Solve for X: Math Competitions in the People’s Republic of China

Americans can’t stop thinking about the Chinese education system. U.S. politicians hold it up as a model; parents worry that their kids are falling behind Chinese students in science and math; Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, tells American parents that their children are indeed falling behind. Even worse, the parents are to blame; they are too lenient. Most recently, Zhao Yong, Professor of Education at University of Oregon, insists that all these people are wrong. In his book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, Zhao paints a much more skeptical picture of the test-driven and competition-oriented Chinese education system. China has the best system because of its high marks of tests but the worst because these scores “are purchased by sacrificing creativity, divergent thinking, originality, and individualism.” It is just the latest salvo in the long history of the education wars in the United States.

There is an important question in the background of these debates: Should the U.S. education system be more like China’s (or South Korea or Finland)? Framing the question in this way also places limits on how we examine education in China. If we forgo this question, other topics and avenues of inquiry emerge. In fact, one small aspect of the history of education in the People’s Republic of China—math competitions—can help us think about continuities across the 1976 divide in Chinese history.

Math competitions started in the Soviet Union and the First International Mathematics Olympiad was held in Romania in 1959. It was a creature of the Cold War. China did not participate in these international competitions but developed its own system under the guidance and leadership of Hua Luogeng, a precocious math talent who only had a few years of primary education (the Ramanujan of China). In the early years of the People’s Republic of China, Hua became involved in mathematics education.  Held in large cities throughout China before the Cultural Revolution, these math competitions had several goals: to encourage students to study mathematics, to pick out those with mathematical talent that could be nurtured in order to provide the country with future scientists and engineers and to spread math education to the masses. The tensions in the PRC are evident in these competing and perhaps contradictory goals. The idea of fostering an elite but at the same time developing the masses as well as the political imperative that mathematical talent should serve the state in a practical way rather than obsessing about overly theoretical research.

The actual administration of the competition sounds very familiar. Held in the late spring of early summer, students had to be recommended by their schools. Each school in Beijing was only able to allow a certain percentage of their students in the final two years of high school to take part. Also, the group in charge of the competition, the Beijing Mathematics Committee (Beijing shi shuxue weiyuanhui 北京市数学委员会) repeated each year that the student had to take part willingly and could forced. Students from vocational schools, though, could not compete.

The Beijing Mathematics Committee was very concerned about putting additional pressure on students. The organizing committee was involved in a protracted struggle with high schools over how students were selected and prepared to take part in the competition. In the letter announcing the 1963 event, the Beijing Mathematics Committee said that in selecting students, high schools should not organize a special test but instead make choices based on a student’s regular performance. Once picked out, students were not supposed to undergo any other additional training or take part in specialized preparatory classes. This increased the burden on students and teachers and went against the spirit of the competition.

There were significant rewards for doing well in the competition. First and second prize winners received cash while third prize winners were given a mathematics education book. More significantly, the top three finishers could also be admitted to university without taking the college entrance exam. This was part of the system of college admission known was baosong (保送) that is still in practice today.

The Cultural Revolution put an end to math competitions but they emerged again the early 1980s and flourished in the 1990s and 2000s. Chinese students participated in International Math Olympiads and hosted the 1990 competition was held in Beijing. Just as in the period before the Cultural Revolution, performing well in local, regional, national and international math competition could secure a spot in university without taking part in the college entrance exam. The incentives only added to the popularity of Math Competitions and helped make the Math Olympiad “hot” (aoshu re 奥数热), which the government is now trying to dampen by placing restrictions on who qualifies for the baosong system based on stellar performances in math competitions.

The most significant and in some ways surprising point about math competitions is not necessarily about the math but about the nature of competition in the People’s Republic of China. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s there were all kinds of competitions—to produce the most material, to have the safest work record, to be the best at a sport, to be the best at math—and in the period after Reform and Opening till today competition in all forms is one of the defining characteristics of life in China. Looking more closely at the nature of these competitions is perhaps one way to move beyond the 1976 divide in Chinese history.

*For more about math competitions in the 1950s and 1060s see Beijing Municipal Archive file 010-002-00424

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