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A Letter From China
Image: Jonno: Crossroads; which way to go? - Click to Enlarge Infrequent, irreverent, and irrelevant snapshots of daily life in China
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A Letter From China

Rhiannon Goes To School


I had intended to begin writing this letter this morning, but at five past nine, the power went off. We had been battered by strong winds and heavy rain overnight, the worst of it being virtually passed; I suspected we were in the eye of the cyclone. However, due to the expected bad weather and heavy rain, the kids were given today day off school. By that, I mean all the students, although I noted some seniors attending as normal.

I grew up with regular power cuts, those being the days of 250 Volts, 15 Amp round pin plugs, and hefty ceramic fuses that had to be rewired when they blew. We lived at the end of the power supply line, a power surge would mean we were first off and last back on. Often this was caused by a feedback loop similar to a musical harmonic. My mother always kept a large supply of candles ready, and means of cooking on open fires.

Today of course, things have changed greatly, and it is rare for urbanites to lose power. We suffered only once during six years in Foshan, the power being off for 30 minutes to the entire block. Otherwise, apart from building maintenance and upgrades, there was nothing of any note. I lost power for the day when I lived on the rural island in the middle of the West Pearl River, but a trip to ‘the shop’ led me to know there was a power upgrade to the entire island in progress.

Down here in Toisan we do lose power, not all that often, but enough to keep candles in the cupboard. This has increased since our move to the new apartment, which is classified as part of the same housing area. Before, we lived in apartments close to the main road, where there were a lot of shops and other businesses nearby. It is reasonable to assume the power supply to that area has been seriously upgraded.

The road we live on is well over half a mile long, and does not have a name (locals know it as ‘poi zing jung-hok’), despite being the main artery servicing several hundred low-rise apartment blocks. These begin near the main road and ‘Old Village’, where construction of six storey buildings began in the fifties. We live in an eight storey building erected in 1964. Further up the road, and fanning back behind, are newer buildings constructed during the seventies and later. Some of these are nine and ten storey's high, without lifts! That's a lot of stairs, and the top apartments are comparatively a lot cheaper to rent or buy.

Opposite us lies the entrance to a modern ‘Garden’, as private and secure housing developments are termed. The block I can see from our balcony was built only a few years ago. I once estimated the local population of this particular 'housing development' as being in the region of one hundred thousand people. Toisan (Tai Shan City) proper, has a population of over two million inhabitants; those including only the registered ones. Toisan County has almost five million registered inhabitants, and is regarded as a small Chinese city.

The Garden has its own power supply, whilst the one we are coupled to has been used to supply a greater number of properties, which nowadays are using many more electrical appliances. The area is overdue an upgrade. In the eight months or so since we have moved in, we have lost power five times, twice for very short periods. All the others have occurred during very bad weather, the first lasting from daybreak until several hours after dark. The second was almost as long, power returning just after 6 p.m. Today, the power came back just before 2 p.m., so it wasn't too bad.

I was aware the power would be restored, because I watched a team of workers flip the breakers with a long wooden pole, like a chimney sweep's; they are the bottom three horizontally in the top-right picture, just above the transformer. The guy was wearing wellington boots, no doubt as a safety precaution. There are several of these along our road, and some while later, Siu Ying saw them being reconnected. A worker told her power would be restored in thirty minutes, and within twenty, it came back on.

You may have thought more deeply about this picture, and especially about what could go wrong. Anyone who has experienced Chinese, Indian, or Cairo road usage will not be surprised to learn local drivers take the shortest route around this obstacle, going left or right according to their destination, and not The Rule of the Road. It works most of the time, but gets complicated by parked cars in the alley, and especially during rush hours. Apparently, nobody has run into the poles yet; I wait with baited breath.

The school we selected for Rhiannon to attend is at the top of the road, about two hundred yards away. It was built in several phases and occupies the local high ground, also having a secondary entrance from a smaller feeder road to the north. Behind and to the east lies a conservation area, dotted about with allotments, for want of a better word. The common law of China is that all land belongs to the State. Not so long ago in UK, all undesignated land belonged to The Crown, now The State, lest we forget our parallels.

That is ‘land’ and not ‘buildings’, different thing. In this over-simplistic version, I will add that any land not under use, can be used by the people; sometimes this amounts to a lean-to habitat fashioned out of tarpaulin, bits of wood, and twines of grass string; but normally, these are soon removed by the police. However, I refer in general to the planting of crops, as famine is still remembered by many Chinese alive today (Even I remember rationing; and Cynthia's next letter will prove the point). In greeting Chinese do not say, “Hello, how's the weather,” their formal greeting is, “Hello, have you eaten [rice] today?”

The dread of hunger dominates the Chinese psyche, and so it is common to find spare land turned for use as a vegetable plot to feed a family, or perhaps grow additional seasonal produce for market. My father in law has done this with small plots around the rural village where he lives. I have known him rise in the darkness of 5 a.m., pick cabbage by torchlight, and leave for market before dawn breaks; that would have been Spring 2012, when he was in his mid-sixties.

The first part of the nature reserve at the top of our road is similar, a scattering of fifty or more small plots, withstanding the wildness of nature a little further afield. The road stops with steps leading up to this area, and continues as a dirt track that winds it way for a mile towards the rear of the city's main reservoir. This is a scenic spot for tourists, and hosts many local walkers. The official entrance to the region lies opposite where the trail ends, and offers shops, public toilets, and a selection of eateries of Chinese persuasion.

The walk from my apartment would be between two and three miles dependant on route taken, one way. Having this lovely resource within yards makes it enjoyable to live within the concrete jungle that surrounds me; freedom and nature are only a few strides away.

Come daybreak, a steady stream of people walk past my window, headed for breakfast on the far side of the lake, it is a local tradition. Some cycle, but most walk. I have recognised some faces walking back several hours later, and after the morning school rush.

Local days begin at dawn, some of the first being the army of street cleaners with large handcarts and rustic brooms. Amongst the early throng, are a few traders or mothers, going with empty bags, and returning twenty minutes later with full ones, having obviously gathered their crops, either to sell or cook? In addition, local residents head for Town as early as 6 a.m., to get the best produce from the ‘wet market’. They trundle past the street cleaners and scavenger people, waving their hands around, some clapping a lot. At the cusp of any Chinese dawn, many are looking to put last night behind them.

History of Chinese Education

Let us begin by acknowledging that educating your children has great benefit. Whilst I personally, may or may not, agree with specifics, I do embrace the overall concept.

Before tackling the modern era of Chinese education, I want to put this concept into perspective. In olden times, as in the West, education was reserved for the elite. Even today, many countries still adopt this attitude, or allow only male children to go to school. Think either Africa or Islam, and you got a starter for ten.

Historically, China has often been regarded as a closed society, and regards education during over two millennia of Empires; the art of writing was reserved for the higher echelons of government, and ‘sages’. It was often illegal for common citizens to write anything at all, or have any form of formal education. This was overturned one hundred years ago, with the overthrow of the last Chinese Empire, the Qing. Democrats were responsible, and much of China was technically a democracy for decades; other parts ruled by Warlords, including a brief return to Empire in Beijing, alone. The decade long, Sino-Japanese war intervened, and eventually Chairman Mao came to power.

Although the Nationalist rescinded laws forbidding education, it was not until the Communists took power that the common citizen was given access to free, state funded education. Take a moment to think about that, education for all citizens began only 70 years ago, many years less in practice to reach all parts of this very large and populous country. Regards living memory, my father in law attended a rural school for a few years; my wife's mother did not. Their three children did attend full-time school, but the village school closed for sowing and harvest seasons. With two rice crops per year, and in those days, three long official holidays, it would be generous to call this full-time education.

This could go a long way to explaining why Chinese are somewhat beholden of being offered free, state education for their children. We take this for granted in the West, and have done for seemingly centuries. As an aide to conceptual understanding, I remember that when I first attended secondary school way back in the 60’s, many older kids were moaning because the age of leaving school with a School Leaving Certificate had risen from 14 to 15, meaning they had to endure another year of ‘being educated’. There was back then the CSE qualification, but I was always in the top classes, taking my GCE's; then comprehensive education happened, and everything got dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.

I will go so far as to state, “I believe a child should be encouraged to fulfil their true potential, and gifted children, especially of the arts or specific sciences, should be suitable supported.” I felt teachers always tried to dumb me down, and it only got worse with Comprehensives; a ‘careers advisor’ once 'advised' my sister; because she was female, she could not become an Engineer. The plebe suggested her having a family, working on a till, or selling shoes in a shoe shop; that was late 70’s UK ‘Comprehensive Education’ in Blighty. This tells me those were the goals of that particular school, regards girls at least. Durrr? She is now retired from a very senior Engineering position within regional government, previously in charge of strategic bridge works and major stretches of Motorway rebuilding. Well-done Sis!"

My reason for mentioning this is that I was brought up in a world where children go to school. Regards China, this is a very recent occurrence, and all of a sudden, China is ‘Open’, and children know they are already being compared with their peers across the entire globe; hence, the inborn education ethic.

Modern Chinese Education

When it came to our daughter’s schooling, there were many options; regards kindergarten, there are three large schools within two hundred yards, catering for hundreds of preschoolers each. Infants and secondary schools are a bit further away, except for the ones located within the school Rhiannon now goes to. The theory is that once accepted into kindergarten, (There is a long waiting list), children will graduate to differing stages of the school complex, but stay within the whole, so the grade they attend is higher, but the school gates remain the same. That is not to say Rhiannon will complete all her education there, for it is not quite the best senior school, but we already have provisional acceptance.

Before I focus on our daughter specifically, I want to tell you about Chinese education in general. While each school or Second Tier City area may have distinctions and local directives, there are commonalities. I’ll try this as a list:

  1. Most teaching is via rote learning, repeat three times, and keep on doing so until it is remembered.
  2. English is taught from kindergarten through to University, often with classes featuring native speakers of English.
  3. Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to a range of sports, whatever age the child. The only exceptions being those children interested and gifted in the arts, or perhaps the school play.
  4. All urban schools provide a high quality running track surrounding a pitch used for football, and other sports. There will also be a well furnished gymnasium where badminton, table tennis, and gymnastics are encouraged .Although there is no gender bias, boys naturally take to Basketball, and girls to Volleyball, the two predominant sports.
  5. The school day begins at 8 a.m., and finishes around 5 p.m.
  6. Many schools provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner as part of the standard fee.
  7. Education for 5 to 16 year olds is free, often to 18. This would be if the child were six before the turn of the year, so correctly, Chinese education begins at 6-years-old.
  8. Better schools charge, ostensibly for ‘services’. I am not going into this here, but know that payment is required to attend better schools, including State schools.
  9. Lunch is from 12 midday to either 2 or 2.30 p.m. 30-minutes are allowed for eating, the remainder for sleep, siesta if you prefer. Every pupil has his or her dedicated bed.
  10. The study day consists of four morning classes, and three in the afternoon.
  11. Each class is of 1-hour duration, but there is a break at the end, within the hour. Seniors will have 50-minutes teaching followed by 10-minutes break. Infants will have 40-minutes tuition, and 20-minutes break between classes.
  12. Most senior schools offer limited, or are mainly, boarding schools.
  13. Generally, teaching staff, have representatives on duty from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.
  14. Many older students will begin school before 7 a.m., and most will do several hours vocational class study each evening, from either 6.30 or 8, finishing around 10 p.m.
  15. Many schools offer extra classes on Saturday morning, and for weekly boarders, Sunday evening. Except for seniors studying for final examinations, these would be voluntary vocational studies.
  16. All pupils appear proud to wear their school uniform most of the time, even when out shopping or chilling on days off. Uniforms are generally casual and comfortable, like track suits for older students, younger boys wearing shorts, and girls, sometimes skirts. Otherwise, virtually all school uniforms are unisex.
  17. Chinese have three school terms, although this has practicably become two longer ones incorporating national holidays. The year begins on the first Monday before the 1st September, and ends around the second week of July.
  18. There are two long holidays, each exceeding two weeks in duration; Golden Week marking the start of modern rule on 1st October, and Chinese New Year, a lunar holiday like Easter, but normally centring around the first week of February.
  19. Of the others, most notable is Chang-e holiday honouring the Moon. This is lunar, and occurs late September, although it was very early this year [2014]. Neither will studies be offered on Grave Sweeping day, the day all Chinese honour their ancestors; Western New years Day, and Teacher’s Day.
  20. Of the others, I will not name them all; Dragon Boat festival is very important, occurring late May, but celebrated according to Hong Kong dates, usually the 5th of June. Late Spring Festival marking May Day is important in Guangdong, this has reverted to being a weeklong festival, and schools interpret accordingly.
  21. Most children will attend summer camp during July, whose focus is fun, but also offers additional education. Often an English language competition is included, and finals are recorded by local television, and often shown nationwide. I was fortunate to be included in such a program when I first came to China; thank you Neal.
  22. All schools have security on the gate, and two motorcycle cops attend our local school entrance each evening around five-thirty.
  23. Teachers will welcome students in the morning, and be around when they leave at night. The parents are known by name, and this brief time offers a chance for parents to speak to teachers, which is a regular occurrence.

From the above, you would be correct to perceive that Chinese consider education to be of paramount importance. You would also be correct to assume that the vast majority of Chinese children believe in a school ethic, and want to do as well as they can, volunteering for extra study if it means they can get better results.

One other thing of note, is that many schools will offer a weekly or monthly chance to socialise with Westerners in a practical setting. These events are called English Salon, and are conducted in English. I have attended where we have cooked and eaten English food, and I still remember the fun of trying to teach kids how to use a knife and fork properly.

If you have any questions, then please use the comments section below, and I will answer all as best I can; the above is simply guidance as generalised.


Regular readers of this column may recall we tried Rhiannon with kindergarten two years ago, but she was way too young. We looked seriously at it last year, but the Head said it was better to wait a year, and offered us a place for her in 12-months time. This has since come to pass.

On the 26th August I watched from above, as ‘Mummy-ah’, took our daughter to school for the first time. I remembered my first time, which I detested. Rhiannon didn't cry, but got stuck in straight away, playing with the toys whilst others watched. Later, she complained of many other kids crying; she was not impressed. By the time we collected her from school at 4.30, she was already holding her own with the older boys. She loves school! Cool.

She leaves at 7.30, and has breakfast at kindergarten before first class at 8 a.m. The first week was very much a trial for all, but lasted a very long time. I was unhappy when she attended on Saturday, and when Siu Ying said she was also going on Sunday we had the makings of a very rare row. However, I know to trust my wife, and she said it was OK. I asked Rhiannon herself, and she said it was OK as well, so I guess that was it. No argument, but I was quite concerned; no way was this going to end up 7-days per week.

In the event, she did 12-days kindergarten, and although tired, was very happy. On the second Monday she arrived in school uniform, pictured in green, the ruck sack is basically empty apart from a pencil case and a change of clothes. Kindergarten costs us Y365 RMB per term, or around £35 quid, say $50, including breakfast and lunch.

The answer to my distress became clear; I did not realise the Moon Festival was so early this year, and that second weekend she was off school from Friday, returning on Wednesday. This is true of all China; the weekdays days off are worked, usually before hand. She returned to school with her own, brand new duvet cover and pillow plus case, so looks like she is in for the long haul.

Mama came to visit for a couple of days, and did the school run, presumably so she knows where to go and what to do, as do I. I watched them walking and Rhiannon was not happy, not happy at all. I was worried this was a reaction to having to go to school, and called Siu Ying as Nonni stomped off in the opposite direction, headed away from school down the very busy main road. I was struggling to follow the shouted Toisanwah, as our daughter remained adamant something was seriously wrong. In time, Mama picked her up and carried her to school. My wife enlightened me; “We go the other way on the scooter. That is what Rhiannon thought was right.”

We chuckled, and I felt most relieved. To walk, then the direct route is best. However, our weird electric scooter is … how shall I say; not the most powerful of beasts, and the school has within, some serious inclines. Siu Ying had worked out that to save battery, the longer way round was better on two wheels, as the kindergarten complex is located adjacent to the rear gate on the other side of the hill. Rhiannon was simply stating her case, as she knew of from her Mother. Terrific! Already she knows her own mind; four and three-quarters, imagine…

That week also revealed a small turning point in her education, as she was promoted to the top class of her grade. The Headmistress took my wife aside and said Rhiannon was very clever; I tend to be proud, but brush off these remarks, as they are old news to me. This led to Rhiannon wanting to sign up for extra class, another hour of tuition on a series of more advanced subjects that she loves to tell us about. I understand most of what she relates; enough to know she wants to be there. We are not pushing her, Rhiannon is actively seeking this out for herself.

We have since settled down to five days school and two days off at weekends, but that is about to change. She came home a couple of nights ago and said her ABC’s correctly, they had had their first English class, and she was proud to speak to me. The intonation was native, not Chinese; brilliant. Obviously, I had done this with her, but it seemed, so had a class at school using the rote learning approach, and she was damned good. During today's power cut she was practicing writing English letters, all of her own accord, all I did was supply the paper. I worked with her a little later, but for someone so young, she was fantastic.

The upshot of all this is, Rhiannon has asked to go to school on Saturday morning, where she will have 1-2-1 English tuition for 2-hours; 9 – 11 a.m.. I plan to take her the first time, just so I can gauge the teacher. The cost is irrelevant if we can speak to each other properly, and Y450 per term, say £45 or $65.

Siu Ying has also told me she can take other Saturday classes, but she is worried about Rhiannon getting too tired; my original concern. The extras are music and dance, which I interpret as learning keyboards, and tap. She loves dancing, and a musical ear is great—time I dusted off the old 12-string and played her some tunes. I am actually a lot more up for this than my wife, and I will need to speak to Rhiannon, to find out what she wants to do; after all, it is her life to lead. To my mind, the greatest art of parenthood is to motivate direction subtly, dually, plurality; not though 'commandments' the child will eventually react against.

From a Western point of view, I find it encouraging that the school are providing these options. Does your's? Nevertheless, Rhiannon will have to learn at least 40, 000 individual Chinese characters before leaving school, and that is a lot of rote learning that I see no option for, but to learn them all by heart.

The more complex characters are made up of simple, but related ones, to provide a new and specific meaning. This means that by adding the simple elements of a complex character together, you can work out what it probably means. There remains a proviso, because the Simplified version (China Mainland) does not encompass all character components, at least fully; Traditional Chinese does (Hong Kong and Macao); which are used for higher interpolation of Buddhist and Dao [Tao] writing.

I already know Rhiannon will end up learning some Traditional characters, as I myself have done; one of the most common is ‘gate/door’, meaning either or. Cantonese door and entry in general is 門, gate specifically is 閘, and ‘gate of a lane’ is 閻, commonly an official entrance to a township or village. All these are represented simply as 门 in Mandarin. Additionally, Chinese Calligraphy, ma jeurng (Ma Jong), and Chinese chess pieces are normally marked in Traditional Chinese.

Strange then, that a couple of years ago [Circa 2012], Beijing pressed the UN (United Nations), to remove Traditional Chinese writing from the list of the world's officially recognised written languages. It was removed, and I don't need to ask why, do you? However, spoken Cantonese, and Traditional Chinese script remain the official language of Hong Kong = your starter for ten.

Most of these characters have conceptual, not logical meanings; often being interpreted to divine the modern written meaning. This is complicated by the fact that three, and sometimes more characters are often employed to create a composite meaning. Perhaps this could be why, when you give a Chinese person a short written sentence, perhaps your address, or a note somebody wrote for you, and they appear to take a long time to work it out. What they are actually doing is examining all the options the phrase could mean, and translating that into something foreigners will understand, or other Chinese when spoken.

Regards my daughter, she has a lot of learning yet to come, but if she grows up to ask the question ‘Why?’ I will be extremely contented.

The world is your oyster, open it or clam up.


This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from my work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.
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Image: New A/C arrives, note the stacking - Click to Enlarge

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