Culture shock over Chinese education philosophy

Culture shock over Chinese education philosophy

A tough question posed to a professor exposes the difference between Chinese and Western education systems

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Under the Chinese education system, there is little interaction between teachers and students. The Western system is based on communication.

Recently, I attended a lecture by an experienced Chinese professor who normally teaches only Chinese students. During the lecture, the professor – who has a PhD in his field – made a number of assertions that I found to be questionable.

The lecture was on the relationship between technological advancement and culture. He said that Western-style skyscrapers should not be embraced by Chinese people because they supplant the native Chinese architecture.

I raised my hand and suggested that both designs could coexist, using Taipei 101, in Taiwan, as an example. It’s a modern skyscraper which resembles a pagoda, I said. My rebuttal seemed to agitate the professor, who said: “This is my ideology and you don’t have to follow it if you do not want to.” Following this exchange, I was surprised to find that my Chinese peers were similarly offended. After the talk ended, my friend told me that my actions had “disrespected” and “shamed” the professor.


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I was surprised, because I couldn’t fathom how asking a teacher a tough question could be seen as being disrespectful. To me, this seemed entirely normal. In my previous school, I was quite used to interacting, or even debating, with the teacher. Herein lies the difference between the Western and Chinese education philosophies.

Under the Chinese system, teachers stand in front of the class and lecture, while students take down notes. There’s little interaction. However, in the West, teachers often strive to build a more personal relationship with students, interacting with them and seeking feedback.

The question that I posed to the professor was construed not as an attempt to seek clarification, but as a challenge to his authority. In other words, I had gone against the established system, but the fact is that the professor did not answer my question.


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This is the first time that I truly felt that there was a barrier between Western and Chinese culture. So while the skyline of Hong Kong might superficially resemble those in the West, I think it is important to remember that, at its core, Hong Kong is still undeniably Chinese.

This situation has helped me see both sides of the issue. I see there is value in respecting people who are in positions of authority. One cannot assume that they know everything. However, I also believe that it is important to challenge ideas, no matter where they come from. I don’t think we should stay silent as we embark on our quest for knowledge.

Overall, this experience has taught me that deeply ingrained cultural attitudes, although not readily visible, can have a profound impact on the way we approach basic activities such as learning. Also, I think that it is important to realise that we can learn from both cultures and find what we most agree with rather than simply sticking to our way of thought.

Edited by M. J. Premaratne

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Culture shock

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