A sleeping dragon dreams. The Waldorf movement in China

By Nana Göbel, June 2014

The so-called “Cultural Revolution” in China ended in 1976 – a ten year experiment in the systematic destruction of traditional culture and education with roots going back millennia. That set in train the economic development of the Middle Kingdom which has been unprecedented in its rapidity and which has led to the creation and rise of a growing middle class and the spread of values guided by consumerism.

The “one child policy” has existed for 35 years; it was introduced in 1979 to control population growth and was not softened until November 2013. The consequences of this policy, which was rigorously implemented in the large cities and led to many officially ordered abortions and immense associated suffering, is the remarkable relationship with the one child which the authorities permitted. The effects can be seen to the present day in the social behaviour of children and adolescents characterised by the pain of a lack of contact with peers, absent childhood friendships and missing stimulus through young people of their own age.

With drills and flag ceremonies to university

Most of the people who today belong to the middle class were themselves born after the end of the Cultural Revolution, grew up and were educated as single children in Chinese schools. This school system is as much part of them as the loneliness in a one-child family and the new freedom resulting from the economic opening of the country. The Chinese school is a cognitive system which has to be internalised through learning by heart. The idea is still adhered to that education must not contradict socialist principles.

Although Chinese pupils do very well in international comparisons – particularly in the sciences – the impact of competitive pressure, drilling, all-embracing performance tests and flag ceremonies cannot be overlooked. The other side of the coin, which is mostly not mentioned, is that they come bottom as regards imagination and fifth from the bottom in terms of creativity. Anyone who wants to pass the university entrance exams (gaokao) has to learn great quantities of material by heart and for many years spend almost all hours of the day and many hours of the night on learning (with one free day every two weeks in the final year of school). These examinations occupy such an important place in society, however, that the roads around schools are closed so that no noise disturbs the concentration of the pupils during the exams. The equalising effect cannot be ignored.

The rediscovery of imagination and creativity

Zhong Daoran, today a 23-year-old economics student, wrote about the Chinese school system in his book I do not forgive: “It is not the pupils who are sick in China but our society and our education system. For twelve years they force us through elementary and middle schools with the sole aim of passing the gaokao. Those who succeed are further formatted for four years in the school-like universities … In elementary school they rob us of our own value judgements, in middle school of our independent thinking and at university of our ideals and dreams. After that our brain appears as empty as a eunuch’s pants.” Zhong Daoran has thoroughly studied the present and classical Chinese education system and appeals for radical reform. His book, which reflects the perspective of a whole generation – the jiu ling hou or so-called Generation 2.0, was banned from the shops six weeks after it appeared.

These experiences, which are shared by very many young Chinese, have led to the demands for an alternative education becoming more and more pressing. Even in the established system the importance of imagination and creativity is gradually being discovered – not least as the result of pressure from the major business enterprises. This has led among other things to the establishment of the “New Education Movement” in which about 1,200 schools are working together which in one form or another want to offer greater opportunities for creative development (a very small number when compared to the total number of schools in this country with the largest population in the world). The Waldorf schools work closely with this association.

Alongside the law

The school system in China is essentially based on five laws which of course have to be complied with by schools. But in China there is also a reality of life “alongside” the law. If something has been agreed with people who occupy an important role in the system, it can obtain validity. That was depressingly evident when during the great earthquake in Sichuan, school buildings simply collapsed because they were built with insufficient steel. But what is possible one day in China can also become impossible the next. To this extent communication has to be constantly maintained and a reputation has to be acquired which helps to safeguard ongoing existence.

In this situation of social transformation, many young, well-educated parents, who have a close and deep connection with their country and want to do something for it, are seeking an education for their children in which they can develop their many different capabilities without being subjected to the stresses described above. These parents are discovering the importance of play for young children, they are discovering the opportunities offered by a school built on joy of learning and they risk a lot for that. It requires great courage to move outside the social norms and considerable commitment to run the newly founded Waldorf kindergartens and schools. They are faced with many new problems connected with the self-management structure and they are full of enthusiasm when they see that learning can also be quite different. And this enthusiasm gives rise to new strength.

About the author: Nana Göbel is executive board member of the Friends of Waldorf Education