China’s education system is no game of chicken—here's a linguistic guide to how to survive it
Raising children in today’s China is not for the faint of heart, and a recent popular joke about parenting in Beijing captured the anxiety perfectly:
A Beijing parent asks: “My son is 4 years old, but only knows 1,500 words in English. Is that enough?”
Wǒ de érzi jīnnián sì suì le, dànshì Yīngyǔ cíhuìliàng zhīyǒu yìqiān wǔbǎi, gòu yòng ma？
Reply: “It’s good enough in America, but doubtful in Haidian.”
Zài Měiguó kěndìng gòu le, zài Hǎidiàn xuán.
Chinese parents’ notoriously tough approach to education has spawned slang terms in both English and Chinese—such as “tiger mom,” coined by the 2011 memoir of Yale Law School professor Amy Chua—but in late 2020, a new bestseller exposed the parenting subculture of highly educated, middle-class families in Haidian, a Beijing district known for its prestigious schools and universities. In her book Getting Ashore (《上岸》), education writer and “Haidian mother” Amber Jiang, who graduated from elite Peking University with an MBA, details how she quit her job in a Fortune 500 company to spend three years getting her son into a highly-ranked middle school.
Along the way, readers discover the unique lingo of this subculture, including bizarre animal metaphors that categorize children by their diligence and achievements: either as “frog children (青娃 qīngwá),” normal children with ordinary scores; “ox children (牛娃 niúwá),” prodigies who are natural over-achievers; or “chicken children (鸡娃 jīwá),” indoctrinated to study hard.
The term “chicken children” derives from the phrase “to inject with chicken blood (打鸡血 dǎ jīxiě),” meaning that someone is crazy about something. This dates from the 1960s, when village doctors practiced so-called “chicken-blood therapy (鸡血疗法 jīxiě liáofǎ)” by drawing blood from a rooster and injecting it into the patients, believing this would make the patient powerful and energetic. Though it was banned by the government, the therapy reached its heyday during the anti-intellectual and anti-elite climate of the Cultural Revolution. Partly because of its ridiculous origin, 打鸡血 is often tinged with satire and irony. Among today’s parents and netizens, it is usually shortened to just 鸡 (jī, “to chicken”) in verb form.
Parents who emphasize children’s all-round development (素质教育 sùzhì jiàoyù), rather than academics alone, are said to be raising “vegetarian chicken (素鸡 sùjī).” Children required to focus on curricular studies are “carnivorous chicken (荤鸡 hūnjī).”
Parents who devote themselves to “chickening” their children congregate in online communities on QQ and WeChat, often set up by education companies. There, they share study materials and learning strategies, communicating their anxieties (or showing off their results) in coded initials. They all hope that one day they can SA, or 上岸 (shàng’àn, “get ashore”), which means that their “chicks” have successfully entered their dream schools and parents can heave a sigh of relief (at least before they start worrying about their children’s universities, jobs, and marriages, then starting the cycle over with grandchildren…).
Other parents complain that they “JBCL,” or 鸡不出来 (jī bù chūlái, injected chicken blood with no result). They are frustrated that no matter how many hours of tutoring, extracurricular activities, or educational podcasts they pile on, their offspring stay resolutely ordinary.
For anxious parents, the real battle often begins after school as they wait at the entrance with their cars parked nearby, ready to whisk their children off for “enrichment classes (补习班 bǔxíbān).” While scores are clashed over in the playground, the smell of gunpowder is even stronger among the parents, whether they are chatting at the school gate or online:
It seems the “chickening” process is starting at an earlier and earlier age, that is because there is a longstanding slogan: “Don’t let your children lose at the starting line.”
A: Now that my son is in junior high, I have to think about whether he should study abroad or take the national college entrance exam. Actually, he has already learned most of the senior high content, because I hired three specialized teachers to give him one-on-one tutoring.
Wǒ jiā háizi yǐjīng shì chūzhōngshēng le, bìxū yào kāishǐ kǎolǜ shì chūguó háishi gāokǎo. Qíshí gāozhōng dàbùfēn de zhīshi tā dōu yǐjīng xuéguò le, bìjìng wǒ qǐng le sān wèi tèjí jiàoshī lái gěi tā shàng “yī-duì-yī”.
B: Our girl just started primary school. Apart from piano, painting, and building Lego every week, I signed her up for horseback riding and sailing lessons. She needs to start preparing for the middle school entrance exam, and her awards will give her bonus points. After all, our girl is an excellent example of “There’s a contest for every subject, and chicken children win them all.”
Wǒ jiā niū gāng shàng xiǎoxué. Chúle měi zhōu tán gāngqín、huàhuà、lègāo zhīwài, wǒ hái gěi tā bàole mǎshùkè hé fānchuánkè. Tā yě yào kāshǐ zhǔnbèi zhōngkǎo le, zài bǐsài lǐmiàn huò de jiǎng jiù hěn yǒuyòng le. Bìjìng wǒmen gūniang shì “fán xué jiē bǐsài, fán sài bì huòjiǎng” de diǎnfàn.
C: It’s already too late to start “chickening” your children in primary school. We raised our child in a bilingual environment. He could speak at 1 year old, and we taught him both English and Chinese. At 3, he could read English picture books by himself and recite 100 ancient poems. When he was 5, he started logic training and the Math Olympiad.
Xiǎoxué zài jī jiù wǎn la. Wǒmen cóngxiǎo jiù gěi háizi tígōng shuāngyǔ chéngzhǎng huánjìng. Yí suì tā kāikǒu shuōhuà, Zhōng-Yīng shuāngyǔ jiàoxué; sān suì zìjǐ dú yuánbǎnshū, bèi yìbǎi shǒu gǔshī; wǔ suì jiù shàng sīwéi xùnliàn hé àoshù.
D: Fetal education is necessary. Children should maximize their exposure to fine arts, music, different languages, and hobbies. You can listen to Mozart and daily English broadcasts while pregnant.
Tāijiào hěn zhòngyào. Hāizi yīnggāi zuìdà xiàndù de jiēchù yìshù、yīnyuè、bùtóng yǔyán hé àihào. Huáiyùn shí kěyǐ tīng Mòzhātè huòzhě rìcháng fàngdiǎnr Yīngyǔ.
If it seems like the “chickening” process is starting at an earlier and earlier age, that is because there is a longstanding slogan in Chinese education: “Don’t let your children lose at the starting line (不能让孩子输在起跑线上 Bùnéng ràng háizi shūzài qǐpǎoxiàn shàng).” This can be heard out of many mouths, including “education consultants” trying to get parents to sign up for more tutoring, or housing agents peddling a property in a good school district, known as 学区房 (xuéqūfáng). These people “peddle anxiety (贩卖焦虑 fànmài jiāolǜ)” as a sales strategy, knowing parents will spend any amount of money to guarantee their children’s future.
Raising outstanding children requires considerable investment in money, energy, and resources from parents. Gilded by their location, even the shabbiest 学区房 in the capital can cost more than 200,000 RMB (30,000 USD) per square meter.
Some parents become masters of time-management as they try to figure out how to squeeze every enrichment activity into their child’s timetable, quoting the writer Lu Xun: “Time is like the water in a sponge. As long as you are willing to squeeze it, there will always be some left (时间就像海绵里的水，只要你愿意挤，总还是有的 Shíjiān jiù xiàng hǎimiánli de shuǐ, zhǐyào nǐ yuànyì jǐ, zǒng háishi yǒu de).” Others embark on “self-ji (自鸡 zìjī)”—Jiang wrote that she signed herself up for English and math classes to better supervise her son’s homework.
At its core, jiwa is rooted in “involution (内卷 nèijuǎn),” originally an anthropological term for an overdeveloped agrarian society. The word has been appropriated by Chinese urbanites who feel they are competing harder in every generation only to achieve a lower quality of life, whether it’s in education, housing, or marriage.
Not every parent is willing to ji their children. There are “Buddha-like parents (佛系家长 fóxì jiāzhǎng)” who do not want their children to become study machines. Amber Jiang, though, claimed she was once Buddha-like, but her Zen shattered once her son started fourth grade and had to compete against other outstanding kids and their parents.
Other parents worry about the effects of all this extra pressure on their children’s health. Even the Ministry of Education has weighed in by passing several recent measures that require schools to reduce the after-school workload on elementary and middle school students, and to help students protect their eyesight.
But year after year, study session after study session, parents keep injecting chicken blood into their brood and themselves. At its core, all are weary of competing in this storm-tossed world, eager to make it safely ashore.