Tiger Mothers and the History of the Chinese Examination System

In the Ming Dynasty, (1368 – 1644), China established an examination system as a merit-based approach for appointments to government office. There were three levels to the exams, with the final cut then coming through an examination administered by the Emperor himself. The subject matter of the exams was standardized beyond anything we see today. It was based on a limited set of ancient works, stripped of any contemporary additions. The examinations depended exclusively on the memorization of these classics. The exams were administered in a way that assured anonymity. Those reaching the third level wrote in separate cells, the equivalent of modern-day cubicles. After days of writing, they literally threw their papers over a wall, where the writing was copied by a scribe to assure there would be no tell-tale indications of the examinees.

Those seeking elite government office spent years preparing for the exams. Those who failed could reapply as often as they wished. This gave hope that even those of humble birth could rise to the upper class by dint of their will and assiduous efforts. This in turn increased the stability of the Dynasty, because those who might vent their frustration of being outside the system and who had the talent for fomenting a revolution could be channeled into the elite rungs of society instead. And the fact that this path existed made it more difficult to corral others of a similar mindset.

This system was adopted by other Asian countries, notably Japan and Korea, and has continued to the modern era with little change. The path to the top colleges came through similarly standardized tests based on that ability to memorize and learn by rote. These tests were of such critical importance that students followed up their class work with hours of after school studies, and often took an additional year to prepare. Tests governed admission into the elite middle schools, which in turn prepared the student for the next set of tests to get into the elite high schools, which then led to the elite colleges. Unlike the U.S., the pecking order of those colleges is clearly determined, with one school indisputably at the top – Seoul University in Korea, Tokyo University in Japan.

I studied Asian languages in college and spent a few years in Asia, seeing this first hand. Just before I spent time in Korea, the country had eliminated the grueling examination program for entrance into the middle schools, and the result was an almost immediate increase of an inch in the average height of twelve and thirteen year-olds. I knew students who took a year after college, living in squalid conditions while studying non-stop for the kodug koshi, the equivalent of the third-level exam that extended from the Ming. And those who failed could retake the exams, in the same spirit as occurred during the Ming.

I believe this tradition of examination, based on memorization and rote learning, with a fanatical focus to the exclusion of all else, is at the root of the Asian “Tiger Mother” approach to raising children today.

The examination system is less prevalent now in Asia because government service has lost some of its earlier luster as opportunities expanded in the private sector, and it is certainly irrelevant for Asians who now live in U.S., (the preparation for the SAT, substantial as that can be, pales in comparison). But the tradition remains. Perhaps it survives as more than a tradition, because the families of those who harbored the characteristics that allowed them to succeed in these exams would have flourished, so those traits would have survived disproportionately.

The rigor of this examination process, which in the U.S. simply does not require the level of focus and does not fully determine one’s future, is being channeled into other areas. One area, prominent in the Tiger Mother book, is music. Several of my children who participated in piano competitions were often the only non-Asians. The results of the Tiger Mother progeny’s two plus hours a day of practice, focused a year at a time on the two or three pieces required for most competitions, is spectacular in one respect, and flat in another. Such musical training is more like training for athletics; indeed piano performance in particular can be readily transformed into an athletic event that focuses on small-muscle groups. The performances of the piano athletes are technically spectacular, but as would be expected from something that is developed by rote, they can be lean on musicality. Think gymnastics versus ballet. (I sponsor a piano competition in the memory of one of my children who had an insatiable love of music where a broad repertoire is required, with the hope that this will map to students who have a love of music as an end in itself).

What is the end result of this vestige of the Ming approach to education? Well, we can look back to the end result in the Ming itself. Those who passed the examinations and entered into the elite offices had the classics down cold. But they didn’t know much else. How could they, given the efforts and focus required of these examinations? And while I don’t have much to go on, my guess would be that they were not exactly off the charts in terms of what we now popularly call emotional IQ. But the history of the period suggests that for all the laudable screening, those who succeeded to office often did not succeed in the office.

My experience is that this process as it has been retained in the modern era leads to similar failings. That should not be surprising, because as with the Ming, there is little time for anything beyond the task. There is an incredible uniformity in the approach to problem solving, and the sorts of problems that can be solved. When I was a professor, I had two Korean students who handed in identical exam papers. They went so far as to work out the problems in the same steps, put a box around each problem, put identical work in the same place in the box. They both even underlined each of the answers twice. It was clear to me that one of them must have copied in distinctively uncreative fashion from the other. When I called them into my office and confronted them with their identical work, they really had no idea why I thought there was a problem. They had not cheated, they had been trained with painstaking precision to do things in the same way. Thus the form of their work was identical, the process of their solutions was identical, and their mistakes were as well.

Originally published at Rick Bookstaber’s Blog and reproduced here with permission.