An Unacknowledged Debt
China’s US trade and treasury security surplus remains legendary. At least two trillion dollars of Treasury debt is held by Chinese banks and government entities; each month many billions of dollars flows into Chinese coffers, as we buy far more than what we sell to them. The Chinese government then buys more US debt trying to keep the yuan-dollar exchange rate stable, another factor fueling rapid Chinese inflation.
Yet there is an increasing Chinese debt that has been paid little attention – the rising sleep debt of Chinese schoolchildren. As reported by the official news agency Xinhua (http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2011-05/30/c_13901645.htm,) elementary and middle school students surveyed in Tianjin in 1999, 2005, and 2010, at no point averaged more than 8 hours of sleep per night – including weekend sleep. This compares with Korean students, who in one survey slept so little on weekdays (less than five hours a night) that they averaged 13 hours of sleep per weekend day.
The reason cited for so little sleep? School – and the examinations. A system of over 2000 years still daily impacts the brains and bodies of Chinese students.
The examination system has remained critical in choosing Chinese leaders since Han times (206 B.C. to 221 A.D.) though it’s truly widespread use began during the Tang Dynasty (618-906.) Under the Tang the pattern was set – a series of tiered tests, first local examinations, followed by provincial examinations, followed by the national metropolitan examination – the latter taking every 3 years. From those who succeeded in passing all three parts, which in Qing times (1644-1911) was generally about 50 candidates every three years, the leaders of the bureaucracy were chosen.
Though many successful metropolitan graduates, called jinshi, never went on to bureaucratic posts, sometimes for political reasons, it is difficult to underestimate how the examination ethos affected the population. People, including major scholars, spent lifetimes trying to pass the exams. Once passed the way to power and riches (and when have they not gone together?) seemed open, and with a scholar’s rise would also come the elevation of his family (women were not permitted to take the exams.) The successful scholar was said to be a fish turned into a dragon, which itself led to a whole genre of art attuned to the exams. From successful candidates came not just political leaders but many of the great artists, writers, calligraphers, philosophers, and community leaders.
So doing well in the exams is still a very big deal, and you start your preparation early in life. Just as in the old days, families who can pay for tutors and better schools give their kids a leg up. Poor students who succeeded in the exam often became famous, but they were greatly outnumbered by those whose parents had been officials or landowners or rich merchants.
But today there is greater social mobility in China, and people really want to get ahead. With the one family, one child policy still mainly in place, all hopes are placed on your single offspring’s success. Most Chinese families are not expecting their kids will became famous sports or rock stars. You achieve by doing well in school.
Tianjin, where the survey took place, is a city of about 12 million that acts as the port of Beijing. It has famous universities, including Nankai, and though overshadowed by Beijing and Shanghai has a long and important cultural and economic history. Kids in Tianjin want to do well.
And the Shanghai students they are competing with also do well. In the last international surveys, they were #1 in math, science, and reading comprehension in the world – with the US far down the list.
With their students performing so well, why should people worry about students’ lack of sleep?
Exams Affect More than Brains
Another area in which China now sadly has a surplus is obesity. Recent reports show kids in Beijing demonstrating obesity levels 10-20 times higher than was true in the 1980s.
These children are certainly fed far more than in the past. Opportunities for sports are somewhat limited in many schools, and non-existent in others. Many kids walk to school, but the first priority is studying.
Not only do Chinese students sit in class, they sit on the buses to and from competitive schools, and they sit doing homework at night.
So the scourges of obesity and diabetes are coming to China – rapidly. And sitting itself, even when people are otherwise athletic, is a major risk factor for long term mortality – beyond its effects on weight.
So two thousand years later the examinations are still a major facet of Chinese culture. They are the path to power and money, the main focus of youth, and now a cause of future medical suffering and public health troubles through obesity and diabetes. Unfortunately a surfeit of studying and a deficit of sleep may cost the Chinese people more than they expect.
Progress has its price.
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