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The Chinese and American Educational Systems: Roots, Familial Involvement and Cultural Implications

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Aug 31, 2017 | #1

This paper seeks to comprehensively understand the difference between the values and educational philosophy of the American education system as well as the Chinese education system. By taking an in-depth look at the definition of "culture" as well as the respective philosophies that shape the educational systems of both countries, one can better understand the similarities and differences between the countries. Further, this paper seeks to offer insights into family involvement in a child's education. As the research suggests, education is a highly-valued facet of both the American and Chinese family's life. In valuing education in the classroom as well as the need for supplemental education and knowledge by a student's family, both countries have worked to turn out successful and knowledge-driven citizens who are better equipped to take part in society as a well-rounded and cultured individual. Finally, this paper will offer insights into the cultural divide that exists between American and Chinese individuals by citing insights and observations from the feature film "The Gua Sha Treatment."


Outline of Major Components:

I. Introduction.

i. Thesis: In viewing the research at hand regarding the culture of education in both China and the United States, it is apparent that while there is a distinct cultural divide between the two countries, their respective focus on education and family involvement is one that is vastly similar in their collective goal to produce educated, hard-working, culturally-sensitive and knowledgeable individuals that will better society through their post-educational actions.

ii. Brief Comparison of American and Chinese Educational Models and Values

II. The Familial Role in Shaping Education and Cultural Knowledge

i. American and Chinese Educational Philosophies

III. Culture and History: The Ability to Transform

i. Definition of "Culture"
ii. Chinese Motives for Success and Educational Background
iii. American Motives for Success and Educational Background

IV. Parental Involvement: Impact and Existence in Chinese and American Education

i. Values and Research Regarding the Impact of Parental Involvement in Education
ii. Chinese Breakdown: Familial Involvement and Actions
iii. American Breakdown: Familial Involvement and Actions

V. Culture Shock: Bridging the Gap across a Cultural Divide

i. Mixing Cultures Can Bring about Alienation/Discrimination
ii. Example: An American Student in China
iii. Example: Insights from the feature film, "The Gua Sha Treatment"
ii. Need for Acceptance/Cultural Sensitivity

VI. Conclusion

i. Wrap-Up and Reiteration of Thesis


Education System: China vs AmericaThroughout the world, parents work every day to ensure that their children are educated both in and out of the home. What is learned in the classroom is certainly valuable to any child or individual, but this education must be supplemented by the family in order to form a well-rounded individual who is aware of the values of education as well as the values of his or her own culture. For instance, in viewing different cultures in comparison with one another, it is easy to see how individuals of different cultural backgrounds value education and decide what knowledge to instill upon their children in their own respective homes. In viewing the average American family and its view on education both in and out of the home, in comparison with that of the Chinese family, it becomes easy to discern immediate similarities and differences in culture as well as in the educational system. In viewing the research at hand regarding the culture of education in both China and the United States, it is apparent that while there is a distinct cultural divide between the two countries, their respective focus on education and family involvement is one that is vastly similar in their collective goal to produce educated, hard-working, culturally-sensitive and knowledgeable individuals that will better society through their post-educational actions.

The Familial Role in Shaping Education and Cultural Knowledge

One of the most powerful supports for student's learning and development is a family's involvement both in and out of school. Over 40 years of steadily accumulating evidence show that family involvement is one of the strongest predictors of a student's school success, and that families play pivotal roles in a student's cognitive, social and emotional development from birth through adolescence and beyond into adulthood. While the bulk of a student's education is that which has been mandated by his or her respective country or state, an individual becomes well-rounded and truly knowledgeable when that person is able to combine what he or she has learned in the educational system with his or her own life experiences and what he or she has been taught by family members or acquaintances. It is what is learned out of the classroom that forms the true foundation of the individual, and it is in this capacity to learn that individuals are shaped culturally and socially, with the varying implications of his or her own life and situation coming together to form a worldly individual.

It is in this capacity that individuals of different cultures are taught what is the "norm" for that specific culture. In this manner a student educated in America by mandated educational standards and a student educated in China by the same standards will turn out to be two completely different culturally-centered individuals, with the American taking what has been learned in the classroom and adding his or her own learned cultural behaviors and beliefs with them throughout their lives and actions and the Chinese individual doing the same. The cultural values of the United States in terms of education promote a system that focuses on more than just traditional education, focusing beyond the teaching of the "three R's" and taking on the teaching of: "melting-pot socialization (the blending of diverse ethnicities, races, creeds and cultures); recreation and avocation (extracurricular clubs and sports); vocational education (small classes and often expensive equipment); special interest classes (art, music theater); etc.. By contrast, Chinese culture shapes their education somewhat differently, with teachers being thought of as more strict and authoritative. Chinese culture allows students to partake in critical thinking by answering in ways other than "multiple choice" or "right v. wrong" (Tan 2013: 172). As such, American families and Chinese families understand the type of education that is undertaken within the two respective school systems, and these families understand how to supplement this education with additional cultural and behavioral knowledge within the household. In viewing a further break-down of the meaning of "culture" as well as the differences between the American view of education versus the Chinese view of education, one is better able to understand how individual families understand the basic educational systems that are in place in both countries in order to use these systems as a basis for continued personal growth and increased knowledge within the family structure.

Culture and History: The Ability to Transform

English Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor in his book, Primitive Culture, noted that culture is: "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (Tylor 2010: 2-3). This classic and widely-accepted definition of culture is one that is passed from generation to generation within a particular group or society of people. Culture has so much to do with one's own view of their nationality as well as an understanding of how he or she came to be. In order to understand how the educational cultures of modern-day American and China came to be, it is necessary to understand the roots that laid the foundation of each country's educational systems so many years ago.

China has a history of more than 4000 years that has long been steeped in tradition, elevation and morality. Where Western philosophy believes in the increasing of man's knowledge of facts, Chinese philosophy seeks to elevate the mind and seek life's higher moral values. This philosophy has found its way into the Chinese educational philosophy. For many years, schooling was used as a way to educate government officers in the ways of fact, structure, and operations. This led to the Keju system in China, or the Imperial Examination System, through which intellectuals and officials were examined and selected. Since this time, schooling and education have become the key to reaching the upper-crust of society. Today, in China, education is viewed as the means to achieve success. Regardless of the status or economic class that one is born into, education and schooling is the one thing that can allow an individual to prove himself or herself in a manner that will open new doors to success and wealth in the future. As such, education in China means that one can not only better himself or herself intellectually, but an individual has the capacity to better himself or herself in terms of their place in society.

This cultural understanding of education in China is vastly similar to the way in which education in America is thought to allow an individual the ability to achieve "The American Dream." The American Dream is a powerful concept that has pushed immigrants and Americans to pursue success and change for over two centuries. As The American Dream holds each person responsible for achieving his or her own dreams, while generating shared values and behaviors needed to persuade Americans that they have a real chance to achieve them, it holds out a vision of both individual success and the collective good of all. This notion is not only completely in line with that of cultural distinction, but it aligns with the American philosophy of education which is that individuals should educate themselves to better their minds and beings as well as to better society.

In this capacity, the educational culture in China and in the United States are vastly similar. Both countries have established a culture in which education is valued as both an intellectual resource, but as a resource for the furthering of society.

Parental Involvement: Impact and Existence in Chinese and American Education

There has always been a clear assumption that parental involvement in a child or adolescent's education benefits that child's learning and society in general, as well as educational researchers, have long been interested in the positive effect that this parental involvement may have on students' academic achievement. Additionally, there are many different reasons that parents choose to get involved in their child's education. Whether it be for cultural reasons, developmental reasons, or other personal reasons, the degree to which parental involvement in education varies from household to household is almost as varying as viewing parental involvement from country to country. While this involvement is obviously subjective, there are several different theories which researchers have developed to understand the trends of parental involvement in a more general way. For instance, Professors Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey and Howard Sandler of Vanderbilt University assert that parents universally become involved in their children's education because: (1.) they develop a personal construction of the parental role that includes participation in their children's education; (2.) they have developed a positive sense of efficacy for helping their children succeed in school; and (3.) they perceive opportunities or demands for involvement from children and the school. In viewing the differences between the Chinese educational system and parental involvement with that of the American system, one can better understand the motivations behind the general involvement of each culture.

In China, education is a valued commodity. Tuition is free for any Chinese student up until high school, when parents and families must decide whether or not to pay the costs which will allow a student to continue onward in their education. As such, in China, students receive educations of greatly varying quality, with parents who choose to pay for a child's continuing education paying quite a low for it. Although China is committed to a system "implemented uniformly by the State," with "no tuition or miscellaneous fee," according to the 1986 Compulsory Education Law, some families still struggle significantly to pay for school, especially in rural areas.

As such, education in China depends largely on how ambitious a family is and how wealthy they are, and the choice to partake in schooling means that a student and his or her family are prepared for the rigors of the Chinese educational system. The learning environment in China is extremely demanding and competitive. Students work exceedingly hard to maintain their grades in hopes of achieving a spot in the upper echelon of the class. Unlike in Western countries like the U.S., students in China do not have the freedom to choose what they want to learn, with Chinese schools uniformly utilizing standardized textbooks composed and published by the regime. As such, Chinese schooling is largely based on uniformity, repetition and recitation, leaving little room for open discussion. While Chinese students are encouraged to think critically in terms of answering questions posed to them, this critical thinking must stay on task and never stray from the goal that is finding the answer.

As the education a student receives in the Chinese classroom is completely structured and without room to improvise, the Chinese family has the task of imparting additional knowledge into students that would otherwise never be taught. As a Chinese parent or family member, it is essential to provide a student with the additional histories of family members and friends in order to supplement the history that must be memorized out of books. In this manner, a student is able to understand how the history within a book affected those individuals that he or she knows and loves.

Additionally, as education in China is considered the launching point for future successes, parents and families ensure that a significant amount of time is spent on reiterating the education learned in classrooms while at home. Research has found that Chinese parents set high standards for their children and devote much time and energy to helping them because of the belief that their children can excel if they work hard enough. A child's education is seen as an investment, not only for that child, but for the entire family. Chinese families invest significant time, energy and money into a child's education, and in doing so, they expect to see benefits from their efforts. A recent survey conducted by the China National Statistics Bureau showed that more than 60% of Chinese families spend one third of their income on their children's education, with this spending coming in second behind expenditures on food. Clearly, this is a tremendous amount of money to spend - money that can easily be spent on other things that are necessary for the survival and comfort of millions of families across China. However, culturally, children in China are seen as a direct extension of their parents, and as such, children are viewed as a valued source of pride for entire families. The ability for a child to do well in school and continue on with their education is something that is seen as a direct achievement of an entire family. While the student has clearly put forth significant efforts into his or her own education, it is commonly understood in China that the success of a respective student means that his or her family has put the same amount of time and effort into honing their educational skills.

In America, though education is valued, it is often taken for granted. In the United States, children are required to attend school until the age of 16-18, depending on the state. Students can receive education via public, private or home schooling, but the largest amount of American students attend public school because of its free nature. In America, a free education is afforded to all children until their adulthood. Public, private and home schooling all provide children with a greatly similar education, with curriculum being mandated by federal and state governments in order to ensure that every child is learning what has been deemed appropriate for them in their respective age group or grade level. In addition to the curriculum structure, American students are given a vast amount of choice regarding the content of their own education, especially when viewing these choices in comparison with the lack of choice for students in countries such as China. For instance, while a student in China is held to study those subjects which have been decided for them throughout the entirety of their education, American students are given far more freedom. While a Chinese student will understand that their grade level or class position will determine what they will study, an American student understands that they are given a wide variety of choices. Take, for example, the ability for many American high school students to essentially create their own class schedules. While a high school student in Philadelphia may choose to take theater, chemistry and advanced physics in order to fulfill the education requirements set forth by their school district, a student of the same age in Beijing has no choice at all.

This type of freedom in education presents a type of conundrum for the success of the American educational philosophy. While this type of freedom allows students to grow intellectually by engaging in choice, it lacks the structure of the Chinese educational system, which has proven exceedingly beneficial in its ability to turn out individuals who understand the value of hard work. However, the ability of the United States to maintain an educational philosophy that differs significantly from other nations around the world in its focus on a liberal arts education provides American students with a broad depth of knowledge that can help shape their choices for the future.

Whereas a Chinese student, who has only engaged in the subjects of history, math, science, etc. only understands those subjects and will likely be unsure of which direction to go in in the future, an American student has been offered the ability to see a glimpse of many different subjects and areas of specialization that often allows future decisions to be made with a greater sense of confidence. This wide variety of classes and subjects is often coupled with a student's engaging in many different extra-curricular activities. American students are generally spread very thin, dividing their time between school, work, family and play. As such, American parents are often very involved in their children's lives, but are more focused on their children's overall happiness and success levels rather than on their success in each and every single subject and activity.

American parents in general seem more concerned with whether children have an opportunity to achieve some measure of success commensurate with their particular capabilities. As such, many American parents will not push their children to excel amongst the group as Chinese parents do; rather they want their child to excel as far as he or she can as an individual. American parents are often around to reinforce what a child has learned in school, but they generally do so in a far more relaxed and distanced manner than Chinese parents. For instance, where Chinese mothers will actually attend school in order to take notes for their children when they are ill or unable to attend themselves, or where Chinese parents are expected to attend school on an average day to observe their children's work habits, American parents do no such thing.

Culture Shock: Bridging the Gap across a Cultural Divide

While Chinese parents and American parents essentially want the same things for their children in terms of educational success, there exist many discrepancies in structure and formality that completely separate the two cultures from one another. As such, a certain capacity for "culture shock" exists when the two cultures meet. This shock is best seen in viewing examples of American students' experiences setting foot in the Chinese educational system and of Chinese students doing the same in American school settings. In viewing several examples, one can better see the differences at hand in differing cultures, as well as to understand the need for knowledge regarding other countries in order to foster worldwide cultural sensitivity.

Yale student Kelsey Larson signed up to study language abroad in China for six weeks in early 2012. She anticipated that her time there would be spent learning just enough linguistic foundation in class to allow her to experience the sights and culture of China around her in her free-time. She thought of a prior German language class that taught with hands-on and noisy learning that taught language through songs, poems, skits and videos and anticipated that her time in China would be much the same. Kelsey described her first day of class in China, as such:

"Our mild-mannered teacher, walking into the class on the first day, suddenly transformed: her spine snapped rigid, her teeth grew into daggers, and her eyes began roving the class for the weak or chatting. 'Listen!" she ordered us. 'Listen and read!' And with that, characters began appearing on the board in a dizzying succession, long periods of lecturing periodically interrupted by questions zooming in on the unprepared" (Larson 2012: 1).

Larson goes on to note that it did not take her long to realize that this type of environment in the classroom was not out of the ordinary. Instead, her time in China proved the most rigorous of her educational experiences up to that point in her life. The teacher's task to impart information while the students listen attentively, take detailed notes and study outside of school does not seem far from the task of the American teacher, but it is the Chinese student that takes this type of structure to the next level with significant studying and classwork in the home environment and during that student's own free time. While this is the task of the American student, the fact is that the Chinese student takes this task to heart on a daily basis. The type of excellence and attention that is needed to form a truly dedicated student is not hard to come by in China. While this type of educational mastery is something that is essentially honed and rare in America, in China, it is the norm.

Larson notes that it did not take her long to understand this difference, noting: "Activities were virtually unheard of. My host sister looked puzzled and then started laughing nervously when I asked her if she every played games in class" (Larson 2012: 1). Again, this type of dedication may prove to be a shock when witnessed by an individual from another country, but in China, it is the difference between passing the rigorous college entrance exams and failing, getting a valuable job or being passed over, or in making your family proud instead of letting them down. Larson notes: "If U.S. students faced the same set of incentives, they might be burning the midnight oil to achieve their education as well" (Larson 2012: 1). It is this type of cultural knowledge that cannot be studied to be understood. Rather, it must be experienced. In these experiences, individuals are able to witness firsthand the cultural differences that exist between individuals, even when those individuals are separated by nothing but an aisle between desks.

The same type of cultural shock can be seen in viewing the experiences of Chinese individuals in an American or western atmosphere. Take, for example, the plot of the feature film, "The Gua Sha Treatment." Released in 2001, this Chinese movie depicts the cultural conflicts experienced by a Chinese family in America. The movie centers around the arrival of Grandfather Xu, who comes from China to visit the family of his son, Datong in St. Louis. While there, the grandfather finds that his grandson is running a fever. Unable to read the English labels on the medication in his son's home, the grandfather gives his grandson, Dennis a treatment of gua sha to treat him. Gua sha is a modality used across Asia, often called "scraping," which is used to treat respiratory problems and other ailments. Gua sha practitioners palpate their patients to find areas that feel tight, then they rub these areas with a spoon or a similar tool until they turn red to "scrape the restriction in their skin" (Moyer: 1). While the medical benefits of gua sha are still being studied, the practice has been used for centuries and has caused relief in many patients despite the leaving of red scrapes and welts across the palpated area for days, its uses are still rare in the west.

When the obvious marks left on Dennis' back are viewed by individuals outside of the Xu family, the authorities are called, the traditional Chinese treatment is mistaken for child abuse, and Dennis is taken into child protective custody. Only after much deliberation and cultural education is the situation resolved and Dennis allowed to return home to his family. The use of gua sha in the movie as well as the impending results of its use are just some of the cultural clashes that exist in the film. Additionally, there is a significant clash between Americans and Chinese, although it appears conspicuous at times. In the beginning of the movie, Dennis is involved in a fights with an American child who is the son of Datong's boss. Datong becomes furious with Dennish and hits him publicly in front of his boss. When the boss questions why Datong has done this, Datong says: "I hit him to give respect to you!" However, the boss, a westerner is exceedingly confused by this philosophy, as the western view of respect and its achievement is clearly different than the Chinese view.

As seen, the cultural clashes that exist in these scenarios are exceedingly varied in size and scope. However, they work to pinpoint the types of situations that can occur when an individual places themselves into the environment of a new culture without fully understanding the implications of doing so. This is why education both in the classroom and within the family, as noted, are so vastly important. While much knowledge is acquired through experience, much of it is also acquired through listening, and in listening to one's own family, who an individual already trusts and respects, it is more likely that the information being imparted will be more readily absorbed.

In these examples, gua sha or studying abroad are just two examples of situations that can be replaced with countless other examples of cultural indifference. Without education or previous knowledge, the shock of these situations is what brings upon the alienation of a culture or can lead to further discrimination. This type of mentality exists in many capacities because of a lack of education and knowledge. As such, it is necessary that individuals are taught about cultural awareness and other cultures in order to understand that certain behaviors are not necessarily "wrong" just because they are different. In viewing these two scenarios by looking at the relationship between two cultures, it becomes clear how many more scenarios of misunderstanding and lacking education exist throughout the world, as so many different cultures and topics can be paired up as two have been in this research paper. Only through understanding how endless the possibilities for discrimination and misunderstanding are does it become more apparent that cultural awareness is a facet of education that is essential.


In viewing the many differences between the values of education in terms of the family in China and in the United States, it is true that it first appears as different as comparing apples and oranges. However, upon closer inspection, it can be seen that the values of education are truly quite similar in viewing both countries. In both China and in the United States, parents generally understand the value of a child's education, but they additionally understand that the knowledge learned in schools is truly not enough to shape a student into a culturally sensitive and aware human being. In this capacity, it is the job of the parent and family to impart cultural and social knowledge into a student in order to allow them their best opportunity to flourish. While China and the United States have significantly different educational curriculum, their respective educational systems and the efforts of students' families have consistently produced educated and successful students who continue to positively impact society.

Works Cited

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