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AND LIES AND CHEATING IN CHINA
cheat do not cheat the teacher but only themselves'.
I hold a free-talk class for one hour, each day, at a small English
language school in Beijing. My students are a mixed bunch, but mostly
adult and from professional fields. Their English level is high and
our discussions open new avenues of expression for them as well as new
insights and understandings for me. The learning is reciprocal.
Last Thursday, in free-talk, we discussed the truth. When does one tell
it and when is it better to lie? In what instances does the lying become
necessary? One student, Sam, talked about cheating his way through his
university exams, copying the answers from others and passing every
single test "through fraud." The woman next to him agreed
and pointed out an allegiance between students that I, having always
viewed China as a nation filled with swats, found startling. "Students
help one another out," she assured me. "It is us against the
Certainly, the majority of adults in this class admitted to some form
of cheating, the most popular of which involved smuggling answer books
into their exams. "The desks all had sliding drawers," Mark
explained. "We could hide our books inside these and sneak peaks
when the examiner wasnt looking." Guilt ridden laughter swept
through the room at this admission, to be interrupted by the strong,
clear voice of my favourite student, Susan. Susan is an attractive woman
in her late twenties. She is a radio technician and is highly respected
in her workplace. In the time that she has attended this free-talk class
I have noticed that she speaks only when she feels she has something
of significance to contribute. Small talk is not for her.
"That style of cheating has gone out of fashion." Her voice
rang with such conviction that we were immediately transfixed. She was
silent for a moment, waiting for all eyes to rest upon her, before she
continued, "These days it is more common to use a small square
of paper tucked neatly into your hand. It should be folded in such a
way so as to store a large amount of information." I nodded and
commented that such a practice was also common in Australia. I was about
to steer the conversation in another direction when she said assuredly,
"Of course, another common practice is to polish a nail."
"Polish a nail?"
"Cheat notes are no good if you are caught." When pressed
to explain Susan sighed, as though explaining the obvious to an imbecile,
before she said, "We flatten a nail and polish it until shiny.
This way, when the teacher walks near to your desk, you will catch his
reflection in your mirror."
I gaped and the other students tittered at my surprise. And, it is true,
I was surprised. I was shocked. I never realised that cheating could
be taken to such sophisticated heights. Furthermore, I never thought
it possible for a student, a Chinese student who cherishes face and
honour, to admit to such cheating in front of her fellow peers.
And, of course, not all of them were impressed. "People who cheat
do not cheat the teacher but only themselves," chortled one corner
sitter. Another more militant woman suggested that all students be subjected
to lie detector tests immediately following their exams. An air of sincerity
accompanied her suggestion and the notion that such a concept would
work only at the expense of personal space and freedom was lost on her.
But this is not surprising. In the time I have had to observe student
life in China I have seen that university students are granted very
little personal freedom.
For a period of four months I lived in a dormitory building filled to
overflow with Chinese tertiary students. I enjoyed the privacy of my
own room but the Chinese students lived eight to a dorm with washing
facilities shared amongst the whole floor. At precisely 7:15am each
morning a white-coated woman (I saw her only once but heard her daily)
made the rounds of the corridors, a short metal whistle screaming from
between her lips. This ear-piercing sound would continue for no less
than fifteen minutes by which time even the most diligent bed-head could
not fail to awake. In the evenings the front door to the dormitory would
be locked, with a bicycle chain, at exactly eleven oclock. The
idea that these students, young adults and high achievers (18% of Beijings
high school students go on to university) were capable of using alarm
clocks, or responsible enough to carry a key, was not contemplated.
Of course, it is not only in their daily lives that Chinese students
experience the curbing of independent action. More obviously, to the
outside world, it is in the classroom that limitations to expression
and independent thought are made manifest. While, in our own country,
both imagination and initiative in thought are rewarded, this is not
the case in China. As an English teacher I see, first hand, the negative
effects of the repressive aspects of Chinese education. The majority
of my students are highly competent individuals who have few grammatical
problems, an excellent understanding of written English and who are
capable of reading and comprehending large amounts of technical material
at a time. I have not taught a single student who is incapable of memorization.
However, should I re-phrase a question or ask a student to use her initiative
in composing a sentence, she will usually find herself completely lost.
At university in China all students, from those that study accounting
to those that study fashion design, must study Political Science and
Philosophical thought. At my university, in Australia, these departments
were a hotbed for argument, debate and intellectual stimulation. The
majority of Chinese students, however, regard these subjects as a bore.
In order to do well on their exams, the students must engage in regurgitation,
spewing forth those facts cherished by ancient textbooks
and teachers alike. Any attempt to articulate a different perspective
is rewarded only with failure. It is from this realm of experience that
my student, Susan, justifies her cheating tools.
To Susan, such repression in education is unacceptable. She cares not
for the politics of the State and knows that, should she offer an alternate
opinion, she will not receive the marks that she needs to survive in
an increasingly competitive society. Susan knows that her opinion counts
for little and the truth for naught. She cannot justify wasting her
valuable study time in a lie. Instead, she lies to pass, and cheats
the system, so as to succeed in those areas that really matter. When
the truth is not valued," concluded Susan, "the lie becomes
© Cath Collins 2001 -