Reporting from Shanghai — Chinese adolescence is known as a time of scant whimsy: Students rise at dawn, disappear into school until dinnertime and toil into the late night over homework in preparation for university entrance exams that can make or break their future.
So it came as little surprise when international education assessors announced last month that students in Shanghai had outperformed the rest of the industrialized world in standardized exams in math, reading and science.
But even as some parents in the West wrung their hands, fretting over an education gap, Chinese commentators reacted to the results with a bout of soul-searching and even an undertone of embarrassment rarely seen in a country that generally delights in its victories on the international stage.
"I carry a strong feeling of bitterness," Chen Weihua, an editor at the state-run China Daily, wrote in a first-person editorial. "The making of superb test-takers comes at a high cost, often killing much of, if not all, the joy of childhood."
In a sense, this is the underbelly of a rising China: the fear that schools are churning out generations of unimaginative worker bees who do well on tests. The government has laid out an ambitious set of plans for education reform by 2020, but so far it's not clear how complete or wide-ranging the changes will be — or whether they will ease the immense pressure on teens in families hungry for a place in the upper or middle class.
"We have seen the advantages and the disadvantages of our education system, and our students' abilities are still weak," said Xiong Bingqi, an education expert at Shanghai's Jiao Tong University. "They do very well in those subjects the teacher assigns them. They have huge vocabularies and they do math well. However, the level of their creativity and imagination is low.
"In the long run, for us to become a strong country, we need talent and great creativity," Xiong said. "And right now, our educational system cannot accomplish this."
Maybe so, said Zhang Minxuan, an education expert who oversaw the Program for International Student Assessment testing in Shanghai. But he argued against despair. After all, he said, Chinese officials are clear-eyed about their weaknesses.
"We have a lot of things to study from the rest of the world," Zhang said. "We know much more about recent developments in education research than the people in the other countries themselves. If we think it may be useful, we'll introduce it to our students, no matter what country it's from. We are very, very open-minded."
But Zhang also pointed out the implied embarrassments of the examination results: The Shanghai students who triumphed in the tests enjoy the very best China's uneven schools can offer. Their experience has little in common with those of their peers in rural schools, or the makeshift migrant schools of the big cities, not to mention the armies of teenagers who abandon secondary school in favor of the factory floor.
And even in the rarefied world of the Shanghai high schools, teachers and administrators are concerned about the single-minded obsession with examinations.
At Zhabei No. 8, a public school on the northern edge of Shanghai's downtown, administrators spoke cautiously of the students' success in the international tests. Nearly 200 students took the exams last spring; afterward, they told their teachers that the questions had been simple.
"We are fully aware of the situation: Their creativity is lacking. They suffer very poor health, they are not strong and they get injured easily," vice principal Chen Ting said. "We're calling on all relevant parties to reduce the burden on our students."
For centuries, stretching back to the days when far-flung scholars trudged dutifully to the capital for the emperor's examinations, the standardized test has held a cherished place in Chinese society, both a tribute to discipline and a great leveling tool among disparate classes and regions.
Today, the examination faced at the end of high school is considered the great maker, and breaker, of careers, determining which university, if any, a student may attend.
There's no spare time for hanging out with friends or volunteer work; forget about clubs or sports. Weekends are spent sharpening academic weak spots in paid tutoring sessions.
"This is an important year for me," said 17-year-old Lei Lina, who is preparing to take the entrance examination in the summer. "My dreams, my future — everything depends upon it."
Parents who obeyed China's one-child policy whisper to their lone offspring that the family's destiny hangs on the test score. Teachers drive the point home. The school curriculum is carefully tailored years in advance to mold students into expert test-takers.
Xia Jing was among the students who sat for the international tests. At 17, she carries the weight of her family's ambition. If she scores high enough in China's university entrance exam, she'll be the first in her family to go to college.
"I definitely have to go to university," she says, setting her jaw. "It's my parents' hope."
Xia spends her weekends, and her family's spare cash, attending tutoring sessions to help prepare her for the examination. Every night before she goes to sleep, she counts the days left before she'll take the test.
"Sometimes I have wild thoughts," she says. "If I do well, what will happen? If I fail, how will I plan for the future?"