[Please enjoy this Tea Leaf Nation bilingual brew. The article is first shown in English, and then in the original Chinese. 亲爱的读者，欢迎享受我们的 “双语茗茶”。英文翻译在上，中文原文在下。]
A few days ago, the articles “My Two Years at Lhasa Road Elementary School” and “My First Four Years at Lhasa Road Elementary School” caught fire on Chinese social-networking sites Renren, Douban, and Weibo. The authors are two PhD holders, one from Northwestern University and the other from Cambridge University. Zhang Zaoli (章早立) and Li Xuan (李萱) both were once students at the “brand-name” Lhasa Road Elementary School in Nanjing. Both maintain that their time studying at that elementary school were the darkest years of their lives.
Lhasa Road Elementary School is one of three brand-name elementary schools in Nanjing, the other two being Lixue Elementary and Liangya Road Elementary. According to a survey of realtors in the Lhasa Road area conducted by Sina blogger Li Zhi, the vast majority (about 95%) of Nanjingers who purchase real estate in the area covered by Lhasa Road Elementary do so to allow their children to attend the school. The homes in this area are all old houses, and yet the price for housing there is normally about 20,000 RMB per square meter.
The crux of the two authors’ complaint with the Lhasa Road Elementary School centers on academic pressure and various instances of “inhuman” and “brutal” treatment of children there, including corporal punishment, open criticism, personal humiliation and moral decay. Zhang Zaoli says that the results of all tests were ranked, with each test’s results printed and posted on the classroom wall. Li Xuan says that in the study group for the mathematics olympiad, students spent three nights per week in extra classes, as well as all of Saturday, with relentless testing following each extra session. Zhang recalls that,
“By the time we were in the sixth grade, it was a sprint to test into Nanjing Foreign Language School…Saturday morning’s make-up sessions became day-long sessions. After that, the teacher brought together the more promising students to daily self-study sessions at seven o’clock in the morning. In the afternoon, after school was out we would continue to study for the math olympiad; in the evenings, we would study on our own until about seven o’clock p.m. I became a big coffee drinker.”
In addition to the endless homework assignments, there was forced repeated copying, ripping up of test papers, yelling, whipping, and other varieties of punishments. Li mentions that the principal once grabbed her by the collar and screamed in her face, right in the hallway.
Perhaps even more harmful to the elementary students were the tattle-telling and the open criticism meetings. [Open criticism, or 批斗会 in Chinese, carries a heavy political undertone. During China's Anti-Rightest Movement and Cultural Revolution, many Chinese were persecuted and physically tortured during these meetings.] In these kinds of open criticism meetings, in addition to being required to point out all of each others’ mistakes from class, students would likely also have their school bags jerked open, get slapped in the face with their books, have their school bags dropped out of the window, and endure other types of punishment. One way of dealing with a student who refused to participate was for others to refuse to speak to him or her. Zhang added that if one’s test scores were not good, they would be scolded, and if their test scores were good, they would be suspected of cheating.
At the end of the article, writing as a researcher in child development, Li concluded: Lhasa Road Elementary School graduates have a more difficult time integrating into society, especially with regard to social interaction and their overall personality. Being publicly humiliated and socially attacked cause long-term damage to the children’s self confidence, giving the children an acute sense of insecurity that can persist for the rest of their lives. It causes them to suppress themselves in order to please others, which when severe can even lead to a nervous breakdown.
Netizens aghast, sort of
Users on China’s major social media platforms have spread this article far and wide. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, user @风雪雨琳 wrote, “Lhasa Road Elementary School is so very scary…did elementary school teachers all hit students then? To this day I cannot forget the fear I felt when I saw a teacher grabbing a student’s head and ramming it against the windowpane. Six years of primary education can destroy a lot of good kids.” Many people expressed fear and puzzlement at the violence against children in schools such as Lhasa Road Elementary, and still others told stories of similar personal experiences.
But some netizens believe this is how education should be. @其实我是可乐王子 said, “I just saw someone on Renren criticize how Lhasa Road Elementary is inhumane…but I didn’t think so. Honestly, which good elementary isn’t like this? What do kids know anyway; you think they’ll study hard without being pushed?”
@其实我是可乐王子 isn’t the only one. Responding to Zhang’s statement that “maybe if I didn’t go to Lhasa Road I would’ve had a happier and less anxious childhood,” Netizen @Proton retorted on Douban, “I think these two say they hated elementary school because they have everything now, having degrees from brand name high school and universities. Maybe other people who went to normal schools are really jealous. This is saying that you don’t care about something precisely because you’ve already gotten it.” @双 on Douban also chimed in, saying “I was a happy kid but now I am nothing special!”
Some cry out, but nothing changes
Indeed, as @Proton said, while alums of this elementary school poured out their blood and tears over their experiences, countless parents are pouring their children into this school, buying property in the right areas and working personal connections. Li Xuan and Zhang Zaoli wrote this article hoping that parents will come to understand the physical and psychological harm of Lhasa Road Elementary School to children, and maybe lessen the pain future students will endure.
But in many elementary schools around the country, tactics harsher than those of Lhasa Road’s continuously occur. The two authors may not know that child abuse has essentially become a fact of life in many elementary schools. It is not something that can be remedied by alluding to one specific case. Scores of responses online tell stories of similar physical and psychological abuse. Some say those were traumatic memories, while others simply say, “I got used to it.”
Perhaps worse than the violence itself is ignorance of the violence, or justification for the violence. Zhang mentions that many have said to him, “If you didn’t go to Lhasa Road you wouldn’t have gone to Nanjing Foreign Language School, nor the [super-elite] Tsinghua, nor would you be where you are today.”
But Zhang’s so-called “success” does not justify Lhasa Road abusing its students. First, no one can definitely prove that his accomplishments are caused by the abuse. Second, even if Zhang himself is relatively “successful,” what about other Lhasa Road students? They not only suffer from the stress caused by themselves, their parents, teachers and peers, but actual physical and mental pain. As Douban user @白 said, “For the rest of us who did not go to Lhasa Road, aren’t we mentally warped too? Our latent jealousy, isn’t that a psychological condition as well?” When our desire for “success” surpasses our aversion to violence, and even turns into our justification for violence, we do have something to fear.
Even if we say that Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mom” style of child-rearing is no more than a stern upbringing, we must admit that schools like Lhasa Road Elementary represent violence and torture. Even if there is something to be learned from the rigor that Chua advicates, there is no excusing the latter. If only China had criminalized child abuse.
[English translation by Fleur, David Wertime, and Chieh-Ting Yeh]