In February this year, China’s Ministry of Education issued a notice outlining the enrollment process for compulsory education in 2017 , which included the cutoff date for children preparing to enroll in primary school. Curiously, the notice said that the power to decide this date would fall to education administrative departments at the provincial level. This change means that the age and enrollment dates of elementary school students may no longer be uniform across the country.
Since the revered Chinese revolutionary and politician Sun Yat-sen set the enrollment date in 1912, primary schools in China have always started on Sept. 1. China’s Compulsory Education Law also stipulates that new students going into primary school have to be at least 6 years old.
To give an extreme example of the arbitrary nature of the cutoff date, imagine a set of twins born just minutes apart: one just before midnight on Aug. 31, and the other a few minutes later, on Sept. 1. Even if they were so identical that their parents couldn’t differentiate between them, the older child would still be in the grade above their sibling when the time came to start school.
At present, although the Ministry of Education has only indicated its openness to change, no province has yet taken any action to change the previously unshakeable Sept. 1 deadline. However, this hasn’t stopped parents from thinking ahead to the day when their children will start school. And it’s not just current parents, either: More and more young parents-to-be want clarity over the enrollment date, too. If the policy remains so flexible, the latter group worry that they won’t be able to plan their children’s births for a time that maximizes their future prospects.
Chinese culture has placed special emphasis on children’s birth dates since ancient times. The concept of the bazi, or the four pillars of destiny, invokes the year, month, day, and hour of a child’s birth to determine what fate has in store for them. For example, the bazi of a child who enjoys academic success might be said to contain the Wenchang stars — a constellation of six stars near the Big Dipper — which indicates that the student may go on to become a leading figure in their field.
This metaphysical idea that “whatever will be, will be” is generally regarded today as an outdated superstition. It lives on, however, in the way that some prospective parents plan their child’s birth to coincide with certain points of the Chinese zodiac. The years of the dragon and pig are usually the most popular, resulting in clusters of “little dragons” and “golden pigs.” This way of thinking led to a spike in the birth rate during the years that China hosted the Olympics and World Expo, resulting in a boom of supposedly auspicious “Olympic babies” and “World Expo babies.”
Some parents go even further, meticulously considering any birth date that might bring their child academic success further down the line. A friend of mine specifically had her child during the Year of the Sheep, even though a traditional Chinese adage says that “nine out of 10 sheep are ill-fated.” It is thought that children born under the sign of the sheep are doomed to be alone in life. Women born during a sheep year are regarded as a particularly bad sign for the husband. Even now, many parents still adhere to this thinking and refuse to let their sons marry women born in that year.
But my friend pointed out that the scrambles for enrollment and tearful job searches that face the “golden pigs” or other children born in popular zodiac years mean that “sheep babies,” who are relatively fewer in number, face less pressure at key stages of their academic lives. To my rather more scientifically minded friend, superstition didn’t factor in to her decision. If the family of her child’s future fiancé ever complain that her child was born an unlucky sheep, her answer will be resolute: “Don’t even think about marrying my child, then!”
The year of birth is one problem, but the month of birth is a different problem altogether. The inflexible cutoff date of Sept. 1 has already determined the bazi of countless children. In a trend that hospitals call the “first-day-of-school C-section,” birth rates peak at the obstetrics departments of major hospitals around mid-August every year, while the waiting list for early C-section birthdays grows.
Why does this happen? Many parents believe in the superstition that “it’s better to be early than late,” meaning that if mothers were originally due to give birth in September, then it is better to hurry the baby along a few days and have it in August. That way, the child will start school earlier in life and therefore be among the youngest in their class, effectively “earning” them a whole extra year of schooling compared to their similarly-aged peers.
Other parents, though, adopt the contrary mindset when it comes to “first-day-of-school C-sections.” They calculate the mother’s ovulation periods from the earliest stages of family planning, sparing no effort in finding the best time to conceive, all to ensure that their child will come into the world 280 days later on a dazzling September day. Why?
Parents who choose a September birth tend to believe that a few months’ age difference makes a world of difference in terms of ability, especially for young children. This is reinforced by certain kindergarten teachers who tell parents that slightly older children tend to be able to control their behavior better, while their younger counterparts seem more like toddlers in the way they walk and talk. Later, when it comes to enrollment interviews for elementary school and their academic performance, the children with the advantage of age and maturity will naturally have a leg up on the others. Closing this innate gap, the logic goes, would require a long time and a great amount of effort.
What parent-to-be wouldn’t plan down to the last detail to give their children an edge over their peers? These days, Chinese parents are not only helping their children “win from the starting line” — a euphemism for the start of their formal education — but are also trying to help their unborn children “win at the point of conception.”
It remains to be seen whether provincial education administrations will change the cutoff date for primary school enrollment. However, most people agree that simply changing from Sept. 1 to another date would be essentially meaningless, because it would merely result in parents planning around a new date in much the way I’ve described. However, moving from a hard-and-fast cutoff date to more flexible enrollment gives families the freedom to send children to school at the time between their 6th and 7th birthdays that best suits the child’s abilities. This method accounts for their personality, advocates diversity, and in effect satisfies everybody.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A father carries his daughter while waiting in line to enroll at a primary school in Zhengzhou, Henan province, Aug. 18, 2014. Xu Wenjun/VCG)