A senior three classroom in an elite Chinese high school is like Wonderland in the Orwellian year of 1984. From seven in the morning until midnight, in a sterile and dim room, fifty students slump over and memorize the textbooks piled thickly on top of their desks. They look sullen and defeated, but rallying them are red banners, flying from the white dilapidated walls, with the slogans ‘Impossible is Nothing’ and ‘Fight Together in the War for Our Future.’ Above the front blackboard there’s a Chinese flag as well a countdown to the national examination in June: 155 days.
I’ve often talked to students in their final year of high school, and each time, even though everyone just repeats the same message, I still can’t believe my ears. I’m expecting them to tell me how depressed and angry they are, and how all this memorization is crushing and pointless. I’m expecting them to tell me they’d prefer a more sane, humane, and just system of selecting students for China’s top universities—like drawing names randomly out of a box. I’m expecting them to tell me how much they hate their parents and teachers for mutilating their individuality and creativity like this. I’m expecting them to tell me that they hate their classmates, and plan to poison their high-achieving roommate.
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But that’s not what these students tell me. They all tell me that they’re happy and fulfilled, and find life meaningful and purposeful. They all tell me that the national examination is a rite of passage that builds character and will only make you stronger (if it doesn’t kill you). They all tell me it’s the love and devotion of their parents and teachers that’s driving them to be their best. And they all tell me (and by now I’m no longer sure where I am) that all the students love and support each other.
What’s memorable about these conversations is how much they invoke the language of war and love, and how everyone repeats the same message. Their eyes and their words exude faith and devotion: they’ve surrendered themselves to a higher inexplicable cause, and in return they don’t have to bear the agony of thought and the responsibility of choice. In other words, a senior three classroom sounds and feels like a cult, and at the head of this cult is the ‘banzhuren’ or ‘head teacher.’
In the organizational structure of a Chinese classroom the head teacher is responsible for 50 students’ study, behavior, and thought for three years. This organization is repeated from kindergarten to university, and from Beijing to Tibet. Back when the Communist Party was a revolutionary movement, a political commissar was responsible for the discipline and orthodoxy of each Party cell, and a ‘head teacher’ is basically the political commissar of a cell of 50 students. In Chinese high schools, having students study hard is not enough – correct thinking is the ultimate goal.
To that end, for all three years of high school, 50 students will play and study, eat and sleep together, all under the keen eye and strong hand of their head teacher. He is responsible for motivating these students to keep focus and memorize relentlessly, and he’s rewarded financially by parents, school administrators, and government officials if his cell does well or if one of the cell members does exceptionally well (for example, if his student is the top scorer in the city). That ultimately means somehow persuading teenagers that memorizing useless facts and propaganda are so important they must suppress their natural urges to play, to date, to ask questions, to disobey, to be independent, and to seek an individual identity.
That’s certainly no easy task, and a successful head teacher combines the realpolitik of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ with the tactics of Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’. He’ll encourage mutual suspicion and animosity among his students so they’re incapable of co-operation and become dependent on his authority, but not so much as to harm the class’s unity of thought and purpose. He’ll arbitrarily change favourites and engage in random, inexplicable behavior to keep the students insecure and constantly seeking his approval. He’ll invoke the language of love and war in his passionate Monday morning speeches to his troops because teenagers are moody and extreme, and this language can most effectively arouse and manipulate them. Wrapped in this language of love and war every one of his actions is selfless and honourable: if he makes them do homework until three it’s because war demands sacrifice, and if he curses them it’s because he loves them so much it hurts. And if he’s effective the head teacher will achieve a miracle of contradictions in his classroom: an individuality and divergence of interest but conformity and convergence of thought. All thinking alike but incapable of co-operation, Chinese students can now be classified either as ‘selfish sheep’ or ‘individualistic drones.’
The ‘banzhuren’ has the fate of 50 students in his hands, and with great power and enormous responsibility in China comes profit and opportunity. All Chinese parents know that their child’s future depends on their relationship with his head teacher. There’s a ritualized, complicated courting process that involves lavish dinners, extravagant praise, large red envelopes, and endless favours. If parents aren’t successful in this courting then the head teacher may very well decide to ignore their child; their child might as well go through school with a dunce cap permanently on his head.
And this corruption is fine with school administrators because the main goal of pedagogy is orthodoxy, and that’s why the head teacher is the anchor and pivot of the Chinese education system. Without the head teacher, there would be no discipline and order, no conformity and obedience in Chinese schools: the relentless selfish amoral utilitarianism fostered by the national examination system would overwhelm the school system. But with the head teacher there can never be individuality and diversity, freedom and choice in Chinese schools. The head teacher is that stubborn dam that keeps both the chaos of individuality and hope of reform out of schools.
But what if a visionary educator came along, and decided that reform was so necessary in China that he had to smash open that dam? What if he actually eliminated the head teacher system so he could pursue his pedagogical ideals? In Communist China’s 60 years of educating Chinese students there has exactly been one administrator in one public high school that has attempted education reform: Principal Wang Zheng at Shenzhen Middle School. And when he opened that box the chaos of choice, the confusion of freedom, and the conflict of change were all unleashed.