China’s polite society

Austin Williams on eager-to-please students fired by a passion for knowledge

June 6, 2013

Source: Jamie Jones

When I was invited two years ago to help found an architectural department in China, I didn’t have to think too hard. This is where 20 cities a year are being built (if you believe the official statistics) and where there is a palpable sense of the future being created before your very eyes. Compare former deputy prime minister John Prescott’s 1998 announcement that the UK would build 4.4 million new homes by 2016 (we won’t, by the way) with China casually completing 4 million of them between January and August last year. Add to that the fact that the Chinese government’s spending on education has increased by about 22 per cent a year for the past five years and it was a no-brainer. I booked my flight.

On arrival, I felt that I had entered a parallel universe: a modern university but with students who seemed to come straight out of the 1950s school of deference. My first lecture was loudly applauded. Students crowded around me to carry my bag. They called me “sir”. When I emailed one student to ask why she had missed my presentation, she replied: “I am sorry for missing your lecture today. I am now willing to accept my punishment.” Another emailed, without provocation: “I feel that I have not worked hard enough. I will make a greater effort and not let you down.”

This kind of thing can go to your head.

Admittedly, it didn’t take long to recognise that they applauded anyone and everyone. Soon I was carrying homework scripts out of the lecture hall unassisted. But even though the more tangible expressions of complaisance ebbed away, politeness, civility and the general framework of scholarly “duty” remained as fundamental reflections of day-to-day staff-student relations.

Much has been made of the Confucian framework of filial piety, of respect towards parents and elders, including teachers and professors. Even though this is outwardly rejected by most young, go-getting, ideology-lite Chinese students, it still tugs at their subconscious. Or rather the state insists that it does. It is a law, for example, that children support their elderly parents, otherwise the Central Party Congress says they shall be “educated through criticism and ordered to correct their mistakes”.

Whether Tomb-Cleaning Day is being celebrated as a national holiday to honour people’s ancestors, or it is Teachers’ Day, where I look forward to getting my usual presents of Hello Kitty pencil cases or undrinkable Chinese ethanol, “respect” and “duty” have been culturally institutionalised. Catholic guilt has nothing on the expectations that are placed on young Chinese students.

But this is disingenuous. Explaining the enthusiasm of teenagers through Confucianism, Maoism or any other alleged cultural brainwashing does them a disservice because it is their genuine respect for knowledge that is refreshingly different from Western students’ more casual attitude to university.

Respect, in this instance, simply means having regard for those who know more than them. In the West, putting intellectual pressure on students can be dubbed “bullying”; here in China, they expect you to expect the best of them. In fact, most of my students are highly competitive, keen to demonstrate their aptitude for learning as well as their attitude to learning. It is a thirst for finding things out that is reflective of and responsive to the social dynamism in which they find themselves.

Indeed, there is a refreshing innocence in China that has been corroded in the West. Mindful of the West’s sinister prism of “inappropriate relationships”, it was with some trepidation that I noticed that one young female student seemed to be sitting in the front row and giving me too much adoring attention. It all came to a head when she approached me and asked to see me in private.

“I’d prefer you to speak to me here, in class,” I said, hoping to defuse the situation but blushing with embarrassed pride at my obvious global attractiveness.

“Well,” she said, “I respect you very much…this is awkward…would you mind…if I call you ‘Grandpa’?”

In the end, it is the willingness of my students to get on, to understand the world (not just their part of it) and to be critical and creative that is rewarding. As a result, there is also a refreshing pressure on me to perform. Besides, when all students are armed with mobile phone cameras - like a phalanx of Chinese tourists snapping away at my blackboard calculations - there is no way that I can blame them for copying things down incorrectly.

All too often, the educational ambitions of Chinese students are voiced in terms of “building a better China”, which is often thought to be the same instrumental approach to education that we find in the West. Actually, it is simply that they feel they have a responsibility to do well. It is not far-fetched to say that they want to make the world a better place. To my delight, their fearless approach to learning something new, respect for knowledge and desire for improvement have been extraordinarily reinvigorating, inspiring and immensely pleasurable.

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Reader's comments (2)

Thanks Austin - a VERY accurate description of working in China
Very polite students, very excited. When I was in China I asked if they had a non-attendence problem in classes. They said no, the staff would normally just knock on the student campus accomodation to check if the student was alright!

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