Why are Chinese children such high achievers? Is it a matter of ‘wen’ and ‘wu’?
1. Is it the schools, the parents or the children?
The Chinese education system regularly scores highly in the international PISA tests, such that some UK educationalists seek to replicate the Chinese approach in English schools. The following is from a recent Daily Mail article.
Half of primary schools will adopt the traditional Chinese method of maths teaching in a Government drive to stop British youngsters falling behind their Asian counterparts. They will ditch ‘child-centred’ styles and instead return to repetition, drills and ‘chalk and talk’ whole-class learning. Teachers will be offered training, textbooks and advice on how to adopt the ‘Shanghai maths’ method. Youngsters in the UK lag way behind those in China, Singapore and Japan in international league tables of numeracy [my bold]. Critics blame ‘progressive’ teaching styles that focused on applying maths to real-life scenarios in an effort to make the subject more interesting. They say this has led to confusion and stopped children learning the basics.
But what if the real reason for the greater competence of Chinese children is just because they are more intelligent?
In July 2015 DfE published a report entitled, ‘Ethnicity, deprivation and educational achievement at age 16 in England: trends over time’
Buried in this document are data on the attainment of children of different ethnic groups in the English education system. On p31 there is a table giving the percentage of pupils gaining 5EM in every year from 2004 to 2013. Pupils of Chinese ethnicity performed best in every year. In 2013 5EM for Chinese pupils was 78.1% compared to 60.1% for all pupils.
So even when Chinese children are educated in the (presumably inferior) English school system they still perform significantly better than any other ethnic group.
We know that 5EM is strongly predicted by scores on Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) taken in Y6. The data on CATs scores by ethnicity can be found here.
The standard scores for Chinese children in 2009/10 (with percentiles in brackets) are as follows.
Verbal 101 (53rd), Quantitative 110 (75th), Non Verbal 112 (79th)
So while Chinese children performed only just above average on the Verbal test, their performance was way above average on the Quantitative (maths) and Non Verbal (patterns) tests. Maybe the lower performance on the Verbal test is because a significant number of the children had English as a second language or for some other linquistic/cultural reason. However it is clear that my hypothesis is confirmed.
Children of Chinese ethnicity residing in England are much more cognitively able (cleverer) than the average.
The high performance of Chinese children in English schools (the same pattern is found in the US) is usually put down to ‘high parental aspirations’ and ‘a culture of studiousness instilled by the family’.
However CATs tests are a form of IQ test. There is no body of knowledge to be studied and pupils do not normally undertake any kind of preparation before taking CATs tests (unlike the 11 plus). Although parental aspiration is widely believed to be a major cause of the achievement gaps in the English education system, there is little hard evidence to support it. My own study of Mossbourne Academy suggests that the effect is minimal. It’s cognitive ability that counts.
So having concluded that the apparent success of the Chinese education system can be explained by the fact that Chinese children are on average very clever, how has this come about? However uncomfortable this may be to accept, it would appear that Chinese cleverness must be, at least in part, a genetically inherited rather than a learned trait.
My hypothesis is that it is derived from the relative importance of ‘wen’ and ‘wu’ in Chinese culture going back hundreds of years.
2. Can memes get into your genes?
Memes are ideas, behaviours, or styles that spread from person to person within a culture. Memes are a concept invented by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as the cultural equivalent to genes. Whereas genes are spread through sexual reproduction, memes are spread by cultural vectors such as fashion. Susan Blackmore wrote a controversial book called, ‘The meme machine‘.
This discusses wide ranging biological and cultural phenomena including in Chapter 9, ‘Meme-gene co-evolution’. This sets out the hypothesis that memes can drive genetic evolution in particular directions. Blackmore suggests that such meme driven evolution can account for the rapid evolution of large brains in humans and for the development of language. It is fascinating stuff – read the book!
3. Sexual selection
Darwin’s now universally accepted (in the world of science) explanation of evolution is based on natural selection, which is the mechanism by which species can change and new species can emerge over millions of years as random genetic variations that produce small advantageous feeding or reproductory changes in individuals can be inherited by their offspring so as to aggregate over long periods of time into major changes that give the illusion of design.
Since the invention of farming and stock rearing humans have learned how to produce changes in species through artificial selection, which is commonly called selective breeding. Farmers and stock breeders have been manipulating the sexual reproduction of animals and plants for hundreds of years to produce more and better foodstuffs. Apart from replacing random mutations by human design, the major difference from natural selection is the timescale. Whereas natural selection usually operates on a timescale of millions of years selective breeding can produce major variations in species in just a few generations. Dog breeding is another example.
Sexual selection is where sexual preferences (ie culture/fashion) influence the success of individuals in the mating game. The classic example in nature is the evolution of the tail of the male peacock. Despite this having apparently negative survival utility, in that it is cumbersome and makes the possessor readily visible to predators, at some time in the past some peahens decided that males with big colourful tails were the most fanciable (a peahen meme that was a proxy for health). This meme then spread and hence the peacock’s useless but beautiful (to us) and irresistibly alluring (to peahens) tail.
This is a very brief and simplified description of sexual selection. It is discussed extensively in Chapter 9 of Dawkin’s, ‘The Selfish Gene’ and gets a whole chapter to itself in, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ (Chapter 8).
We are getting closer to ‘wen’ and ‘wu’.
4. ‘The Peone Pavilion’
This is the title of a hugely popular Chinese folk tale dating from the 16th century. It has been made into a modern ballet, which at the time of writing was being performed by the National Ballet of China at the Lowry at Salford Quays in Manchester.
I had been mulling this article in my mind for years, when I saw a plug for this performance on BBC North West Tonight and did some research on the folk tale.
The result was a ‘Eureka’ moment for me that prompted this article.
5. ‘Wen’ and ‘Wu’ in Chinese culture
In The Peone Pavilion I was struck by the description of the object of the young woman’s desire, Liu Mengmei. Unlike the dashing male heroes of Western folk tales, certainly as portrayed in the Disney versions, Lui Mengmei was a quiet, physically unprepossessing studious type – a bit of a nerd in fact. Given that this folk tale is commonly assumed to be the Chinese equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, I found this interesting, to the point of researching sociological treatises on ‘masculinity’.
I found that the Chinese memes for sexually attractive to women masculinity underwent major changes around the time that ‘The Peone Pavillion’ was written. Since ancient times it had previously followed the Western, dashing warrior (wu) stereotype.
Historical records show that the wu spirit lingered in Chinese society until the early Qing (1644AD-1912AD) dynasty, and was recognized as late as the Ming dynasty (1368AD-1644AD). The following description is from a book written by H.R. van Gulik, entitled Sexual Life in Ancient China.
This is not currently a best seller at £141.39 per copy.
At that time Ming athletics were still admired, young students practised boxing, fencing and archery, and riding and hunting were favourite pastimes. Thus bodily strength was one of the recognized attributes of a handsome man. They are depicted as tall and broad shouldered, and the nudes of the erotic albums show them with heavy chests and muscular arms and legs.
The decline of wu reached its bottom during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912AD) to be superseded by wen. Ardent lovers were preferably depicted as younger men without beard, moustache or whiskers. The ideal lover is describe as a delicate, hyper-sensitive youngster with pale face and narrow shoulders, passing the greater part of his time dreaming among his books.
Thus wen (geeky) masculinity has prevailed for many centuries as the dominant masculine sexually desirable to women meme in Chinese society and was the underlying cultural assumption in ‘The Peone Pavilion’, which given its continuing universal popularity, suggests that this remains the case.
Further evidence that this is so comes from the current status of (usually young male) private maths tutors in the Chinese education system. These individuals are apparently the celebrity objects of desire of female students. David Beckham and other male A List UK and US celebrities would appear not to stir the desires of Chinese females anything like as much as greeky young mathematicians.
So there we have it. Chinese intelligence superiority could be down to the overriding influence of the wen masculinity meme in Chinese society, as healthy, dominant females have expressed their sexual preferences for the most intelligent male (wen) stereotypes so disseminating the wen fancying meme.
Is this the culture of the average UK mixed comprehensive school? I don’t think so, however it is an explanation for Chinese superior intelligence.
6. How to introduce the wen meme into a low attaining UK comprehensive school
I have already described elsewhere how this can be achieved through proper school councils (not the shallow ‘pupil voice’ initiative promoted by the government).
It certainly began to work at my headship school in Barrow-in-Furness. Our 16th percentile average CATs score intake began to produce an explosion of A/A* grades at GCSE, ‘top 5 in England’ exam performance in a number of GCSE subjects and many former students progressing to top universities and careers in Law, Nuclear Engineering and Patient Safety in the NHS, to name but a few.
However, such was the extreme over abundance of very low CATs score pupils, the significant, life enhancing cognitive ability gains across the school were still not enough to lift the aggregated results of the school over Labour’s ‘good school by definition’ defining floor targets, so the school was eventually closed in 2009 as part of an Academy reorganisation, along with the two largest schools in the town in 2009, six years after I retired .
Who knows, If only the educational lessons of our School Council had been learned, rather than bulldozed out of existence, Barrow-in-Furness could, in a few generations of wen driven meme dissemination, have become the intellectual, cultural and technological powerhouse of the UK instead of, like many other working class northern towns, remaining a stubbornly persisting example of ‘the attainment gap’.