Bitter Lessons From a Chinese Education Reformer

Bitter Lessons From a Chinese Education Reformer


Jiang Xueqin moved the focus away from test prep. His experiment died young in a top Chinese school.

Guo Qi spent most of his preteen years rote learning in what he says was one of Shenzhen’s more “mediocre” public schools. In 2009, his hard work paid off when he got into the affiliated high school of Shenzhen Middle School (SZMS), arguably the best in the city.

And suddenly, a new world beckoned. “It was like going from starvation to an all-you-can-eat buffet,” says Guo.

It felt more like university. There were about 3,000 students and over 200 student clubs; all year round, colorful posters for events adorned the cafeteria entrance; uniforms were optional; and hair dye and dating was allowed.

Everything about SZMS defied the austere constraints that characterized most public schools in China. Once, a student who had just picked up some food bumped into then-principal Wang Zheng.

In what was a testament to his less than orthodox approach to education compared with most other principals, Wang asked, “What’d you get? Is it tasty?”

The liberal atmosphere at SZMS centered around Wang, a controversial figure in Chinese education, who initiated sweeping educational reforms after taking charge of the school in 2002.

During his tenure, students could choose from over 100 electives, and class groups were subdivided into student units, each with an orientation — for instance, preparing for the gaokao, or academic competitions.

Guo Qi arrived on campus shortly after the establishment of a new overseas studies unit, perhaps Wang’s most radical reform. It envisaged a unit with special privileges, teachers, and resources, solely focused on studying overseas — an elite within an elite.

To run such a unit, he needed someone equally radical. In 2008, Wang handpicked 32-year-old Jiang Xueqin for the job.

Jiang despised exam-oriented rote learning — whether SAT prep, TOEFL vocabulary lists, or teaching students to compose personal statements, and other application documents.

He thought them all “shallow.” He, instead, hoped to turn Shenzhen Middle School into a lab which, through liberal education, would produce elite students who would then go on to study overseas at world-renowned universities — and just maybe “change the world.”

By late 2009, however, the school’s admission scores waned, parents got restless, and Wang, his benefactor, had quit. Jiang’s experiment at SZMS lasted a little under two years.

High among the reasons were the extra resources diverted to his unit, Jiang’s own aggressive, forthright, and — at times — arrogant demeanor, and demands from parents to return to the tried, tested, and trusted system of education centered around the gaokao.

It’s now been more than a decade since those heady days of change in SZMS. Jiang has switched multiple jobs, tried to work outside the sphere of education, and has become a father. But he still hasn’t given up on his quest to reform teaching.

A campus magazine featuring a story on education reforms at SZMS. Courtesy of Mo Yifu


Guo Qi’s first interview with the overseas unit in SZMS didn’t go well: asked in English what books he liked, he drew a blank, and eventually mumbled something about the Harry Potter series.

The next time, Jiang was in the interview panel. Speaking Chinese with a strong North American accent, Jiang asked: “Why here?” Guo had simply replied: “No more rote learning.”

Along with 30 to 40 other students, Guo made the cut. He was flattered: “Maybe [Jiang] simply didn’t care because he felt he could teach anybody. He was so self-confident — after all, we already represented the best in the city,” says Guo.

In the overseas unit, Jiang secured the most privileges for his students. The faculty boasted nine Ivy-educated foreign teachers and instead of the military training mandated in public high schools, Jiang’s students could choose hiking or yoga.

He also established an English-language library with thousands of books and encouraged students to read original works. The unit had a separate cafeteria with professionally nutrition-calibrated meals, and a coffee shop, which students operated themselves.

Guo recalls Jiang often telling students, “In the gaokao system, there was no room for reform — studying overseas is the future of Chinese education.”

He says Jiang was a maverick in every sense of the word, who often artfully recounted his life trajectory as a tale of success in the face of hardship, full of twists and turns, such as how Jiang was accepted into Yale as the child of a working-class Chinese immigrant family in Canada, how he relied on his mathematical acumen to outsmart Las Vegas casinos when strapped for cash, or how he once fell off a motorbike on his way to do a story on pollution in a village.

“It’s like movie plots, but you feel he might just be that guy,” says Guo.

To this day, Guo still remembers a class discussion exercise in English for critical thinking: are educational resources distributed to the advantage of wealthier classes? “At a good school like ours, how many students are from impoverished families? Is it because (the poorer kids) are not as smart as us?” Guo recalls from the discussion.

Jiang Xueqin gives a lecture. From @外滩教育 on WeChat


For all his championing of elite education, Jiang Xueqin never really fit in at Yale, particularly with wealthier students.

After graduating in 1999, he began his career as a China stringer for foreign news outlets. But he rarely got along well with anyone. “The editors made me write an article about how serious AIDS was [in China]. I felt that tuberculosis was far more of an issue, but the Americans didn’t care. It was unethical,” says Jiang.

Almost no job lasted longer than six months — on one occasion, he quit in dismay after just one month.

He believed smaller media outlets were beneath him, but was rejected by publications like The New Yorker. All the while, his friends enjoyed more success — such as Peter Hessler, who later published the immensely popular “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze.”

Those early days after Yale, a dejected Jiang often spent his days at home, drinking and playing video games late into the night.

Then, his first real opportunity knocked, nine years after he returned from the U.S. In 2008, Wang asked Jiang to teach and help in reforming Shenzhen Middle School.

They first met in the late 1990s at the Affiliated High School of Peking University (AHSPU), one of Beijing’s top high schools, where Jiang briefly worked as a foreign teacher.

In Shenzhen, Wang and Jiang often went out to chat over a bowl of congee from midnight to sunrise. Jiang desperately wanted to prove himself, and saw a partnership with Wang as perhaps his final chance.

And SZMS was that chance. Parents forged their luck in this adventurous city, he thought, and they would likely be similarly adventurous about their children’s education.

In reality, however, the privileges of his unit antagonized many students and parents, because the tuition everybody paid was the same.

Jiang also unilaterally disbanded the student body — he thought they didn’t really have much to do, and posed an obstacle to reform. The move sparked a wave of vitriol from students, who complained about his despotic tendencies.

Jiang couldn’t understand why he was demonized. In response, he demanded that all students in his unit sign an agreement, promising not to “post any comments that run counter to the work of the overseas studies system.”

Xiao Jia also enrolled at the overseas unit in 2009. She vividly recalls one of his many remarks, “that student bodies were gangs, and fraternities were cults.”

Some of these were recorded and leaked online. And once he found the culprit, they were promptly expelled from the unit. “People thought he was very intimidating, and were afraid. Girls didn’t dare talk to him,” says Xiao.

He also vehemently resisted everything he disagreed with. “What’s the point of Chinese language and literature classes?” he once demanded. The young foreign teachers he recruited weren’t up to his standards, either — their recreational style of education was, he believed, lax and irresponsible, so he just let them go.

When it came to unavoidable exams like SAT and TOEFL, Jiang felt that the key was reading, rather than vocabulary. And on discovering that freshmen were working through TOEFL vocabulary books, he flew into a rage. “I’ll teach this stuff when the time is right,” he would retort.

Cowed, students studied them behind his back. “Especially those who were looking at attending business schools, hoping to pass the TOEFL by the second year,” says Xiao.

Incidentally, Jiang had trouble even with liberal arts classes he worked so hard on. Many were suddenly cut or canceled a few weeks in. Xiao recalls feeling like a lab rat. She says, “Jiang wanted the complete American high school experience, but we were all Chinese — we couldn’t possibly adapt.”

Looking back, Jiang expresses little regret for his sweeping measures, but he does admit that they were rushed.

As the debate on reforms within SZMS raged, in 2009, the school’s admission score fell for the first time to third place in Shenzhen.

Parents quickly lost patience, and moreover, Wang, his savior, was also about to pack up and leave the city. Jiang knew it was the beginning of the end.

Raw deal

In May, Wang told Jiang that he was going back to AHSPU, his alma mater. The bombshell left Jiang dumbfounded. His measures had only just been in place for two year groups, and without Wang’s blessing, they would all, no doubt, collapse.

He recalls telling Wang, “You’re doing yourself no favors. It’s not about me. You have the chance to make history here and build a truly great school. Why would you give that up? If you leave, you’re bound to fail.”

Jiang knew the future was grim, and he had no other friends at the workplace, either. He once explained at a faculty meeting, “This isn’t about anyone’s short-term interests. We are pure.” One female teacher loudly retorted, “Bullshit!”

Clearly, Wang was his only ally. They were of the same ilk, with similar lofty academic credentials and ideals.

Before he left, the campus magazine interviewed Wang. The final question was: “What if — and I’m asking this merely as a hypothetical question — your successor is unable to continue the work you’ve carried out in the past few years?”

“Then that’s the fate of SZMS,” he responded.

A campus magazine interview with Wang Zheng (left). Courtesy of Mo Yifu

Those words proved prophetic: Wang’s successor suspended all reforms. Feeling he was no longer wanted, Jiang called Wang nonstop over the course of a few months. Wang finally picked up and said: come to Beijing. Jiang did, immediately.

According to Xiao, after Jiang left, the overseas unit was finally set on the “right track.”

The independent cafeteria closed, AP classes switched from independent studies to group lectures, while the English-language library was opened to all students. The percentage of foreign teachers shrunk, and with the exception of English classes, the school preferred Chinese teachers for all subjects.

And Jiang’s first educational experiment finally came to an end.

After following Wang to AHSPU in Beijing, he continued to push through similar reform measures while in charge of the International Department. He felt that Wang had somehow become even more radical with age. To this day, it’s hard to explain how they gradually drifted apart.

In the winter of 2012, Jiang’s second stint in charge of spearheading reforms ended just as abruptly as the first.

While on vacation in Canada, Jiang received an email from Wang. No niceties, just business — a scanned document informing Jiang that his contract had been terminated.

He knew that the educational experiment for which he had such high expectations, along with his life up to that point, had all gone down the drain.

Merit is tyranny

In the spring of 2022, I met Jiang in Chengdu. Holding a six-month-old baby in his arms, he walked briskly, just like he spoke.

He wasn’t living the high life. His home was rented — a 118-square-meter apartment that cost 2,800 yuan ($419) a month. Four years ago, he’d chosen to move to Chengdu, capital of the southwestern Sichuan province, with his pregnant wife, partly for the relatively low cost of living.

Jiang Xueqin cooks lunch at home in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 2022. Wei Xiaohan/White Night Workshop

As long as it didn’t rain, the couple took their child on walks at the park. “Bet you’ve rarely seen losers this happy before,” they joked.

Since leaving AHSPU, he shunned top schools. Looking back, he concedes to being extreme — that he should have extended the reform to all students, and not just those in the overseas program.

Times have changed. He had introduced his ideas of “innovative education” to high schools in Chengdu, but they were met with little enthusiasm. He wanted to collaborate with elementary schools, but the COVID-19 pandemic largely shut that project in its tracks.

His wife is a stay-at-home mom. At one point, the two had no choice but to borrow money from her parents.

He says that it’s not as if there’s no money for him. Yale, SZMS, and AHSPU on his résumé will certainly attract any employer. Were he to work at a broker agency, writing letters of recommendation for overseas studies applications, he could earn several hundreds of thousands of yuan a year.

But he’s not interested. “It runs counter to the purpose of education, and is a waste of my talent. I couldn’t bring that upon myself and it wouldn’t set a good example for the kids,” says Jiang.

In Chengdu, Jiang counted the celebrated non-fiction writer Peter Hessler among his few friends. He finds Hessler’s twin daughters, aged around 11, smart, passionate, and hard-working, much like the Olympic gold medalist skier Eileen Gu.

Only six months after their arrival in China, they’d gotten to grips with math, and they have their father’s penchant for long-distance running. “They just might make it into the Olympics one day,” says Jiang.

Jiang’s four-year-old son couldn’t be more different. He’s not too sociable and is too used to being given free rein, such as running barefoot even in shopping malls. He also has peculiar mood swings.

Leslie Chang, Hessler’s wife, suggested they tighten his reins and cultivate the boy’s social skills, but Jiang didn’t agree. After repeated calls from his preschool, Jiang decided to pull him out and school him at home. “When I was young, I was just like him. I was disobedient, had many fanciful ideas, and was scolded by my parents every day,” he says.

He’s already gone the opposite way from his earlier elitist ideals. The failure of his reform meant he lost all faith in cultivating elites.

For a while, he went so far as thinking that as long as you select people, things were bound to end up “shallow.” Now, he’s simply struck by the distance between reality and his idealist vision.

I asked Jiang, what if he could do it all over again?

“Were I to do it again, I wouldn’t have any fixed criteria for admissions, I’d keep my biases and personal tastes out of it; and make resources available to all,” he says.

He identifies with American political philosopher Michael Sandel’s theory that “merit is tyranny” — even public schools, at the end of the day, serve to select elites. “[Back then] it was 90% my problem. I didn’t respect those kids, nor did I communicate myself as best as I could. That’s what I regret the most,” says Jiang.

He’s trying to let go: when he returned to Canada for a few years, he tried many opportunities unrelated to education, like cooking, boxing, writing, and once even stand-up. His wife is a gentle woman, his most faithful reader and listener. “Now I’m happier, healthier, and have more love than ever before,” says Jiang.

It’s just that there will never be another platform like the one he had in Shenzhen. “There’ll never be another opportunity like that again,” he says, struggling to contain the regret. “When education was at its most liberal in 2008, [I could have] done more.”

A page from Jiang Xueqin’s book “Innovating Chinese Education.” Courtesy of Jiang Xueqin

The dream endures

Mo Yifu last saw Jiang last December at the launch of the latter’s book “Schools for the Soul” in Shenzhen. Mo, the former moderator of the SZMS online forum, recalls the time their paths previously crossed over a decade ago.

It wasn’t pleasant. As a representative of the student cohort, he wanted to chat with Jiang about their grievances. But Jiang just avoided him.

Since then, Mo has entered the education industry too. Sitting in the audience at the book launch, he realized for the first time that Jiang “is actually a humanist.”

Jiang’s tone and demeanor had softened, and yet had more grit. “It’s perhaps because he’s a father now,” says Mo.

During the event, Mo only had time to add Jiang on WeChat, hoping he could talk things over with him. I relayed this to Jiang, but he’s no longer hung up on the events of the past and has no intentions to dredge it up.

Of the students he presided over at SZMS, Jiang has stayed in touch with just a few. He met Yang Yueqi in New York once.

Back in school, Yang aspired to work for an international company, and later studied journalism at NYU after graduating from the Wharton School in Pennsylvania. Now, she’s a finance reporter for a prominent American media outlet.

While at university, peers constantly urged her to go into investment banking, consulting, and similar Wall Street jobs. She interned on Wall Street, but decided to leave as she didn’t like the immensely stressful lifestyle that only allowed her five hours of sleep a day.

Sometimes, she felt out of place and lonely at the business school. The values SZMS instilled in her were a source of protection: “Don’t allow yourself to be easily influenced by people around you; listen to your heart,” she recalls from school.

Xiao Jia’s memory, on the other hand, isn’t as buoyant. “Treating high school students as lab rats was, to be frank, pretty irresponsible. We were the unlucky bunch,” she says.

She didn’t get into her dream school, but after a few twists and turns, she eventually got to study what she loved — film and television, at the University of Southern California.

Guo also got to follow his passions to the Rhode Island School of Design and fulfilled his dream of becoming an architect in China. He cherished the short-lived reform project: it taught him to face the open world head-on and persevere.

On the reform’s ultimate failure, Guo says, “It’s like a writer who thinks they’ve written a terrible novel, but his readers are perhaps able to discover things of value — even if those things aren’t what the author actually meant to say.”

They may not have, as Jiang wanted, all developed the ambition to change the world — but they still became better versions of themselves. Virtually every former student interviewed mentioned the school motto that Wang put in place during his tenure.

Some even kept it as their tagline on social media: “Cultivating outstanding citizens with independent personalities, confidence, integrity, imagination, leadership, and creativity. No matter where they are, they will eagerly contribute to society, all while demonstrating their respect for nature as well as their love for their fellow man.”

One student commented, “Without Wang, Jiang’s experiment may never have taken place.” In this experiment, no matter who was more radical, everyone discovered possibilities beyond the confines of traditional education.

But it still didn’t matter. In the winter of 2021, Wang was relieved of his duties as principal of AHSPU. The official notice didn’t specify the reason for his termination. His tenure was originally until June 2022.

Though they haven’t been in touch for a long time, Jiang quietly sensed that this day would come, and wasn’t all that surprised. After receiving the news, he wrote on WeChat:

“My feelings are complex — I want to cry and I want to smile. If I want to cry, it’s because Chinese education needs Wang’s ideals, his courage and execution. But I also want to smile, because I know him: he’s a fighter who’ll never abandon his vision.”

Jiang has now taken up a job at an international school in Beijing. He fantasizes about seeing Wang again, and dreams of sitting down with him to reminisce about the past together as friends, or better yet, maybe even collaborate once more.

Xiao Jia is a pseudonym.

A version of this article originally appeared in White Night Workshop. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.

Translator: Lewis Wright; Editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.

(Header image: krisanapong detraphiphat/Getty Creative/VCG) 

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