The Chinese Classroom Posted by on May 21, 2008 in Uncategorized

At first glance, it’s the picture of a certain ideal: a teacher standing at the head of a classroom with a piece of chalk in one hand, the students listening attentively and hanging on the teacher’s every word.  The students are quiet and reasonably well behaved, repeat like a chorus what the teacher asks them to repeat, and are otherwise silent while the teacher lectures. They ask no questions, and the teacher infrequently asks them to answer questions individually. More frequently, the class answers en mass. This is the picture of a typical Chinese classroom. It is has been this way for generations and the role of the teacher in China is at the heart of it.

From an early age, when youngsters in China first begin their education, up all the way through college, students are taught that the teacher is their parent away from home, their leader, and their light in the dark world of academia. The teacher is to be respected at all times, and what the teacher says is to be taken as gospel.  To question the teacher is disrespectful, and to ask questions pertaining to the material may indicate an unacceptable level of understanding – a loss of face both for the teacher and for the student.  And so it continues throughout the educational process: the teacher lectures, the student takes notes, memorizes facts and statistics and languages by rote repetition and stubborn memorization, and when the time comes for testing, the student invariably gives back all that they’ve absorbed pertaining to the subject at hand. The difference between the Chinese classroom and the Western classroom, where participation is individual and questioning the material is encouraged, is startling. Yet in order to have a better grasp on why the Chinese classroom is this way, one must understand not only the student/teacher dynamic and the concept of “face,” but also the historical and cultural background underlying the Chinese educational system.

In Chinese society, testing and evaluation based upon test results has been paramount for many hundreds of years. Historically, positions in the civil service depended upon the test takers ability to recite and interpret the classics in the Imperial examinations. Success could be measured by a candidate’s ability to recite appropriate passages from the classics as applied to particular problems of state. Memorization and learning by rote repetition was thereby established early in Chinese history, and has continued to this day.  By itself, this historical aspect only demonstrates why in the modern Chinese classroom students seem to only listen and repeat when told. But there is another factor at work: the cultural one.

The concept of individuality does not exist in China as it does in the West.  China is very much a group oriented society.  Social consciousness and knowing one’s place in a group has been at work in this country for thousands of years and is also very evident in contemporary China.  From the concept of the ‘dan wei’ or work unit, to the ‘ideal worker’ as exemplified by the quiet contributions of the quasi-mythical hero of the Cultural Revolution, Lei Feng, the exemplary citizen is not one who stands out, makes waves, or disturbs the status quo, but achieves quietly and for the greater good.  As typified in the classroom, speaking out of turn, questioning, or bringing attention upon oneself violates this principle, thus resulting in a more authoritarian classroom where the only voice heard is that of the teacher.

The typical Chinese classroom, a teacher-centric model where questioning is uncommon and rote memorization the norm, is not a new phenomenon.  It has developed through history Chinese history and is rooted in the cultural fabric of society.  In a country where social consciousness is paramount, the evolution of the Chinese classroom to its contemporary condition is a natural one, remaining true to its unique heritage.

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Keep learning Chinese with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

About the Author: Transparent Language

Transparent Language is a leading provider of best-practice language learning software for consumers, government agencies, educational institutions, and businesses. We want everyone to love learning language as much as we do, so we provide a large offering of free resources and social media communities to help you do just that!


  1. David:

    Great post. Nice window onto the group culture. I wonder how the Chinese who go on to university are able to move past the rote memorization aspect and get to the point where they question assumptions in order to get on to original thinking…Is there any difference in this between those who go to university in China and those who go abroad?

  2. tekwrytr:

    Perhaps missing in the description is the additional responsibility placed on instructors in the Chinese educational system to assure that a transfer of knowledge actually takes place. That is, the requirement of clarity increases when there is a lack of feedback; with little or no feedback (other than relatively infrequent testing), it is essential that lectures be thoughtfully designed and delivered, to assure that knowledge is being transferred.

  3. Raphael Chan:

    Re: David’s comment:
    “I wonder how the Chinese who go on to university are able to move past the rote memorization aspect and get to the point where they question assumptions in order to get on to original thinking..”

    As outdated as some practices appear in some countries in comparison with Western culture (I’m Australian by the way), firstly it is a nation whose government prefers conformity.

    Secondly, in a more direct response to your thoughts, the indivdiuals who are inspired to original thinking head that way anyway, regardless of their indoctrination. That’s why both wealthy entrepreneurs (or perhaps I should refer to them as “Intrapreneurs” since it’s meant to be predominantly a Communist state) and dissidents exist.

    Actually, that’s the same as what happens in the West! There are only a minority of original thinkers who lead, for better or for worse, and the rest just follow under the name of original individual thought!

    Oops. Am I getting too politically opiniated for this comments section? If I am, then sorry and please just carry on any discussion away from here by emailing me directly at:

  4. David:


    I wasn’t trying to point toward the political dimension, or even comment on what is better or worse, I was just curious about how people who study any academic discipline at a high level, or do research for example, break past the constraints of learning facts by rote to be able to create original thought by questioning assumptions…

    Does anyone know how Chinese universities handle this?

  5. Mike Olfe:

    For an amusing story on Chinese English-language education for the Olympics, see

  6. Ollie:

    This article is very ineresting and touch on a few of my concerns.
    I recently married, A lovely lady from China, Her son is attending the University in China, and will be moving to the USA to continue his education, do you think there will be a difficult learning curve for my son attending a college in the USA?

  7. Doc:

    There are about 4 different levels of Universities here in China. The top two levels are very intensive and the rote learning is being gotten away from. The two lower levels of Universities still rely on the rote learning and memorization to varying degrees. However, that does seem to be changing a bit.

    After the Universities, then there are the colleges. Basically, all these schools churn out are technical graduates. Rote learning serves them quite well.

    China is working towards being more progressive in the areas of education, but it is difficult to overcome the “traditional” beliefs and cultural influences. It is difficult to get students to start “thinking outside of the box” and one must lead into it gently. At the beginning of the year, it would take me about 40 minutes – half of the class time – to lead up to thinking outside of the box. Over the year, I now have to spend less time as the students are getting more comfortable with it. I have a few Chinese teachers that sit in on my classes – and they have asked me how I would teach their materials. Hence, they are willing to try new things once they see that something new can work.

    Unfortunately, as throughout Asia, a student cannot fail. All students must pass. This allows for mediocrity to prevail in many settings. Still, despite this, most students are motivated to do the best that they know how, so all is not lost.


  8. Ryan:

    Thoughtful comments. I take it you’re a teacher here in China, David? I’m actually a student what would be considered one of the top tier universities, Bei Da, studying for a masters degree in international relations. Even here, I’ve found that par for the course is a professor-led class of about three hours where the professor talks and the students take notes. As an American, I often try to engage both the professor and my classmates on the material (as that’s the way I’ve been taught to learn) but my approach has been met with only mixed results. I agree with you, though, that it’s changing, if slowly, and that the methods of the past are gradually being replaced.

    As for the learning curve for a Chinese student going from a Chinese university to an American one, there will of course be the initial culture shock, but once the kid sees that engagement is routine, I’m sure they’ll be able to contribute once they acclimate. Certainly the amount of studying required won’t come as a huge shock.

  9. Doc:

    I am a teacher here in China. Before coming to China, I taught in Thailand. The educational systems between the two countries are very similar. The primary difference between China and Thailand is that the students in China are more motivated to learn than their counterparts in Thailand. This can be attributed to many different factors, including, but not limited to, socio-economic conditions.

    China is unique, in that through its employment of foreign teachers, the teachers are allowed wide latitude in their teaching styles. However, a teaching style must be compatible with typical Asian culture. (I use Asian rather than Chinese because it is all quite similar.) The problem that I witness is that many of the foreign teachers are clueless about teaching and actually imparting knowledge.

    As for going to an American Uiversity, the student’s command of the English language will be critical. To graduate, the student will probably have to take a number of courses that are typically offered in a Bachelor’s program in the States, but lacking in China. One way to avoid taking those clases is getting a successful score on the various CLEP tests that are available. However, as stated, command of the spoken and written English language will probably be the biggest obstacle.


  10. maddy:

    It is a fine post. It helps me to understand about the Chinese education in the classroom. This is normally happen in most of the places. Thanks for sharing this great experience with others.

  11. thoi trang:

    Not only there. Here in India also the same process is going on… I think mostly in all places this kind of teaching process is going on…
    by thoi trang

  12. Doc:

    I really hate to use someone’s blog to promote my own blog (of sorts.) However, I wrote an article last spring that is on topic with this here, which may be of interest to some. It can be seen at

    The meat of the subject can be found in the fourth paragraph onwards.

    My apologies to the blog owner here for this link.


  13. Savannah:

    man i am so anoid this is alot of information but i am not finding wat i am loking for, but this is intresting.

  14. Andrew:

    Hi Savannah. This post is from a previous contributor to the blog. Feedback is always welcomed- what are you looking for?

  15. Peter Simon:

    Doc, your text is highly informative and very useful, thank you. One question though. You say to the effect that it’s difficult to develop their critical thinking, because “it’s a boring topic. It’s a departure from tradition.” I think this means that tradition is not boring, meaning not thinking critically is interesting. Could be. I don’t know. I taught in SChina for three years but I still don’t know what’s interesting for the Chinese student of today besides basketball, chatting and doing nothing. Oh, watching TV-shows and playing computer games. Quite similar to young people in Eastern Europe, except for basketball. What have you found?

  16. Jill:

    This is how I always imagined the Chinese classroom: the epitome of order and discipline. Then, our school had a group of 10 to 12-year-old Chinese youths visit. Classrooms hosted two students for a week. I was in shock.

    The students wandered the room freely, refused to engage in material despite being competent at English, were rough and physical with my students during transitions and on the playground, spoke over other students and teachers and conversed during quiet times, looked up callous language on the internet during computer lab, and drew swastikas on their notebooks. I allowed them time to adjust and patiently explained (again and again) what I expected of them. One might suggest that they’re behavior was the result of my teaching. My American students, though relaxed in my classroom, maintain a high level of respect for adults and the classroom rules.

    I guess I am wondering… are all Chinese classrooms as you describe or are there classrooms in which students are given free-reign? All of the visiting Chinese students were disrespectful of their American teachers. I know this cannot be an accurate representation of the country’s youths!

  17. Jessica Cronk:

    I have a question about the chinese classrooms. At the begining of class is there a greeting the class says in unison when the teacher comes in?

  18. Jerry L:

    So many years down the line, but I’m happy to have come across this article.

    There’s a good chance those students originally attended a private school in China. Most of my teaching career in China has been at private schools, and what I’ve found is that they are mainly business machines. Culture, knowledge, becoming a flaring representation of China’s ideals and all that jazz are a distant third to making that cold, hard RMB and pleasing the students’ parents.

    The talking over the teacher, being violent and all these other things that made me consider the idea of Chinese students being “studious and upright,” only applied if the teacher were actually Chinese. I, as an expat teacher, have found this reality uncomfortable, as when I first began teaching, many of the students were loud, rude, obnoxious – you name it, I had to put up with it. As soon as their head teacher walked by – or anyone with an Asian face, for that matter – like clockwork, they immediately sat up straight, and you could hear a pin drop.

    I found out this was because the schools wanted to “sell” foreign classes to the parents who were already paying big money for their children to attend. Parents and students alike were told that foreigners are “easy-going and relaxed – not serious like the Chinese” and that classes with foreign teachers are meant to be spent actively, with lost of movement and noise because (apparently) that’s how it is in Western countries.

    For most schools, it’s one of the many reasons they hire foreign teachers who are clueless about teaching. It makes it easy to sell the class and mold the foreigner to create the proper money-making image. If they get a teacher who’s too much like an actual teacher, it takes away the cultural charm of the school, according to many of the locals with whom I’ve discussed this issue.

    • sasha:

      @Jerry L Interesting points… thanks for the comment! I’m lucky that I just teach in a very small English training center now with few students who are mostly adults and are self-motivated!

  19. Savanna:

    Thsi is very useful because on monday, we’re having foreign exchange students from china 🙂 so excited!!

  20. Reilly:

    “At first glance, it’s the picture of a certain ideal: a teacher standing at the head of a classroom with a piece of chalk in one hand, the students listening attentively and hanging on the teacher’s every word. The students are quiet and reasonably well behaved, repeat like a chorus what the teacher asks them to repeat, and are otherwise silent while the teacher lectures. They ask no questions, and the teacher infrequently asks them to answer questions individually. More frequently, the class answers en mass. This is the picture of a typical Chinese classroom.”

    It may have been that way a hundred or so years ago. But it is not that way anymore…not even for many Chinese teachers nowadays. See Jerry L’s post. More and more bad, rude, and overtly ignorant behaviour is commonly displayed in the classroom…even in a public school. As a public school teacher in China, I had to kick out 5 or 6 students before my classes realized that “Hey we’d better not mess with this guy…there’ll be a meeting with my parents and the principal…” That said my classroom is still more relaxed then what is described above as the “typical Chinese classroom” above, as I encourage participation (controlled) in my classroom as I teach more from a “Western-style” perspective.

    But if I hadn’t been a trained professional teacher (with 13 years of experience behind me BEFORE I came to China and a firm grounding in classroom discipline) I probably would have gone back home by now…or had to resign my classes to bedlam. Don’t let the romantic descriptions of old time Chinese classrooms fool you…they are not at all like that today. I teach in a small (by Chinese standards) town of 200,000 people (the only foreigner there) and in big city schools it is supposed to be even worse.

    • laurie diane cawthorn:

      @Reilly your post is more closer to the truth! i thank you, american teacher in china, four years now

Leave a comment: