Web opens new world for Chinese students
Christian Science Monitor
Jun. 24, 2007
BEIJING - Excited and emboldened by the wealth of information they find on
the Internet, Chinese teens are breaking centuries of tradition to challenge
their teachers and express their own opinions in class.
Wearing jerseys emblazoned with the names of European soccer stars, downloading
weekly episodes of Prison Break, listening to 50 Cent and reading Japanese comic
books, China's current high school generation is plugging itself directly into
And it's giving the kids ideas. Ideas that could one day transform the way this
country is governed. "The Internet has given Chinese children wings,"
says Sun Yun Xiao, vice president of the China Youth and Children Research
Many are using those wings to fly in the face of received wisdom about how and
what they should learn and about how much respect they owe to authority.
"Today students ask you, 'Why?' And if you don't have a good answer, they won't
necessarily accept what you say," says Zhao Hongxia, a young teacher at a
private school in Beijing. "In my day, if the teacher said something, he was
The "post-90" generation of Chinese youngsters, named for the year the eldest of
them was born, is "very different" from its predecessors, says Tony Hu, a
Beijing high school student who has just turned 18.
"We have far more ways to get information," he explains. "The generation before
us knew nothing about anything except studying."
That judgment may be a little harsh, but Sun, whose research institute is linked
to China's Communist Youth League, agrees with its essence.
"The post-90 kids are more confident and have more experience, and they are
definitely braver and readier to challenge" their elders, he says. "The reason
is that they have the Internet as a way to learn things and because a lot more
of them travel. They have more ways of acquiring knowledge."
Internet use in China has exploded in recent years, and at the forefront of that
revolution have been young people, hungry for a taste of life outside their
In 1999, there were just 4 million Internet connections in China; by the end of
last year, there were 137 million.
More than 70 percent of Chinese children between ages 7 and 15 had used the
Internet at least once, according to a survey Sun's center carried out last
That total rose to 87 percent when only urban youngsters were polled.
That gives them opportunities to broaden their minds that teachers often cannot
"I learned from books," says Jenny Li, who now trains teachers at a Beijing
college. "These kids learn from the whole world."
That makes them more difficult to teach, Zhao said. "It's harder for me to keep
their attention in class," she complains, "because they already know a lot.
Teachers have to keep broadening their own horizons."
Zhao, who has been teaching for six years, finds it hard to keep up with her
students; older teachers are often baffled.
"A lot of teachers over 40 feel uneasy and uncomfortable with the new knowledge
their students have and their lack of control," says Yan Ming, a young teacher
at the elite No. 1 Middle School in the port city of Tianjin.
Teachers are also having to cope with an evolving curriculum. A series of
reforms since 1997 have edged the Chinese education system away from rote
learning and toward a more Western emphasis on independent thought.
"We are moving from a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach," says
Wang Wu Xing, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Education.
At the cutting edge of this drive is Tianjin's No. 1 Middle School, which
teaches students up to the university entrance level.
The school is experimenting this year with a history curriculum that breaks the
For the first time, says Yan, students are allowed to write history essays that
disagree with the textbook's conclusion about the political significance, for
example, of the Boxer Rebellion against colonial powers.
So far, however, this history test has only been administered at the middle
school level in three school districts.
That exam is so critical for ambitious students desperate to get into China's
top universities, says Wang Zhangmin, a veteran history teacher at the school,
few of them dare to step out of line for fear of risking their chances of
That fear acts as a brake on change. At more ordinary schools, too, teachers do
not always encourage student-initiated digressions.
"We don't get many debates in my class," says Xi Haixin, a 17-year-old Beijing
high school junior. "Sometimes we want to discuss something, but the teacher has
too much material to get through and he drops the issue."
Even if his teachers do not satisfy his Web-fueled curiosity, Xi says, the
Internet has still changed his generation.
"I'm part of international society now," he reckons, listing the Miami Heat as
his favorite basketball team, rhythm and blues as his favorite music and
Spider-Man 3 as the best film he has seen recently.
"As students learn from foreign cultures, they will definitely feel more global
and more international," says teacher Wang Zhangmin.