What’s Behind China’s Spate of Murdered Teachers?

2017-12-19 04:11:28

Another Chinese teacher lies dead at the hands of a student. On Nov. 12, Bao Fang, a 47-year-old homeroom teacher at Yuanjiang No. 3 High School in central China’s Hunan province, was stabbed 26 times by one of his students, a 16-year-old boy identified only by his surname, Luo. After stabbing Bao, Luo ran across the hall and told Bao’s daughter, a classmate of his: “I just killed your dad.” Luo then returned to Bao’s office, where he continued to stab him in the head, face, and back. All attempts to revive Bao failed and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

The tragedy seems to have been sparked by an incident that took place earlier that day. After screening a short motivational video in his class for gifted students, Bao informed the pupils that they could not leave the classroom until they wrote a response to what they just saw. When Luo objected, Bao grew angry, allegedly saying: “If you don’t want to write it then you can transfer to the other [non-gifted] class.” Afterwards, when Bao returned to his office, Luo took a fruit knife, with which he often carved Chinese characters into his desk, and followed him to the scene of the murder.

Bao — short, stocky, and always smiling — was known for treating his students as if they were his own children. The recipient of a municipal-level teacher’s award, he would bring his students cooling herbal remedies in the summer, while in winter, he boiled cups of hot ginger tea for them. He even raised 4,000 yuan ($600) in scholarship money to help Luo pay for his studies.

Luo was an exceptional student who was among the top 10 in his year. He enjoyed sports, playing online games, and reading manga, but was rather anti-social. Bao held the boy to a rigorous standard in his studies, often singling him out for criticism in class. After Bao’s death, Luo, who was detained on suspicion of intentional homicide, said he had killed Bao because the teacher kept telling Luo that he could get into a top university, something that Luo hated for the incessant pressure.

After Bao’s death, I spent an afternoon combing through reports of 10 previous high-profile cases of violence toward teachers in China’s education system. All but one took place in middle or high school, typically during the student’s final year, when the pressure of moving on to the next level of their education is particularly acute.

In a system that prides grades and results above all else, teacher-student relationships are fraught with tension and conflicts are allowed to fester.

In December 2015, a student surnamed Long in the central province of Hunan stabbed Teng Zhaohan, the head of Long’s high school senior class, to death with a fruit knife. Students often called the highly accomplished Teng “mother hen,” a reference to his strict yet kind demeanor. Teng had noticed Long’s grades were slipping and that the boy was skipping class, and seemingly wanted to help him figure out what was going on and get him back on the right track.

In September 2013, in the eastern province of Jiangxi, Mr. Sun, head teacher of a class of high school seniors, had his throat slit by one of his students while he was preparing for class. Sun, had criticized this student, surnamed Xue, for sleeping in class. Back in October 2008, a student in his final year of middle school surnamed Ding, from the eastern province of Zhejiang, was so caught up in a computer game that he faked illness to skip class. When his teacher, Pan Weixian, visited Ding’s home to talk to his parents about Ding’s behavior, the boy lied to Pan, saying that his parents were out working in the fields. He then led Pan up the mountain and killed him.

The same two figures appear in almost every story: a talented youth prone to violent outbursts and an outstanding, passionate teacher. When a child, driven by rage, plunges a knife into their teacher, we must ask two questions: What is wrong with the child? And does the fault lie in our educational system?

A few days ago, I visited Chen Dekun, a 92-year-old retired teacher of Chinese language in Nanyang, central China’s Henan province. He devoted himself to a life in education even before the Communist Party reunified China in 1949. Later, in peacetime, he spent more than 50 years teaching. But he takes a dim view of today’s school system: “What the Chinese educational system lacks most is a sense of reverence and awe,” he says.

While people may pay lip service to the importance of education, Chen believes its true essence is lost in a sea of pride and ignorance. “Fewer and fewer students truly respect their teachers,” he says, a situation that hurts nobody more than students themselves. “A good education requires both lenience and severity, not to mention a clear system of rewards and punishments.”

Most interestingly, he reserved his strongest criticism for the inherent values in Chinese schools today: “An era in which the value of a liberal arts education is derided in favor of more material concerns will produce a generation of parents with no understanding of the important role teachers play,” he says. “These parents will, in turn, produce a generation of students with the same mindset.”

Behind every tragic murder of a teacher lies a sobering warning to the Chinese educational system: It’s a child’s character, not grades, that decides their future.

Over the past few years I have researched and written 10 articles on violent children. What shock me each time are the ways families disabuse themselves of the responsibility of raising children while also indulging their worrisome tendencies toward laziness, disengagement from society, and a lack of empathy. On top of that, a desire for quick success has overridden the holistic ideals of education; in a system that prides grades and results above all else, teacher-student relationships are fraught with tension and conflicts are allowed to fester. We are failing to pay enough attention to child psychology and failing to instill in our kids a respect for life. In doing all this, we are creating a social environment that fosters violence and other forms of moral depravity.

When parents do not set clear boundaries for their children’s behavior, violence is more likely to erupt. Failure to respect the rules, a lack of regard for fundamental human decency, and a parental inability to properly reward and punish children are giving rise to a generation that cannot deal with the immense pressure that society places on them, is unable to take criticism, and does not understand the value of life.

When such children step into adolescence, the natural tendencies to rebel, challenge authority, and neglect their studies would lead to strict discipline from teachers. Among a small group of children, this response breeds enmity and pushes them to lash out violently.

The law categorizes such acts as “crimes of passion,” a term that, through sheer vagueness, deflects blame from both the perpetrator and their guardians. In fact, such crimes are the result of long-simmering emotional issues bubbling to the surface and finding a horrifying outlet.

Behind every tragic murder of a teacher lies a sobering warning to the Chinese educational system: It’s a child’s character, not grades, that decides their future. Bao’s lesson to us — one that he should not have had to teach — is that we must look beyond molding our children into fine minds, and challenge them to become fine people, too.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A teacher looks at his students during a class at a high school in Beijing, May 26, 2016. Zhao Yuhong/VCG)