Education In China: The Misuse of Confucian Values Srijani Shreya

China’s current education system has been the target of several western critics since the beginning of the 21st century. It is highly controversial due its level of difficulty and its effect on the students who go spend their lives struggling under it. However, China’s upcoming generation is not the only group of people of being affected. China’s international education programs are also influencing western education systems as well. China’s education system, although relatively new, has been influenced by the nation’s history of philosophers. The legacy of Confucius and his philosophy, although having a positive influence on the system, has been misused continuously for the benefit of China's government and economy.

Yuan Qi in his bedroom at his parents’ apartment in Beijing.

A major principle in Confucianism is self-cultivation. Throughout his life, Confucius preached the importance of educating oneself both academically and ethically in order to become a junzi. A junzi is one who embodies all of the virtues and displays ren, which is the virtue of being benevolent and li, which is a range of activities and attitudes that promote peace and structure within a society. An ideal Confucian displays filial piety which is an attitude of obedience and respect toward one’s parents and elder family members. Because a great amount of the Chinese population follow Confucian beliefs, it is clearly reflected in the Chinese education system. For example, in an article from The Sixth Tone, University in Xiamen Pays Students to Visit Their Parents by Li You, it is stated that the Xiamen University of Technology (XUT) is promoting close relationship between students and their families. The university has made it mandatory for them to visit their parents over the new year break because they do not want the students to stress over getting a job and forgetting about their families in the process. The article states:

“The event is part of XUT’s “family ties education,” and the school has put visiting parents over the new year break on its holiday homework list for students. According to Xiamen Daily, the university was worried that many students would devote themselves to job-hunting during the holidays and neglect their families”(You, 1).

The policy set up by the Xiamen University of Technology (XUT) promotes filial piety. Confucius believed in ancestor worship and believed that the ideal Confucian (Junzi) is established in all virtues and respects his family. In addition, young people of the modern generation are busy searching for academic and career opportunities. As a result of this, Chinese families are growing apart in regards to distance. Thus, the elderly of China are being neglected by the young which is making business harder for the health care facilities to keep up with. To resolve this issue, policies have been put out from the Chinese government that urge the younger generation to take care of the elderly. These policies are evident when the article states:

“With young people flocking to urban centers to look for better work and study opportunities, many Chinese families now live relatively far apart, giving rise to the phenomenon of ‘left-behind elderly,’ who grow old without assistance from their children… To tackle the crisis, the government has released a series of policies aimed at taking care of seniors and encouraging the younger generation to fulfill the Confucian tenet of filial piety” (You, 1).

The government is assisting the younger generation fulfill their goal of being morally established and become a junzi. Thus, it is clear that the legacy of Confucianism is affecting the curriculum and policies in Chinese universities even today.

Parents wait for their children to finish taking the gaokao, outside the Beijing Renmin University Affiliated High School, one of the most prestigious in the country.

Although the legacy of Confucius has left positive side effects on China’s education systems and programs, it has also left negative one unintentionally. Confucius Institute is a non-profit public educational organization affiliated with the Chinese government. The program promotes Chinese language and culture. Although this organization is following Confucius’ belief in respecting one’s culture and education, they are also using his name as an excuse for their own benefit. For example, the Chinese government is trying to spread Communist propaganda in western universities through the Confucius Institutes. It is easier for the Chinese government to do this because unlike the western institutes, the Confucius Institutes are funded by the Chinese government. Although the government says that the sole purpose is to promote Chinese language and culture, it is speculated that Confucius Institutes are actually trying to promote Communism and oppress those who think differently from the usual Communist opinions. The article In the Name of Confucius: How China Is Invading Western Universities with Communist Propaganda by Benedict Rogers, it is suggested that the Chinese government is going against Confucius belief rather than promoting it. The article states:

“Moreover, while the western equivalents, to varying degrees, exist to promote democratic values, concepts of an open society, critical thinking, the rule of law and to strengthen the capacity of civil society, Confucius Institutes are the antithesis, working to spread the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda and silence any dissenting voices… The UK ranks first among European countries in welcoming this Chinese influence - a point celebrated in China’s state media as marking a ‘Confucius revolution’. Except it is not a ‘Confucius’ revolution, but the exporting of the values of a brutal, corrupt, cruel dictatorship. ‘An oppressive government,’ said Confucius, ‘is to be feared more than a tiger’”(Rogers, 1).

Although Confucius expressed a belief in a well structured government, the Chinese government is misusing that belief and instilling an oppressive government instead. In addition, they are doing this "in the name of Confucius" which serves as an excuse for their doings. However, they are doing exactly the opposite of what Confucius believed in. He, himself stated "an oppressive government is to be feared more than a tiger". Evidently, the Chinese educational programs and systems are not only affecting the Chinese students but also institutions in the west.

Carole Lu, pictured with her daughter Georgia, is worried about the secrecy surrounding the Chinese government's program of Confucius Classrooms;

While the Chinese educational programs and systems are affecting western universities, it is affecting students that are under the system even more. In China, the gaokao is an entrance that high school students take for a better education when they go to college. This exam, however, has gained much criticism due to its level of difficulty. Often times, it puts a large amount of pressure for the students that study for it. Thus, many among the wealthy in China, are going to school abroad to escape this system. Unfortunately, for those who are less privileged, the exam is the only way for them to have a chance at a better life in a higher position. The article, Is China’s Gaokao the World’s Toughest School Exam? written by Alec Ash, it is stated:

“In China there are no illusions about the system being perfect. The exam is widely criticised for putting impossible pressures on children. Dissatisfaction with the gaokao is one reason that, among wealthier segments of the population, large numbers of students are choosing to study abroad. But, ultimately, most people support it, or at least see no alternative...The tradition of a single exam that decides a young person’s prospects is one that goes back to antiquity in China. The imperial examinations or keju , which tested applicants for government office, was introduced in the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220), and became the sole criterion for selection from the 7th century until its abolition in 1905. Aspiring bureaucrats sat a three-day exam locked inside a single cell, in which they also slept and ate”(Ash, 1).

Confucius has a major impact on the education system in China. Confucius believed in self-cultivation and meritocracy wherein the only most educated and well established regardless of status would have the opportunity to hold a high position in society. He believed that those educated themselves with the proper virtues, ethics, and education would hold the most power. Thus, the government put in place a civil service exam, inspired by Confucius, which would determine the most fitting candidate to be the emperors and other positions of high standards. Although the system is no longer in place, the gaokao is similar to it because only those who pass the exam, get the opportunity to become something greater than if they had not passed. Such a great amount of stress has lead the student suicide rates in China to increase by a wide margin. The article continues to justify this statement by stating:

“Suicides are a regular feature of every exam season; a 2014 study claimed that exam stress was a contributing factor in 93% of cases in which school students took their own lives. Last year, a middle school in Hebei province fenced off its upper-floor dormitory balconies with grates, after two students jumped to their deaths in the months leading up to the gaokao. And the academic stress starts early – in July a 10-year-old boy tried to kill himself in oncoming traffic after fighting with his mother about homework” (Ash, 1).

Confucius has had a negative impact on Chinese students. Because of the keju which is the earlier version of the gaokao influenced by Confucius, the exam today puts students into a tremendous amount of pressure which is why the exam is widely criticized. The suicide rate has also gone up because of this Confucian culture of higher education.

How are Chinese students going abroad to study being affected by the Chinese education system?

Due to the criticism and level of stress from the gaokao, Most Chinese families worry that there is no way out of China's current education system. Thus, they look desperately for ways to send their children abroad to escape the system and the constant pressure and burden on their shoulders. China is not the best option for a place of education because attaining success is harder without passing the gaokao and passing the gaokao is practically impossible. This is evident in the article The Parachute Generation by Brook Larmer. The article discusses a Chinese student, Korbin, who moved to the U.S. in order to escape the strict education system. The author states:

“Chance put Korbin’s family at the starting point of Oxford’s experiment, in Shenyang. His parents grew up without proper educations in rural villages haunted by the memories of famine. His father, Yang Huaiguo, migrated to Shenyang and scavenged for scrap metal before finding success in the boiler-repair business and real estate. But he worried about Korbin’s education and the almost unrelenting pressure to study for the two exams that determine a Chinese student’s future: the high-school entrance exam, the zhongkao , and the university-entrance exam, the gaokao . There seemed to be no way out, until Korbin’s school opened an international wing in partnership with Oxford. The pitch was enticing: After spending 10th grade in the program, Korbin was guaranteed a place at Oxford High School for two years, until graduation” (Larmer, 1).
Korbin Yang, left, and his roommate Oscar Kou at their host family’s house in Oxford, Mich., in 2015.

This shows how the Confucian methods of determining the fittest for holding high positions is failing and scaring people. The rates of students passing the test are very low and parents are having to send them abroad for a more well-rounded education and spend a lot of money on it. Thus, it is not only negatively impacting the students, but also the parents.

How is China's education system affecting how Chinese students think?

According to the Javier C. Hernandez’s article, Weighing the Strengths and Shortcomings of China's Education System,

“A lot of criticism inside and outside of China focuses on the gaokao, the national exam that Chinese students spend years cramming for because it is the main criterion for getting into college. Some people say it is killing creativity… A lot of people would say the gaokao is a fair system. Some reforms are needed for the one-test-score-does-all model. We need to reduce the pressure somewhat and to focus teaching on producing better-rounded children”(Hernandez, 1).

Thus, the tests are also depriving students of their creativity and ability for critical thinking. Those that go abroad to study after years of being stuck in the Chinese education system have a hard time adjusting due to the change in curriculum. Naturally, they are reserved and drained of emotion on the surface making it hard for them to fit in with the relaxed nature of western education culture. Confucian method of education has failed to live to its expectations. Rather than promoting young people to high positions in society, it is actually sending them abroad because of its level of difficulty. The terms of education that Confucian methods have promoted consist of memorization but no critical thinking. This issue in regards to the strict education system deserves attention due to the way it is affecting not only Chinese students, but also western institutions. Although Confucius' legacy has affected the nation's method of academic development quite positively, the government continues to misuse it as an excuse rather then a source of guidance to strengthen the system.


You, Li. "University in Xiamen Pays Students to Visit Their Parents." The Sixth Tone (China), February 4, 2017. Accessed February 5, 2017.

Larmer, Brook. "The Parachute Generation." The New York Times (New York City, NY), February 2, 2017, national edition, Magazine section. Accessed February 2, 2017.

Ash, Alec. "Is China’s Gaokao the World’s Toughest School Exam?" The Guardian , October 12, 2016, national edition, Education section. Accessed February 2, 2017.

Rogers, Benedict. "In the Name of Confucius: How China Is Invading Western Universities with Communist Propaganda." The Huffington Post (UK), January 11, 2017, uK edition. Accessed February 5, 2017.

Hernandez, Javier C. "Weighing the Strengths and Shortcomings of China's Education System." The New York Times (New York City, NY), August 6, 2016, national edition, Education section.

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