Desirable schooling: Re-framing Chinese educational success

Arathi Sriprakash, The University of Sydney

Andrew B. Kipnis Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics and Schooling in China, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2011 (224 pp). ISBN 9-78022643-755-2 (paperback) RRP $55.95.

The media has been awash recently with stories about the exceptional academic success of Chinese students, in both local and diasporic communities. Young Chinese-Australians are topping their classes, winning places in selective schools, and gaining entry into competitive university courses. When China debuted in the 2009 international standardised testing program PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), students outperformed their counterparts across the world in reading, mathematics and science. The stereotype goes something like this: Chinese families, driven by a desire to prosper in an increasingly competitive world, have high expectations of their children to succeed in school, and make extraordinary efforts to provide them with resources and support. A recurring theme, popularised by Amy Chua’s incendiary memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), is the Chinese ‘Tiger Mum’, whose disciplined performance-oriented parenting produces high-achieving, even prodigious children. And then comes the backlash, as critics point out the costs of such strong desire for academic achievement: undue pressure on the young; long and intense hours of cramming and coaching; the narrowing of the curriculum; and the stifling of creativity.

Prominent within these narratives are culturalist notions of ‘Asian values’ and a ‘Chinese work-ethic’, which, despite their fuzziness, have gained traction in the popular imagination. Recent headlines reflect anxieties about student performance in Australian schools in the face of global competition (Callick 2012), whilst using concepts like the ‘East Asian Model’ to characterise Chinese educational systems and processes (Stevenson 2011). These depictions of the Chinese educational success story frequently position ‘educational desire’ as an inherent part of ‘Chinese culture’ or as intrinsic to ‘Asian values’. Such accounts rarely grasp that educational desire is a relational social practice; that it is contingent on history and politics, rather than produced through a bounded notion of ‘culture’—Chinese or otherwise. In other words, a simplistic, static understanding of ‘culture’ is inadequate to explain the complex relationship between education, social change and a family’s imagination of a desirable future.

Andrew Kipnis’ Governing Educational Desire is a refreshing attempt to cut through simplistic and stereotypical accounts of Chinese educational success. He takes an anthropological approach to offer a deep analysis of how educational ‘desire’ is formed in local, regional, national and global spheres. Repudiating non-historicised, non-politicised accounts of the education project, Kipnis’ explores how ‘social, political, economic, artistic and cultural phenomena that surround the desire for educational achievement intertwine in complex ways without forming a closed-off system’ (p. 4). Kipnis draws on extensive field study in Shandong Province in eastern China, and focuses on three schools in the county of Zouping. In doing so he provides readers with rich insights into schooling practices, educational resources and systems, as well as community perspectives on education and post-school futures. Importantly, Kipnis is explicit about connecting ‘local’ experiences to their wider social and political context: national education policies, regional histories, and global influences.

Even parents with limited formal education have high educational ambitions for their children.

Take for example the experience of the Zhangs, a disadvantaged migrant family with four children—three daughters and a young son—living in Zouping. The parents had attended less than three years of primary school themselves and now the father works as a migrant construction worker while the mother is a day-labourer. Wanting a boy in their family, the Zhangs paid heavy fines for violating the one-child birth-control policy, which led to them facing significant financial debt for many years. Consequently, their older two daughters were unable to continue their studies and graduated from junior middle school to find work in a nearby textile factory. A change in school fee policy in 2006 meant that as migrant workers in Zouping, the Zhangs were required to pay extra fees for their two younger children. Nevertheless, both parents were adamant that their third daughter should attend senior middle school, now a possibility with the additional incomes of the older siblings. If either of the younger children were able to attend college it would be, as Kipnis reports, ‘the most glorious thing that he [the father] could imagine’ (p. 50). Central to the book’s exploration of educational desire is how parents imagine the world that their children will come to inhabit, at a time when such families in Zouping are faced with rapid development and modernisation. According to Kipnis, even parents with limited formal education like the Zhangs have high educational ambitions for their children: there is ‘a feeling that times are changing and that their own lack of experience in higher education is irrelevant to the possibilities for their children’ (p. 55). This could be read, perhaps, as a local articulation of a broader national optimism about China growing as a modernising, global power. Then again, as Kipnis also points out, one of Zouping’s possible futures is ‘as a place filed with well-educated young people who end up working in factories’ (p. 148).

The ethnographic vignettes presented in the book are contextualised through discussions of Zouping’s economic expansion and rapid urbanisation, the glorification of educational success in the regional media, and the systematised ‘intensity’ of education via high-stakes examination structures, school competition, and drill-based pedagogic approaches. Kipnis also details policies and programs which push back against such educational cultures; highlighting multiplicity within the Chinese educational agenda and an internal unease about the social consequences of educational desire. For example, there is a growing perception among Chinese educational leaders that unchecked desires for students to become ‘dragons’ (high-level leaders, usually in government or business) are leading to harmful competitiveness in the education system and a bias towards academic forms of education over vocational pathways.

Kipnis explores how the policy ideal of ‘education-for-quality’ has played out in practice.

A particularly interesting section explores a major government project during the 1980s and 90s which sought to shift the rhetoric of education from performance to ‘quality’ in the hope of moderating or redirecting educational desire. This became known as ‘suzhi education’—or ‘education for the purpose of improving the quality of people’ (p. 66). A contested concept, suzhi (‘quality’) could encompass characteristics as varied as creativity, enjoyment, love of country, and respect for the law. As Kipnis describes it, suzhi also conveys a sense of internal individual worth, deepening the divides of an already stratified population: ‘the privileges of certain people are justified by their high suzhi, while others, including rural migrants, litterbugs, the short, the nearsighted, and the poorly dressed are mocked for their supposed lack of suzhi’ (p. 65).

Kipnis explores how education-for-quality has played out in practice, given the divergent political takes on suzhi and its hierarchical overtones. He shares a fascinating example of mandated ‘creativity classes’ in which students recited and memorised Tang dynasty poetry but were not given the opportunity to discuss the poems’ meanings or write their own poetry. Kipnis questioned how ‘creativity’ and ‘enjoyment’—official themes of the suzhi education approach—could be fostered through such seemingly rigid classroom practices. He highlights this as a tension between liberal and authoritarian reworkings of the education-for-quality ideal. Kipnis discovered that parents and teachers used discourses of suzhi to reconcile rigid approaches in creativity class. For example, the strong civilising element of schooling is reflected in one teacher’s explanation that ‘nothing raised the students’ quality like Tang poems’ (p. 72). Similarly, parents expressed that students’ familiarity with the poetry (if not their understanding of it) would give them suzhi later in life; it is an investment in their cultural capital to be drawn upon in the future. Such examples of how state policies get reworked in school contexts illuminate the contested nature of ‘educational desire’, and as Kipnis shows, ‘exactly what type of education will enhance the quality of the people is still open to debate’ (p. 66). The book’s account of the multiple and at times divergent ways in which parents, teachers and students negotiate educational desire offers a nuanced picture of how education is valued and practiced in China.

Kipnis’ work not only offers insights into the production of local forms of educational desire, but also directs our attention to the relationship between education and social change in societies beyond Zouping, Shandong, China or indeed Asia. For example, the book examines the pedagogic traditions of agrarian societies, the social implications of demographic transitions (such as declining mortality, and in China, the one-child birth-control policy), the nation-building role of schooling, global dynamics of competition, and the international inflation of educational qualifications (often referred to as ‘diploma disease’).

Kipnis extends an invitation to readers to re-evaluate our own educational systems.

Through this expanded perspective, Kipnis re-frames educational ambition and success as something that is ‘governed’ in various ways by states, corporations, schools, families, teachers and individuals. He is interested in the social, political and economic relations and techniques through which certain values about ‘good’ schooling and a desirable future become legitimised. His discussions are thus focused on how educational desire is produced by multiple actors, avoiding the trappings of ‘culture’ as a simplistic explanatory device. As Kipnis explains of his attempt to disrupt culturalist stereotypes, investigating the social forces which govern educational desire, forces which stretch out beyond the local, ‘demonstrates how high levels of educational desire can arise among people who are not east Asian’ (p. 16).

Indeed, by considering the processes through which educational desire and success are produced and mediated in China, Kipnis extends an invitation to readers to re-evaluate our own educational systems. The rise of high-stakes testing in the face of unequal resources and opportunities across Australian schools brings up troubling questions about what kind of education is valued for our young and how we are imagining their post-school futures. Kipnis offers us a critical approach for thinking about such educational desires beyond cultural shorthands like ‘Australian’ or ‘Chinese’. In this way, the book’s project to re-frame educational desire as relational and collective is perhaps its most valuable contribution.


Callick, R. 2012, ‘Tiger mums the key to Chinese results’, The Australian, 22 February.

Chua, A. 2011, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Bloomsbury, London.

Stevenson, A. 2011, ‘Three Rs of Asian education: Rigorous, rigid and results’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 September.

Dr Arathi Sriprakash is lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney. She is interested in the use of ethnographic methodologies to trace the translations of policy in development contexts. As a sociologist she has worked on projects relating to socio-cultural diversity and disadvantage in Australia, the United Kingdom and India.