Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a kid going to school in China?
Do you think you would like it?
China is a very big country with lots and lots of people. A lot of parents have only one child; otherwise very soon there would be way too many people to live there. Therefore most kids in China don’t have any brothers or sisters. If you have a brother or sister you might sometimes feel you wish they weren’t there, but most of the time they can be a special kind of friend, and this is something Chinese kids miss out on.
Kids who live in the city usually live in a small apartment with their mum and dad. They have four grandparents – their mum’s parents, and their dad’s parents – and no aunts and uncles. Those six grown-ups, their parents and grandparents, look after them and are hoping that they will succeed at school and get a good job so that they can all have a good life. You might feel that your parents put pressure on you to do the right thing and get on with your schoolwork and homework, but Chinese kids are under far more pressure.
All of the kids go to school every day, and nobody skips school. School is free – to make sure that everyone can go – except that students’ parents need to pay for their books. The parents and grandparents keep reminding the kids how important it is, and they do anything they can to make sure they succeed. Of course, the kids desperately want to please their parents and grandparents so they work really hard, and some of them feel a lot of stress.
What do you do when you come home from school? You probably have time for some video games, maybe a run around outside, and then do a little bit of homework. When Chinese kids come home from school every day there is no time to play because they have a lot of homework and study to do. Even on the weekend and in school holidays they go to extra classes and schools to try and do the best they can possibly do.
The schools in the city are really big, with classrooms upstairs and downstairs. Often the classes are very big too, with about fifty children in each class. With so many children in the room the desks have to be in neat rows, rather than in groups like you might have in your classroom. Does your classroom have desks in groups, and do you get to do interesting activities with your friends? Most lessons for Chinese kids are about learning things off by heart, repeating things and doing drills.
For kids who live outside of the city, in the country, things are generally a little bit different. Some country families have two children, and kids might have uncles or aunts. Country kids often live in a house with a yard. And country people are generally poorer, and a lot of families don’t have a reliable car or money to buy nice clothes.
Some parents who live in the country are poor and need their kids to help with whatever work they are doing, as soon as they are old enough. This might mean helping with farming, or animals, or making something.
Country kids still need to go to school, and their families really want them to do well too. In some places there are not always enough qualified teachers available, so they might have school only in the morning or only in the afternoon. That way the teacher can go to two different schools in one day. The classes are sometimes really big, maybe a hundred kids in one class.
What subjects do you think Chinese kids study in school?
Firstly, of course, they study the Chinese language – in just a few years they have to learn how to read and write about 7,000 characters. There is no alphabet with sounds that you put together to make words like in English. Each complicated-looking character is like a little picture that they have to learn off by heart and know how to draw right every time. And they even have to learn to draw them with a paintbrush.
The Chinese language sounds a lot different from English because it has tones for every character – that is like a tune. So if you thinking that learning spelling and reading in English is difficult then imagine about how hard it is for Chinese kids. And not all children in China speak Chinese at home; there are a lot of minority groups who have their own language and culture. So for them they need to learn a second language when they start school. And there is not just one language called “Chinese”. The most commonly used Chinese language is called “Putong-hua” and children especially need to learn it if that is not what their parents speak at home. Chinese children also have to learn pinyin, which is Chinese written in English letters so that even foreigners can read what it says.
As well as learning Chinese, kids study mathematics, physical education, music, art, nature, literature, and – very important – moral education. Everyone hopes that the children will have a general knowledge of politics, and that they will love their country and the Communist party. Even young children learn that politics is important and, along with their school uniforms, most of the younger children wear red scarves around their necks to show that their family supports the Chinese Communist party by sending them to something like boy/girl scouts for the party.
Mathematics is very important to study too because maybe if they are good at doing maths that they will be able to get a really good job one day. If it looks like any kid has special abilities – like maybe they are good at sports, or music – then their parents will be very keen to get them into extra practice or a special school so that they might be able to do something important or special when they grow up. There are special schools where kids can learn ping pong or other sports and maybe even become an Olympic medallist one day. Or maybe they can go to a school where they spend hours and hours practicing to be a fantastic musician.
In grade 3 or 4 Chinese kids start to learn a foreign language such as English. Parents and grandparents are usually very pleased for their children to learn English well because it gives them the chance to get a better job, and maybe even to go overseas to study or work. Then hopefully the whole family will benefit.
First thing in the morning at school the kids all stand proudly to attention while they have a national flag-raising ceremony. They are very proud of their country and their nationality. You probably do that at school too. At about ten o’clock every morning all Chinese kids go outside for physical exercises. They stand in neat rows while music plays and someone counts “yi, er, san, si” (1, 2, 3, 4) to keep everyone in time through the exercise routine. Some students stand up the front demonstrating the steps for the exercises.
For lunch, of course, they all eat something with rice, or noodles, and they eat it all with chopsticks – which they have no trouble at all using. They seem to be always very hungry and very keen to eat. Maybe that’s because food like rice doesn’t make them feel full for very long before they are hungry again.
In the afternoon the Chinese kids learn subjects like PE, literature, music and art, as you probably do too. Then everyone comes pouring out of school and hurries home to start their homework.
Chinese children have a lot of exams to take. The really big important exam doesn’t happen until the end of high school, but there will be an exam at the end of middle school to even get into High School, and it’s never too early to start getting ready. And there are lots of other smaller tests and exams along the way to show where they are placed. They are always being compared to the other students, and if possible they constantly need to try to be better than their classmates. As you can imagine this is sometimes stressful for them, and for their family.
So, what do you think? How would you like to be a primary school kid in China? Maybe you would complain a bit, but they get used to it, and they really want to please their family. Being at Primary School is much easier and happier for them than when they get older and have to go to high school. So when you see Chinese kids at Primary School, they will always give you a big, happy smile.