Not One Less: a movie review and cultural comparison

In the film Not One Less (1999), a thirteen-year-old girl is asked to be the long-term substitute teacher in a small Chinese village.  The teacher tells her that when he returns, if he finds all the students still there, he will pay her ten yuan—less than two American dollars.

When one student, Zhang Huike, stops coming to school, Wei Minzhim, the thirteen-year-old substitute teacher, follows him to the city.

There are several themes in this movie. The most powerful to me was the value of an education and not losing face. If Wei loses Zhang, she will fail the responsibility the teacher gave her. To succeed, she must keep all the students and teach them.

This film reveals one of the greatest cultural differences between the United States and China. More than 2,000 years ago, Confucius taught that an education was the great equalizer and the key to leaving poverty behind.

Today, many Chinese and other Asians still believe this with a passion, and this belief may explain why the on-time high school graduation for Asian-Americans in the United States is the highest when compared to all other racial groups. Culturally, the value of an education may be seen in that high school graduation rate.

On-time high school graduation rate in the U.S. by race for the 2009-10 school year

 Asian/Pacific Islander = 93%
White = 83%
Hispanic = 71%
Black – 66%

In the United States, teachers are often blamed for the lower graduation rates of Hispanics and Blacks, while in China parents take the blame. This is another significant difference between China and the United States. In China it would be unthinkable to wage war against the nation’s teachers for children who don’t learn. Instead, parents, who cared, and teachers would work together to do what they could as partners.

Zhang Yimou was the director. He says, “Chinese culture is still rooted in the countryside. If you don’t know the peasant, you don’t know China.” Because of this, there is a strong message in this movie about the urban–rural divide, which is being addressed as China sews the nation together with high-speed rail and electricity.

This a powerful movie about children, education, and poverty that shows the challenges China faces in lifting the lifestyles of almost eight hundred million Chinese, who don’t live in the cities. The challenge is to do this without losing the cultural values that flow through Chinese history like a powerful river.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His third book is Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé, a memoir. “Lofthouse presents us with grungy classrooms, kids who don’t want to be in school, and the consequences of growing up in a hardscrabble world. While some parents support his efforts, many sabotage them—and isolated administrators make the work of Lofthouse and his peers even more difficult.” – Bruce Reeves.


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12 Responses to Not One Less: a movie review and cultural comparison

  1. Behind the Story says:

    The trailer of “Not One Less” brought tears to my eyes. Zhang Yimou is a genius, but his aren’t the only Chinese movies with the ability to dig deep into human sentiment.

    I also enjoyed the discussion in “Behind the Scenes.” The speakers reminded me of several mainland Chinese I’ve met who are about that same age. Despite all the suffering when intellectuals were sent to the countryside, some of them returned with an unusual sort of wisdom.

    Re. your discussion with Marilyn. When this subject is brought up, I find myself at a loss to describe in personal terms the motivation for a child to be a good student. My sister and I were always good students although I can’t remember any particular encouragement. My dad was a carpenter. My mom was interested in art and fashion. She did encourage us to draw. On the other hand, I didn’t know anyone who used drugs or belonged to a gang. My three daughters were good students. Number one was competitive, always wanted to be at the top of her class. The other two didn’t want to be left behind. So they all did well. My husband and I almost never helped them with their homework. Nor did we push them. On the other hand, we must have subtly shown that we expected them to be interested in learning and to do well in school.

    Another interesting post. Thank you.

    • You’re welcome. Parents are roll models just be being who they are and doing the best they can based on their perception of the parenting job. As long as the paernts are doing their supportive best as parents, on their terms—not some expert, busybody, or guru—I think the odds favor the child growing up ready to face the world and survive in the workplace and in life.

      A parent who takes drugs, abuses alcohol, cheats on their spouse, beats their kids, gambles, etc, is a horrible roll model—wow, that somewhat describes my dad. A parent who lives life in moderation and treats others the way they want to be treated and pays attention to the needs of their child or children will be a much better roll model—more like my mother. Its a powerful image growing up and seeing your parent/s reading on a regular basis and getting ready for work as the child gets ready for school compared to a kid who gets up to a house that’s a mess with a sink full of dirty dishes, moldy food in the frig or no food and no parent to see them off, leaves a negative lasting impression.

      • Behind the Story says:

        Good explanation. In the absence of some of the problems you mention above, teachers can be a good influence.

      • When parents are grossly dysfunctional, sometimes teachers are the only moderating influence. That’s why sports, band, chorus, drama, etc, are so important. The coaches and adviser/teachers spend a lot of time with kids and often have a big impact. I was an adviser for the chess club, the environment hiking club and journalism. It’s all in my memoir. Many teachers have more than one hat. When we took kids on hikes in the wilderness on Saturdays, parents were often unable to help drive so we recruited other teachers to drive.

        With journalism, I’d sometimes arrive at school as early as 6:00 AM and there would be student reporters and/or editors waiting outside my room and many of them would still be there after 10:00 PM when we had to leave because the alarms were being turned on and the school locked up. When I’d be working with my English students, reporters and editors would come and go all day. And after the final bell, many days, there would be a few who would stay until five or six or later.

        It’s all in the memoir that used a daily journal I kept for one full school year as its source. Almost every day when I got home, I’d take out the notes I’d jotted down at school and write an entry in detail before I’d eat or start correcting student work. That journal ran several hundred pages typed.

  2. Ray H says:

    Zhang Yimou is a great director. From Raise the Red Lantern to Flowers of War. However, I haven’t seen this one yet. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Garry and I come from homes where we were taught if we didn’t go to school, we couldn’t go to heaven. It was the key to everything, the most important thing in our lives and it was deadly seriousness. Maybe it’s a minority thing … people for whom American is a locked vault where education has been the key to opening it. Or maybe these are just traditional cultural values in the families that raised us. Regardless, Asians are by no means alone in raising education to almost religious fervor. The disintegration of education in the U.S. is frightening in its future implications. For everyone of every background. Its implications to our culture, economy, everything. Thanks for another cogent post … and if the movie shows up anywhere, we’ll go see it!

    • If you have a computer system that will handle it, click the title link and pay to stream the stream. That may cost less than going to the theater.

      I wasn’t that fortunate to have parents who even knew how to be supportive of my public education. My parents both dropped out of high school and never graduated. But because they grew up in a world without TV, the internet and video games, they were avid readers and my mother made sure that I did learn to read and after she was sure I did, she pretty much ignored the rest of my education. She just didn’t know how important parental support is all the way through college.

      It was by chance, a fluke of circumstances, that I came around to seeing how important education was to insure a better future and made the right decision later in life while I was still in the Marines fighting in Vietnam. I guess I could thank the sniper who almost took me out and woke me up. That one sniper—and maybe a few others who were bad shots—caused me to go to college on the GI Bill after my honorable discharge for the military. Literacy was the key. Without literacy, I probably would nave dropped out of college.

      • My mother never went to high school at all. She wanted to go, but her family needed her income so after 7th grade, she was done. She was determined I would go, hell or high water. It never occurred to me I had a choice in the matter — or wanted one. And yes, it did make all the difference. What lives would we have had without an education? I can’t even imagine.

      • What would life be like without the ability to read books? Oh, I forgot, with technology we don’t even need to read to read books. We can read them with our ears these days. I do it all the time in addition to reading tree books. When I’m in the car, I prefer audio books over the radio.

      • I mostly listen to audio books because my eyes don’t seem to like print anymore. Especially since all that surgery last March. I haven’t gotten my eyes back yet … and I wonder if I will. Fortunately, I love audio books. I still read short stories and novellas, but long ones are problematic.

        But if we couldn’t read, how could we write? Literacy isn’t just novels anymore. It’s LIFE.

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