Only 10 per cent of the 24,000 pupils who sat modern studies exams last year tackled the question on China.
Yet those who did answer it scored higher marks than those who chose the question on the United States, and they gained plaudits from examiners.
Vincent Oates, a lecturer at Strathclyde University's department of curriculum studies and former modern studies teacher at Ardrossan Academy, announced the findings as part of the first-ever national survey on the way Scottish pupils learn about China. The survey was published last week at the first national conference on the "Teaching of China" in Scotland's schools, held at the university's Jordanhill campus.
Nearly 70 per cent of Scottish secondary schools took part in his survey, revealing that 109 "teach China" at some stage of modern studies but 120 do not. Of those who did, 42 covered China in S1-2; 23 in S3-4; 63 at Higher; and 61 at S5-6 Intermediate.
Schools which "taught China" tended to be in Aberdeenshire, Dundee, East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Inverclyde and Renfrewshire, but the means to approaching the subject varied. In one Dundee school, one of the cleaners was a Chinese student and he was invited to speak to some classes; another school in Perth and Kinross invited Chinese language assistants into social studies classes to talk about China's one-child policy.
Many respondents said there was a lack of relevant published materials and opportunities for continuing professional development and sharing good practice.
Alan Carroll, principal teacher of modern studies at Smithycroft Secondary in Glasgow, said that no textbook existed which matched the arrangements for Intermediate exams. He suggested that pupils might have done better in the China questions because they tended to be "more open" than the US questions. "I'm not saying it's an easy option, but you can expect more predictable and stable questions on China - they are not as risky as the USA ones," he said.
Teachers "teaching China" wanted material about some of the more positive aspects of China, reported Dr Oates, because those usually offered at S1-2, such as China's human rights record and its one-child policy, tended to be negative.
In response to feedback from the survey, Dr Oates is working on an S1-2 resource pack within the ACfE model, "Young Scots and China".
Schools not offering topics on China tended to be in Glasgow, Dumfries and Galloway, Fife, Highland, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire and the independent sector, he said. Their main reasons for not doing so were inadequate materials, shortage of time, unfamiliarity with the subject, and a perception that teaching the USA produced better exam results.