When talking about Chinese pupils in western countries, people generally have the impression that they work hard and achieve good examination scores. A report by the Department of Education shows that the percentage of Chinese pupils achieving 5 or more GCSEs at grade A* to C GCSEs or iGCSEs in England is 17.6% above the national average. 35.1% of Chinese pupils achieved the English Baccalaureate, 19.0% higher than the national level.
Scholars have long been struggling to explain Chinese pupils’ achievement in education. It has been argued that parenting style plays a crucial role in determining children’s academic achievement at school. Broadly speaking, there are three types of parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian and permissive. Authoritarian parents evaluate, control and shape their children’s behaviour against a set of predefined standards, and authoritarian parenting style is usually correlated with poor academic performance of children. However, Asian families are the exception. Even though the parents are in strict control of their children’s life and daily behaviour, these children perform very well academically at school.
Some scholars point out that such a seemingly paradoxical observation results from linguistic misunderstanding. The word “control” is probably translated from the Chinese character “guan”. In effect, the two words have very different connotations. Control means determination of one’s behaviour and loss of individual freedom. Even though the Chinese word “guan” also has this connotation to some extent, it is based on a totally different precondition: “guan” is for the good of the party being controlled. Therefore, “guan” is a word with positive connotation in Chinese. For this reason, some scholars argue that “control” is a misleading word, and parenting style in Chinese families should not be described as being “authoritarian”. They propose to use the word “governing” to represent the concept of “guan”.
Within the Chinese community, those parents who “govern” their children are applauded by the people around them. The basic logic is that these parents are responsible ones, and they care about the well-being of their children. Meanwhile, it is the common belief in the Chinese community that sacrificing today’s freedom for tomorrow’s happiness or success is acceptable or even desirable.
Chinese children, when they are very small, are instilled with the belief by their parents that they should be obedient to their parents. The obedient children are labelled as “good children”. In other words, Chinese children are brought up in an environment where obedience has entered the ethical domain of people’s life. There is a mutual understanding between parents and their children that obedience is a good virtue and a necessary condition for future success.
The results of such a mutual understanding between children and their parents are twofold. On the one hand, Chinese parents hold great expectation for their children. This is reflected in the Chinese saying “wishing for the dragon children”. They would encourage or even pressurise their children to study very hard and get good examination results, because they believe that good education is the only way for their children to succeed in the future.
According to a research project carried out Becky Francis and Louise Archer, two scholars from the London Metropolitan University, education is highly valued by Chinese parents as a group, which is demonstrated in the fact that all the Chinese parents interviewed in the research think ‘education is very important’. In the case of Australia, there are Chinese coaching schools in every state. Chinese Parents are in strict control of their children’s time. They send their children to these coaching schools during evenings and weekends so that the children could have the chance to receive extra education.
On the other hand, many Chinese children have to work very hard to meet their parents’ expectation. They might not be happy to go to coaching schools every weekends; they might not be happy that their parents control all of their time and they have no time to play; or they might not even understand why education is important to them. However, due to such a sense of mutual understanding, Chinese children have trust in their parents. They believe the choices made by their parents are sound ones and out of good intentions. As a consequence, they do not challenge their parents’ authority, but follow their parents’ values in education and success.
Such a relationship between Chinese children and their parents is also reflected in career choice. Chinese parents usually make choices on behalf of their children long before the children know what they are interested in and want to do. Therefore, children of Chinese immigrants study in medical schools because their parents think doctors are a prestigious profession, or they study economics and business because their parents hope they can become wealthy by being a banker. The parents believe these choices will eventually lead their children to a successful and happy life. However, an important question people can’t help asking is: what is exactly ‘success’? Will these children truly feel happy once they become doctors or bankers? It seems only time will tell, and it is up to the children themselves to find out.