Some families drop out of China’s education rat race

Jennifer Pak Jul 8, 2024
Heard on:
Eight-year-old A Wu plays during lunchtime in Sizhai village. He had struggled at a big-city school, so his family relocated. Jennifer Pak/Marketplace

Some families drop out of China’s education rat race

Jennifer Pak Jul 8, 2024
Heard on:
Eight-year-old A Wu plays during lunchtime in Sizhai village. He had struggled at a big-city school, so his family relocated. Jennifer Pak/Marketplace

At this time last year, 8-year-old A Wu was in Wuhan City, central China. He seemed happy practicing English.

“I enjoy speaking English. I want to communicate with the world. I want to change my life,” Wu recited in a home video.

Changing a young person’s life in China usually means getting into the right school, and he was already attending a good one. However, he was struggling on a day-to-day basis, according to his mother, Xu Zhizhi.

“He’d wake up and cry, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go to school.’ That was when he was in grade one,” Zhizhi said. “I thought maybe the environment was not good for my son.”

In a country of 1.4 billion people with limited resources, competition begins early. Parents like Zhizhi save up to buy property in the right district so their children can qualify for good schools. They get the right tutors to get the children the right grades, to get into the right university, which hopefully leads to better jobs.

International schools are one way to avoid the grueling Chinese curriculum, but only a few hundred thousand families can afford the pricey tuition. Thousands more families try to opt out of the rat race through so-called innovative schools that are less intensive.

In Shanghai, ex-coder Liu Qing was also worried about her twin girls. The third-graders had so much homework, they didn’t usually finish until 9 p.m. One time they were up until 1 a.m.

“That day there was a quiz, and if you got one character wrong in a poem, you had to write out the whole thing three times,” Qing said. “One of my daughters made a mistake on every poem that semester. She had a lot to write.”

Liu Qing's twin girls at their new school. Now they don't always have homework and can leave their backpacks at school sometimes. (Courtesy Liu Qing)
Liu Qing’s twin girls at their new school. Their mom says they now have lower-stress, well-rounded lives. (Courtesy Liu Qing)

She said her daughters were already quite nervous from lack of sleep. She worried they could slip into depression. According to the 2023 blue book of China’s mental health, 10% of elementary school students who researchers spoke to suffered from depression, compared to 30% of students in junior high and 40% in high school.

Moms Qing and Zhizhi, who were 500 miles apart and did not know each other initially, started looking for less intense schools around the same time last spring. International schools were not an option for them.

“International schools in Shanghai are too expensive because I have twins. One year would cost us 200,000 yuan [$27,500] to 300,000 yuan [$41,300] for the children,” Qing said, adding that only her husband was currently working.

The front gate of Simin elementary. It is one of the few rural schools looking to increase enrollment by welcoming non-residents. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)
The front gate of Simin Elementary. It is one of few rural schools seeking to boost enrollment by welcoming nonresidents. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

Then, she saw a documentary about Simin Elementary in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. The school, surrounded by lush, green mountains, has been around since 1905. In the film, one class was looking at a wild plant mentioned in a traditional poem. A Chinese bamboo flute played underneath scenes of misty mountains.

Simin Elementary, like many rural schools, is losing students as families move to the cities. To avoid shutting down, it is now welcoming nonresidents to enroll.

Two days after watching the documentary, Qing went to visit the school.

Liu's family adopted a dog named Bank in Sizhai village. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)
Liu Qing’s family adopted a dog named Bank in Sizhai village. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

“I liked that the principal said academic scores are not the most important thing — physical and mental health are,” she said.

Weeks later, she uprooted her family from the megacity of Shanghai to the quiet village of Sizhai and enrolled her twins in fourth grade at Simin Elementary.

Zhizhi saw the same documentary and relocated her family from Wuhan. Her husband also had to sacrifice his city job to find one closer to Sizhai village. The move was not entirely smooth.

“It was hard to find a suitable place to live. Most of the houses are old and not well-decorated. We had to rent an old house and spent three months renovating it ourselves,” Zhizhi said.

The decision to move from the big city to the countryside was radical because years earlier, she did whatever it took to leave her home village in Hubei province.

“Back then, the countryside was horrible,” Zhizhi said, adding that she followed her mother to Wuhan to take a coveted factory job when she was 16 years old. Her mom, who was not earning much growing rice, soybeans and rapeseed in the countryside, saw factory work as a stable job with good pay.

Xu Zhizhi speaking to Pak about her bold move to return to the countryside. Xu spent much of her youth doing whatever it took to leave her home village. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Xu Zhizhi, left, tells Jennifer Pak about her risky decision to return to the countryside. Xu spent much of her youth working to leave her home village. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

“But I hated factory work,” Zhizhi said. Instead, she dreamed of a white-collar job. When she finished a grueling factory shift in the Wuhan suburbs, she would take a bus downtown to learn English.

“I asked my classmate to pinch my thigh if I fell asleep,” Zhizhi said. “It was not easy.”

Eventually, her hard work paid off, and she landed an office job at IBM in Shenzhen before becoming a full-time mom and yoga instructor. Now, she has a different dream for her son and daughter: to be happy.

Liu Qing in front of Simin elementary. She uprooted her family to give her twins a less stressful education. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Liu Qing in front of Simin Elementary. She uprooted her family to give her twins a less stressful education. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

“At my son’s old school in the city, he rarely played outside. Here in the village, he can run about in the mountains. This is in keeping with children’s nature. Teachers can keep an eye on the whole class because there are only 13 students versus 50 in Wuhan,” Zhizhi said. 

A recent video of a sixth-grader went viral on Chinese microblogging site Weibo after he complained that his urban school rarely gave him enough time to go to the washroom between classes. He also said he was often forbidden from leaving the floor where his classes were held and had little outdoor activity. Some parents commented that their children’s schools had similar conditions.

In contrast, Zhizhi said, while her son’s lessons in the countryside included the core subjects of Chinese and math, his other lessons incorporated a more hands-on approach.

“They make sweet green rice balls when they learn about it. They pick tea leaves when they learn about tea,” Zhizhi said.

Over at Qing’s house, she has adopted a dog and cat because her daughters’ allergies seem to have gone away in the countryside. The twin girls have an active life away from computer screens because they don’t always have homework at Simin Elementary.

“After school yesterday, [my daughters had] a one-hour ukulele class. They went bike riding and skateboarding for another hour, then had a class learning how animals crawl. They read a Chinese classic till 8 p.m., then it was bedtime,” Qing said.

Her husband seems to be on the fence about their move.

View of mountains in Sizhai village. Neighbors air dry bamboo shoots plucked from the mountains. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)
Sizhai village is nestled in the Chinese countryside. The sun shines on bamboo shoots that residents picked in the hills nearby. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

“My husband is a bit anxious. Studying hard is what got him out of his village. His company only hires people from top Chinese universities, so he believes a college degree is important,” Qing said. “Other times, he flips and thinks children shouldn’t be subjected to such strict treatment at school.”

Qing added that in regard to academics, she is ensuring her daughters do not fall far behind their peers in Shanghai should they decide to return.

The widespread anxiety about education is compounded by persistent high youth unemployment. It was 14% in May. Another 11.8 million graduates are expected to enter the workforce this year. However, ex-IBM worker Zhizhi is not worried.

“If you really have a talent, a skill, you can get a job in China. I don’t want my children to go down the path that most people are following. It is too tiring. Plus, my children cannot win this rat race,” Zhizhi said. “So, we’re choosing an easier path.”

Her son, Wu, seems carefree again. “My new school is better,” Wu said. “I study a lot, but I also play a lot.” 

But once he graduates from Simin Elementary, the family will have to leave the village to hunt for a junior high school.

Additional research by Charles Zhang.

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