The 'little emperors' and the 'tall test'

China’s one-child policy has created a generation of “little emperors,” who are both spoiled by their parents and pushed relentlessly to study, study, study for the “tall test” that will determine if they get into a university. From Psychology Today

Throughout Jing Zhang’s youth in Beijing, her parents took her to weekly resumé-boosting painting classes, waiting outside the school building for two hours each time, even in winter. Yanming Lin enjoyed perfect silence in her family’s one-room Shanghai apartment throughout her five-plus hours of nightly homework; besides nixing the television, her mother kept perpetual watch over her to make sure she stayed on task.

. . . Your entire future hinges on one test, the national college entrance exam — China’s magnified version of the SAT. The Chinese call it gao kao, or “tall test,” because it looms so large. If students do well, they win spots at China’s top universities and an easy route to a middle-class lifestyle. If not, they must confront the kind of tough, blue-collar lives their parents faced. With such high stakes, families dedicate themselves to their child’s test prep virtually from infancy.

A Beijing preschool is said to teach three-year-olds to memorize the first 100 digits of pi. This strikes me as insane.

All these years of cramming may not even pay off. China now turns out many more university graduates than it has jobs for them to do. The “little emperors” don’t like to take jobs they consider beneath them.

Video game addiction is considered a national epidemic. Suicide is “China’s leading cause of death for those aged 20 to 35.”

China’s obsession with perfection was displayed in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics: Organizers chose a “flawless” girl to lip-synch the national anthem; the real singer wasn’t shown because she has a chubby face and crooked teeth.

Update: The South Koreans have a similarly insane cram-and-test system, reports the New York Times. While 80 percent of South Korean high school graduates go to college, only those who ace the test to get into the top three universities are guaranteed success.

About Joanne


  1. All of these factors, collectively, with your view, sure puts a chill on the whole situation. This sounds like (looks like) an organization in trouble. Will there be an ultimate downfall? For the people of China, I hope not.

    Many Americans seem to have an interesting view of Asian education, seeing it at the epitome of perfection…so many facts memorized, so much obeying, everyone doing what they are supposed to, highly trained people…but what is not often thought about is the other side that this creates which is what you have brought up in the post.

  2. As an American teacher I think the “ideal”, if such a thing exists, would be somewhere between the two extremes–but not exactly in the middle. I could go for a little more memorizing and following instructions and a little less self-esteem building than what we currently have in the US.

  3. Growing up as a Chinese American in New York, I remember the enormous amount of pressure my parents put on me to succeed in school from the first day of school. I was a straight A student because anything less was absolutely not accepted. I was told that I had to be better than everyone else and when I asked why, I was told because I was Chinese. Luckily I was able to use my skills to study to be a teacher. I can understand my parents wanting the best for me and for me to do my best but that was a lot of pressure to put on a little kid.