This is the second article in a series on homeschooling in China. Part one can be found here.
ZHEJIANG, East China — Ever since she was a toddler, people have questioned why Yuan Xiaoyi, now 18, didn’t attend school like other children. But brief experiences in the Chinese education system have Yuan convinced that the freedom to pursue her own interests and the lack of pressure to study for exams made homeschooling the right choice.
Because Yuan was anxious and withdrawn, her father took her out of kindergarten when she was nearly 4 years old and, with the help of tutors, took charge of her education. Over the years, he ignored relatives who insisted the girl ought to go to a public school, and the government, which regards homeschooling as illegal — by law, it is compulsory for all children to attend school from roughly the age of 6 until the end of middle school, at about age 15, though this isn’t strictly enforced.
From their hometown in Haiyan County, Yuan’s father ran a small, unlicensed school — known as sishu in Chinese — which at one point enrolled up to 30 students. Most parents in the sishu movement wish to shield their children from the country’s rigid, exam-oriented school system that builds up to the gaokao, the college entrance exams for which children prepare for years. Some parents decide to homeschool their children after they develop psychological problems from the constant mounting pressure.
Curiosity and a desire to join her peers led Yuan to enroll in a private high school for a year when she was 15. She experienced the frequent exams, the strict ranking system, and the arbitrary nature of teachers’ discipline. She was sometimes punished for failing to accomplish small tasks, like cleaning the blackboard, but was also easily forgiven for concealing a cellphone in her schoolbag because she ranked among the top 10 students in her class.
After leaving the school, she is now focused on studying for the so-called self-taught higher education exams, which allow homeschooled children to obtain a bachelor’s degree and potentially apply to graduate school. She already has a degree from a vocational school and hopes to pass the university tests — as well as an oral thesis defense — by the end of next year.
Yuan Xiaoyi’s selfie taken in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, Oct. 29, 2017. Courtesy of Yuan Xiaoyi
This is Yuan Xiaoyi’s story, as told to Sixth Tone and edited for brevity and clarity.
I knew I was different from my peers at a very young age. While they were copying Chinese characters, I was having fun catching crabs by the seaside and climbing trees. When they studied day and night preparing for the college entrance exams, which could determine their future, I was pursuing my interest in learning English literature.
I’m grateful that I was born into a family that respects individuality and offers me a great deal of freedom. But I grew up being questioned all the time as to why I chose to walk a different path: “Don’t you feel detached from society?”
Many people in China are still unfamiliar with homeschooling. I imagine that if it weren’t for my father, who is particularly open-minded and democratic, I might be sitting somewhere in a university classroom taking notes like the people around me, while probably not feeling very happy.
I wasn’t born a confident and outgoing girl. Because I couldn’t fit in at kindergarten, my parents took me out of school. Unknowingly, that decision led me and my family onto a path of sishu — small, home-based schools.
To make sure I was not alone, my father found other children to join me in the classes at home. My “classmates,” many of whom still attended regular school and only joined for evening classes, gave me a sense of what life is like in public schools. I remember clearly that when I was 5, a girl in second grade who was learning English with me came to class with a heavy schoolbag. During the breaks, she took out her homework and started to write down Chinese characters, the same ones over and over. She said that for each character, she had to copy it 100 times, and that she wouldn’t be allowed to go to bed before finishing all of them. I was terrified by the prospect of going to school.
When my father gave me the choice to attend school at age 6, I decided against it, without hesitation. I have no idea whether my family was under any pressure from the authorities, but my mother was definitely not having an easy time. Her relatives all said keeping me at home was irresponsible. In a way, it motivated me — I wanted to learn so I could make my mother proud of my progress and so that she didn’t need to deal with the pressure from her family.
Yuan Xiaoyi’s textbooks at her home in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, 2017. Courtesy of Yuan Xiaoyi
To me, learning was never about passing exams, but about exploring the world and satisfying my curiosity. My father and other teachers seldom took the lead in my learning — they encouraged me and other students to ask questions and to think independently. But my father’s education philosophies were being constantly questioned. When I was 9, I accepted a challenge from a local journalist to test the results of my homeschooling: For a semester, I was enrolled in the second year of a local middle school, when students are on average 13 years old.
What I remember most about my first taste of public school life was that I couldn’t get enough sleep. I used to get up at around 9 in the morning, but to be on time for class, I had to wake up at 6:30. I spent a long time finishing my homework because I was writing so slowly, and it didn’t give me any sense of happiness. The stagnant classroom atmosphere was even worse. I observed my surroundings and figured that I should remain silent unless spoken to by the teacher. But in sishu, students can ask questions all the time.
I was surrounded by cameras from the local media on the second day of school. I was worried that my classmates might be distracted. I had no idea what they thought of my achievements, but my ranking was in the middle of the pack. My verdict on public school was: Neither the books I read there nor the homework I did made me happy. Plus, I couldn’t continue with my language and piano lessons under the busy schedule — I was working on my homework even during the weekends.
Yuan Xiaoyi’s autobiography is on the shelves at a bookstore in Yichang, Hubei province, May 13, 2010. Liu Junfeng/IC
The first time I felt a bit envious of school life was when my family moved to Shaoxing, a city in Zhejiang province. That year I was 12; my father had stopped giving me classes, and I started studying on my own. I lived on the campus of Shaoxing University and could make my own decisions on what to learn, with college classes and the university library at my disposal. Observing university students made me appreciate the comradery of school life.
Back then I became interested in psychology, which was inspired by the sishu my father ran. Many parents came to us because their children were having psychological problems, caused by the pressures of the daily grind at school. I decided to go back to school when I was 15 to discover what kind of life my peers were leading. And just as I had imagined, their life was terrible — endless exams, boring classes, and studying day and night even without sleep.
I left high school a year later. Many of my schoolmates were envious that I could do that; others couldn’t understand my decision — in their eyes, the college entrance exam is the only publicly recognized path to a university degree. But I disagree. I figure modern society is fair enough not to care about how a potential employee gained their diploma, and instead, look at their capabilities.
I’ve observed a growing need for diversified education in the past few years. I hope that, as an example of someone who took a different approach to schooling and is happy with their decision, I can bring change. Sadly, illegal sishu won’t be able to help many people — my father’s homeschool could only ever enroll a limited number of students. There should be an officially recognized education system that is less competitive, with less emphasis on constant examinations. That day will come.
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A ‘sishu’ in Xiamen, Fujian province, 2017. Courtesy of Yuan Honglin)