USA TODAY, May 9, 2000
Chinese schools try to unlearn brutality
By Paul Wiseman
TIANZHUANG, China - The news was shocking: A fourth-grade math teacher in this remote village ordered 28 boys to beat a classmate who hadn't done his homework. She told them to hit him with a stick 10 times each, 280 whacks in all.
By some media accounts, the beating lasted 40 minutes. The boy, 9, wound up in the hospital, his backside pummeled to a swollen, purple pulp. When he recovered, he transferred to another school.
The fallout didn't end there. The teacher, Ge Xiaoxia, 22 , was arrested a few weeks later and taken to prison, where she has been held nearly four months without trial.
Newspapers across China used the incident here in central China's Shaanxi province to highlight a disturbingly common occurrence. Many Chinese teachers terrorize their students with beatings and public humiliation.
"It's really very deeply rooted in the cultural tradition, the idea of public humiliation as a way to teach people to conform," says David Ho, a University of Hong Kong psychology professor who has studied the often dysfunctional relationship between teachers and students in Chinese society.
The Chinese media are filled with horror stories:
In another Shaanxi province town, a teacher used a knife to carve the word "thief" onto the face of an elementary school student accused of stealing a small amount of money.
An elementary school teacher used a pair of hot tongs to grab a 6-year-old girl who hadn't been listening in class. The girl suffered burns on her neck.
A 9-year-old girl in Urumqi, capital of the western region of Xinjiang, was forced to pull her pants down in front of her class because she didn't finish her homework on time. The teacher then ordered other students to stuff a rag in the girl's mouth.
A teacher in Tianjin, a coastal city east of Beijing, ordered students who performed poorly on an exam to slap themselves in the face - one time for each point they scored below 60%.
The news stories exposing brutality in the classroom are part of a push to make Chinese schools more humane. Chinese society puts enormous pressure on children to succeed in school. Teachers - traditionally given great authority in a Confucian society - pile on homework and regularly resort to coercion in the classroom, Chinese newspapers, students, educators and political leaders say.
"Violence from teachers comes from the fact that people have been giving tacit consent for a very long time," says the official newspaper Workers' Daily. "It is obvious that education departments and parents need to do something about it."
Chinese educators are beginning to worry that a school system heavy on memorization, homework and public shaming might not prepare young minds for a wired global economy that rewards creativity, flexibility and the willingness to take risks.
Alarmed by several well-publicized suicides - and the story of a student in eastern China's Zhejiang province who murdered his mother because she put too much pressure on him - leaders are urging schools to reduce the homework burden and telling teachers and parents to lighten up.
In a recent speech, Chinese President Jiang Zemin said, "If students are only confined to their classrooms or homes, buried in piles of homework, they will, beyond any doubt, lack essential social skills and practical experiences."
Students and their parents also are starting to rebel against brutal teachers by taking them to court. In southern Guangdong province, a teacher recently was fined more than $3,000 for beating and injuring a student in the first such case brought to trial, the People's Daily newspaper reported.
Officially, China abolished corporal punishment in schools in 1949, according to the National Coalition to Stop Corporal Punishment in Schools, a program run by the U.S.-based Center for Effective Discipline. It says the USA, Canada and one state in Australia are the industrialized world's last bastions of physical punishment in schools.
The U.S. Department of Education released a report in January saying more than 450,000 U.S. students were subjected to corporal punishment in the 1996-97 school year. Defined as intentional infliction of physical pain for the purpose of correcting or stopping alleged misbehavior, corporal punishment has been banned in 27 states and the District of Columbia.
Acceptance of beatings
Even though beatings are officially outlawed in Chinese schools, they occur regularly and are more common in rural areas than in cities, sociologists say. Even in China's cosmopolitan capital, Beijing, teachers routinely humiliate their students.
Ending classroom brutality won't be easy. For one thing, the abusive treatment has a long tradition, especially in rural areas, where two-thirds of Chinese live.
"Chinese education has a long history of corporal punishment," says Thomas Gold, a University of California-Berkeley sociologist who studies China. Teachers' "social status remains low, so they may be taking out their own frustrations on laggard kids."
China's Confucian traditions, which emphasize obedience, might contribute to the problem. "Strict discipline was part of Confucian schooling, the content of which was about the need to respect authority," says Richard Madsen, a sociologist at the University of California-San Diego who studies Chinese village life. Madsen, however, says that many Confucian scholars believe that "in the most authentic strands of the Confucian tradition, authority is supposed to be exercised with love: The parent (or spouse, or ruler, or teacher) should not simply assert his power, but do what is best for those in his charge."
He says, "These old traditions must be seen in the light of modern realities: rural schoolteachers being undereducated and underpaid, and rural villages often being characterized by a lot of violence."
A trip to Tianzhuang, the village where the math teacher was jailed after her student was hospitalized, suggests how hard it will be to change things.
The town of 6,000 is a four-hour drive north from the ancient Chinese capital of Xian on a road that wasn't paved until four years ago. Tianzhuang is on a high plateau covered with wheat fields and apple orchards. The land is so flat that it's easy to forget that the elevation is about 4,000 feet - until the ground suddenly falls away, dropping hundreds of feet to reveal buttes like those of the American West.
Many homes are made of the region's loamy yellow-brown soil. Some are tunneled into the sides of hills. A wall of stone and earth surrounds Tianzhuang's elementary school. Inside are several one-story classroom buildings, one of which is painted over with Chinese characters exhorting students to follow the example of the Communist hero Lei Feng, a soldier famed for his devotion to the Communist Party.
About a third of the 600 students live in a two-story dormitory during the academic year; they pay a little more than $3 per semester for housing.
Parents support teacher
In many ways, Ge Xiaoxia was typical of teachers in rural China: young, inexperienced, poorly paid. She started teaching in Tianzhuang almost as soon as she graduated from high school. She earned less than $50 a month - a low wage for a skilled worker - teaching math to classes of 50 fourth-graders. Quiet and serious, she moved next door to the school to be near her work. Villagers say they admired her dedication.
Many people here are outraged by the events that unfolded last fall after Ge allegedly commanded the boys in her class to beat the 9-year-old on Sept. 27. But their wrath isn't aimed at Ge. They see her as the victim now that she's been branded a "wolf " and a "tiger" by the media and a criminal by the justice system.
"It's unfair to the teacher," says Ren Chun Ming, who owns a two-table restaurant across the street from the school. Ren was impressed when Ge tracked him down last year to tell him that his son (then one of her students) wasn't getting his homework done. Alerted to the problem, Ren pushed his son to improve.
Villagers are furious at the Chinese media, which they say sensationalized the beating. For example, some reports said the boy was beaten with ropes. Not true, says shop owner Fu Bei Ye. Fu holds up a short, thin branch like the one that he says really was used.
And villagers say that not every student viciously beat the boy 10 times. Some, such as Fu's young nephew, feared retribution from their burly classmate and limited themselves to a swat or two.
The villagers also are angry at the local officials who arrested Ge after the media reports came out in November. The police hauled her off to jail 50 miles north in Yanan, where she's been ever since. About 100 villagers have signed a petition demanding her release. They've heard nothing back from the authorities.
"I hope there's a way out for Miss Ge," says one school official who declines to be identified.
Ge's mistake, villagers say, was ordering the students to beat their classmate; it was her responsibility to administer the punishment. "If I were the teacher, I would have beaten him myself," says Kou Xiao Long, a staffer at the local hospital. He saw Ge's wailing victim when he was brought to the hospital for treatment, his backside badly bruised and swollen.
The villagers see nothing wrong with corporal punishment. Every one of the half-dozen adult villagers who gathered in Ren's restaurant to discuss the incident admitted to being beaten in school for bad behavior or lackluster schoolwork. Sometimes, they say, it's just necessary.
"Beating boys is normal," shopkeeper Fu says. "Sometimes other methods of persuasion don't work."