The otherside of the Great Wall

17th May 1996 at 01:00
A walk through the Summer Palace of that terrifying old harridan Empress Cixi is like the slow unrolling of a Chinese scroll painting. A dreamlike enchantment lingers over delicate names: Palace of Beautiful Sunsets; Hall of Jade Waves; House of Fragrant Herbs. In the Pavilion for Listening to Orioles Sing, hordes of Chinese children in colourful school uniforms didn't give the birds much chance, chattering and queuing to be photographed in the golden silks and elaborate headgear of the Ming dynasty.

Into the mountains above Beijing (population 10 million): destination the Great Wall. Mao does his bit for tourism here with a bracing quote: "Not a plucky hero till one reaches the Great Wall". More prosaically followed by another legend: "Protect the Great Wall - Don't carve on it".

This seemed an injunction aimed more at the visitor hordes than Chinese children, whose main preoccupation seemed to be to achieve a photograph of each other with a foreigner. Vandalism and violence are conspicuously absent in a conforming society where a one-child policy means that most children are the focus of lavish adult attention and high hopes.

Illiteracy is still perceived as the main barrier to modernisation. Not perhaps surprising when the Chinese child should master brush strokes for 2,000 characters by age 12. Those not succeeding may be held back a year. Those going on to university (4 per cent) will master 10,000 characters by graduation. (One recent education concession has been the abandonment of traditional vertical column reading, in favour of horizontal right to left.) Education is respected in China, and excellence encouraged. A teacher never laughs in class, and methodology features much memorising. Scottish teachers may be wryly amused to hear that "Chinese teachers are respected - just like a parent" Forty or 50 children to a primary class is typical, and the day is long: 7.30am-4.30pm, five days a week. Homework is normal (one to two hours) from year 1 (age seven). Most primary schools teach a second language, usually English, and feature sport, music, computers. In the cities three years' kindergarten is usually available.

The nine years of compulsory education is free, but the Chinese under Communism expect to pay for higher education. Students have for the past eight years worked their way to pay 10 per cent of their costs. This will rise to 100 per cent in a few years' time, giving pause for Western thought.

The Government is currently encouraging foreign companies to take root for the help they can offer Chinese enterprises. Thus Daihatsu, Cherokee and Volkswagen are all into joint ventures with local companies. Foreign employment is highly valued for the perks: companies can sponsor students and provide flats and medical care.

Foreign commercial competition is seen as constructive. The latest five-year plan shows the Government trying to improve Chinese companies in order to make them competitive for the brightest graduates. For those not in the lucky 4 per cent, adult study is still possible: via night schools and correspondence classes. Government controls remain ubiquitous. You may not live or work in a city without a resident's permit or smoke in a public place.

Everywhere our official guides in this teeming, fascinating, inscrutable country were excellent: university teachers of English to a man or woman (but none with experience of foreign travel). Any question that strayed over the border of the permitted, however tentatively, would be met delicately by the answer to another question, for they too are under surveillance.

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