Chinese or International Eduction?

This is a series of articles on education in Shanghai (I tried to avoid big topics like Education in China:

Worry about Yifan’s Education and

Worry about Yifan’s Education – Part II
Is China Changeable?

Chinese or International Eduction?

University Education = Hukou in China

Schools Conducted by Gaokao

Hijacked Education by Scientists

I will continue the topic around which school should I send Yifan to today. As I always did, I am trying to share the options I have, and the dilemma I am facing to help my readers to get some ideas about the tough decisions to make for people in this city. Again, I tried not to generalize it as a question people face in this country. For example, Shanghai and my hometown Luoyang is very different.

Primary School is Not Important, If…

Although everyone won’t say primary school is not important – every stage in people’s life is important, but it is not THAT important if you have to make a lot of effort to send your child to a good primary school. I believe this is the commonly accepted concept. However, the real situation in Shanghai tends to be: primary school is NOT important, if it is not tightly linked to a higher education, say, the middle school.

In a society where the resources are so scare (think about a city with 16 million people, and limited schools to choose from), the system has been twisted into a chain of selection process. Just because to enter university is so important (and hard), to get to the right high school is important. Just because most high school put so much emphasis into where the students graduate, to choose the right junior high is important. Similarly, the junior high choose by the primary school they went to. The most ridiculous thing I heard from my friend who just went through this was, the primary school put which kindergarten the kid went to as a factor of selection process.

How this happens?!

We can easily dig into details about how this happens. If you were a HR manager of a company, say Google, and there are 100 candidates seeking for the same job. By the first round of selection, will you consider their educational background and working experience before you call him/her for an interview? A Harvard or Stanford degree obviously give you some advantages.

The ridiculous thing is, everyone understand the selection process for a company, but for kids, it is completely not acceptable. Even the United Nation Human Rights Declaration passed in 1948 confirmed that all children need to be given equal opportunities for education, before they enter a selection process. That means, the selection I described is actually against the human right declaration.

The problem is even further beyond that. The current system in Shanghai actually at the surface level, follows with the spirit – students are equally allocated to the school near them, and there is no such a difference. However, the faculty resources, and budget resources are far less evenly distributed. As long as there are clearly identified good schools, or bad schools, parents mobilize to get to the better school district by buying houses.

So the key is, although it seems to be fair, as long as the schools are not created equal, and more importantly, as long as the university education is so scare a resource, the problem is very hard to fix.

The Hard Choice

Before Yifan was 1.5 years old, Wendy and I have decided to send him to the school within walking distance from where we live. However, when we realized that if you mis-step in this chain once, you may lose the opportunity for the kid in the future. It is not as easy a decision to make as we thought. Let me repeat, the choice is no longer a primary school choice, it is the education style much further than that. The chance to get to a better middle school for Yifan is much lower than the selected good primary school, based on the information I collected so far.

This is a tough decision to make.

One Kid, Two Systems

Another tough decision to make is, which path I want Yifan to go – Chinese educational system or the international one. Again, the two path is not compatible with each other.

It is very sure that a kid from international school cannot (at least it is very hard to) get back to the Chinese educational system. You are smarter than others, and you know how to sing and dance, and are extremely well developed, but you cannot pass the exam! Especially many exams are very weird if you are not educated in that system. Politics in Chinese educational system is something interesting. What you need to remember is what the propaganda that you know is far from truth.

It is also not easy for a kid from Chinese educational system to get to international system. Well. This is relatively easier than the other way, since many people (both at university, graduate school, or high school level) have proved it. I guess that a student from Chinese system will find it a paradise in an international school after the initial culture shock.

In Shanghai, there are many international schools (English school, American Schools, and schools from all nations, and some plainly called International schools with students from everywhere). It seems to me a very attractive choice. The serious fact to consider is, if you choose this path, you kid will need to say good bye to Chinese universities – it is not an option any more, since it is for sure that the graduates cannot pass the college entrance exam.

Primary School Education is the Foundation for Cultural Identity

Another even bigger question in my mind that I am trying to seek an answer is, culturely speaking, whether you want Yifan to be a Chinese, or, English speaking “foreigners”.

I am not kidding. I read a lot about the culture differences (as you can imagine, a topic I have devoted myself in the last 7 years), and my conclusion is, it is the primary school which determines one’s cultural identity. If the kid went to primary school in US, he is culturally an American. I said I preserved a Chinese identity myself (Why I Don’t Have an English Name), and if you ask me, I would prefer the same for Yifan. I surely understand the confusion, internal struggle of a mixed-blood (culturally).

Then the question will be, although I know it makes better sense to send Yifan to an international school if I just want him to be happy, it proposes a question in the future – Yifan will feel more at home when he sees western drama, than watching Beijing Opera.

I Haven’t Decided Yet

I still have about one year to consider, and I don’t have an answer yet. It is not an easy decision to make.

P.S. My readers asked me in the previous article about what happens if the parents are not Shanghai resident. They can send their children to a school until middle school. They have to get back to where they original live for the exam, which is much harder than Shanghai. I am happy that even today, the policy is much better, because, as I stated in the story in this article: Hukou System in China, I never receive kindergarten education myself, since no kindergarten accepted me just because I didn’t have a city Hukou. See. That is the reason on one side, I am struggling to make this country better, and at the same time, I am optimistic about China’s future.

20 thoughts on “Chinese or International Eduction?

  1. good man

    Thank you for sharing your insights. Wow, I did not realize that primary school has such profound impact on a child’s long term education! It is a harder decision than I thought as well. So if you enroll Yifan at a international primary school, he won’t be able to be accepted into a good Chinese middle school, hence, a Chinese university? I did not know that.

    Realizing how big of decision this is, I am almost afraid to offer any advice or view:

    I would prefer an international school personally, because I believe that fostering a child’s well-roundedness including imagination, passion and academic/technical competency, is very important for his long-term success.

    If you could enroll him in an international or a Chinese private primary and secondary school that sit between the two education models that would offer Yifan an opportunity to be able to attend an university in China or aboard in the future. That would be ideal. But in reality, I guess that you can’t have both ways.

    What a decision to make…, Good luck!

  2. 也许知道


  3. solopolo

    have you ever thought about if you didn’t go through what you went through, you wouldn’t have achieved what you have achieved so far? all i am saying is, be honest with yourself, are you prepared to sacrifice yourself for the well being and future of your son? obviously, you are a worldly person, you don’t need anyone else to tell you what’s best for your son, the hard part then is to do the right thing! btw, you work and live in shanghai, supposedly the cosmopolitan center of all China, so don’t say that you worry about yf having problems with cultural identity.

  4. elliottng

    When presented with two forced choices, I’m always interested in a third one. What did you think about the Foreign Language institute idea (from the James Fallows post I linked to) or is that just specific to Beijing? I assume that this option would only come into play at Middle School or High School but it may affect the primary school decision as well.

    BTW, in San Francisco we had the same experience. There are 4-5 preschools that are very hard to get into. For one of them, we got rejected for our request to even bring our kid in for a tour of the school! Actually, I know 2 of the Board members and could use those connections to get a tour of the school and even likely get into the school. But I didn’t like the idea of “having to play the game” with the elite urban private school scene (and yes, I hate the term elite too) and I didn’t like the poor quality public schools in SF (where there are some good public schools but it is extremely unpredictable if you can get your kid in a good one or a bad one). We ended up moving to an affluent suburb of Silicon Valley where the public schools are very good, and on day 1 after having a valid local address, you can register your kid in the neighborhood school.

    My vote is to send Yifan to a local school. If that requires moving to the “right” area then that means big expenses for the parents. It is still worth considering. If you go to the local school near your current residence, maybe a group of parents can sponsor some interesting afterschool enrichment programs. With all the money you are saving by not moving, there is plenty to fund some great enrichment programs!

    I suspect it is still easier to move from a local school to an international school, rather than the other way around.

    I’m sure you have plenty of friends going through similar decisions. I’d love to intro you to my friend Jingbo who is involved in a Shanghai Family Education magazine.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your difficult decisions with your readers. It is a wonderful picture into Chinese society.

  5. Balon

    What you talked today impressed me very much , the youngers will face the same situation in future when they have babies. Which way is better,It is not an easy decision to make.

    What’s more, they will at last have their own ways tomorrow.

  6. xge


    The problem with local schools is not that they do not have enough “enrichment programs”. It is that they tend to have too much semi-mandatory “enrichment programs” that your child will have no time and energy left to do anything else.

  7. JiaJia Sunshine


    if a chinese kid (i mean *kid*) receives american eduacation, how can s/he fit himself/herself again into the chinese environment?

    you have to take this into your consideration

  8. ddjiii

    Jianshuo –

    Two questions:

    – It seems the crucial issue is one of scarcity. You already mentioned in a previous post that the situation is actually worse now than when you took the gaokao – and that’s certainly true if you look only at the top universities. But the education authorities have been building new universities as fast as they can; the overall supply is certainly growing. If you look at the total demand/supply balance, I’m not sure that the situation is worse.

    – Have you considered that the situation may be much different by the time Yifan is ready to go to university? There may be more, better Chinese schools. It may be easier to move between the Chinese and international systems. There may be no more gaokao. If you make a huge sacrifice now for a payoff later, there is some risk.

    It’s a tough situation. Overall, I think a person who is smart and has good character will do well, regardless of other circumstances. For every Chinese (and non-Chinese) person who is successful now “as a result” of going to a good university, you can find one who is successful despite having not gone to a good university.

    Good luck!

  9. stephen

    JS, does International School in Shanghai offers IB program (International Baccalaureate)?

  10. stephen

    JS, you want your child in the future to have international scope and yet retain his Chinese content? then International Baccalaureate may be the best solution.

    In Shanghai there are 14 schools offering such programme and half of them are public schools. The curriculum content is parallel with the local school board and is divided into three levels and six groups, the programme is designed for the student to obtain university entrance qualification, in countries throughout the world, including top universities of the world without further examination.

    Having said that, the programme is still new to China and each school enrolled only handful students with the programme.

    For further information, visit the wed site of International Baccalaureate in Switzerland.

  11. kimmor

    I just discovered your blog and have been reading with deep interest. I am facing these same decisions. My daughter is just about to finish her first year in Chinese primary school. Having one Chinese and one American parent means that there are tough decisions to be made. I felt pretty strongly that if she began in the American system, she could never return to the Chinese system successfully, but the reverse would not be too difficult. I don’t ever want her to face the pressure of gao kao and study hours that usurp her entire existence. I do however want her to be fully literate in Chinese. Based on acquaintances, it has been my observation that no matter how strong an international school’s Chinese program may be, the students still don’t have the same level of mastery as a Chinese who attended Chinese school.

    I often find myself feeling guilty knowing that she would never have more than ten or twenty minutes of homework a night in an American first grade class, yet often has more than an hour’s worth this year.

    I like to think that I can provide enough home activities to stimulate her creativity and higher order thinking skills, but I do wonder for how long this will be true.

  12. Manoj

    Hi jian

    To be honest . If i look at most of the top american universities . Most of them have students in graduate program who are from Chinese universities Korean Universities and Indian universiites .Most of them at least Chinese and Indian go through the same problems that you mentioned . It is much worse in India (Where median age is 24 or close to 600 milllion people are under age of 24 so higher competition among kids).

    Also Chinese gaokao applicants are coming down slowly and are estimated to fall down a lot which is accepted by many statisticians and demographics profilers .

    Not just that these so called internatinoal schools in China and to some degree India and other places are nothing but a big scam to suck lot of money and this whole thing about being well rounded is more or less a big hype .Most derivative product makers on wall street banks are top level of physics and mathematics guys .Most guys everywhere in every field. So the never ending talk about well rounded education in international schools is mere farce .

    Also the big problem with students in China is not homeworks given in schools but the special classes for olympiads that students take up due to fear of competition .Which is something you can neglect and you will realise that most students without these special classes have a rather comfortable life.

    I think you should simply send yifan to a school that is nearby around 1 to 2 kms from your house. Without putting him in all these olympiad classes. Incase when he is 18 and he can’t handle gaokao then just simply ask him to write SAT’s and go abroad for his undergraduate studies. Incase he can’t tolerate gaokao pressure .Many students are doing it.

    Trying to send him to an international school would be a wrong move as most of the pictures of students playing with stuffed animals might look good on surface but beyond that it is nothign more than money sucking business and also i am sure he can get all the love needs from you and wendy.

    Not just that most of the students from international schools hardly perform anything well .Other than ofcourse being well rounded so to speak .TO be honest many chinese who have gone through chinese education system have turned out to be very good managers in the future . I have to hardly meet one student who has gone through this costly education who is good at anything . I have met many .Though they dress well and party a lot .

    So my final suggestion is -> SEND YOUR KID TO A CHINESE SCHOOL NEAREST TO YOUR HOUSE .DON’T PUT HIM IN OLYMPIAD CLASSES IF HE DOES NOT LIEK THEM .INCASE HE CAN’T TAKE PRESSURE OF GAOKAO ASK HIM TO WRITE SAT .ALSO i feel in 18 years gaokao will be demolished and china will adopt a very flexible system.

    ANOTHER THING IS IF I AM RIGHT, CHINA WILL BE THE NEXT GREAT COUNTRY and my guess is it will be the largest economyh in 12 years AND IT WOULD BE A MISTAKE TO NOT IMMERSE YOUR CHILD IN CHINESE CULTURE .TRUST ME HE CAN ANY DAY IN FUTURE LETS SAY IF CHINA BECOMES HORRIBLE CAN ALWAYS GO to america it is not a big deal. but immerse him in chinese education avoid those olympiads and he should do well .

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