Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Chinese School

I was fascinated to watch Chinese School on BBC4. Over five episodes, we will gain an insight into life in three different schools in the same region. And what a wonderful balance to all the recent news coverage of China as the great big bad villain – most recently with the pro-Tibet protests following the Olympic torch processions, and the unrest in Tibet itself. Because this programme is about the people of China – families, teachers and most importantly the children, on whose shoulders lies the great burden of their parents’ hopes and dreams. And their dedication, even if the normal family unit has broken down, is admirable. Maybe the pressure placed on these children is not so admirable – a 17 year old girl on the programme working towards university entrance starts school at 6am and finishes at 10.15pm, then studies until gone midnight, before getting up at 5 the next morning again.

Now having read
Wild Swans by Jung Chang I believed myself to be a bit of an expert on China, as you do, especially under Chairman Mao. After reading that book I felt such passionate hatred towards him and his officials, for many of his ideologies that destroyed the lives of so many Chinese. China may have moved on, but some (or many) of Mao’s policies remain. There are the overt: children performing 15 minutes of eye-rubbing exercises each day together in class, as Mao reckoned this would improve eyesight.

Then there are more sinister overtones of his legacy: in this first episode a class of 7 year olds have an eraser inspection, but the teachers are not the accusers here. Just like under Mao’s rule, when neighbour was encouraged to turn upon neighbour and punish any misdemeanours, the children of the class vote on who has the worst kept eraser. The poor 7 year old boy who owns the worse eraser is humiliated by having to wear an old jumper full of holes, and is chastised by his classmates in a carefully scripted “play” to illustrate that everybody must take care of their things. He has to go round the class in his jumper full of holes apologising to each pupil and his teacher, and reciting a rhyme, before he is allowed back to his seat where it’s all too much and he crumples at his desk in tears.

Now if we could dish out just a tenth of the scorn to some of the ungrateful, out of control little bleeders that we teach, maybe that would go some way towards restoring order in our classrooms. And don’t even get me started on the one child policy that certain estates in this country might benefit from…

Anyway, here is what the BBC website says about this first episode, in case you’d like to know more. But please try to catch it yourself if you can: it’s a stunning programme. The next episode is on Tuesday 15th April at 9pm on BBC4, or Episode 1 is repeated tomorrow night, Thursday 10th.

Whatever you think you know about China and the Chinese, forget it. It's time to think again. The children and teachers of the rural town of Xiuning are about to welcome you into their lives, and reveal a place full of vitality, challenges and great humour.
Chinese School discovers just what makes Chinese people tick, what they dream of and what gets a laugh. This is China as the Chinese know it and as the West has never seen it.
This extraordinary series follows a year in the life of Xiuning, from boiling summer to freezing winter. Xiuning is proud of two very different things - tea and teaching.
This is a place where planes are rerouted so they don't break pupils' concentration during exams; where every senior school has its own permanent Communist Party Secretary, and the school year begins with military training from the People's Liberation Army.
But it's also a place where even the coolest children play Mah-jong with granny and traditional gods are worshipped alongside mobile phones, pop music and movie stars.
Episode 1, The Year of Golden Pig, starts as mocks begin for the world's most dreaded exam; the Gao Kao. Pass with flying colours and your future's bright; Fail and you're a peasant for life.
17 year old star student Wu Yufei bears a heavy burden – her school expects her to finish top of the entire Province of more than half a million students. Her mother gives up work purely to cook and care for her daughter in this crucial year.
All the little children at the local charity primary school are boarders selected from the poor mountain villages surrounding town. Leaving families behind is tough, but it gives them a shot at a better life. Recruitment time approaches, but who will the headmistress pick this term?
The town's Middle School students are going on a school trip. With exams looming, one of them invokes an old Chinese saying; "Only happiness learned from suffering is true happiness". But when the class bursts into singing the latest pop hit, for a few minutes at least, the pressure is off and they're like teenagers the world-over.

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