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A single story and a definite answer to Chinese education–Little Soldiers

A single story and a definite answer to Chinese education

–book review of Little Soldiers

When I opened the book, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into—an American narrative that aims to help readers understand Chinese education and its drastic differences with the Western education. I knew the many things that Chu would potentially talk about; the arguments she would make; and the dead-ended conclusion she would come to at the end of the day. What I did not know was that her story was solely based on her experiences of educating a preschool son who goes to a Kindergarten in Shanghai, that her story would enhance and further so many existing stereotypes, and that the so-called conclusion is just another way to condemn one type of education and praise the other. The book, although applaudable for its attempts to delve deep into one education system and culture, eventually failed to promote objective understanding and empathy, and lacked authority because the journalist is telling a single story from her narrative.

Before I go into pointing out the many flaws of the book, it is inevitable and necessary to acknowledge some meaningful things that Chu tried to do. The book is full of anecdotes and funny stories of Chu and her son as an American family living in the US. The first-hand experiences of a mother observing her son’s education is undoubtably better than a narrative with no interaction with the subjects of discussions whatsoever. The language of the book is humorous and appeals to the audiences; the author includes interviews with author Chinese students; as a journalist, Chu even steps into the classroom to observe and come up with the “differences” between Chinese and American education. As a person with Chinese heritage, the journalist acknowledges her background and makes the story even more interesting by adding her memories being educated by Chinese parents so far and so forth.

With these applaudable factors, however, come vital shortcomings and problems that ultimately make the book less valuable. To begin with, the very identity and cultural add on to the bias in the book. Although Chu herself says in an interview that “anyone who looks past the headlines and reads my book will understand that it is a fair, in-depth assessment of the world’s largest education system,” her accounts are actually not so objective. As a mother who writes about the essential differences between two types of education, she comes from a place of the mother of a kindergartener and is not an authoritative figure to make the summary (not to mention that the subject of the book is only exposed to one type of education—the Chinese side).

The biggest problem comes from the fact that Chu fixates too much on analyzing the differences but ignored a lot of common characteristics and universalities; her narrative oversimplifies a complex issue. In an interview she asks the question that “why do issues around education have to be so black-and-white? Perhaps in this click-bait, fast-moving information culture, we’re no longer capable of absorbing complexity? I hope not.” The reality lies on the flip side—Chu’s book absolutely sought to describe education as “so black-and-white”, where the Chinese one is depicted as the dark and “dehumanizing” one. The purpose of the book cannot be more obvious: Chu wants to use her son’s kindergarten experience (which is not enough to make any argument about Chinese education) to draw dead-ended conclusions about what the Chinese education system really looks like from the perspective of an “insider”.

“Fear and revulsion sell—they’re part of the popular narrative when it comes to China,” says Chu in an interview. Even before writing the book, Chu’s language and her book’s contents left me the impression that she already has an idea of what she would write about and the aspects of Chinese education that she wants to expose and critique.

As a reader with visions of the two types of education, I can say that Chu is fueling stereotypes, misunderstanding, and biases against Chinese education from a superior position. Her book, which is based solely on her American kindergartener and limited people that she interviewed, is not enough to give a comprehensive and accurate picture of the real Chinese education. In fact, many of the things that she described about education are universal problems, and simply attributing them to the Chinese culture is irresponsible and inadequate. Chu wants to write about those differences so much that she forgets (or intentionally resists the fact that similar issues persist in American education and all types of education).

The book, a simplification and single story, is even used by Chu and many educators and critics as the perfect snapshot of the Chinese culture. “Educational practices reveal society at its most foundational,” says Chu, “with implications for everything from how we prepare our kids to compete to how we conduct business and even how we engage politically with the Chinese.” However, does a book full of double standards and single stories contribute to the bigger understanding of a country? I do not think so. The conclusions, implications, and the so-called “middle ground” that Chu suggest are simply problematic and reflect, again, the many double standards the American perspective uses when presenting China and even East Asian as a whole—and that is very misleading.

The book helplessly reminds me of the many other American narratives that I have read that focused on “truthfully” and “objectively” presenting the “accurate” image of developing countries to the larger audiences. The book again helplessly reminds me of the Acirema essay that satirizes a superior attitude that many anthropologists adopt when analyzing native civilizations. Likewise, the book helplessly reminds me of the TED talk about the Danger of a Single Story. And interestingly, the book helplessly reminds me of the book The Journalist and the Murderer, and I wonder if Chu’s subjects would feel betrayed when they read the book. My last question would be: how do we pursue unbiased journalism and avoid using it as an excuse to write single stories? And how do we, as journalists, use the resources that we have to promote cultural understanding and empathy, instead of fueling those stereotypes and hate?

Information: Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu

Date: 6/6/20


Published by Sunny

I am a high school rising sophomore and I love to read and write.

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