This article is part one of a series on philosophy education in Chinese schools.
Earlier this year, I became the first Chinese contestant to reach the winner’s podium at the International Philosophy Olympiad (IPO) — a philosophy competition open to high school students from around the world. It was overwhelming, but also bittersweet: I knew I would never have made it so far without access to resources, instruction, and opportunities beyond most Chinese.
I was in middle school when I started studying philosophy, and I was on my own. I was bored with many of my classes, so on weekends I would head to the Pudong Library, where I would read anything that caught my interest. And as I did so, I noticed I kept coming across words and ideas that were at odds with what I’d been taught by my teachers.
I struggled over which narrative to believe, wondering if there was a way to be sure. I’d always been told that knowledge, simply by virtue of being knowledge, merited belief. But what is knowledge, anyway? That was the question that ultimately drew me to philosophy. What has kept me there is the subject’s foundational nature. It can show up anywhere: Question the core precepts of a core hypothesis in any field, and you may find yourself straying into philosophy. And this is true of philosophy, too. I love its willingness and ability to question its own foundations, not just those of other disciplines.
Yet, in studying on my own, I found it was all too easy to get lost in the stacks. So many books, so many problems — all of them so interesting. Where was I even to begin?
Few Chinese secondary schools offer philosophy classes. If it’s in the curriculum at all, the subject usually only shows up in politics class — where it is taught alongside Marxism and socialism with Chinese characteristics. And the goal is frequently rote memorization, not analytical thought or understanding.
From the end of elementary school to the first year of high school, I attended a good foreign languages school in Shanghai. But my teachers usually recommended I stay away from philosophy in my papers.
Things began to change, however, when I submitted a paper to China’s Secondary School Philosophy Conference. It caught the eye of Li Yan, a member of the conference’s academic committee and a philosophy teacher at Shanghai Pinghe, a private, bilingual boarding school. His recommendation helped get me into Pinghe — one of the only high schools on the Chinese mainland with an international baccalaureate (IB) program. Finally, I wasn’t on my own anymore.
Lin Yanying (right) and other medalists pose after the XXVII International Philosophy Olympiad, Rome, May 2019. From International Philosophy Olympiad’s website
At present, only a select group of elite Chinese schools offer specialized courses in philosophy. For the most part, they’re academies with an international focus. Pinghe is one; Beijing Normal University’s affiliated secondary school also offers it as part of a summer program.
At Pinghe, Li Yan pushes us hard. The school’s IB philosophy program, which lasts two years, calls on students to complete a general course, “Being Human,” one elective course, and one prescribed reading course in which we do a deep dive into a particular text. Li — we all just call him “Boss” — usually encourages us to double up on the latter two. Boss designed his own course reader to make sure we’re reading at least 30 to 40 pages a week, and we’re expected to write four or five argumentative papers a term.
Our class discussions are typically conducted in Chinese, with readings in English, but otherwise, the courses depend on the teacher’s individual style. Boss prefers open discussion. The result is a lively classroom atmosphere. It’s not uncommon for a student to interrupt him with a question, at which point we all tumble down a new rabbit hole together.
With all the reading and writing, it’s only natural for us to make quick progress. The paper that got me into Pinghe took three days to write. The paper I wrote for IPO’s China competition — which was roughly the same length — took just three hours.
It’s unfortunate, then, that as far as I know, Pinghe’s curriculum is unique on the Chinese mainland.
Part of the problem is that parents have little appetite for philosophy education. My parents both went to college and took general courses in philosophy, but even they viewed it as little more than a collection of boring mind games.
To an extent, this is a matter of pragmatism: Many parents associate a philosophy major as having dim financial prospects, and there are few ways to turn it into extra points on the gaokao, China’s college entrance exam.
Others seem to view the subject as some kind of divine mystery — something wholly out of the realm of human understanding — and therefore inappropriate for teenagers, who lack knowledge and experience. They forget that philosophy begins from rationality, a trait all humans possess.
Finally, many have turned away from philosophy because of the way it’s typically taught in Chinese schools. Having never experienced the pure joy of argumentation, all they remember from class is rote memorization and indoctrination. Some of my schoolmates even equate philosophy with ideology, something to be feared.
As a result, far fewer Chinese middle school students are interested in philosophy than in other areas of the liberal arts, such as history, literature, or art.
When I started a philosophy club at my old school, other than my deputy, only three people signed up, and none of them had any prior experience with the subject. After asking around about other schools, I found we were far from the exception: Philosophy remains in the margins.
Now, when class is over in Pinghe, my classmates often stay behind to continue their debates and sketch out their ideas on the blackboard. And this summer, one of my classmates and I are planning to set up a reading group to tackle Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” together. There is a certain analytical inquisitiveness in the class, and Boss encourages us to pursue our own interests.
So, I’m glad to see signs of growing interest in philosophy in China. Many podcasting platforms have begun producing high-quality, well-produced introductory philosophy courses. And some Chinese universities have started offering summer school programs in philosophy, to go along with more longstanding ones run by international schools and organizations. In terms of extracurriculars, there’s the Secondary School Philosophy Conference and the IPO competition. At Pinghe, the number of students enrolled in the IB philosophy program has more than doubled in less than three years.
Yet I also know these resources remain accessible only to a small subset of the population. The abovementioned podcast courses typically charge a fee, and summer schools require a significant investment of both time and money. In-school programs, meanwhile, remain a rare and precious resource, and the entrance barrier is high — most often they require competency in a second language. As a result, those not fortunate to be born into the socio-economic elite are often locked out of philosophy, no matter how passionate they are for the subject.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: E+/VCG)