a degree in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. My parents and all of their siblings all went to college (most at Berkeley). When my father’s mother, known to me as Ngin Ngin, died in October of 2009, five of her six great-grandchildren spoke about her and her husband’s lives at her funeral.
They all mentioned how important our family has considered education. Ngin-Ngin, who never learned to read or write in any language, was certainly proud that all of her children, grandchildren, and four of her great-grandchildren were all college graduates or in college.

I felt a bit of a pang on hearing all this talk of education and college. My son Charlie won’t be going to college. 

Special Education in the US

Charlie is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum and far, far behind his grade level in his academics. More and more autistic students are attending college, but Charlie has already started pre-vocational training at school.

My husband Jim Fisher and I have always believed that Charlie’s education is fundamental to his future, to his being able to live a good life that is full of meaningful work and activities and in a community where his differences are accepted and where he is loved. Jim and I are both ‘in the education business’ (as he likes to put it), so perhaps it is no surprise that we would emphasize Charlie’s schooling most of all. But I do think that my Chinese-American family’s emphasis on education as crucial has played a part. 

Certainly I am grateful that Charlie is a citizen of the US. Educational programs, for autistic children in China are few and far between. (A video about one of the few schools for autistic children in China is below.) It is ultimately thanks to the civil rights movement and the belief that all children, regardless of their race or ethnicity or disability, have the right to be educated, that Charlie has been able to go to school. 

The civil rights movement’s fight against discrimination on the basis of ‘what’ a person is helped to inspire individuals with disabilities to stand up for their rights.  It is a law in the US that students with disabilities have access to a ‘free and appropriate public education’–not so in China.
The Chinese ‘Tiger Mother’ Book

There has been a lot of talk recently about “Chinese ways” of educating children with the recent publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. A professor at Yale Law School, Chua has gained a lot of attention, and criticism, for her portrayal of her “extreme,” if not draconian, parenting style. In an excerpt in last week’s Wall Street Journal article, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, Chua claims that the key to raising successful kids is 

  1. Not worrying about a child’s self-esteem  (“Western parents,” Chua says, “are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t.”)
  2. A belief that one’s kids owe everything to one (i.e., the parent), due to a “combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children.”
  3. Being confident that, as parents, one knows best and ought not to hesitate to “override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.”

I am planning to write a post about Chua’s book, which touches on many issues of deep concern to me. In reading it, I have often got the feeling that she is thinking darn this 26th-spot ranking for American schools; my daughters are going to get a first-class education, like the Chinese have–authoritarian, highly structured, with no pandering to their emotional needs, oriented around external measures of success (such as playing the piano at Carnegie Hall, winning gold medals, getting into Harvard).

The one critique that I found the most revealing is The Beijing Backlash Over Crazy Chinese Moms by Huang Hung, who is Chinese. Chua’s parenting style “glorifies suffering, lacks individual rights, and tells mothers they’re only as good as their kids” and is an odd throwback to, indeed, the Chinese “system”of educating children. Says Huang:

“It is ironic that as young Chinese mothers in Beijing and Shanghai are embracing more enlighted Western ideas about child raising, mothers from Connecticut [where Chua lives] are sinking deeper into China’s darker past in child rearing.”

Huang notes the same paradox that Kristof does: Just as Americans are admiring the Chinese system of education, the Chinese are concerned about its limits, especially in regard to how it tends to quash creativity and individuality in favor of what is often rote learning. This paradox is evident in the American-born Chua’s determination to raise two daughters who won’t drift from their Chinese roots and be, well, slackers (i.e., students who get a B here and there, play sports, and go to state universities).

And while the Chinese parents whom Kristof mentions don’t exactly wish to raise children who are “low achievers” hanging around the mall and playing videogames, their concerns about how traditional Chinese education create students who perform well on tests but can’t figure out novel ways to solve problems should not be discounted. 

Maybe what we can learn from the Chinese education system is that we really should be something other than tiger mothers.

Previous Care2 posts
President Hu Jintao Seeks to Avoid Human Rights Controversy

Shanghai Scores At The Top – U.S. Scores At Number 26

Photo by Rex Pe.


caterina caligiuri
caterina c5 years ago


jane richmond
jane richmond6 years ago

Education SHOULD be a MAJOR concern of all Americans.

Gloria W.
Gloria W.6 years ago


Myriam Garcon
Myriam G6 years ago

I felt an odd familiar feeling, while reading this interesting article. Many aspects of the chinese way of educating children, "authoritarian, highly structured, with no pandering to emotional needs", seemed very familiar to me. That may be because I was raised Catholic, a religion that also "glorifies suffering, lacks individual rights", and "doesn't worry about a child's self-esteem". A religion that tells parents that they can "override all of their children's own desires and preferences."

I don't mean to say that religions are bad for parents; I just want to say that, when educating their children, parents should look into their hearts first, and to religious beliefs second. Parents should think about the adult that their child will one day be, and ask themselves: "what will that adult need, to have a productive and happy life?"

Norm C.
Norm C6 years ago

Helen D.,

You have hit the nail on the head. One of the biggest problems with education in this country is that the profession is constantly bombarded with "silver bullet" fads every few years. Our schools are in a constant state of turmoil as new superintendents tear everything up and start off in a different direction.

A country to examine to find out what works is Finland.

A couple of US schools to look into that work really, really well are Central Park East in NYC and Mission Hill in Boston. There are several others.

Deborah Meier took a Harlem school with a dropout rate of better than 50% with almost no one going on to college and turned it into one with a 90% graduation rate and of those a 90% college admission rate. Central Park East has been a going concern for decades.

The fads are a product of the fact that education is individual and messy. Apparently too messy for many observers who are constantly looking for easy and quick "fixes" to divert attention from the real problems of inadequate resources and inattention to the students' needs.

Jewels S.
Jewels S6 years ago

There are a few programs in the US getting it right. The problem is spreading this to the other schools. Look at an organization that is doing it right and copy them. Something is wrong with the way people think today. they need to step back and take a look at the big picture. Good conversation starter though.

Geraldine H.
Gerri Hennessy6 years ago

I think it is important to learn from each other.

Alex S.
Alex S6 years ago

thanks, interesting

Vernon W.
Vernon W6 years ago

Obviously, there is room to compromise between the 2 educational systems. The major factor is the value of education. That includes the student and the family. Most students will not make the time and effort to learn if his/her family does not value education. This is where the US can most improve. Without discipline, students will not learn. While students in China have the discipline, they need to be more creative. The problem in China is that if all the people were allowed to "do their own thing," can you imagine the chaos? How would the US be if we had 4 times our present population? If you think crime, pollution, traffic, homelessness, overcrowdedness, prices, etc., are bad now, what would it be like if we had 4 times more people? The value of conformity and harmony is necessary in China.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.