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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Teacher's Day: Why being an educator in China is no easy task

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on August 24, 2020 and can be accessed here

India and China may differ on many counts, but the two countries share a deep reverence for teachers. India celebrates Teacher’s Day on September 5 to honour its second President, S. Radhakrishnan, who was a staunch believer in education’s benefits. In China, Teacher’s day is celebrated on September 10 every year, to indicate the deep respect that Chinese society holds for teachers.

Depending on who you ask, Teacher’s day in China has a different history. Like the Indian gurukul system, ancient Chinese teachers also took on disciples. As Confucian ideals became widespread in the 6th-5th century BCE, so did ideas of the codes that ruled relations between teachers and students. A famous Chinese saying goes on to say, “he who has been your teacher for one day can be regarded as your father for your whole life (一日为师, 终身为父).” The traditional Chinese system is teacher-centered, and in it, the teachers are responsible for the moral well-being of the student and should serve as an ethical model.

In the 20th century, with the end of the Qing dynasty, modern scientific ideas began to be regarded as necessary. While much has changed in the contemporary state system, ideas from traditional Chinese continue to influence society today. Since the 1930s, a national holiday to celebrate teachers was debated. However, with World War II and the struggle between the Communists and Nationalists, Chinese society went through tremendous upheaval.

Indeed, during the Cultural Revolution, students were actively encouraged to denounce their teachers as rightists and counterrevolutionaries. Starting in August 1966 (also called Red August), students in Beijing formed the Red Guards. They began to torture, kill, and drive teachers and anyone from a “bad class” background. Frank Dikötter details some of the violence in his book, The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962-1976:

“Red Guards began physically attacking teachers and administrators the moment they heard of Mao’s battle cry ‘To Rebel is Justified.’ On August 4, three days after receiving Mao’s letter of encouragement, the students at Tsinghua University Middle School forced the principal and vice-principal to wear labels denouncing them as ‘Heads of a Black Gang.’ Over the following days, the Red Guards took turns to beat them. Some of the students used a club; others preferred a whip or a copper-buckled belt. The vice-principal’s hair was burned.”

Through the Cultural Revolution, the school system remained suspended, and it was only in 1977 that the gaokao examination resumed indicating the return to stability. In 1985, the Deng Xiaoping government announced the creation of the new holiday to celebrate teachers on 10 September. Most students attend public school, and in large classrooms in both rural and urban schools, students do not have the scope for individual attention. Currying favour with the teacher was necessary for a child to stand out in China’s hyper-competitive education. It is common practice for parents to gift teachers with hongbao's (or red packets of cash), I-pads, luxury items like bags or cosmetics, or even gift cards. These practices came under the scanner with Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive but are difficult to eliminate.

From my own experience within the Chinese classroom, it is easy to see that Chinese teachers are treated with possibly even more reverence than Indian teachers—questions are raised gently not to be seen as questioning the teacher’s authority or tradition. However, the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on what can be discussed inside classrooms has meant that the student can exercise immense power over their teachers as they can report them for holding “radical views.” In 2013, Chinese universities were told not to touch on topics like civil rights, press freedom, etc. Over the last couple of years, the number of reports against teachers for making “politically inappropriate remarks” has gone up, leading to increasing censorship within the Chinese classroom.

Being an educator in China is no easy task. Studies suggest that Chinese academics are possibly the most overworked in the world. While respect for Chinese teachers is high, they are even more underpaid than some of their counterparts in India. Across the length and breadth of the country, protests and strikes by teachers against low pay, wage arrears, and maladministration are far too familiar. These insufficient incentives are why teachers resort to bribery—something that’s all too familiar for us in India.


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