Chinese pupil poses moral conundrum after being criticized for “wrong” answer

April 19, 2012Jing Gao7 Comments, , , , , , , ,

In a quiz on Chinese reading, a first grader answered “No, I won’t” to the question “Would you give up your pear out of courtesy to your brothers if you were Kong Rong?” He got a huge “X” for his answer from his teacher. The child’s father, upon seeing the answer sheet, took a picture of it and uploaded it to Sina Weibo, the hugely popular microblogging service, which has had the nation question the purpose of education.

The reading section of the exam is a passage, written in both Chinese characters and pinyin, about a classic moral story, commonly known as “Kong Rong giving up pears” (孔融让梨), that has been taught in elementary schools since the Song Dynasty in the same way the tale of George Washington felling a cherry tree lingers in the U.S. classes. According to the story, Kong Rong, later a politician in late Han Dynasty, picked the smallest of all pears and let his brothers choose the rest that were bigger, despite being only 4-year-old and the youngest in the family at the time.

The post by the child’s father was reposted by 2,000 users and received 400 comments within one day. It is heatedly discussed on Sina Weibo, as netizens debate if educators should enforce values onto students, and if honest expression of unorthodox opinion should be encouraged.

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A reporter from Dongfang Daily contacted the child’s father. The child is in Grade 1 at an elementary school in the city of Shanghai. When the father saw the exam paper, he questioned his son about the answer, but the son insisted that he was not being playful. “ I asked him, ‘Why did you write that you won’t give up your pear?’ He answered, ‘I don’t think Kong Rong, a 4-year-old, would have actually done that.’ I asked him why not. He answered, ‘Because he was only 4 years old,’” the father recalled. He said that his son was pretty confident in the answer and refused to correct it, at least not until he got an explanation from the teacher.

“Actually, my son is not selfish. He understands the significance of sharing. He passes food to me, his mother and his grandma at the table every day.”

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Illustration of the story ‘Kong Rong giving up pears.’

The majority of the flurry of the online commentary it inspires is supportive of the little boy. In an online survey on Sina Weibo, 57.1% of all 3,569 respondents say they wouldn’t give up pears in Kong Rong’s situation, and 23.7% say “I don’t know.”

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Selected comments from Sina Weibo

兔兔窝大宝贝 :Kids are kids. They are very selfish about food they like. It is very normal. You can’t kill kids’ nature. After he grows up, he will naturally understand that some insignificant things can be given up. Since (the pear) is just a small thing, giving it up or not does not matter a great deal, and “Yes” shouldn’t be the only answer.

不如人意:I wouldn’t. Ordinary kids’ mentality will say no.

June的窝:I probably wouldn’t when I was little. Now it doesn’t matter at all.

Fawave猫:Nowadays, things are different than before. In a society where competition is so fierce, education should be changed accordingly. Many opportunities only come about once, and you won’t have it in the rest of your life if you miss it!

猫耳闹不住菇:I don’t like eating pears, so, why not give it up. But I am not sure if Kong Rong disliked eating pears too. Virtues are not the result of regulation. But when we were little, we all wrote artfully the supposed answer, no matter whether we would really do it or not. A kid like him who speaks honestly is truly lovely.

木易囡囡313:Damn, what were they thinking? What the heck would a little child know? In my case I would definitely refuse to give it up.

A commenter said that the red cross is crude; there is nothing wrong with the kid’s answer, as, first, not everyone should be required to be a saint, and second, at the very least, the boy was honest, much better than those who answered “Yes” but thought rather differently.

Another commenter said, if teachers forbid children to speak honestly, “how can you expect the society to have integrity and honesty?” One Weibo user asked, “The question was only asking ‘What would you do’, as long as one tells what he would do and did not give an irrelevant answer, how can you give him an ‘X’?”

The boy’s misery has also found company. A net user said, “My nephew in elementary school stumbled upon a question asking ‘What character do you get if you dot the character ‘Big 大’? He wrote ‘Dog 犬’, and got an ‘X’. The only acceptable answer was ‘Extreme 太’”.

Others think that the question should have been asked at all, “For so many years, Chinese literature classes have been focusing on moral education while ignoring core skills such as classical Chinese, world literature, reading comprehension and independent thinking…Just look at how little adults read each year and how scarce their knowledge is.”

There are netizens who disagree, “What makes human beings different from animals is human beings have the sense of right and wrong and know courtesy and modesty. Does teaching children to pick the biggest pear at their own will really mean an emancipation of human nature?”

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7 comments to “Chinese pupil poses moral conundrum after being criticized for “wrong” answer”

  1. Guy In China | April 19, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Is there a right answer? I mean, after all, it asks, “What would you do?”. How can you be wrong?

    • Jing Gao | April 20, 2012 | Permalink Reply

      In China, every question has a “right answer,” and any answer other than that is wrong.

  2. Tom | April 19, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    I actually did give up food when I was four, out of deference to my peers. It was my fourth birthday and everyone seemed so excited to have the cake, I just stood by and politely allowed my greedy classmates to get their slices first. The teacher had her hands full trying to control them all, but I was confident that it was the polite and morally correct thing to do, even at four years old. In the end, however, the teacher had given all the cake away and hadn’t even considered me at all. She didn’t even notice as I sat there, the only student without my own birthday cake, as she desparately tried to cajole, marshall and clean up after a dozen or so other boys and girls. Ruined birthdays for me forever.

    Still, the student in this story (and many of the commentators) were wrong to assert that a four-year-old would not give up his food. Wrong, but perhaps not far from the truth, as it certainly has something to do with up-bringing and societal norms. Societal norms, these days, are less about selflessness and more about individual attainment.

    But that wasn’t really what the student was saying in his answer. Only later did he explain why he wrote what he did. His answer was honest, accurate and addressed the question competently. It either ought not to have been marked ‘wrong’, or the question ought not to have been set as it was, if a variety of answers was not acceptable. I don’t see this as being a big news story, however. I am a teacher and have to mark according to prescribed marking schemes and all too often there are ambiguous questions on test papers. The leeway that I can give is often severely limited and teachers have to feed back such criticisms to those who set the papers and hope that things improve on the next test.

    • Jing Gao | April 20, 2012 | Permalink Reply

      Thank you for your comment. I simply wanted to bring up the topic of Chinese education, especially the education on moral ethics that is full of platitude and political “correctness”.

      • Ken Jones | April 20, 2012 | Permalink Reply

        Fascinating. The only accurate assessment of the answer can be grammatical. Did the boy write a correctly formed answer? Content has not place except to ensure that the answer did address the question.

  3. [...] 无限在石教众:How many of them gave a standard answer like the one to the question of “Kong Rong giving up pears?” 幽羽珊:When I was in high school, I loved my country very much too. 合肥老母鸡:I [...]

  4. Greg | April 29, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    It would have been nice if Tofu had at least given us the name of the Weibo account so we could take a look at it : )

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