Many think of childhood as a carefree, happy stage of life, free of the responsibilities that come with the burdens of adulthood. This is not necessarily the case in China!
Here childhood brings with it a huge amount of pressure to succeed, and school children face some of the toughest years of their life as they struggle to manage schoolwork and homework and compete to be one of the lucky few who get through examination hell.
A number of factors contribute to this pressure.
First is the rate of development in China, which is phenomenal. GDP growth stands at over 11% and the cities of the eastern seaboard are changing visibly every year. With this development comes huge opportunities and there is a real sense of dynamism and growth throughout the country. People want to succeed and they want their country to succeed. The entrepreneurs and professionals who have made it enjoy a high profile in China and people everywhere aspire to their success and yearn to enjoy their standard of living.
It is not only the children who feel this incredible drive to ‘make it’ and become rich. Under the one child policy many children in urban cities in China are still the only child in the family and therefore carry the hopes and expectations of two parents - and two sets of grandparents - on their shoulders. That is to say, one child may shoulder all the aspirations and dreams of a full six adults in a family. Feelings of duty and responsibility to one’s family are still strong in Chinese society.
The rewards of making it in China are certainly huge, but the competition is also fierce in a country with a population of 1.2 billion that has only recently opened its doors to world trade. China is trying hard to build capacity to match its startling rate of growth, but still there is a chronic shortage of university places. Last year 10.1 million school leavers sat the entrance exam - for only 5.7 million university places.
10.1 million school leavers chased 5.7 million university places
It is this entrance exam – the dreaded Gao kao - that shapes the childhood of many young Chinese people today. To prepare for this exam, school children across the country dedicate many of their waking hours to studying. They face regular preparatory tests at school, and their scores are carefully charted so that they and their parents and teachers know exactly when there is a dip. Parents and grandparents – the six adults – will provide encouragement and make huge sacrifices to provide additional opportunities for the child’s success.
In the media there are reported cases of school bags causing injury to the growing bodies of their small owners and of limits being imposed on the weight of school bags children are allowed to carry. There are also complaints that children no longer have hobbies as they spend the majority of their time studying or worrying about their performance at school.
Is it all worth it? Yes, say those that do succeed, and yes say those that marvel at China’s meteoric rise, but not all are so sure. The pace is fast, but, maybe, this is the pace of the future that others around the world are going to have to keep up with to stay in the race.