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New Book Compares Chinese, U.S. K-12 Education

December 8, 2017

Review of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve, by Lenora Chu (Harper, 2017), 368 pp.; $17.26 on ISBN-10: 0062367854, ISBN-13: 978-0062367853

Lenora Chu, author of Little Soldiers, grew up in the United States with well-educated immigrant parents from China who matched every element of the “Tiger Mom” (and dad) stereotype.

Chu’s admission to Stanford University, but not to the Ivy League, was a bitter disappointment to her father, who forced his daughter into an engineering curriculum against her will. Chu did not break from parental control until she graduated from college and became a writer (and a very talented one, I must add).

Despite the bad memories of her childhood, Chu and her American husband decided to move to China and have their three-year-old son, Rainey, experience life and education in his grandparents’ native land, where he learned self-discipline and math proficiency but failed to develop an ability to color outside the lines.

Militaristic Education System

Chu recounts in Little Soldiers her concerns over what she was seeing in Rainey’s school. She met and interviewed Chinese students, teachers, and experts for seven years, to pull back the curtain on China’s militaristic education system. The result is essentially a memoir of a short period of life, written with the grace of an elegant novel and the precision of a gripping, nonfiction history book.

Rainey’s transformation began almost immediately, growing from a normally rambunctious toddler into a proper little pupil, Chu writes. In China, Chu explains, you get praise for blending in and doing what you are told. The severe discipline of the Chinese school is indeed oppressive, and anxiety spares few parents in China, Chu writes.

It Takes an Extended Family

Chinese schools create a system in which raising a child will be a full-time job for at least one parent. In fact, while the one-child policy was in effect (it has been phased out after 35 years), each child had six adults to share the load: four grandparents and a mother and father. In a family of strangers in a foreign land, all the effort fell to Chu.

Classroom sizes, in Chu’s experience, commonly reached more than 50 students, and in the countryside, classes could comprise 100 children.

Rigid discipline is enforced. Stepping out of line is not tolerated. Children are allowed little water, and two bathroom breaks a day. They eat lunch in class or in hallways.

The teenagers Chu interviewed held conflicting views about school, a hypercompetitive system from preschool through kindergarten and on toward the holy grail of reaching a good college. Some felt the sacrifice was worth it to get ahead, whereas others said it was a waste of their formative years.

Rampant Corruption

A disturbing fact that eventually surfaced was the corruption at every level of the education system. Teachers cheat in grading tests to make themselves look better, and they take gifts and money for favors. Students cheat, too.

Although the system stresses socialism, capitalism is visible everywhere. Public dissent toward the socialist system is not tolerated, though complaints about traffic, urban planning, and government services are common.

Severe Class Division

Chu states her saddest discovery was that China is really two countries: the relatively middle-class cities near the coast and the poverty-stricken interior.

In the country’s central region, students are typically raised by grandparents while their parents try to eke out a living in menial jobs in the city. More than half of the students drop out of high school, where they’re typically taught by itinerant teachers who have no stake in the game. Chu witnessed the interior’s inferior schools firsthand as a foreign journalist. Their test scores never make it into China’s academic statistics.

A teenager Chu befriended early on in her research won a year of study in a U.S. high school. Chu tells how the taste of American freedom, upon return to China, led the student to make every effort to escape her homeland through admission to an American university.

Other teenagers just accepted their lot in China, though they did not celebrate it. A test Chu observed on a Chinese freshman college class was telling. When each member of the class was asked to stand before the class with a paper bag over his or her head, and then take a minute to remove something they did not need on their body, most removed a watch, a shoe, or a coat. None removed the paper bag.

Value of Memorization

In one of the final chapters, Chu digs into the psychology of education behind the large amount of rote memorization required of Chinese students. Chinese learning methods focus on imprinting facts and numbers into the brain so an individual can free up the mind for deeper thought. Chu quotes actors who say that until they have their lines down, they cannot implement their acting skills. Chu concludes we do not do enough memorization in U.S. schools.

In the end, Chu is persuaded Chinese education has much to recommend it, though the pressure on parents and students is stifling. Those who have read the Greek philosopher Aristotle will recognize the possibility of a golden mean between the U.S. and Chinese systems. Readers can benefit from learning about a system so different from our own.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ( is science director at The Heartland Institute.

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Jay Lehr, Ph.D. is the science director at The Heartland Institute.

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