Slaps on the face for forgetting how to write Chinese poetry

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This is what happened in a middle school in Anhui's capital city of Hefei on the first day of the new school year:

"On first day of school, teacher slaps 20* students in the face in front of class", Alex Linder in Shanghaiist (9/4/17)

*VHM:  Initial reports were that he slapped 20 students this way, but later it was discovered that he had slapped 38 students in front of the class.  It's a bit hard to keep up with the reports because I think some of them are being censored by the government, so are no longer recoverable.

According to the Beijing News, the teacher had recently been brought up from the countryside and had asked the students to write some classical poetry from memory. If they made a mistake, they would get slapped in front of the class.

I've seen much worse, even done to kindergartners by their teachers.  Some children have been maimed or even killed because of the physical abuse inflicted on them by their teachers.

Is learning Chinese characters that important?  Is there no better way?  Of course, there are many superior means to learn Chinese, and we've discussed them many times on Language Log.

From Alex Wang:

What’s ironic is parents who complained about this teacher, yet I have seen countless times parents slapping their kids in public because they couldn’t tingxie*.  Now that’s in public.  I wonder what happens at home?  I wonder where the teacher learned it from.

*VHM: tīngxiě 听写 ("dictation")

A few relevant posts:

"Copying characters " (2/11/13)

"Writing Chinese characters as a form of punishment " (11/1/15)

"The future of Chinese language learning is now " (4/5/14)

"The Awful Chinese Writing System" (1/20/16)

"Beyond fluff " (3/19/17); see, among many others, the following comments:  here, here, here, and here


  1. Jamie said,

    September 7, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

    Apart from the slapping, I can't get over the weird, awkward way he does it.

  2. Eidolon said,

    September 7, 2017 @ 7:14 pm

    The common wisdom for raising kids in China is still that: 棍棒底下出孝子, or "only under a stick can you raise a filial son." You can take away the difficulty of learning characters, but they'll just find another excuse. Instead of slapping kids for not being able to write poetry, it'll just be slapping kids for not being able to do algebra, or for a low score on a quiz, etc. Yet, though Chinese teachers and parents love to use physical punishments, their kids are also more spoiled than ever. My opinion is that Chinese parents go from one extreme to the other too quickly – one day they're beating their kids, the next day they're buying them expensive toys and stuffing their faces. There has to be more moderation in the way both teaching and parenting is done.

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    September 7, 2017 @ 7:32 pm

    Yes: for me, the most interesting thing is that I'm pretty sure it simply doesn't work. Who's going to learn more Chinese poetry – the child who loves it and associates it with wonder and beauty … or the child whose only experience with Chinese poetry is being slapped in the face?

  4. Alex said,

    September 7, 2017 @ 10:05 pm

    @ Eidolon said
    “My opinion is that Chinese parents go from one extreme to the other too quickly”
    Totally agree, they also take the new found “be western” let the preschool kids have more freedom to extreme! Thus creating schizophrenic behavior when children don’t do well later on in primary school.

    @ Jenny Chu said,
    “Who's going to learn more Chinese poetry – the child who loves it and associates it with wonder and beauty … or the child whose only experience with Chinese poetry is being slapped in the face?”

    When my son was in first grade, he had to blindly memorize 12 Chinese poems.
    I thought and said the same thing as you. They have succeeded in turning something that should be enjoyed and treasured into a source of fear and anxiety.

    This past spring in an effort to correct this, a friend and I for parents as a teacher day (parents are asked to come to school and teach a class on a Tang Poem) prepared a Tang poem (ppt)

    送元二使安西Sòng Yuán'Èr Shĭ Ānxī
    王维 Wáng Wéi
    Wéichéng zhāo yǔ yì qīng chén
    kèshè qīng qīng liǔsè xīn
    quàn jūn gèng jìn yì bēi jiǔ
    xī chū yāng guān wú gù rén

    Weicheng’s dust is moistened with dawn rain
    willows have turned the inn fresh green
    have one more cup of wine milord
    west of Yang Pass there’ll be no old friends
    (Trans. MP)

    We recited the Chinese with the class and then the English translation.
    We then went over key vocabulary words such as 青 Green, 新 xīn New, etc
    We also showed the children maps of the locations and the probable route to Anxi.
    Then we introduced different translation by people such as Ezra Pound, Red Pine and Stephen Owen, showing that poetry can interpreted differently. They were amazed that Westerners know of or even care about Chinese Poetry! Much like the previous LL article concerning the western reporter speaking fluent Chinese. We followed this up with simple questions and answers and passed out whistle pops (lollipops) as prizes. We provided the children with a handout to take home.

    It was a big hit with the parents as the children received a free English lesson. (Parents are fanatical about their children learning English) Several parents even made video recordings of their children reciting the Chinese then English poems. Many students recited in a Patrick Stewart like fashion! And sent them to the teacher via wechat.
    Many other teachers and some administrators in my son’s school heard about our day and asked if we can do some more.

    So this summer my friend and I prepared a series of 10 poems all in booklet form. We recognized the need to show these city children a picture of an oriole and then an egret for Du Fu’s poem

    “Liǎng gē huáng lí míng cuì liǔ
    A pair of orioles calls in the green willow

    We hope to show that learning poetry and the accompanying history and vocabulary can be fun and to instill a life long love for poetry.

  5. Lucy Yang said,

    September 8, 2017 @ 2:42 am

    That they videotaped this and it went viral shows that not all Chinese people enjoy beating their kids.

  6. Asano Sokato said,

    September 8, 2017 @ 6:27 am

    Is there a cultural significance to slapping in that particular manner (thumb down, palm out)? Does it better ensure the slap is not maximum force, thus more symbolic (though the audio suggests these are far from gentle taps)?

  7. B.Ma said,

    September 8, 2017 @ 7:19 am

    It's not necessarily about characters. Learning poems by heart is not a good use of educational time, even if they just had to recite them orally.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2017 @ 7:24 am

    @Asano Sokato

    Your questions are right on target. I have seen Chinese in positions of superiority or authority deliver slaps like that; they are designed to be calculated and calibrated so as not have the potentially full force of a slap delivered with the thumb up and the palm facing inward, though, as you point out, a slap with the palm out and thumb down can still produce quite a wallop, as is evident from the loud sound of the slaps in the video and the fact that each child's head recoils from the force after they are struck by the teacher.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2017 @ 8:13 am


    Your statement would be much more persuasive if you omitted the first sentence or reworded it as follows: "It is not simply / just / only about characters." In the case under discussion, it does have to do with characters.

  10. dainichi said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 8:49 am

    Come on. The main problem here is violence by teachers, not the Chinese writing system. Some teach Chinese characters without violence, and some teach other things with it.

  11. Alex said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 9:07 am

    @dainichi said,

    agree, that said one is easier to correct than the other.
    even if it isn't the teachers, you can bet that the parents do far worse at home.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 10:18 am

    Did anybody say that "the main problem" is Chinese characters?

    "Come on" is not collegial language.

  13. Alex said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 8:41 pm

    Although Chinese characters has always been inefficient, modern Chinese society with its added pressures has exacerbated the situation. As mentioned before, children simply do not have as much time as before to study both reading and writing Chinese. Music, dance, art, maker education, fencing and other sports, drone flying, modern family activities (baking together, and English takes up much of the time that was dedicated to reading and writing Chinese in the past.

    I have used the analogy of the washing machine (pinyin or voice input) versus hand washing clothes. If life is busy how do you expect someone to choose taking the stairs or hand washing clothes vs elevator and washing machine.

    Those that live in a first tier Chinese city can easily see how many kids are racing from extra curricular class to another extra curricular class.

    This combined with the stress parents feel and have to keep up with the others both materially and with their child's education has caused an increased amount of scolding and striking.

    This is the situation. Changing this parental reaction which probably has gone on for 1000's of years is much harder than saving time and stress for both children and adults by simply reversing tingxie to seeing the character and asking the child to write the pinyin.

    This one simple step would probably save on average an hour a day of frustration. Given that the hours someone is awake and isn't commuting or eating or daily life activities that's a large percentage of time.

    For those who say the Chinese have been using characters for 1000's of years well they certainly were able to do it with a "stroke" when they went to simplified. They just failed to take the next step.

    The hour a day saved can be used toward calligraphy with ink and brush if they are worried about culture. Here they can mandate that.
    I think that would be good as it would address the growing ADD and ADHD issues do to modern society.

  14. dainichi said,

    September 12, 2017 @ 1:47 am

    > Did anybody say that "the main problem" is Chinese characters?

    Maybe not explicitly, but I would say that a rhetorical question like "Is learning Chinese characters that important?" suggests that there's some kind of inherent connection between violence and Chinese characters, and I don't think that's fair.

    > This one simple step would probably save on average an hour a day of frustration.

    I've stressed about characters in the past too, so I'm very sympathetic to this argument, but unfortunately I'm more pessimistic. I strongly suspect that stressing about characters is a symptom, not a cause. If the characters weren't there, people would be stressing about something else. What is needed is a change in mindset, understanding that stress and violence isn't the solution.

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