Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Illiteracy in China

I have often suspected the official literacy rates in China to be greatly inflated. I first became aware of the great difficulty of learning to write Chinese from my students in Mian Yang, who would wake up at 4 or 5 am to copy characters on layer upon layer upon layer of thin tracing paper. Whatever else I might be teaching them that day, during any moment of respite they would go back to copying the same eight or nine characters that had been assigned for the day by whoever taught them Chinese. And all with caligraphy pens -- it was shocking to see them write English as i have never seen "Jack went into the car" enscribed with such ornateness and inticacity. Every phrase that the students put on the board was a wedding invitation, a diploma.

Given the demands and complexity of this system, I suspect that the Washington Post's assertion that illiteracy rates are increasing in China is incorrect. It is very likely that under past leaderships, rural beuaracrats were under greater pressure to exaggerate rural literacy rates then they are today. And their is certainly more openness, allowing for academics such as the one in this article to draw attention to the shortcomings of the rural education system.

It is surprising that Maureen Fan would correctly critisize current literacy statistics gathering methods and yet hold up the older data as proof of lowered reading levels. If anything one would suspect that todays statistics are far more accurate then the ones gathered ten years before.

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