The Cultural Importance of Education in China Caught on Film

In the Chinese 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 says to her that when he returns, if he finds all the students still there, he will pay her ten yuan, less than two American dollars at the time.

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 film. The most powerful was the value of an education and not losing face. If Wei loses Zhang, she will fail the teacher who gave her the responsibility to teach the village children. To her, that means she must keep all the students.

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. In the United States, for the last several decades, corporations in the private-sector education industry that profit off high-stakes tests claim high-test scores will lift children out of poverty, and low test scores are the fault of teachers, not children who don’t study for whatever reason.

Today many Chinese, not all, and most Asians outside of China still believe with a passion that education is the key, 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.

U.S. reports that Asian/Pacific Islander students comprised the only subgroup with a higher (on-time high school) graduation rate than white students (in the U.S.).

In the United States, teachers are often blamed for the lower graduation rates of Hispanics (more than 74 percent) and Blacks (71 percent), while in China parents take the blame when their children are not successful in school.

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 work together to do what they can as partners to make sure children learn.

And for children that live in poverty and/or with parents that don’t care, a Stanford University Researcher discovered “There is an achievement gap between more and less disadvantaged students in every country, surprisingly, that gap is smaller in the United States.”

Zhang Yimou was the director of this film. He said, “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 film about the urban–rural divide in China, 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 (and every country) faces in improving the lifestyles of almost 8-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.

Discover Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor

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 unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.


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