Song Dynasty Imperial Examination, 11th century illustration (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Chinese state media once called China a “world superpower in stress“. According to a 2012 survey, 75% of Chinese workers are stressed, compared with 47% in the United States, 42% in the United Kingdom, and 58% in Germany. Over 70% percent of Chinese white-collar workers suffer from overwork, which poses a serious risk to their health. China Daily cites rising home prices, long working hours, overtime work and living costs as the main sources of stress.

A survey showed that almost 70% of Chinese women believe that a man must have a house and earn more than 4,000 yuan (USD 634) a month in order to have a relationship with a woman and eventually ask for marriage. “The concept of marriage in China is becoming more practical nowadays,” China Daily quoted a Shanghai professor as saying. “No matter how self-confident a woman is, she will feel she is losing face if her boyfriend or husband doesn’t have a home.”

Children and adolescents do not fair any better than adults. A 2010 survey found that a third of Chinese primary school children suffer from psychological stress. 80% of 6 to 12-year-old children from Eastern China said they were worried about exams and physical punishment by parents and teachers if they didn’t perform well. “The problems start from as young as six, when children enter school and find themselves obsessively ranked against their peers with weekly examinations, which the children find incredibly stressful,” The Telegraph quoted a professor at University College London as saying.

Every year millions of Chinese high school students take the national university entrance exam, known as gaokao,  which is considered one of the world’s toughest exams. In 2016 The Guardian reported:

Construction work is halted near examination halls, so as not to disturb the students, and traffic is diverted. Ambulances are on call outside in case of nervous collapses, and police cars patrol to keep the streets quiet … A high or low mark determines life opportunities and earning potential. That score is the most important number of any Chinese child’s life, the culmination of years of schooling, memorisation and constant stress.

The newspaper described a scene that happened in front of one examination hall in Beijing:

Shortly after 5pm, a student named Yuan Qi walked out clutching a clear pencil case and wearing a dazed expression … Yuan Qi’s father, an administrator in the People’s Liberation Army, was dressed in shorts and a polo neck. He had been at the front of the crowd, holding his phone up high to record the moment. But when his son came out, he greeted him silently and led him away from the hubbub to where his mother was waiting. She took his pencil case to stop him fidgeting with it. “Hard?” another parent asked Yuan Qi as they passed. “Depends which subject,” he replied. His father beamed with pride.

High levels of stress are not a phenomenon confined to mainland China. Other parts of the Chinese-speaking world show similar trends. For instance, a 2015 survey showed that 75% of Taiwanese people are stressed at work and 70% have trouble sleeping. 78% of respondents are “most dissatisfied with their wages and benefits and 90 percent are worried about their financial status”. Interestingly, while 70% of them are users of smartphones and spend an average of 40 hours per week on the internet, 20% of respondents said “they do not have friends with whom they could have a heart-to-heart conversation”.

School pressure in Taiwan is also a burden to children. A survey found that “academic success topped both children’s wishes and worries, with 81.4 percent feeling stressed”, Taipei Times reported in 2016.  Moreover, eight out of ten high school students attend cram schools, a form of after-school tutoring. Cram school fees are about 100,000 Taiwan dollars per year, a sum that amounts to a two-month salary for some households. A 2011 report by the Taipei Times described the routine of high school students as a life of “relentless study”, aimed at preparing students for the most important test of their lives, which decides who will “make it into the best universities and eventually get the best jobs”.

According to Business Weekly, many parents in ethnic Chinese communities (華人) think that “studying involves hardship” (凡是學習,一定有痛苦) and that “excellence in study lies in diligence, lack of cultivation lies in negligence” (業精於勤、荒於嬉, a sentence by Tang Dynasty scholar Han Yu). As we have already mentioned in another article, the situation in Hong Kong is similar to that in mainland China and Taiwan.

Read also: Face, Filial Piety and Work Motivation in Chinese Culture

The above observations raise several questions. Why do Chinese-speaking societies have similar phenomena regarding stress and social pressure, although they have had a very different political and socioeconomic development? How strong is the influence of traditional Confucian values, over a century after the collapse of the Qing Empire? What is the role of Confucian principles in creating social pressure and the motivation to achieve academic excellence?

In the present article, we shall try to answer these questions by putting contemporary Chinese societies in a historical context.

Parental Pressure and Academic Success

In 1897 Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀; 1879 – 1942) travelled to Nanjing to take part in the provincial-level examinations. He spent the following nine days in “a filthy hall where students had to write, sleep, cook, and defecate (in the hallways)” (see Orville Schell, John Delury: Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century, p. 146). That experience appalled him and made him question the wisdom of the ancient system of examinations , which appeared to him “like a circus of monkeys and bears, repeated every so many years” (ibid.).

Chen was particularly shocked by one of his fellow candidates, who seemed to have lost his mental health due to excessive stress. He walked around in the examination hall naked “except for a pair of broken shoes on his feet and a big pig-tail coiled on his head … While he walked back and forth … both his large head and small member were wagging to and fro … As he went, he read his favorite ‘eight-legged essay’ out loud in a strange long drawn-out voice. When he came to his favorite place, he would emphatically give his thigh a powerful slap, point his thumb upward and exclaim: ‘Great! This time I will make it!’” (ibid.).

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Chen had been pushed by his family to take the civil service examination. Though he did not share the traditional reverence for a career in the imperial bureaucracy, in his unfinished autobiography Chen tried to explain the rationale behind people’s obsession with degrees:

[I]n the society of the time, the imperial examinations were not just empty title. They controlled the lives of ordinary people everywhere. You had to have a degree to become a senior official … Polite expressions of good wishes were all wishes for success in the examinations: may you study well, may you come top in the exams. A husband with a degree would be a direct source of pride and status for a woman; if a household did not have a degree, then the servants would see their mistress as no better than them.

If the son of a poor farmer … was allowed to go with his teacher to the town and attend the examinations, then he would return home with a new status. It didn’t matter if he’d scribbled complete rubbish and failed even to place in the results, he was now someone. The most heartless and cruel of landlords would now look at this tenant farmer household with new eyes. In the villages it was summed up in this pithy observation: “Even a fart in examination hall brings honor to your ancestors (He Huaihong: Social Ethics in a Changing China: Moral Decay or Ethical Awakening?, p. 50).

As a matter of fact, becoming a scholar-official was the highest aspiration of every parent. A degree and a post in the bureaucracy guaranteed social recognition, the opportunity to rise up in the hierarchy of the state, as well as a fixed income.

Since such career was open only to sons, the birth of a boy was a source of happiness for the whole family, who hoped and dreamed that he would distinguish himself and secure the family a position in society.

At an early age boys were confronted with the pressure to excel in studies. Education began at three years old and focused on the Confucian classics. Mathematics and science were nearly irrelevant in ancient China for an official career (Ichisada Miyazaki: China’s Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China, trans. Conrad Schirokauer, 1976, p. 14).

Families who could afford it sent their children to a village, temple or rural school, while the wealthy often hired private tutors (ibid., p. 15). Boys’ education also included the learning of Confucian “proper behaviour”, mainly consisting in the observance of filial piety and in the understanding of social hierarchies (ibid., p. 16).

Being forced to sit for hours in a classroom and study, at an age when children want to play and be free, could have a negative impact on their health. The weakest ones became ill or mentally unstable, as the above story has shown (ibid.).

Parents exerted a great deal of pressure on their sons, urging them to “become a great man”.  A poem written by emperor Zhenzong (968 – 1022) of the Song Dynasty, well describes the motivation behind imperial China’s emphasis on education:

To enrich your family, no need to buy good land / Books hold a thousand measures of grain / For an easy life, no need to build a mansion / In books are found houses of gold / Going out, be not vexed at absence of followers:In books, carriages and horses form a crowd / Marrying, be not vexed by lack of a good go-between / In books there are girls with faces of jade / A boy who wants to become a somebody / Devotes himself to the classics, faces the window, and reads (quoted in: Miyazaki 1976, p. 17).

We can see that ancient Chinese society developed a connection between education, success and filial piety. In order to fulfill one’s filial duties, one had to make a name for himself and his family. Filiality, glory, status and power were seen as interdependent.

However, as Benjamin A. Elman noted, many late 19th and early 20th century accounts of the civil service examinations emphasized the era after 1865, which was a period of acute decline of the Qing Dynasty and of political movements that advocated reform. It is fair to say that, despite its many deficiencies, the system of civil service examinations created the world’s first and most enduring elite of highly educated, professional officials selected by meritocratic criteria (see Benjamin A. Elman: Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China).

Although society has changed radically, it appears that the connection between filial piety, status and academic success has been preserved in the Chinese-speaking world to this day. The following three examples, taken from Chinese websites, seem to confirm this point. Let us examine them:

1: My parents think that becoming a civil servant is my only career path, it’s become an obsession to them. I took the exam three times and haven’t passed, I feel a lot of pressure, what should I do?


2: My gaokao performance was really bad and my parents think it’s a loss of face. Every day they put a lot of pressure on me, what should I do? Because I did well in high school they had high expectations, but my gaokao result wasn’t at all ideal … I put pressure on myself but my family make it worse. They’re becoming more and more irascible. Every day they look sulky and depressed, and when I see them, I feel guilty …

高考考的很差 父母觉得丢了面子 每天给我特别大的压力 我该怎么做?
由于我考上了重点的高中 家里人对我的期望值蛮高 但是高考成绩考的十分不理想 …  自己的压力特别大 人也慢慢变的暴躁易怒。。 看他们每天闷闷不乐的样子 我也觉得很内疚

I have to take the TOEFL test for the second time, and my parents keep putting pressure on me, I am really worried and I don’t know how to cope with anxiety. What should I do? …

When I take mock tests my teachers tell me I will absolutely pass this time, but my parents constantly put pressure on me …

要去考第二次托福,父母每天都在身边对我施加压力,自己非常焦虑但是没有办法缓解该怎么办?… 平时做的模拟题以及老师们给我的评价都表明我这一次考试百分之百会过
然而父母却在不停的施加压力 …

Despite all the changes that have occurred in the Chinese-speaking world, we may recognize patterns of behaviour that have remained constant. Parental pressure on children to succeed in life seems to derive from similar motivations and to manifest itself in similar ways as it did a century ago.

Filial piety and “face” motivate parents to put pressure on children to succeed so as to “glorify” the family. As a result, children grow up in an environment in which pressure is pervasive and is accepted as a matter of course.

No website can survive without readers’ support. If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. Thank you for making our work possible!