China's History and Culture,
by Susan Han
China is a country of contradictions and contrasts, still trying to find its bearings after a nearly 5,000 year history as one of the world's oldest civilizations. It has a rich cultural heritage, and at various times, a tremendously volatile political and social past. These factors have shaped the China we see today.
Most historians agree that China's history can be traced back to the Xia Dynasty around 2200 B.C. (chronology of Chinese dynasties). After successive centuries of scientific advancement, social turmoil and palace intrigue, the final dynasty, Qing (1644 - 1911), ended with a military revolution.
From 1911 to 1949, China was thrown back into political and social chaos, compounded by its involvement in the first and second world wars. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China, deploying a political and social structure much like the Soviet Communist establishment. Today, vestiges of the system still exist, but the government is rapidly decentralizing its industries, and the people are increasingly capitalist-minded.
The period of Chinese history under Chairman Mao was historically significant for the impact it had on education in China. Mao undertook several experiments in China that had a devastating effect, starting in 1958 with "The Great Leap Forward." In implementing his communist economy, Mao tried to increase crop production by pooling the farms and mobilizing the peasants. This failed effort led to the greatest manmade famine in human history. In 1966, Mao launched "The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," which for the next 10 years, threw China into social anarchy, with the middle-class being forced into re-education labor camps, their possessions confiscated, books and cultural icons burned and destroyed.
(It is interesting that in recent years, several Chinese filmmakers have gained international prominence by focusing on the human suffering that occurred during this dark time period. Some examples are Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine" and Zhang Yimou's "To Live," both starring popular actress Gong Li. More recently, actress Joan Chen directed "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl," a story of a young girl living a bleak existence during the Cultural Revolution. In a telling sign of the lack of free expression in China, Chen filmed the movie illegally in Tibet after rejecting changes that Chinese officials had made to her original script. These movies are all critically-acclaimed in the West but heavily criticized in China.)
The educational system in China today is more Socialist-oriented. Chinese classrooms are typically packed with up to 50 students, and learning is often done in groups to emphasize teamwork and cooperation, basic tenets of Socialism. But Chinese schooling is also increasingly competitive, and students sit for entrance exams even at the grade school level. This meritocracy is mingled with economics, and parents work hard to ensure they can afford to send their kids to the best schools once they get accepted.
The Chinese value education as a stepping stone to success, and children - especially only children - are under a lot of pressure to excel in school. There is also an unspoken code of conformity, and there is a lot of pressure to fit in, for to be singled out is the penultimate in humiliation, causing students to "lose face" in front of their peers. In addition to academics, parents also try and enroll their children in a wide variety of after-school activities to enhance their overall development.
What is strikingly different in China is the motivation for excellence. In the West, it is easy to assume most kids work hard because they want to succeed and maybe become the next Bill Gates someday. In China, the goal is to create productive citizens who can serve society. Thus, a child excels to benefit China, not for his or her personal wealth.
While Confucius has become a rather comical figure in the West, associated with quips like "Confucius says…," this Chinese sage has had a profound impact on the values of Chinese around the world for over 2,000 years. Born Kong Zi (551 B.C. - 479 B.C.), Confucius has been credited with stressing the importance of virtue and natural order in a civil society. This has translated into an emphasis on values like filial piety and respect for authority, which help establish order and subordination in the classroom.
Today, a noticeable departure from Confucianism is the greater equality Chinese parents share. Under a more Confucian system, the mother was expected to be amiable and quiet, and the father was the strict head of the household. Instead, the reality today is both parents usually work, and they want to cultivate a more friendly, supportive relationship with their child. This reflects most parents' attitudes towards discipline as well: rather than a traditional beating or scolding, children are asked to reflect on and internalize the impact of their bad behavior on others.
China's One-Child Policy has been in place since the 1970s in an attempt to curb population growth. Chinese officials estimate their land can only support a 1% growth rate each year, and have it made it mandatory for families to only have one child. This is strictly enforced in the major cities, but rural governments tend to be more relaxed since extra labor is needed in farming communities. Nonetheless, fines are imposed on parents who want more than one child. The only exceptions are the minority indigenous people in China and remarried couples. With a population of over 1.2 billion, the Chinese view this as a practical policy. Abortions are state-funded but not mandatory.
The One-Child Policy has had many consequences, including the creation of an unusual dilemma called the "4-2-1" problem. With 4 grandparents and 2 parents doting on an only child, there is a high risk the child will be over-pampered, leading to the creation of a "little emperor" or "little empress" in each household. It also means these children will not have siblings or cousins to play with. These are realistic concerns, but for the most part, children do seem very well-behaved because they know it is expected of them. Grandparents tend to play a strong care-giving role, especially if both parents work.
As China reaches its 50th year of independence on October 1, 1999, it is trying with limited success to forge a nation with communist values yet capitalist aspirations. The coastal cities have been and will continue to be relatively prosperous, but it will take a huge shift in thinking and policy to bring the rest of the 900 million rural residents along, many of whom are living in poverty.
From a Western perspective, China has a troubling record on human rights, lack of freedoms, and even espionage and weapons proliferation. There is certainly disagreement over what this should mean for the United States - constructive engagement or a severing of ties. Some experts believe progress can only be achieved by keeping a conversation going with China and continuing to negotiate. Others believe China is a Communist regime that is not worthy of this effort and should be ignored for now. It stands to reason that as one of the world's largest economies, especially one with which the U.S. has such a large trade deficit, China cannot be ignored. In fact, it remains a key trading partner for many U.S. cities.
U.S.-Sino relations are gradually thawing after the tragic accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia earlier this year. The U.S. is also straddling a careful line with Taiwan in its assertion of independence from China. China still considers Taiwan a breakaway province, whereas Taiwanese officials have been describing their nation as a separate and equal state to China.
In this politically-charged climate, it will be interesting to see if China finally gains acceptance into the WTO in December 1999, after trying for 13 years. The Asian financial crisis is also almost over, and with those economies making a slow recovery, China may stand to gain from renewed investments, and fulfil the widely-held prediction that it will become a major global player in the next century.