the gaokao cometh

June 7-9, 51,200 senior three students are scheduled to sit the gaokao in 49 ordinary and 31 special test centers throughout Shenzhen. Years past, organizing the gaokao would have been given many more pixels on social media, but Covid. In fact, Gaokao cheating stories have long been some of my favorite urban myths. But this year. Covid. And ongoing prevention. (Although I heard a rumor that as of July medical insurance funds can no longer be tapped for mass testing, so it may end in July? Fingers crossed.) Thus, this year all the gaokao trauma drama I have to report is that we have been notified that phone signals will be blocked near testing stations to prevent cheating. Residents who have to report emergencies have been instructed to use landline phones or move out of range. There was also the odd article about how cheating on the gaokao is a criminal offense that carries severe (not quite explicit) penalties. But these scare tactics are just part and parcel of moral standards that hold teenagers accountable for minor mistakes, but allows powerful adults to make fortunes from unsavory business practices, such as a fraudulent Covid testing. Sigh.

SZ8X80205//The Myriad Transformations//City on the Fill: Beached Babes in Toyland

Once you have a house on the beach, what do you do there? You play. And where were the toys once made? In factories built along the old new coastline. Continue reading

礼貌 and 文明, thoughts

The difference between 礼貌 and 文明 matters because I bumped into a group in the Shekou Sihai park. They were members of 格 (RGLove). the charitable fund of the Shenzhen based high-tech company, 荣格科技集团. RGLove had brought in people from all over the country to explore and develop their civilization levels through Confucian studies. The goal, of course, is to intervene in the world by expressing correct relationships, that of course included 礼 which maybe 礼貌, but I’m not for sure. Meanwhile, inquiring minds want to know: just what does all this mean? Continue reading

2013 gaokao update

I find the gaokao process daunting: so many rounds of admissions, so many different variables — including hometown and quota requirements — to consider, so many practice tests and, in the end, so few points difference between students.

That said, the gaokao season began with registration (Dec 1-10, 2012), testing to estimate admission baselines, and has just completed mock exams (April 2-20). The mock exams give students, parents, and teachers an estimate of likely test scores, which can be compared to historic results in order to decide on which program to apply. We have entered the final phase of test preparation, during which time students take tests and refine their baseline estimates. On June 7 and 8. 36,633 students will sit for the exams in Shenzhen, unless, of course they have an abnormal pre-exam medical check-up. Students with physical ailments will be permited to take make-up exams on June 17-18.

blue star blues

Yesterday, Ministry of Tofu translated a Southern Daily article about a Shenzhen elementary school teacher who marked students faces with blue stamps for misbehavior. They also published samples of weibo responses to this practice. No unexpectedly, there was general outrage over using humiliation as a means to correct student behavior. The article also mentioned that students received stamps for good behavior. Netizens were noticeably silent on this topic, no doubt because as long as I have been in Shenzhen, rewarding student behavior with stars and stickers has been standard practice in elementary schools.

In fact, public recognition and shaming are the most important motivators in the Shenzhen education system, where schools give and receive public recognition for “results (成绩)”. What’s more there is no question that we are speaking of test results, especially gaokao test results. At the high school level, municipal and district governments reward schools for the number of students sent on to first tier universities, in turn, the schools reward teachers for their students results, and teachers reward their students. In middle schools, public rewards are based on zhongkao, or high school entrance exam results with a similar system of bonuses for teachers who can produce results (出成绩) and students who get into top scores.

Given the importance of test scores their reputation and livelihood, Shenzhen teachers constantly seek ways to help students to improve their test scores. High school teachers run mandatory study sessions, while middle school teachers use classroom time to teach test taking skills. Moreover, most parents not only accept the primacy of test taking to education, but also arrange for their children to attend cram schools at night and over the weekend. In fact, many high school students often ask to attend cram schools in order to compete with their classmates.

Importantly, the system only works – Chinese schools infamously produce test-taking machines – to the extent that teachers and students accept test scores as their raison d’être. Consequently, elementary school schools and teachers have an awkward place in this system because it is their job to transition students from home life to the test life. At the same time and to a greater degree than their middle and high school colleagues, elementary teachers are expected to care for the total student, including their emotional and physical wellbeing. And there’s the rub: most young children and especially boys cannot sit still for long periods of time.

The restlessness of young bodies places elementary school teachers in a difficult position because in order to take tests, students must sit at desks for at least 40 minutes with an eye to eventually taking 2 to 2.5 hour tests that make up the gaokao. The 2012 Shenzhen gaokao, for example, took place on June 7 and 8. In the morning, candidates sat for 2.5 hours (Chinese on the 7th and humanities/science on the 8th) and in the afternoon they sat for 2 hours (humanities/science on the 7th and English on the 8th). The zhongkao was held on the 9th, with two 1.5 hour test periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Thus, more often than not, restless elementary students receive low test scores, their teachers are accused of ineffective pedagogy, and the schools are criticized for not doing their jobs.

In order to transform the restless body into a test-taking machine, elementary school teachers often use public recognition to encourage students. In fact, stickers and stamps are just two elements of a repertoire that also includes publicizing grades, issuing certificates and holding award ceremonies. During weekly flag raising ceremonies, top students receive public commendation and at the end of the year, the best students receive merit scholarships and their photos are hung in prominent places.

Obviously, this system creates pressure for the majority of students who cannot (by definition) earn the top scores. For these students, the desire to alleviate feelings of envy and shame sometimes become motivations to study. Or as often the case, middling students learn to live with second-rate status and find pleasure in non-academic activities. At the same time, teachers will attempt to use envy and shame to motivate students to overtake top students or to redeem themselves in the public eye.

Nor are teachers alone in celebrating top scores and denigrating poor results. Parental bragging about good students is rampant, while parental complaints about poor results are never simply good manners, but also strategies to motivate children to do better in school. Parents often negatively compare a child to another, even as some of the most brutal set downs entail parental complaints about lives wasted to support a student who has failed academically.

Point du jour: The blue star of shame on third grade faces are symptoms of a much larger problem that cannot be ameliorated by ridiculing the teacher herself or calling for different pedagogy. Rather, the system of Chinese education constitutes a problem so vast and entrenched that it is hard to know where to begin deconstructing it. Do we begin with the gaokao? Or with a more equitable system of job opportunities? Or allow for private schools that are certified even when they do not teach the national curriculum?

I am not posting this response to absolve the teacher from her responsibility in damaging her students’ self esteem. I am, however, posting this response to highlight the desperate hypocrisy of netizen complaints about blue stars. On the one hand, in a system that motivates through public recognition, shame is effective. Thus, issuing blue star demerits should be understood as a natural extension of extent pedagogy. On the other hand, until the system changes, parents and teachers find themselves in the desperate position of trying to force children to become test-taking machines in the gentlest manner possible. All recognize that the goal itself is violent, but hope getting there doesn’t have to hurt.

reading the old man and the sea (in shenzhen)

I am currently reading The Old Man and the Sea with two 16 year old Chinese high school sophomores. They are cousins. One is a “good” student, strong and sly in the self-protective way of students who know how to work the system, but do not reach the upper echelon of test results. The other is delicate and shy, a “top” student, who is being groomed to test into Beijing University, producing results (出成绩) for her school and family. The good student knows that unless she goes abroad, she will no doubt end up at Shenzhen University, no matter how much harder she works at school; fortunately, her parents can afford to send her anywhere and so she is not too sly, and her eagerness to model good student answers quickly gives way to assertive self-confidence. The top student already struggles with contradictory desires and ambitions. She yearns to study abroad, but her homeroom teacher has already begun pressuring her to stop studying for the TOEFL and to use her extra time more productively — taking practice gaokao tests or studying the junior year high school curriculum. What’s more, the child of divorce she knows that her mother can’t afford Chinese tuitions, let alone foreign and thus she must secure a scholarship  wherever she attends university.

We sit around a square table, tracking the relationship between the old man and the marlin. Santiago believes that his fish is out there, and his quest begins when he sights the purposeful circling of a man-of-war bird. His faith is rewarded and the contest engaged. As the fish pulls the man further out to sea, away from from the lights of Havana and known landmarks, the old man endures, charts his progress against the stars and his suffering, and the fish becomes more than a fish — first a friend, then a brother, more noble, but less intelligent, a brother who must be convinced that he is less than he who came to kill. It is a grand battle that does not end in glory, but the realization of hubris, “I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish,” the old man says to the marlin’s corpse, which has been strapped to the skiff and is being inexorably eaten by sharks. When the old man finally drifts ashore, all that remains is an 18 foot skeleton and the certainty of death.

I chose The Old Man and the Sea because, well misgivings about Hemingway notwithstanding, he knew his craft. His language is deceptively simple. Any sentence taken out of context seems ordinary, common even, but together his words sculpt moral landscapes that make exquisitely salient the brute masculinity and ultimately tragic consequences of lives lived against nature.

“Americans aren’t very peace-loving,” the good student concludes.

“Did the old man have faith in luck or faith in the sea?” the top student asks.

Thus, yesterday’s lesson transformed from a discussion about human limits into a conversation about how being human is culturally defined and experienced. The old man is not their old man, his fish is not their fish, and the sea that relentlessly pulls us out of our depth, that tests our forbearance and ultimately claims our soul, that sea does not figure their dreams. It may be a generational difference. But perhaps not. Certainly the new US passport is replete with pictures of men taking on nature — cowboys and seamen ruggedly occupying the western plains and Pacific waves, respectively. And that’s the point: the girls read with me because the good student’s mother is a friend and she has entrusted her daughter to me (and yes those words were used “交给你”) for old-fashioned Chinese purpose: edification rather than simple instruction. The goal of our bi-weekly meetings is not to improve English test scores or practice oral English, but rather close reading of novels, essays and poetry, to help the teenagers learn to navigate literary nuance elsewhere, which it turns out is also learning to simultaneously recognize oneself and one’s Other despite and across epic difference, which isn’t quite what Hemingway had in mind when he figured Man through his engagement with the Fish, but nevertheless where yesterday’s lesson ended.

power and authority in a chinese high school

Last night I heard a fifteen year old girl ask the rhetorical question, “Why are some suited to be a leader and others aren’t?” She had been comparing a teacher and a vice principal, both from her school. Apparently, the teacher had treated her badly and the vice principal had treated her well. Her disparaging remark neatly summarized a common understanding of power — people who treat others well deserve to be leaders. Implicit, of course, was the assumption that those who don’t treat others well don’t deserve to be leaders.

The question vexed me. On the one hand, she was correct to note the difference between authority and power as styles of leadership. The vice principal had helped her, which confirmed the legitimacy or the authority of his position. In contrast, the teacher had coerced her to do something she didn’t want to do. Coercion falls pretty unambiguously into the deployment of power category. On the other hand, these were not isolated events. They took place within a fraught social network in which the reason she had sought out her teacher and the vice principal came into play. At this level, both the teacher’s and the vice principal’s actions make sense. Continue reading

educational experimentation in shenzhen

For many years, I have noted the extent to which education has been closed off from the forms of social experimentation that characterize other aspects of Shenzhen society. Shenzhen was first to reform the danwei system, housing allocation, and even hukou laws. However, education has rigidly conformed to national standards — curriculum, methods, and goals, all have reflected national values and goals. When there has been experimentation, it has taken the form of international education — importing extant curriculums, such as the A-levels or American programs, rather than re-inventing Chinese schools. Even University Town (深圳大学城), which provides graduate education and research facilities has developed within a more standard academic model.

Yesterday, the opening ceremony of Southern Institute of Technology (南方科技大学) indicated a willingness on the part of both the national and municipal governments to invest in the search for new pedagogies. Differences with traditional colleges include: (1) size: SIT will offer small scale undergraduate education. The first class has only 45 students; next year, SIT will take in a class of 150, building until a cap of 400 students per class year. (2) recruitment: SIT recruits students through individual application rather than through the gaokao. (3) evaluation and graduation requirements: SIT has hired top academics to design classes and determine what course content should be. Moreover, at the level of specialization, students will be given the opportunity to design their own major. This is significantly different from the national standard, where undergraduate programs still reflect national standards. Moreover, there is little opportunity for students to study outside their major, let alone design their own. (4) residential dorms with house parents / teachers. SIT hopes to encourage a more familial atmosphere in its dorms and to provide life counseling for students as they adapt to academic life. Indeed, to my American eyes, SIT seems more like a liberal arts college than it does a university — Harvey Mudd, rather than a tradition technological institute like Qinghua or Cal Tech.

Four years to see what happens, at which point, presumably more cities and colleges will be given the opportunity to reform Chinese higher education.

the zhongkao cometh: assessing thirty years of reform and opening

In the West, the gaokao gets the most press of any aspect of the Chinese education system. However, the zhongkao or high school entrance exam, which is administered locally may be even more life altering than the gaokao because although high school is non-compulsory in China, it is absolutely necessary preparation for the gaokao.

Indeed, one of Shenzhen’s stickier political problems is dealing with might be called zhongkao refugees: (1) neidi students who have the test scores but not the finances to attend high school and thus have to leave the city; (2) students with Shenzhen hukou who have the economic resources but not the test scores to attend high school (because there aren’t enough public schools for all Shenzhen students); and (3) students with Shenzhen hukou, middling resources, and middling grades who end up in high schools from which testing into a top college is probably not going to happen. After all, only the top four high schools in Shenzhen – Shenzhen Foreign Languages (深圳外国语学校), Shenzhen Middle School (深圳中学, Shenzhen Experimental (深圳实验学校, and Shenzhen Senior High School (深圳高级中学) – guarantee that most graduates will go to college, but even they cannot guarantee a place at Beida, Qinghua, or Fudan.

As with the gaokao, the zhongkao tests, evaluates, and ranks students’ political correctness. In fact preparing for the zhongkao is the entire content of a ninth grade education at top Shenzhen middle schools; this is the quotidian brutality of what is conventionally known as “teaching for the test (应试教育)”. To give a sense of how Shenzhen’s history is being institutionalized to serve the Party, I have translated a portion of a study guide for one of the political essay topics for Shenzhen’s 2011 zhongkao: “Reflect on Shenzhen’s thirtieth anniversary, the invincible might manifest by Reform and Opening (回眸深圳三十周年 改革开放显神威).”

Background Material:
(1) August 26, 2010, China’s first Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen will celebrate its thirtieth birthday. The epitome of thirty years of Reform and Opening, this city was once the concrete explanation of how Chinese People understood the abstract nouns of development, wealth, and progress. For an individual, thirty is the year when s/he becomes independent [in thought and deed], and thrives; for a city, thirty years is also a pivotal year. These thirty years, from Shenzhen’s issuing the first share of stock to lowering the gavel during the first land auction; from Zhuhai’s first offering of a million yuan prize for anyone who made a national contribution to science and technology to the establishment of the first Chinese-Foreign joint enterprise; from Shantou first deciding our Country’s first private property law to the first time reforming the national system of allocating housing…each time a Special Zone stepped forward, daring to pioneer and experiment, it was a deep revolution. According to statistics, these past thirty years, Shenzhen alone created over 300 “National Firsts”. Shenzhen is the lead scout of all the Special Zones.

(2) On September 6, 2010, the Celebration of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was held. Party Secretary, National Chairman, and Military Commission Chair, Hu Jintao attended and gave an import talk, emphatically affirming the successful development and construction of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. Hu Jintao affirmed that these past thirty years, by keenly reforming, daring to pioneer, daring to experiment, and daring to forge ahead and create new ideas, Shenzhen’s perseverance has created a global industrial, urban, modern construction miracle, contributing greatly to the national project of Reform and Opening. Hu Jintao expressed that we must be unwavering both in supporting Socialism with Chinese characteristics and supporting the theoretical system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, bravely reforming, bravely inventing, never becoming rigid. Hu Jintao emphasized that not only was it necessary to continue the Special Economic Zone, but also to do it better. The Central Government will continue to support the Special Economic Zone’s functions of courageous investigation and first attempt and experiment.

(3) Thirty years have passed in a flash and for independent Shenzhen it is a time of ending and new beginnings. Facing new opportunities, Shenzhen has already made strides toward becoming a wise city (智慧城市).

A science and technology wise city is a new road of development, and the first goal in this direction is becoming an “intelligent city”. Shenzhen Municipality’s “Some Opinions about how to Transition from Industrial Economic Development” clearly states that we must take advantage of the new generation of technological revolution and information property wave, fully exploit Shenzhen’s advantages, and construct an urban development wise environment.

A humanitarian wise city. Shenzhen announced that although it was important to commemorate Shenzhen’s thirtieth anniversary, it was more important to pay attention to people’s livelihoods, to secure democracy, to improve work conditions, to move forward in planning that concretely helps the people, to earnestly research and propose projects that benefit the people, in order that the laobaixing can truly enjoy the fruits of the Special Zone’s thirty years.

An ecological wise city. Shenzhen has prosed to become China’s first “low carbon city”, through enthusiastic investigation of planning construction, low carbon industries, public transportation, green architecture, and resource management, the city will be the first to implement and first to try, striving to set new standards for the entire country and province.

Prediction about this essay topic being assigned:

As a successful prototype of Reform and Opening, Shenzhen has received the critical attention of the entire country, also becoming the best exemplar of the successes of Reform and Opening. Therefore this year, the examiners may combine testing knowledge about Shenzhen’s thirty years with knowledge about Reform and Opening, and with attention to the Country’s fate. It’s possible that the type of questions will be analysis or multiple choice because an essay on the thirtieth anniversary of Reform and Opening was already assigned, so this year it is unlikely to be a major question.

The guide then continues with thirteen detailed questions and answers about the meaning of Shenzhen, Reform and Opening, and the necessity of continuing this path even though we are clearly in a different era from when Reform and Opening began. Of note is the rigidity of language use and proper interpretation. These questions leave no room for alternative explanations. Indeed, students are memorizing precise reiterations of Party history. For example, question number one:



What do Shenzhen’s past thirty years prove?

Reform and Opening is the road to becoming a strong country. It is the vital source of our Party and our Country’s developmental progress. Reform and Opening was a crucial choice determining the fate of contemporary China. It is the necessary road to develop Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and to realize the renaissance of the Chinese people. Persevering in the basic policy of Opening is correct. Reform is the force, development is the hard truth, stability overpowers everything. Taking economic construction as the center [of society] is necessary to prospering the country. It is the first realization of the superiority of the socialist system. Reform and Opening demonstrates the incomparable superiority of the socialist system. The Chinese Communist Party is the core strength of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

Other questions are more factual, such as, “What are China’s five Special Economic Zones? [Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, Xiamen, and Hainan]”, but the gist of the study guide is to remind students that memorizing the party line is a condition of getting into high school. At gaokao level, the questions and answers are more detailed, but as rigidly constructed. Indeed, the question and answer section of the study guide reproduces the political study guides on which functionary promotions are still based.

And yet.

Even high school students know that they are not learning knowledge, but rather learning to perform what is expected of them in order to get what they want: parental approval, the respect of their peers, the promise of a beautiful future. And this fundamental cynicism beats at the heart of the political essays, which, if asked in good faith would be the basis of a robust socialism.

anxious masses: Thinking about Gu Wenda´s Ink Alchemy

Yesterday at the opening for experimental ink artist Gu Wenda, I was struck by the unfolding of scale in his work. His early work could be completed by one person. There were large paintings, like Surreal Horizon (超现实地平线) or images from Lost Empires (遗失的王朝) but nevertheless the actual works themselves conformed to a human-sized world as I have come to know it. I felt myself and the art to be at the same scale. Indeed, often I was larger than the pieces and some, like the Red Heart Series (红心系列) of seals on small, abstract ink paintings, I could hold in my hand. However the later work, such as the Ink Alchemy Series (水墨炼金术系列 – above image) was large scale industrial. As such, these pieces could not be completed by any one person or even by a group of people working with their hands. Instead, the artist became both an industrial designer and an organizer of human labor and machines over time.

Made entirely of died braids of human hair, Gu Wenda’s most recent installation Black Gold (黑金)  fills the entire OCT Art Terminal. In the middle of the cavernous room, a large rectangle of ink powder lies flat beneath a canopy of black braids. To the left and right of the canopy, evenly spaced sections of died braids hang from ceiling to floor in fine, delicate loops. The installation is deceptively simple – blocks of color shimmering neatly beneath gallery lights. However, Black Gold took three years (2008-2010) to complete and thinking about what would be necessary to complete such a project left me feeling both frightened and exhilarated. Frightened because I imaged thousands of woman, who had given several years of their lives to grow their hair, scalped to make an epic statement. Exhilarated because the level of coordinated precision needed to execute Black Gold spoke to me of how one might go about representing Chinese society – massive blocks that from a distance seem a well-organized whole, but which upon closer inspection dissolve into idiosyncratic anonymity.

Neatness or tidiness (整齐) of large groups or objects is one of the mass aesthetic values that I have had difficulty appreciating. Not that I don´t enjoy watching several thousands of people making the same motion at precisely the same time, but when I think about the level of work that is necessary to achieve such precision, I feel the same anxiety that I felt upon seeing Black Gold. Several examples of mass coordination come to mind: military marching, classrooms full of Chinese students taking tests over and over and over again to prepare for the gaokao, highways full of cars, miles of grazing pasture in the American West and wheat fields in the Mid. Massive, national bureaucracies. Each of these instances of mass coordination exemplifies the human potential to submit to external hierarchies that take sameness and repetition to be the signs of unity and belonging.

And here´s the rub: one what?

Military marching and mass test-taking provide living metonyms for the modern, industrial state. Nevertheless, these mass exercises also remind me of feudal traditions, in which being born into oneś place enabled large societies to hold their form for generations. In other words, for many to become one, for each to find her ¨place¨ takes a lifetime of practice. This taking one´s place in a larger order is natural insofar as to be human is to belong to various groups of various sizes. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this is the whole point of education – helping young people figure out how to inhabit diverse sets of coordinated relationships.

The anxiety I feel when thinking about Black Gold, specifically and mass coordination, more generally has to do with the means and goals of mass practices. Military marching, mass test-taking, driving on the highway, planting acres of wheat: each of these practices takes an abstract idea of what it means to be human and imposes it on the diversity of the world, creating conditions of idiosyncratic anonymity. Moreover, these practices aren´t particularly healthy. Armies go to war, Chinese students become test-taking machines, carbon monoxide kills as do the pesticides necessary to maintain wheat fields.

In contrast, if there is such a ¨one¨ out there, I’m Buddhist enough to believe that the point is to create conditions of mutual recognition. Creative collaboration rather than mass coordination, so to speak. I’m not sure what this means in terms of reorganizing nations or highway systems or college entrance requirements. Yet I trust the process. When I take the time to understand each of my students, something happens between us. And that state of sharing between – elusive, delicate, and quite beautiful – could transform mass culture in unexpected and wonderful ways.

Gu Wendaś Ink Alchemy retrospective is currently up at the He Xiangning Museum of Art and the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal. Worth a visit.