Keeping up with the Zhous

China’s cutthroat education environment is stressing parents as well

After a teacher asked volunteers to bring a shrub to class, Ms. Chu gave her son a potted snake plant she already owned. “It was one that he could easily carry to school. A week later, I asked about his plant and he complained, ‘mine is the smallest in the class.’ Every student had brought a plant; I think the parents had gone out and bought them.”

The teacher’s request, it emerged, had triggered a competitive instinct among Chu’s fellow parents, who vied to outdo each other in size. Some were so large, “the parents had to drive the plants to school. The biggest was over a meter tall…the classroom looked like a forest.” Within a week, the snake plant was wilting. Over-watered, and overshadowed by its larger neighbors, “it died.”

The anecdote offers an apt metaphor for how intense competition can crush the spirit of children. But the more literal takeaway might be how China’s education environment locks the parents in a similar destructive cycle with one another, fueled by their own anxiety, as well as their children’s.

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Keeping up with the Zhous is a story from our issue, “Down to Earth.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


David Dawson is the former deputy editor of The World of Chinese.

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