The PISA Test: Rote learning vs 心肝皮肺肾/heart-mind-body

Apparently the results of the latest PISA tests on fifteen year old schoolchildren worldwide have generated some reactions and headlines.

Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators

A part of me is a little saddened that the Sporean students have been overhauled from their top rankings, but these things come and go anyway. As usual, the NYT article is an amusing read, peppered with just the right amounts of politically-incorrect ethnic eye-poking balanced with self-righteous nationalistic opprobrium. Well, at least no one’s talking about Exceptionalism here.

As usual, certain lines from the article caught my idle eye and fancy, and lead me to my response:

A 259-page Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report on the latest Pisa results notes that throughout its history, China has been organized around competitive examinations. “Schools work their students long hours every day, and the work weeks extend into the weekends,” it said.

Chinese students spend less time than American students on athletics, music and other activities not geared toward success on exams in core subjects. Also, in recent years, teaching has rapidly climbed up the ladder of preferred occupations in China, and salaries have risen. In Shanghai, the authorities have undertaken important curricular reforms, and educators have been given more freedom to experiment.

Ever since his organization received the Shanghai test scores last year, Mr. Schleicher said, international testing experts have investigated them to vouch for their accuracy, expecting that they would produce astonishment in many Western countries.

“This is the first time that we have internationally comparable data on learning outcomes in China,” Mr. Schleicher said. “While that’s important, for me the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning.”

“Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations,” he said.

I certainly agree with the first highlighted point of the centrality of the Chinese imperial examination system to political, bureaucratic and social life in China for two thousand years. Notwithstanding the many inadequacies of the system in practice, the Chinese imperial examination system was probably the ancient world’s first true meritocracy, with the annual county-level examinations (as a first round test through which worthy scholars must pass before progressing to further examinations) holding out at least a hope and dream for the talented but disenfranchised to advance in society.

The second point “Chinese students spend less time … on athletics, music and other activities”, doesn’t quite cut ice with me. Since my quote of this line is already taken out of context, my response will of course be as equally frivolous.

I have always been a little crossed that the typical response to any discussion of the stereotype of Asian/Chinese students’ scholastic outperformance is with the dismissive pejorative, “Oh they’re just rote-learning anyway”.
In fact, the set curriculum for the Chinese imperial examination system has long followed Confucius’s teaching that the true gentleman/君子 practices the six arts: ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and arithmetic.

So, for a little insight and colour into rote learning versus learning with your 心肝皮肺肾 (heart-liver-skin-lungs-kidney) or basically, to learn with your whole heart-mind-body in totality; here’s a dramatized rendition of how a typical college training aspirants to take the all-important 科举/imperial exams, may look like during the Jin Dynasty (circa 300 AD).

Video taken from the 1994 movie version of one of the most well-known and beloved stories in Chinese folklore, 梁祝/Butterfly Lovers.
This is probably my favourite film of all time.

梁祝/Butterfly Lovers:
[am linking the video at time 1.30, entry into the scene of the school gate and plaque]

First scene of a classroom with rows of students diligently reciting lines from Confucius’s Analects with sightly exaggerated head-rolls. [Head-rolling is used to reinforce the memorization of lines and lines of text, as an example of the application of kinesthetic-memory-mnemonic aids and is still used today. Am only half-kidding.] This is an example of rote learning.
[BTW, the lines being recited: 知止而后有定,定而后能静 / After knowing your limits you may be focused/centered, after centering you may quieten;
are probably meant as an ironic counterpoint to the scene]

Next, we have the beautiful scene of a music class being held out in the open, under falling autumnal blossoms. The old teacher, listening and shaking his head at his pupil’s playing of the 琴/qin/zither, bemoans that the young acolyte has only managed to express the sounds but not the soul of the music. He goes on to say that the 五音/five tones (of Chinese music) issues forth from the 心肝皮肺肾 (heart-liver-skin-lungs-kidney), which encompasses the the 五形/five elements, missing any of which, the 五音/five tones would fail to be complete.

When the pupil asks, in his expression of his music and of all the elements and ingredients, what is he lacking, the teacher replies: “情啊!Feelings ah!”.




Sigh, 梁祝/Butterfly Lovers
Many have described 梁祝/Butterfly Lovers as the Romeo & Juliet of Chinese literature. With all due respect to the dramatic genius of Shakespeare, that description sadly, would be a gross understatement of the true depth and richness of the 梁祝/Butterfly Lovers tale.

Over the centuries, through countless retellings of this beloved folk-tale, it has been an inspiration for generations of artists: from dramatizations into local operatic arts, and in the past century, film adaptations and not in the least, the composition of an entire orchestra score that is less a musical accompaniment than a beautifully symbolic retelling of the story:

Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto 1st Part:

Simply beautiful.
I believe the first two minutes of this first part, from the light ethereal flute opening, to the wistful oboe transition, into the much anticipated and achingly sad and beautiful violin solo, is probably the most recognizable of all Chinese music for all Chinese people anywhere for some generations now. Many a stoic Chinaman who may not know the story, will get teary-eyed upon hearing the familiar tune.
[But I still prefer the versions with an erhu or guzheng solo]

And of the many dramatized versions of the 梁祝/Butterfly Lovers story in recent decades, the above 1994 film version by the mercurial-Mercutio maverick genius director, Tsui Hark, is my favourite.
Tsui Hark’s film version, while ostensibly a romantic-comedy, does full justice to the tragedy that is at the heart of the story. And with his breath-taking scenery and cinematography, beautiful sets and costumes, and a wonderfully arranged adaptation of the musical score, he hits all the right notes; especially with a few precious scenes and moments which for me, are amongst the most tragic and heart-breaking evocations in cinematic art.

This 1994 film and faithful retelling of an age-old tale defined the themes of love, tyranny, loss and commitment, for an entire generation.

[Just decided to add what I consider to be the second most heart-breaking scene from the film:]

梁祝/Butterfly Lovers Ending:

The ending part of the film. What’s not to like.
The rich scenery palette, movement, symbolic overly-painted faces to be washed away by a loving touch and cleansing rain, vermilion wedding ceremonial dress stripped down to coarse funereal sack-cloth then back again, timing, timing…, the sad lamentation of a song written on a blank but not empty blood-stained last will and letter, a plain wooden slate for the tombstone of a too poor and too powerless scholar-official, writing and adding name in blood on tombstone – an eternal and final union stronger than any marriage ritual…, and paper butterflies…