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East Asia Child Science Exchange Program: "Tears of Little Emperors" through Chinese Eyes

Japanese
"Tears of Little Emperors":
This was a documentary TV program broadcast on January 6, 2008, as the ninth episode of NHK's Series "China in a Torrent." The program illustrates China's fever-pitch education boom where parents pressure and unrelentingly spur on their only child to learn, a behavior which parents consider to be a "loving smack." Now children are beginning to speak up and are making known their worries and sufferings.

One-Child Policy and China

It has been nearly 30 years since China's one-child policy came into effect in the late 1970's. This policy has attained some success in restraining the nation's population growth, but at the same time, it has drastically changed the environment for the child, who is the sole recipient of all the parents' expectations, and caused numerous problems within Chinese society. The society at large has now become quite concerned about the nature and extent of these difficulties.

A documentary TV program "Tears of Little Emperors" made by NHK clearly illustrates what is going on in China and predicts what the eventual outcome will be. This also brought back memories of my own child-rearing experiences. Today, I would like to talk, from several interdisciplinary viewpoints, about the impressions I gained from watching this documentary.

The Educator's point of view

In my opinion as a specialist in education, I think that not only I, but also people who study education, psychology, and medical science would regard these problems as quite inhumane. They would insist that this current behavior among parents will arrest the development of their children and that every child should spend a happy childhood.

Childhood passes too quickly. It is very important for us to help children develop by experiencing and learning many things through play, which will lead to a healthy formation of character. I think educators and psychologists would probably take a negative view of the current condition in China from the perspective of child development.

The problems reported in the "Tears of Little Emperors" can be seen in all parts of China. I have previously discussed this matter with some professionals, who proposed that this situation may be different between cities and provinces. I replied, however, that I witnessed the problem everywhere in China.

Since the implementation of the reform and door-opening policies about 20 years ago, we are paying much more attention to these problems, making efforts to change the situation by implementing a more child-orientated education system. We have already introduced several reforms, especially focusing on the area of early childhood education.

In the TV documentary, the Chinese government officials commented "We should change the current situation and reduce this burden imposed on children." However, I predict that it is hard to solve these problems under the existing circumstances in China.

Differences between Eastern and Western cultures

Now let us look at this issue from a different angle, from the standpoint of ecologists or anthropologists who conduct macro-level research. I would like to explain why such conditions have developed, by comparing the concept of values within education in Eastern and Western cultures.

Educational issues can also be considered as issues of values. Western culture emphasizes the importance of individualism and values democracy and liberty more than anything else, whereas China values group togetherness. The Confucian ethic still deeply influences Chinese people. A hierarchical system based on morality is the most important in Chinese culture. The class-consciousness as well as the hierarchical system is ingrained deeply in Chinese people's mind.

Owing to efforts over the past several years, various changes have occurred in Chinese society. For example, the relationship between the upper and lower classes used to be a one-sided relationship with the upper class taking the initiative, but now there is a movement towards relationships involving both sides. Nonetheless, although we see some social transformations, most of our culture still remains unchanged.

This Chinese concept of values also penetrates deeply into Chinese families. Peace within the family is retained by the authority of a family protector (parent), not by the self-initiative of a child. In China, we call it "loyalty" when subordinates follow their boss, and "filial devotion" when children obey their parents. Chinese society is indeed maintained by such loyalty and filial devotion.

Western culture respects individualism and advocates liberty of individuals, rights of individuals, equality of opportunity, freedom of choice and voluntary moral formation, while Chinese culture does perfectly the opposite: it respects group togetherness and emphasizes heavily the value of honor to one's family and status in society.

, the basis for the concept of values of Chinese people

If Chinese parents are asked to choose one single character to express what they regard the most important thing for education, they would choose " (guai)." This character represents the meaning of "obey," "submit," "be obedient to one's parents," and "listen carefully to one's superiors." Therefore, this value has a significant influence on Chinese people's opinions and behaviors.

Even a person who openly embraces Western culture demands from his/her child at all times. In my case, for example, although I have accepted various Western values, I always insist on my child abiding by , that is, to be obedient to one's parents.

Currently, the Chinese government is promoting educational reform. They emphasize fostering autonomy of the individual in their reform of early childhood education as well as the reform of elementary and junior high school education. However, it is revealed that these measures do not work well: the reason is that the "autonomy of the individual" contradicts the most fundamental concept of traditional Chinese culture.

When I attended the conference hosted by the Japanese Society of Child Science, I got very interested in one lecture. The lecturer showed some pictures and explained his experience in Germany:

A child collected toys. A parent asked "where did you get this toy from?" and the child replied "I bought it from my friend." The parent reprimanded the child "Why on earth did you buy the toy from your friend?" and the child replied "It's my business, none of your business."

Such conversation might be nothing special in Germany, but if it happened in China, the child would definitely be considered undisciplined and uneducated.

Thus, we should keep in mind the underlying culture while addressing the educational issues. Since education is a part of our culture, adopting a cultural approach is the only way to solve educational problems. Therefore, it is impossible for us to accept everything of western culture and to change every system to a western style. If we take this route, we will come up against a wall sooner or later.

Needless to say, culture in itself is not so simple: it intermingles with other aspects of living, all of which are changing continuously. In fact, there are various changes occurring in the very traditional class-conscious Chinese culture, as well as in the autonomy-oriented Western culture. I believe that we can learn from each other, but we will never become completely the same.

Here is a very interesting illustration in relation to the point I have been making. It says "A fish is the last creature to be told of the presence of water." We are living in our culture, but it is easy to forget about its presence.

The politician's and parent's points of view

Now, I would like to change the angle of view, to the standpoint of politicians. I have a large circle of acquaintances among professional educators and researchers and I often hear from them this familiar comment, "We've been conducting lots of studies on educational issues, but politicians never listen to our opinions. They just carry on educational reforms along with their political objectives." Then, I would tell them it is natural. For politicians, the most important thing is to increase the social stability and the competitiveness within the nation.

For example, the U.S. government laid out the national policy to reinforce competence in reading, writing and calculating in the early stages of childhood. What for? If children can achieve these skills in their early stages of education backed up by such a policy, no students should be left behind in primary schools: even children from poor families will be able to keep up with lessons and receive almost the same level of education as those children from the middle classes. In this way, politicians thought out this policy in order to weaken backlash movements within the society.

That is to say, politicians are working on the educational issues from their standpoint that they should resolve conflicts in the society and maintain social stability. They never put themselves in the place of an individual child.

Then what would be the situation if we stand in the position of parents? We have watched the "Tears of Little Emperors" and heard the parents' feelings. It is natural for parents to wish that their child would not have such difficulties and pressures from a very young age: however, at the same time, they do not want their child to be late in lining up at the starting line and miss the chance of becoming second to none in the race of life.

Looking for happiness of the little emperors

Thus far, I explained my analysis on the "Tears of Little Emperors" from four different angles. Actually, I have received an email asking if I would consider this issue from the standpoint of the little emperors. Then why have I not mentioned my opinion from a little emperor's standpoint? The answer is because I do not know their side. Of course, I can ask children and they will probably answer like this: "It's very hard. I don't want to cry anymore, I want to play." In this way, I can get to know their current feelings, but how about the future? It is very difficult to guess how they would come to think of their current situation in the future.

If they play as much as they want now, they will complain to their parents when they are adults: "Why didn't you make me study harder when I was a child? I have ended up with a low status as well as no money. I have no choices in my life."

I have not conducted any specific research on this topic; however, I came to think this way by witnessing some contrasting cases as follows.

One case is of researchers, like me, in education and psychology, who often adopt the Western style of education for their children. However, children brought up in this manner are the most likely to fail later in the competitions of the society.

The other case is of researchers who loudly and publicly criticize the current education system in China for being no good, claiming freedom for children; yet at home, they rigorously push their children to study hard, taking the completely opposite attitude towards their children. In fact, most of their children proved to become successful adults.

Today, I have discussed the China's current educational issue from five perspectives, and I believe there will also be the sixth and seventh views. By viewing the situation from different angles, we may find different types of arguable debate. Therefore, I would be grateful if my speech eventually encourages further discussions among all of you on this subject. Thank you very much for your attention.

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