Most parents are ambitious for their child’s future, but when the 15-page resume of a five-year-old was leaked online, it stunned Chinese social media.
- Parents placing increasingly unrealistic expectations on their children
- Everyone wants a super talented or ‘Niuwa’ child
- The number of bilingual private schools has increased by 30 per cent in just a few years
The startling document claimed the boy began reciting ancient Chinese poems from the age of two, reads more than 500 English books each year and enjoys piano, hip-hop, soccer, swimming and has travelled the world.
The resume from an application to a popular bilingual international school in Shanghai has received more than 20,000 comments on Weibo, with many saying it was an insult to the parents of “ordinary” children.
Shanghai mother Jiang Yin, who has an 11-year-old daughter, told the ABC the competitive nature of education in China was to blame.
“These many achievements and highly impressive resumes are too common,” she said.
Elaborate, and in many cases heavily padded, resumes for young children were the norm rather than the exception when it came to the top schools, said Dr Xiong Bingqi, deputy head of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing.
“It’s very common that the parents would prepare a well-designed resume for their child to impress the schools so that they have a bigger chance to be recruited,” he said.
A snapshot of a ‘Niuwa’s’ weekend
- 10:00am-12:00pm: English debating and delivering speeches
- 1.30pm: Taekwondo
- 3:00pm-5:00pm: Spanish lesson
- 7:00pm-8:00pm: Performing in English musicals and drama
Chinese parents start their plan for cultivating a super-talented child, or ‘Niuwa’, before birth, Ms Jiang said.
“We have no choice — we are pushed by others,” she said.
“Everybody else’s kids are learning at least two musical instruments and attending coaching classes.
“The kids’ schedules on the weekends are back to back. If we don’t do that, we become ‘abnormal’.”
The importance of being brilliant
Nine-year-old Bobby Zou is a Niuwa.
A normal day for Bobby is about 10-12 hours long and involves English debating and reading, Spanish lessons, music lessons, and taekwondo.
He is in year four at a private bilingual school in Shanghai and started listening to English when he was still in the womb, according to his mother.
At the age of six, he allegedly finished reading the entire Harry Porter series — in English.
At the age of eight, he scored a seven in the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, which is the benchmark test for English study around the world.
A score of seven is higher than what is required by most Australian universities for international students.
He memorises more than 100 English words every day in addition to learning Spanish, and perhaps most startling of all, he claims he can finish one volume of Winston Churchill’s series The Second World War — which is more than a thousand pages long — in one and a half hours.
“Every child has a unique life track. Bobby just happens to be talented and stands a good chance,” Bobby’s mum Joanna Wang told the ABC.
His mother has such belief in Bobby’s talent that she quit her job as a multinational executive earlier this year to focus on Bobby fulltime.
However, despite her confidence in Bobby’s abilities, when he sat the entrance test for one of Shanghai’s top international schools three years ago, Ms Wang admits she wasn’t sure if he would be admitted.
“They wouldn’t make public their requirements, so I had to guess from the information shared by other mums,” she said.
“In the test, the examiner took the kids to a classroom. There were different items in the room, for example toys or books. They would observe how the kids behaved.
“Bobby loves reading, he took a book, sat down and started reading.”
Bobby got in along with about 20 other Chinese students — out of more than 1,200 applicants.
The weight of great expectations
Once upon a time, elite international bilingual schools were only open to the children of foreign nationals living in China.
But over the past few years, they have gained popularity in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen as the schools of choice for ambitious parents.
As demand has risen, so too has the number of schools catering to Niuwas.
Between 2015 and 2017, the total number of bilingual schools in China jumped 30 per cent, with 367 operating in 2017, according to statistics released by Beijing-based research firm NewSchool Insight.
Chinese students in these schools are taught by Western teachers in subjects like English, arts, music, physical education, science and philosophy. They also study a range of Western curricula, such as the International Baccalaureate.
Ms Wang said she had high hopes for what bilingual education would do for her son.
“I would like Bobby to become a person with an international view,” she said.
“His goal is Ivy League.”
Dr Hannah Soong, a sociologist at the University of South Australia, told the ABC a major factor in the popularity of these schools was that they were seen as a gateway to study overseas in countries like the United States or Australia, which many parents believe would provide better job outcomes back in China.
“The international-bilingual school system focuses on developing globally oriented students through the ‘East-meets-West’ education,” she said.
During the course of research into the relationship between parents, children, and education in China, Dr Soong interviewed 46 sets of parents about their goals and expectations for their children.
“The parents I meet are future-orientated, wanting their child to be bi-cultural and use English because they see the value in exposing their children to different ways of thinking through their school curriculum and subjects,” Dr Soong said.
She also said Chinese parents were increasingly demanding their children not only excel academically, but excel at everything and become an “all-rounder”.
With an average annual tuition fee of about $30,000, plus tens of thousands of dollars for extracurricular classes, the students’ parents need to have considerable resources.
“The majority of the parents I interviewed, they are business owners who have resources such as time, finances, chauffeured by personal drivers and hired help,” Dr Soong said.
For those who don’t make the cut for a private bilingual school, they need to live in a good school zone.
“In order to be eligible to go to good schools which are zoned, you will have to spend at least 1.5 million yuan (about $300,000) to buy an old flat there which is only 10 square metres and not liveable,” Ms Jiang, from Shanghai, said.
The average annual wage for a Shanghai worker is 85,582 yuan (about $17,000), according to official government figures from 2017.
“Still, there are a lot of people waiting to buy a flat,” Ms Jiang said.
By Xiaoning Mo and Robert Burton-Bradley