The Education system seems to be an appropriate place to begin for several reasons: it looks a lot like the model for education in the west, I am more familiar with it since coming to China, and I think it appeals to the majority of readers.
In a linear fashion China’s education looks strikingly similar to that of America: Elementary School, Middle School, High School and then a college or university. The intricacies of the system begin to reveal themselves when discussing each level of education.
Primary or Elementary School is virtually the same as in America. The Chinese Government covers the costs of education and materials. Middle School is only slightly different. Though the tuition is covered at Middle Schools, students in the city must pay for their own books and supplies. This does not hold true for families in the countryside, which generally cannot afford to pay for these things. After Middle School the students take a test to get into High School. Paying for High School tuition is universal. The typical cost might be around $500 per year (as I was told by a high school student here), which can be incredibly expensive for some families. Since it is not a requirement, many children will go to work after Middle School. Students who are successful in High School will take the 高考 (gao(1)kao(3)), which is a college entrance examination. This test is so difficult and competition is so fierce that July, the month the examination was traditionally given, was nicknamed “black July.” The test is now given in June.
High School is a difficult time for Chinese students because the pressure to do well on the Gao Kao is so high. Typically students will get up, attend classes until lunch, then go back to have classes until dinner, and, finally, return to school for an evening of studying. In some ways it seems as if the cultures of High School and College in America and China have been swapped, with Americans seeming to be more relaxed during High School and more intent on studying in College (generally).
Students who pass the Gao Kao with a good score (all scores are relative to other students) can choose to attend better universities. Students who do not score well attend colleges or institutes or do not attend college at all. Universities have their own rank order throughout China, but, more broadly, the system of Higher Education is Four-Tiered. Universities rank at the top, though, as I have said before even they fit within a hierarchy. The next level is called Teacher’s University, which prepares students to become teachers in various fields such as Chinese, English, Physics, Chemistry, Art, Music, etc. My college is at the 3rd level, and it is known as a Teacher’s Institute. It is also a four-year school, but it is the lowest of the 4-year schools. Finally, there is another type of college that is similar to mine but offers only 3-year degrees.
A student’s name on a degree seems to mean less in China than in America. English majors must pass tests to qualify for certain jobs. The TEM 4, 6, and 8 are all difficult tests for English Majors and will determine how good of a job the students can obtain. Other fields have similar tests.