Why are Chinese children such high achievers? Is it a matter of ‘wen’ and ‘wu’?

Roger Titcombe's picture

1. Is it the schools, the parents or the children?

The Chinese education system regularly scores highly in the international PISA tests, such that some UK educationalists seek to replicate the Chinese approach in English schools. The following is from a recent Daily Mail article.

Half of primary schools will adopt the traditional Chinese method of maths teaching in a Government drive to stop British youngsters falling behind their Asian counterparts. They will ditch ‘child-centred’ styles and instead return to repetition, drills and ‘chalk and talk’ whole-class learning. Teachers will be offered training, textbooks and advice on how to adopt the ‘Shanghai maths’ method. Youngsters in the UK lag way behind those in China, Singapore and Japan in international league tables of numeracy [my bold]. Critics blame ‘progressive’ teaching styles that focused on applying maths to real-life scenarios in an effort to make the subject more interesting. They say this has led to confusion and stopped children learning the basics.

 But what if the real reason for the greater competence of Chinese children is just because they are more intelligent?

In July 2015 DfE published a report entitled, ‘Ethnicity, deprivation and educational achievement at age 16 in England: trends over time’

Buried in this document are data on the attainment of children of different ethnic groups in the English education system. On p31 there is a table giving the percentage of pupils gaining 5EM in every year from 2004 to 2013. Pupils of Chinese ethnicity performed best in every year. In 2013 5EM for Chinese pupils was 78.1% compared to 60.1% for all pupils.

So even when Chinese children are educated in the (presumably inferior) English school system they still perform significantly better than any other ethnic group.

We know that 5EM is strongly predicted by scores on Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) taken in Y6. The data on CATs scores by ethnicity can be found here.

The standard scores for Chinese children in 2009/10 (with percentiles in brackets) are as follows.

Verbal 101 (53rd), Quantitative 110 (75th), Non Verbal 112 (79th)

So while Chinese children performed only just above average on the Verbal test, their performance was way above average on the Quantitative (maths) and Non Verbal (patterns) tests. Maybe the lower performance on the Verbal test is because a significant number of the children had English as a second language or for some other linquistic/cultural reason. However it is clear that my hypothesis is confirmed.

Children of Chinese ethnicity residing in England are much more cognitively able (cleverer) than the average.

The high performance of Chinese children in English schools (the same pattern is found in the US) is usually put down to ‘high parental aspirations’ and ‘a culture of studiousness instilled by the family’.

However CATs tests are a form of IQ test. There is no body of knowledge to be studied and pupils do not normally undertake any kind of preparation before taking CATs tests (unlike the 11 plus). Although parental aspiration is widely believed to be a major cause of the achievement gaps in the English education system, there is little hard evidence to support it. My own study of Mossbourne Academy suggests that the effect is minimal. It’s cognitive ability that counts.

So having concluded that the apparent success of the Chinese education system can be explained by the fact that Chinese children are on average very clever, how has this come about? However uncomfortable this may be to accept, it would appear that Chinese cleverness must be, at least in part, a genetically inherited rather than a learned trait.

My hypothesis is that it is derived from the relative importance of ‘wen’ and ‘wu’ in Chinese culture going back hundreds of years.

 2. Can memes get into your genes?

 Memes are ideas, behaviours, or styles that spread from person to person within a culture.  Memes are a concept invented by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as the cultural equivalent to genes. Whereas genes are spread through sexual reproduction, memes are spread by cultural vectors such as fashion. Susan Blackmore wrote a controversial book called, ‘The meme machine‘.

This discusses wide ranging biological and cultural phenomena including in Chapter 9, ‘Meme-gene co-evolution’. This sets out the hypothesis that memes can drive genetic evolution in particular directions. Blackmore suggests that such meme driven evolution can account for the rapid evolution of large brains in humans and for the development of language. It is fascinating stuff – read the book!

3. Sexual selection

Darwin’s now universally accepted (in the world of science) explanation of evolution is based on natural selection, which is the mechanism by which species can change and new species can emerge over millions of years as random genetic variations that produce small advantageous feeding or reproductory changes in individuals can be inherited by their offspring so as to aggregate over long periods of time into major changes that give the illusion of design.

Since the invention of farming and stock rearing humans have learned how to produce changes in species through artificial selection, which is commonly called selective breeding. Farmers and stock breeders have been manipulating the sexual reproduction of animals and plants for hundreds of years to produce more and better foodstuffs. Apart from replacing random mutations by human design, the major difference from natural selection is the timescale. Whereas natural selection usually operates on a timescale of millions of years selective breeding can produce major variations in species in just a few generations. Dog breeding is another example.

Sexual selection is where sexual preferences (ie culture/fashion) influence the success of individuals in the mating game. The classic example in nature is the evolution of the tail of the male peacock. Despite this having apparently negative survival utility, in that it is cumbersome and makes the possessor readily visible to predators, at some time in the past some peahens decided that males with big colourful tails were the most fanciable (a peahen meme that was a proxy for health). This meme then spread and hence the peacock’s useless but beautiful (to us) and irresistibly alluring (to peahens) tail.

This is a very brief and simplified description of sexual selection. It is discussed extensively in Chapter 9 of Dawkin’s, ‘The Selfish Gene’ and gets a whole chapter to itself in, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ (Chapter 8).

We are getting closer to ‘wen’ and ‘wu’.

 4. ‘The Peone Pavilion’

This is the title of a hugely popular Chinese folk tale dating from the 16th century. It has been made into a modern ballet, which at the time of writing was being performed by the National Ballet of China at the Lowry at Salford Quays in Manchester.

I had been mulling this article in my mind for years, when I saw a plug for this performance on BBC North West Tonight and did some research on the folk tale.

The result was a ‘Eureka’ moment for me that prompted this article.

5. ‘Wen’ and ‘Wu’ in Chinese culture

In The Peone Pavilion I was struck by the description of the object of the young woman’s desire, Liu Mengmei. Unlike the dashing male heroes of Western folk tales, certainly as portrayed in the Disney versions, Lui Mengmei was a quiet, physically unprepossessing studious type – a bit of a nerd in fact. Given that this folk tale is commonly assumed to be the Chinese equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, I found this interesting, to the point of researching sociological treatises on ‘masculinity’.

I found that the Chinese memes for sexually attractive to women masculinity underwent major changes around the time that ‘The Peone Pavillion’ was written. Since ancient times it had previously followed the Western, dashing warrior (wu) stereotype.

Historical records show that the wu spirit lingered in Chinese society until the early Qing (1644AD-1912AD) dynasty, and was recognized as late as the Ming dynasty (1368AD-1644AD). The following description is from a book written by H.R. van Gulik, entitled Sexual Life in Ancient China.

This is not currently a best seller at £141.39 per copy.

At that time Ming athletics were still admired, young students practised boxing, fencing and archery, and riding and hunting were favourite pastimes. Thus bodily strength was one of the recognized attributes of a handsome man. They are depicted as tall and broad shouldered, and the nudes of the erotic albums show them with heavy chests and muscular arms and legs.

The decline of wu reached its bottom during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912AD) to be superseded by wen. Ardent lovers were preferably depicted as younger men without beard, moustache or whiskers. The ideal lover is describe as a delicate, hyper-sensitive youngster with pale face and narrow shoulders, passing the greater part of his time dreaming among his books.

Thus wen (geeky) masculinity has prevailed for many centuries as the dominant masculine sexually desirable to women meme in Chinese society and was the underlying cultural assumption in ‘The Peone Pavilion’, which given its continuing universal popularity, suggests that this remains the case.

Further evidence that this is so comes from the current status of (usually young male) private maths tutors in the Chinese education system. These individuals are apparently the celebrity objects of desire of female students. David Beckham and other male A List UK and US celebrities would appear not to stir the desires of Chinese females anything like as much as greeky young mathematicians.

So there we have it. Chinese intelligence superiority could be down to the overriding influence of the wen masculinity meme in Chinese society, as healthy, dominant females have expressed their sexual preferences for the most intelligent male (wen) stereotypes so disseminating the wen fancying meme.

 Is this the culture of the average UK mixed comprehensive school? I don’t think so, however it is an explanation for Chinese superior intelligence.

6. How to introduce the wen meme into a low attaining UK comprehensive school

I have already described elsewhere how this can be achieved through proper school councils (not the shallow ‘pupil voice’ initiative promoted by the government).

It certainly began to work at my headship school in Barrow-in-Furness. Our 16th percentile average CATs score intake began to produce an explosion of A/A* grades at GCSE, ‘top 5 in England’ exam performance in a number of GCSE subjects and many former students progressing to top universities and careers in Law, Nuclear Engineering and Patient Safety in the NHS, to name but a few.

However, such was the extreme over abundance of very low CATs score pupils, the significant, life enhancing cognitive ability gains across the school were still not enough to lift the aggregated results of the school over Labour’s ‘good school by definition’ defining floor targets, so the school was eventually closed in 2009 as part of an Academy reorganisation, along with the two largest schools in the town in 2009, six years after I retired .

Who knows, If only the educational lessons of our School Council had been learned, rather than bulldozed out of existence, Barrow-in-Furness could, in a few generations of wen driven meme dissemination, have become the intellectual, cultural and technological powerhouse of the UK instead of, like many other working class northern towns, remaining a stubbornly persisting example of ‘the attainment gap’.

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Jane Eades's picture
Sat, 26/11/2016 - 09:56

How about the effect of the difference between the written languages.  Chinese is a symbolic written language, as is Maths.  European languages are phonetic, which Maths isn't.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 26/11/2016 - 10:55

But British born UK children of Chinese ethnicity are also on average high attainers and appear to have higher CATs scores. These children would have their Chinese born parent's language as a second language, if at all.

Vietnamese was until the French colonisation, also, like Chinese, a symbolic written language. The French colonists rationised the language and converted it to the Western alphabet. Written Vietnamese is now completely phonetic, if largely monosyllabic. The letters have multiple phonic pronuciations indicated by a bewildering variety of accents. LIke China, Vietnam has a fast growing increasingly westernised economy and Vietnamese heritage British children also appear to do well in the UK education system.

I wouldn't regard maths as being symbolic in the same way as Mandarin Chinese, as mathematical meaning in the universal international language of maths is conveyed character by character.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 26/11/2016 - 11:09

I received this comment on Twitter @rogertitcombe.

Have I missed something? You seem to have made the leap from 'chinese children in Eng edu system' to all chinese children?

No I haven't. I started my article by referring to the performance of Chinese educated children in the OECD PISA rankings.

I am not claiming that all ethnically Chinese children are uniformly able. Chinese children vary in cognitive abilility according to the continuous Normal distribution, just like as all living things do in all their individual characteristcs.

In terms if the cognitive ability/IQ scale this is standardised to have a mean of 100, which is the age-related mean score for the UK population (ie 50th percentile). British children of Chinese ethnicity have an average score well above 100, as I describe in the article. 

Jane Eades's picture
Sat, 26/11/2016 - 11:09

I am reminded that a bright Chinese student I taught told me that she thought differently about Maths when she was doing it in English than when she was doing it in Chinese.  This was even when the topic was the same.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 26/11/2016 - 11:23

How indivuals represent different mathematical concepts in their minds is a fascinating subject. I found this on Wikipedia


This is very heavy stuff - good luck! However there appears to be no mention of cultural/linguistic factors. Even if there were I don't see how it would challenge the main thrust of my article.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 26/11/2016 - 18:59

Bunkum.  It's the way children understand the foundations of maths.  It's culturally shared in they way parents and children discuss number.

So at the second lowest level of the key differences is that Asian children visualise numbers as 5s and extras (fingers and toes). So they would clearly see 6 as being 5 and 1.  It's in the abacus but it's on other representations too like the rekenrek.  It's one fo the most useful things that's come through Singapore maths. They do this representation with egg boxes.  Most of Singapore maths is no different but there are few nuggets in it which can be useful. 

Later on there are some other massive conceptual differences.  Their understanding and flexible use of reciprocals in multiplication and division is lovely.  It's picked up in Li Ping Ma's research but it's not there in the initiatives coming through.

I'm on the case with Barrow Roger.  I've already been down and trained all the staff at Ramsden.  Why not ask them how they found it? :-)

Most of the current initiative is just really about Nick Gibb's obsession with getting everyone to use a text book (which won't work) being packaged as being Asian maths.  Sigh.  That's not what Asian maths is.

'lo again!

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 26/11/2016 - 19:12

Hello Rebecca. I am happy to defer to your expert knowledge. I understood and applauded the emphasis in deep understanding, rather than being, 'trained to do sums to pass exams' in the Shanghai approach to maths teaching. Please, what is the 'rekenrek? good to hear from you again.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 26/11/2016 - 20:07

Rekenrek - numbers to 20 in 5s and extras.  Out of the Freudenthal (Dutch) school of education.  Known in the US as the math rack

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 27/11/2016 - 09:19

Rebecca - thanks for linking to rekenrek.  It was a new method for me.  I never taught maths but when doing teacher training we spent time using cuisenaire rods, uniblocks and number lines.  But we were never introduced to the abacus.

One thing I do remember is that the lecturer said it was important for children to play with rods, blocks etc before moving to instruction.   When we were first introduced to rods, the lecturer gave out one box for every two students.  My partner and I spilled them on to the table and made a pattern of a house with them.  We suddenly realised everyone was looking at us.  The lecturer said, 'That's exactly what I mean.'


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 27/11/2016 - 10:31

If you'd been told strictly to do what you were instructed to do with the apparatus and not to play, Janet, you may well have done that.  It's variable.  It depends on the child, the type of apparatus, the time of day, how tired the child is and, of course, what the teacher does.  In my training for teachign assistants I specifically give them permission to spend time letting the children they're working with play and I teach them techniques for getting the most out of educational play, because they're often working with the children who really do need to play and for whom having time to play will bring very substantial benefits.

Cuisenaire (which you did) is one type of 'visible and tangible' maths teaching which is the only way of teachign hard maths concepts successfully to cohorts of very young children.

Of course all of this is incompatible with the idea that we're all doing the same page of the tame textbook at the same time and the fact that Nick Gibb has banned all apparatus from SATs.  I think it's just his dry sense of humour - making us teach harder maths to younger children than on any other national curriculum but forcing us not to use apparatus.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 27/11/2016 - 12:21

I enter into this particular debate with trepidation because early years and infants education is well outside my direct experience and education.

However, as always, I believe Piaget to be especially relevant. Nursery and infant schooling is all about progression from the 'pre-operational' to the 'concrete operational' stage. Pre-operational children do not recognise conservations in the material 'concrete' world. When you dip behind the settee and disappear from the sight of a baby, you no longer exist in that baby's mind. When you spring up and shout, 'Boo', the baby is delighted at your face's re-incarnation into the concrete world. This is universally true in all cultures.

The classic Piaget experiments with water establish lack of conservation of volume when water is poured into different shaped transparent vessels. The child believes that the level of the water indicates the amount even when the same volume of water is clearly involved.

This is the justification for the importance of play in early years, because play is a very effective medium for establishing conservations in the material world. I recall a recent conversation with a very experienced graduate qualified early-years teacher, who was bemoaning the lack of qualified staff in nursery education and the assumption that 'childcare' to release the (usually female) parent for employment is more important than child-development centred education. 30 hours per week 'childcare' is only available to parents that already work a minimum of 16 hours and have therefore demonstrated their commitment to the principle that their employment is more important, than the finer points of their child's education. It is notable that in many European countries (especially Scandinavia, Netherlands and Germany) nursery and infant education is dominated by play. In Germany, outdoor 'woodland' schools come to mind where the children are exposed to the all weather, muddy and dangerous concrete world all day in all but the most extreme weather conditions. The staff are always highly qualified. Here a Level 2 BTEC in 'childcare' is deemed sufficient.

 Far too many teachers even in secondary school fail to recognise children who are still at the pre-concrete level.

So, Rebbeca's Asian inspired maths techniques seem to me to be entirely Piagetian in their emphasis on relating understanding to the 'concrete' level and working on the 'Pre-Operational' to 'Concrete Operational' transition.

However, none of this is relevant to the main thrust of my article. The fact is that British children of Chinese ethnicity produce much higher CATs scores than the population mean at Age 11, however deficient their primary education may be.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 27/11/2016 - 13:57

They're not entirely Piagetian Roger but, like Piaget, they understand that young children have very poor working memories and that many children are not capable of substantial, abstract maths until they are about 7 1/2 because of these memory issues.

In that sense they're a heck of a lot more Piagetian than anything that's coming from central government - like the new primary curriculum that insists that children need to be able to add and subtract 2 2-digit numbers mentally without apparatus in their KS1 SATs when many of them are still only 6........  But they you could just say that they're based on people and reality - unlike they work of Nick Gibb MP.  Wish I could attache a picture. 

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 27/11/2016 - 09:36

Roger - Sunday Times today (behind paywall) has an article re South Korean children and how they're leaving UK children behind. After describing long days, extra tutoring,  how Korean children outclassed their UK visitors in maths and implying with its headline thatTiger Pupils woriking 14 hour days and cleaning classroom floors was perhaps the way to go, the writer mentioned the stress and suicide rate.  But this is what gets Korea near the top of PISA tables, right?

It's only at the end the writer says it's not fair on the pupils.  The final message was that there's a lot of respect for teachers in Korea (hardly mentioned in the stuff about tutoring, competition, long hours).   Unfortunately in England, the only teachers who are respected are those who agree with ministers' prejudices. 


Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 27/11/2016 - 15:03

Janet - I am reminded of the 2015 Bohunt School, 'Chinese School' experiment.


In the three-part BBC2 documentary series, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, 50 Year 9 pupils at Bohunt School in Hampshire – TES school of the year, 2014 – were taught for four weeks as though they were at school in China. Lessons began at 7am and finished at 7pm, and included copious front-of-class dictation and rote-based learning.

The English 14-year-olds did not respond to this well. By episode two, those who did not spend the lessons singing or drinking cups of tea were simply ignoring their teachers altogether.

But in episode three, screened tonight, the 50 Chinese-school pupils were pitted against the rest of their year in science and maths tests. And, despite the quiet confidence of Bohunt’s head and the shame-filled agonising of the Chinese teachers, the Chinese-school pupils won out.

In maths, the Chinese-school pupils scored an average of 67.7 per cent, compared with the average of 54.8 per cent scored by the rest of Year 9. In science, the Chinese-school average was 58.3 per cent, compared with 50 per cent for the rest of the year.

I remain unconvinced. I would like to see the test. If it tested knowlege taught by rote then the result is unsurprising. If however there was a substantial amout of context free problem solving then I would take it more seriously.

When it comes to South Korea I share Janet's concerns about the abusive schooling culture.

However South Korea came top in the latest PISA tests on context free problem solving. So I researched the Korean culture of masculinity and found that there is a direct parallel with the Chinese 'wen'. The Korean 'seonbi' male masculinity meme has been dominant since the Josean dynasty (1392)

The Korean community in the UK is too small to be specifically identified in the CATs and 5EM data, but the 'Asia other' category is generally high performing.

Despite the thrust of my article that high attainment of Asian pupils worldwide and in the UK is driven by high cognitive ability/IQ, the comments all appear to default to consideration of the Chinese/Korean/Singaporean education systems. The educationalists in those countries however view western approaches to education far more favourably.


The mathematics resilience movement in the UK reports great interest from Chinese educationalists.


My view remains that high attainment is primarily universally driven by high cognitive ability/IQ. I think it is likely that many aspects of Asian education systems actually depress the attainment of their students and that they have at least as much to learn from the 'best of the west' (which you can find described in Part 5 of 'Learning Matters') as we have from good work of the sort described by Rebecca Hanson.

In other words, in relation to Asian economic dominence driven by educational attainment, we have seen nothing yet. 


Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 27/11/2016 - 15:11

Coming back to the Chinese 'wen' culture, which no-one seems to want to discuss, the power of sexual selection in China is strongly reinforced by the male/female demographic. As a result of many decades of the 'one child per family' policy, Chinese females have long been in short supply as a result of widespread female infanticide and selective abortion. So Chinese females of marriagable age have enormous choice of husbands and fathers for their children, so greatly empowering the dominent wen cultural meme.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/11/2016 - 09:54

Roger - I think the 'wen' culture is apparent in Japan.  It was not Donald Trump, described by Farage as an alpha-male silver back gorilla , who made waves there, but Trump's sad- eyed 10 year-old son, Barron.  There's a Japanese twitter account @lovebarrontrump and a cartoon shows Barron in tears with the caption "My loud, annoying dad is president, so the quiet unassuming life I wanted is completely over".  Classic wen?

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