Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon by Yong Zhao

Review by AJ Warner

When 15-year-old students in Shanghai achieved top scores in math, science, and reading in a recent round of international testing, some US academics suggested that China become a role model for educational reforms to help America’s underperforming students. In his latest book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon, author and academic Yong Zhao writes to dispel what he believes are misconceptions surrounding the test results and their policy implications. Although the American system has its share of issues, Zhao strongly believes that using the Chinese system as a model would be a giant leap in the wrong direction.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon takes readers on a journey through China’s long history to illustrate the cultural underpinnings behind China’s current education system. Since ancient times, China’s education system was the “hell to reach heaven,” enabling some people through diligent effort and sacrifice to reach lofty positions in society. The Imperial Examination (or keju), introduced by Emperor Wu during the Sui Dynasty and further formalized during the Tang Dynasty, offered common people the opportunity to rise through the ranks.

The system created stability for society and helped imperial leaders control the populace, as spending years in test preparation kept the citizenry from contemplating revolt. This system also helped to deeply ingrain Confucian ideology, including reverence for elders and authoritative governance, into the Chinese mentality.

Imperial China’s emphasis on testing sustained its culture longer than any other in history. Yet, at the same time, it hindered China from advancing its scientific achievements. While the Western powers entered the industrial revolution, China's strict education system discouraged challenges to the status quo. The imperial quest to prevent cultural disruption held China back.

Zhao describes many attempts by the imperial government and later the Republic of China to change course, but it wasn’t until Deng Xiaoping in 1978 that China embarked on rapid advancement in economics and scientific development after sending many of China's top students overseas to learn technological innovations from the West.

Zhao provides an insightful critique of the Chinese education system and casts serious doubts on the usefulness of emulating this system in the US. By presenting a balanced view, the author helps readers see the different factors behind these results. One key factor often ignored in media coverage of the high-achieving Shanghai 15-year-olds is that their schools give them much more homework than their Western counterparts. Furthermore, due to the intense nature of competition in China, students must attend extensive test preparation outside of school hours. On average, the Shanghai 15-year-olds had attended more than 17 hours of additional academic instruction a week, about 2.5 times more than students in Western countries.

Zhao warns of the detrimental impact following China's lead would have on the American education system. Emulating China’s test-focused system would cripple the innovation that has made America a world leader. Since 1949, no Chinese mainland-educated scientist has won a Nobel Prize for scientific advancement. Additionally, Zhao finds it hypocritical for a country to take lessons from an education system that sends its brightest students overseas for better educational opportunities.

Within the first two chapters, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon will grab your interest and won’t let go until you finish the final chapter. Even after nine years of living in China and majoring in asian studies during my time at university, the book demonstrated to me that there was still much more I needed to learn about China’s history in order to understand the thinking of modern Chinese society and education.

While the Chinese system may work in China, the author advocates that the US should be wary of taking on these practices. The fact that more and more Chinese students are going to the US for high school, college, and graduate school is a strong indication that China’s strict education system may also need to consider more reforms.