Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in Modern China

March 28, 2012 • Blogs, The World at Yale • Views: 1139

By Ashley Feng:

Why do parents in today’s Mainland China so passionately, even desperately, want their children to attend university? On Tuesday afternoon, Professor Andrew Kipnis, a Senior Fellow in the Australian National University’s Department of Anthropology, presented the economic, political, historical, and cultural answers suggested in his latest book, Governing Educational Desire, as part of the China Anthropology Colloquium Series.

Kipnis’s talk drew primarily from classroom observations and interviews with families at middle schools around Zoupin county in Shandong province, where the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in university is continually increasing despite high tuition rates; of the 280 parents Professor Kipnis spoke with, he found only one who did not express a strong desire for that his children attend university.

Shishi High School in Chengdu - one of China's top preparatory schools - is, alas, only a dream for most Chinese parents. (Courtesy of Wikipedia).

The effects of national policies, particularly the one-child policy, may have contributed by increasing many parents’ care and expectations for each child. Kipnis also considered local reasons for this emphasis on higher education, noting local government expansion of schools to create teaching, construction, and service jobs, and the fact that many of the most desirable jobs in Shandong are held by the local bureaucracy and therefore more often require educational credentials. However, he noted that educational desire can transcend economic incentives: enrollment remains high at third-tier universities whose diplomas have little or no educational value, while vocational schools offering relatively well-compensated technical work after graduation struggle to find students.

Kipnis proposed cultural factors as a strong driver of educational desire: Chinese society has historically emphasized the glories of education, from the imperial examination system to select public officials to a present-day society where street corners and buildings are adorned with huge posters of students who test into top schools. Kipnis remarked that centuries of granting the power and wealth of public office to those with the highest scores had created a tradition of “literary masculinity”, in which romantic prospects depended on academic success), which has become a major element of Chinese culture (he compared this phenomenon to a Jewish tradition of perceiving men who studied the Torah as more attractive, in contrast to European expectations that men who studied the Bible extensively would become monks).

The days of the imperial examinations may be over, but the secondary education system is still a brutal gauntlet focused entirely on student test scores and preparation for the university entrance examination. Professor Kipnis noted the impact of parental and systemic pressure on students. He showed a slide with the middle school’s summer schedule: classes and review activities from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. seven days a week, and shared conversations with students who had passed the entrance exams- athletes who gave up their sports for the six years of secondary school to study- and others who had dropped out, frustrated with their poor grades in classrooms where those grades determined their value. Kipnis observed that despite the burdens testing imposes, the central government has upheld entrance exams for universities, many skilled jobs, and promotion within the party itself as the only way to preserve fair access in the face of rampant corruption.

The educational hopes of Chinese parents for their offspring highlight the complex interaction of ancient cultural values with political and economic trends in modern Chinese society: interactions difficult to illuminate, but impossible to ignore.

Ashley Feng ’15 is in Calhoun College. Contact her at

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