In this episode, we borrow the plot from the TV series 《小舍得》to explore China’s junior to high school education culture.
English translation (as translated by Amber Godsland)
Hello, hi everyone, I’m Kaycee.
Before I start I would like to share a slang word I’ve seen being used more in China — “involution” or 内卷(neijuan). It’s somewhat connected to what I will talk about today. It’s an internet slang. Its original meaning refers to the phenomenon that after human society reaches a particular form of development, it stagnates or cannot transform further to a more advanced level.
This internet slang first originated from some photos of elite students from top schools.
University students’ Wechats have been bombarded with “involution” photos: some people cycling whilst reading books, and some people’s dormitories full of piles and piles of books. These pictures were first circulated among top students of Qinghua and Peking University. Later, “Qinghua Involution King” who “rides a bike while looking at the computer” were popular words which started trending. Related emoticons also appeared in many college students’ social media.
Now, this word’s meaning has evolved further. Many college students use this word to express the irrationality of inner or “voluntary” competitiveness.
For this episode, we will return to the topic of education. If I was going to tag it, I think “involution” is an especially appropriate tag for this episode’s content. Why? Let’s see.
China has always had a kind of extra-classes culture. We could say “extra classes”, “training classes”, or “tutorial classes”. These words are basically the same, they can be used interchangeably. In China, a child’s education is the biggest worry for parents. Now, the country has begun to standardise training institutions. For example, operating licenses will only be issued on the prerequisite that classroom sizes, teacher numbers, and fire prevention have reached certain standards. The country stipulates that teachers cannot undertake outside extra classes for part-time work, and primary school students also cannot take part in extra classes. There are many other related rules, but I have only picked out some key points to provide everyone a background to child education in China and the culture of extra classes — reading all the rules would be boring right? I don’t want to waste everyone’s time.
So, how should we understand the culture of extra classes? Recently I’ve been following a series called “小舍得 (Xiǎo Shèdé)”. It reflects this phenomenon and I think it’s really interesting. This is a TV drama that explores the theme of going from primary school to middle school. It talks about the different education styles of parents and teachers. According to the original author of “小舍得 (Xiǎo Shèdé)” Lu Yingong, more than 90% of the material in the original novel is true. He said, “These details are true because it cannot be made up. For example, in the novel it is written that the children bring a tent for extra classes. Some people think it is fake, but in fact this is precisely what I cannot make up.” In Lu Yingong’s opinion “This kind absurdity in life surpasses our imagination”.
Indeed, the novel originates from real life. Some of the storylines in this show are true. Why do I say this? Because I have personally seen and experienced it.
So, I should probably first introduce the two families involved in the show and their methods and attitudes towards their children’s education.
Oh, before the introduction, let me first say there will be some spoilers from now on. If you want to watch this drama and don’t want it to be spoiled, you can come back and listen again after watching it. If you don’t mind, you can continue listening.
In the show, there are two key families. On the one hand, the “chicken child education ” of Tian Yulan’s small family, which is also a recent buzzword often seen in China, which is to educate children by “injecting chicken blood”. The mantra is: for the good of the children. This is a typical education method in China of “hoping one’s son becomes a dragon and hoping one’s daughter becomes a phoenix”. Tian Yulan’s management of her son, Yan Ziyou, is very strict, which is contrary to the “free range” education of many Western countries. In this kind of “chicken child education” parents may start to give their children extra classes from the first grade of primary school and attach great importance to the various competitions that their children need to enter school. The various outside classes and the road map for entering school are drawn clearly, and parents even take notes on wrong questions more seriously than their children.
On the other hand, there is Nan Li who advocates for a “happy education”. At first, Nan Li insists on not letting her daughter Xia Huanhuan attend extra classes, but when her child’s grades slip more and more, the panic this brings makes Nan Li send her daughter to extra classes.
The relationship between Nan Li and Tian Yulan is like this — Nan Li’s father and mother divorced two months before her college entrance examination. After the divorce, Nan Li’s father married Tian Yulan’s mother, so these two families of Nan Li and Tian Yulan are part of restructured families. There are some other minor details in this, which have nothing to do with what we are talking about today, so I won’t talk about them. Yan Ziyou is in Grade 6 and Xia Huanhuan is in Grade 5.
Another topic I want to pick out is how they compare themselves to each other and the impact this brings.
Tian Yulan stands out most when she shows off her children. The dining table is the best place, especially the dining table of this kind of restructured family. Nan Li’s daughter Huanhuan sings a song there. Here, Tian Yulan who cannot fall behind, immediately asks Zi You to recite the number Pi on the spot and shows off that he can recite more than 2,000 places. The scene is very awkward, but Tian Yulan enjoys it.
For parents like Tian Yulan, her children’s grades are above everything else, and their emotions fluctuate with the grades. When she returns home, she sees Zi You not doing his homework. Immediately furious, she scolds him. Finally, knowing that her son achieved a good exam grade, she immediately asks Zi You what’s wrong, making him lost for words.
This is a mother making comparisons with her own child.
Let’s take another look at Nan Li’s family. Indeed, when Huanhuan’s grades become the lowest in the class, Huanhuan’s parents are anxious and send their child to extra classes. To a certain extent, this can be regarded as a comparison between the child and the whole class, but nobody in the world would be uncaring about their children’s grades and education, so this is understandable.
At the beginning, Nan Li is not as extreme as Tian Yulan and treats Huanhuan very gently. The real change starts when Nan Li is demoted. One of the reasons she is demoted is that she is replaced because of her inferior education to others. This hits Nan Li hard and completely upends the educational philosophy she had always believed in. She begins to force Huanhuan to use all her time for studying.
This is how Nan Li in her workplace is compared in terms of academic qualifications.
Tutor: Zhong Yi
There is also a tutor in the show called Zhong Yi. Zhong Yi’s role in this show is quite controversial. If you look at the on-screen comments, there is all kinds of commentary. Although it is just a supporting role, the character is quite complicated. Okay, you may have guessed that this kind of complexity is not connected to today’s content, so we’ll put these complexities aside. Basically, he is still a good teacher.
In order to get extra classes for their children, Nan Li and Tian Yulan approach Zhong Yi. After struggling for a while, Zhong Yi agrees but asks another student, Mi Tao, to join for free. Mi Tao is a child from a poor family. Both parents come to the big city from the countryside, and later bring the child along, so the child can enjoy the education and opportunities that the big city brings. Mi Tao is smart, and often gets first in the class even without extra classes. Zhong Yi still wants to nurture Mitao, and wants Mitao to ultimately become a successful person.
So that’s it, everyone has class together like this. Mitao studies well and gets good grades. Huanhuan doesn’t study hard, and her grades are not as good. So Huanhuan and Mitao are compared regularly, and it’s said constantly that that Mitao is better than Huanhuan. Nan Li is also like this, always making Huanhuan learn from Mitao. Under the double pressure of the parents and teachers, Huanhuan becomes more and more unhappy, and even feels like her own mother likes Mitao more than herself.
Huanhuan becomes jealous of Mitao, and her attitude towards her becomes worse and worse. It’s not only like this in Zhong Yi’s tutoring class: Huanhuan does not even acknowledge Mitao in school, and also drives her other friends to alienate Mitao. The two were originally close friends, but unpleasant things accumulate more and more, and they even argue about a minor incidents. Fortunately, the form tutor gives Huanhuan some timely guidance. Otherwise, Huanhuan would have changed from a warm, cheerful, and helpful kid to a selfish, domineering and bad kid.
In life, there are too many parents like Nan Li and too many teachers like Zhong Yi, who are habitually comparing two children and distinguishing their successes and failures. They think that constant comparison can make the slightly weaker children understand the gap between themselves and others, and that it will motivate them to work harder. However, actually, it’s frequently counterproductive. A weaker child will develop an inferiority complex and rebellious mentality because of so much comparison. Huanhuan is like this. Nan Li and Zhong Yi compare her excessively with Mitao, which almost hurts her, turning her into a self-loathing and narrow-minded child.
Finally we return to Yan Ziyou. Under the pressure exerted by Tian Yulan, Ziyou’s mental health shows some problems. The constant pressure of learning and his increasingly closed-off heart leaves Ziyou nowhere to vent.
Every time he participates in a Maths competition accompanied by Tian Yulan, he breaks down. Tian Yulan is actually Zi You’s demon. However, Tian Yulan only cares about grades, and does not notice her son’s psychological changes. Again and again this makes Zi You’s psychological pressure heavier and heavier. Eventually, Zi You is depressed. This is just a sixth-grade child, around ten or eleven years old, already anxious and depressed.
Facing this result, Tian Yulan is distressed. Persuaded by her family she understands grades cannot be produced by force, but with appropriate guidance.
Many of the things in this show are true. In China, only by attending a good primary school can you then attend a good middle school. Only when you go to a good middle school can you get a chance to enter a good high school. Only when you go to a good high school can you be admitted to a good university. So what do you need to see to get to a better school? It’s just grades.
As described in the show, getting good grades is often difficult without extra classes. So, it doesn’t work if you don’t have extra classes, and it doesn’t work if you do have extra classes. I think, one of the key points of this show is to make parents grasp the extent of this: don’t be too extreme and don’t be too relaxed. Every child has their own strengths and weaknesses. Education is how to guide the strengths and reinforce weaknesses. This all requires great wisdom. You cannot pass your own anxiety onto your child. We should respect the differences of each child, and we should always encourage children and praise them promptly for every bit of progress. Only in this way can children become more confident, and they can better develop in their areas of expertise.Finally, I want to emphasise something. This episode mainly focuses on the situation in China. The overall summary is only a summary of the current phenomenon in China and is not intended to be compared with Western education methods. If you have listened to this episode’s content and want to compare it for yourself, I think that is okay; this is a kind of critical thinking. Ultimately, I hope that everyone can understand the education situation in China a little more. This issue mainly talks about education methods and extra-classes culture for primary school students. In this, I provided two online phrases to everyone: “involution” and “chicken child education”. You can see later if there are suitable occasions to use these two words. Okay, see you next episode.