Educating China

At Bloomberg Michael Schuman points out something else I’ve commented on from time to time:

An examination of the population more broadly, especially in the country’s vast rural hinterland, reveals that China compares poorly with many of its peers when it comes to education.

The startling findings can be found in a recent paper by scholars from Stanford University and China’s Shaanxi Normal University. Analyzing Chinese 2015 census data, the authors determined that a mere 30% of the country’s workforce — defined as all adults aged 25 to 64 — had some high-school education. Researchers argue that is a sound measure of both those workers’ skills and their ability to learn new ones on the job.

That share compares unfavorably with developed economies, where the comparable average is 78%. The proportion in the most advanced countries, including the U.S., Germany and Japan, is even loftier — over 90%.

Of course, China is a poorer country and has been for some time, so that disparity may not come as a surprise. However, China also stands up badly against other emerging economies that managed the leap into the rich leagues in the past half century, such as South Korea and Singapore. Those countries enjoyed a much higher level of high-school education before they broke through to developed status –– on average about 72% in 1980.

Nor does China match up especially well with its middle-income competitors. For instance, 46% of the working-age population in Brazil attended high school, 36% in Turkey and 34% in Mexico. China’s share is similar to much poorer Indonesia’s, at 31%.

I think that will be a persistent problem as long as China remains China. Despite its claim that 95% of its population is literate that’s a pious fiction, finessed by using a slippery definition of “literacy” that changes based on “station in life”. I would not be a bit surprised if its actual literacy rate were closer to 50% than 95%.

In Singapore most schools teach in English. South Korean schools teach in Korean using the beautiful, elegant, and ingenious Hangul writing system. China faces major impediments in education not related to poverty and even after adopting the simplified writing system presently used on the mainland those will not easily be overcome.

5 comments… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    Based on experience, my views are different.

    First, written Chinese is no barrier to universal literacy. Taiwan, Hong Kong (which use traditional Chinese), and Japan (a combination of Kenji characters and Hiragana alphabet) is proof of that.

    Memorizing characters is tedious — but not much more tedious then learning spelling in English (proficient writers forget how many exceptions exist in English orthography).

    My main criticisms with Chinese education are 2. The first is common to all East Asian education systems (Japan, SK, China); it is far too examination focused. Imagine exams that determine if you can go university start at the age of 10.

    The second is certain topics are taboo due to ideology. For example, how does one learn about economics, (ie. Smith and Keynes) when the party says that’s capitalist blasphemy?

  • I learned the traditional writing system 50 years ago. That was what was taught. At my peak I had about 2,000 characters memorized, mostly forgotten at this point. That’s the way it must be done. They must be memorized. I’m skeptical that 95% of the population can memorize 2,000 characters, the number usually used (outside of China) to reckon literacy. I can’t say whether it’s ability or motivation, some of both, or what.

    I also think that to be truly educated at least in the traditional writing system requires an extraordinary mind. That feeling of power alone sets the educated apart which I think probably reverberates through the culture.

    Rather few native speakers of English are really good spellers. To be a good speller requires either the ability to memorize or a knowledge of the etymology of the words. IMO that’s the reason that etymological dictionaries are the norm in English but tend to be a rarity in other languages.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    To give perspective – Japan public schools teach 2000 kenji – of which 1000 are taught in elementary schools.

    You need about the same to read a newspaper; write a letter in Chinese.

    And don’t forget; Hong Kong has universal literacy even using traditional Chinese and diglossia – as written Chinese diverges significantly from spoken Cantonese.

    I have given counter examples of countries totaling 150 million people. If they can do it – the written system is not THE issue.

  • There are indirect ways of measuring literacy and it would be interesting (but complicated) to do that for China. One of the indirect ways is based on the number of pages of books published.

    So, for example, the entire Arab world publishes just about as much as Spain does which leads me to view their claims of literacy skeptically.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    From what I’ve read the best system used to achieve literacy is the Korean Hangul, invented by a medieval king who had tired of the massive amount of effort it took to learn to write and read Chinese characters, leaving most of his subjects deaf and dumb (on paper). It not only can be written left to right but up and down, adding a structural and poetic dimension to writing few other written languages can achieve.
    Below is a link to a short summary history (being Korean, of course, they naturally praise it):

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