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Education in China and in America

Zhigang Suo's picture

The New York Times Magazine this weekend featured a Harvard undergraduate student from China, and her work to shake up education in China. The article is long, but if you grew up in China, it should be a quick read, and fun. If you grew up in US or Europe, perhaps this is a helpful read, just to learn how other people live.

I entered college in China in 1981. Many things seemed to remain the same. For many things are dominated by one thing: the national entrance examination to get into college. In my year, about 4% high school students went to college. Now the number is 22%, as compared to 40% in the US.

The significant increase in the entrance rate doesn't seem to have alleviated the anxiety. As a parent to a freshman college student, I can attest that junior and senior years in high school are not much fun even for students in the US. Once a country has vastly increased the rate of college entrance, students will still want to get into "better" colleges. The rat race is on if you are a rat, no matter where you are.

The NYT Magazine article also mentioned the Soviet-style over-specialized education in Chinese colleges. My class in college had maybe 60 students specialized in compressors, another 60 students specialized in refrigeration, and yet another 60 students specialized in welding. I was among the 60 specialized in mechanics. I cannot recall the numbers exactly, but you get the picture.

It really wasn't as terrible as it sounds. In order to specialize in mechanics, we had to study math, physics and chemistry. We studied electrical circuits, alloy treatment, mechanical drawing, Fortran. We even had a continuous stream of humanity courses: history of communist party, political economics... I'm not sure I enjoyed all the courses, but I cannot claim that these courses damaged my brain, either. I remember some of the humanity courses required writing, which turned out to be a useful skill.

As a consequence of specialization, we did learn a lot of mechanics. By the end of college, we had courses on analytical mechanics, strength of materials, mechanics of structures, theory of elasticity, theory of plasticity, theory of vibration, fracture mechanics, fluid dynamics, finite elements, plates and shells, tensor calculus.

I often feel sorry for American students in my undergraduate class, knowing that strength of materials will be their first and last course in the mechanics of deformable materials. So many beautiful sights unseen! But they also seem to turn out to be OK. A liberal (and superficial) eduction doesn't damage their brains, either.

All this high level debate about education makes me dizzy, and turns me off. So far as I can tell, both systems of eduction work fine, and have their own limitations. The bottom line is that the quantity of knowledge is too large to be crammed into 4 years, and you'd have to make choices, making it either narrow or shallow or perhaps both. You'll just have to be prepared to engage yourself in life-long learning.

I suspect the Soviet-style specialization came about for a simple reason of economics: in old days in China, college graduates were so precious that the government would assign you a job after you graduated. In hind sight, it never stopped amazing me how an 18-year old could be convinced to devote his life to the specialty of welding, or mechanics for that matter.

But my American students have kept telling me that they are presented with too many choices and they spend too much time worrying about if they have made the right choices. Relax. Nobody will really know if you make right or wrong choices. So long as you remain curious enough to make choices, you'll be fine. We are all in this game of learning for life, unless you are like Michael Suo and dream about the ultimate method of learning.


Very nice essay! We are expected to know more in China, However, as we know, there is no Nobel winner from Chinese school or some where. A lot of them come from US, that's a question?

Zhigang Suo's picture

I've not followed the Nobel Prize closely. Most winners did things so far from my own area of expertise that I have no way to judge for myself how good they are. But a few winners did things that I can understand, at least partly. If I'm allowed to extrapolate from these few cases, I would conclude that

  1. The nomination committee has a good taste and seems fair, but is composed of human beings.
  2. Few winners had the opportunity or talent to make contributions close to those of Maxwell or G.I. Taylor, say.
  3. Many winners did their best work decades before they won the Prize.

Point 2 seems to suggest that Nobel-worthy talents can come from everywhere. Point 3 is especially relevant to your question: Why there is no winners from China? In fact, there was one in literature. Science requires more: many years of learning, experimental equipments, stimulation from colleagues, stimulation from societal needs...

30 years ago China just emerged from the Cultural Revolution. Given time, China will win prizes of all kinds, just as any other vibrant countries.

At a more basic level, I don't believe that the aim of an education system should be producing prize winners. For this reason, I don't believe that the effectiveness of an education system can be measured or even indicated by the number of prize winners.

Dear All,

 The post on Education in China and America is very interesting. Actually things on the education system happened in Viet Nam exactly as those mentioned in Suo's post.



aerolee's picture

Now the girl Tang is viewed in every newspapaer in chian. As a college student in nanjing ,I have not feel  painful in my way of sutdy .


Henry Tan's picture

I learned a lot from the eight years of study in the Tsinghua University, China.

Here is a list of the courses that I took.

======== Undergraduate ===============================


微积分     Instructor: 袁传宽 (数学系)
线性代数    Instructor: 薛伟民 (数学系)


普通物理 (I, II, III)
统计物理    Instructor: 李兴中 (物理系)
近代物理实验 (I, II)
固体物理    Instructor: 顾秉林 (物理系)
核物理     Instructor: 徐四大 (物理系)


理论力学    Instructor: 贾书惠 (力学系)
材料力学    Instructor: 李清佐 (力学系)
弹性力学    Instructor: 陆明万 (力学系)
流体力学    Instructor: 沈孟育 (力学系)
电测应力分析   Instructor: 沈观林 (力学系)
光测应力分析   Instructor: 刘宝琛 (力学系)
塑性力学    Instructor: 徐秉业 (力学系)
结构力学      Instructor: 宋国华 (力学系)
结构塑性极限分析  Instructor: 刘信声(力学系)
计算力学    Instructor: 邵敏 (力学系)
振动理论    Instructor: 戴诗亮 (力学系)
振动量测    Instructor: 李德堡 (力学系)
断裂力学    Instructor: 黄克智,孙学伟 (力学系)
板壳理论    Instructor: 薛明德 (力学系)
固体中的波    Instructor: 杨慧珠(力学系)


                        Mechanical Engineering:

                        Humanities and Social Sciences:

                        Foreign Language:


======== Graduate ===============================


张量分析   Instructor: 薛明德 (力学系)


量子力学(二)  Instructor: 徐湛 (物理系) 
固体理论   Instructor: 倪军 (物理系) 


固体力学基础  Instructor: 姚振汉 (力学系)
计算固体力学  Instructor: 王勗成 (力学系)
实验固体力学  Instructor: 张如一 (力学系)
断裂力学   Instructor: 杨卫 (力学系)
损伤力学   Instructor: 余寿文 (力学系)
固体本构关系  Instructor: 黄克智 (力学系)
非线性连续介质力学 Instructor:  郑泉水 (力学系)

                        Humanities and Social Sciences:




                        Foreign Language:


Henry Tan's picture


Henry Tan's picture


Dear Prof. Tan,

The undergradute course in Tsinghua is really solid. The following courses are very impressive,

实分析原理 普通化学 量子物理
电动力学 统计物理 固体物理   计算物理 核物理     热力学 固体中的波 生物与仿生学

现代西方人文哲学 量子力学(二)  固体理论   损伤力学  
固体本构关系  非线性连续介质力学

I think many of them match the development trend of mechanics, espeically solid mechanics.  Thanks for your information. I may need to teach myself some of the courses.



Department of Mechanics

Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China.

Henry Tan's picture

每次读到梁实秋先生的散文《清华八年 》,便有很多的感慨。

Roozbeh Sanaei's picture

I am very impressed by observe china in its current position. china has a very good position in economy and science today and its improving more and more, i can not ever compare china with our country (iran). i think china would be one of harbinger countries in future. our politicians often hyperbole about our advances in science and technology and importance of these are very little in our culture factually. most of these technologies are purchased from adjacent countries for some self advertising destinations.i hope our politicians be more pragmatic and rational and knowledge-based in future.

Roozbeh Sanaei.

Iran University of Science and Technology.

Acoust. Lab.

Ashkan Vaziri's picture

Although I would agree with some of the remarks about the level of scientific research in Iran, However, I think one should also note about the level of engineering education in Iran.  Personally, I am very confident about the education that engineering students receive in some of the universities in Iran such as Sharif U. Tech. and Tehran U. I have regularly asked my colleagues who have had students from Iran and most of them were very impressed.

I am a swedish student, and my school (as all swedish schools) are quite popular among foreign exchange students. This is probably because it is completely free (in my masters programme we often get the books as well).

I live in a dorm where there are lots of chinese students. I've had 5 chinese neighbours and in total i'd say there is around 25% chinese students living in the building. But I haven't seen a single chinese student in my masters programme, Applied Mechanics. There is roughly 50% foreign students this programme and still not. There are several Iranian students. When it comes down to it, there are lots of good students as well as some... less prepared, but it doesn't differ from my swedish classmates.

Is mechanics not as popular as say, biology (that my current neighbour studies) for chinese students?

And as for american undergrads; Am i correct to understand that they wont have more than one course in deformable solids? If they are in mechanical engineering, i hope they will have lots of math, some course in fatigue, statics, mechanics, FEM, thermodynamics or something else around mechanics. If so, then i think just one course in strength of materials is quite ok, if not.. well, then I dont know how they'll manage to fit everything into the masters programme.

In Sweden we are currently having a steady decline. There is almost no selection for undergrads anymore, everyone gets in. We typically see a 50% failure rate for courses in statics+basic strength of materials (just the bar equation is introduced). I think students are just lazy over here, and we got nothing to whip them into shape with.

I don't know how it is in mechanical engineering, but in civil engineering, strength of materials is the only required deformable solids course (assuming structural analysis is not considered a second).  They don't try to fit everything into the master's program...

jason Zhu's picture

 IS it?How about Structural mechanics and vibrations



Jason Zhu
Best Regards

Hi Mikael,

I read here:

that Sweden may end free education for non EU-learners.

The way
Chinese children are brought up and educated today appears to me quite
similar to the way I myself was brought up and educated. I was born in
1934. The way my parents were brought up was even stricter.

From 1960 on, things have changed tremendously. So I also expect
that things in China will change. It may take somewhat longer, but they
will. On the other hand, here in Holland people gradually come to think
that the new freeer education has gone too far and that some more
discipline is needed. 

Mike Ciavarella's picture

Charting innovation

Bouncing balls
An interactive chart showing patents granted to China and India

Apr 16th 2010 | From The Economist online

NO LONGER content simply to be sources of cheap hands and low-cost
brains, emerging countries are becoming hotbeds of innovation. Our
special report this week argues that the rich world is losing its
leadership in the kind of breakthrough ideas that transform industries.
Click here to play with a beta version of an
interactive chart, which shows how investment in R&D has paid off in
patents granted.



Michele Ciavarella,
Editor, Italian Science Debate,
YouTube Channel



Some of the comments has been described in chinese and I can not understand the chinese.

However the China is going a good situation in the history and It has made a good market in all aspects of the life.


Zhigang Suo's picture

I wrote this post in 2007.   The post comes to the list of Popular Content on iMechanica this morning.  China has changed a lot.  Thinking about my trip to China in May this year and now reading this old post, I feel even more that my own years as a college student was such a distant past.  The government has long stopped assigning jobs to college graduates.  Young people (and their parents) need to consider the job market when they enter the colleges.  This condition must have a profound effect on education and on the choice of college majors.  It will be interesting to compare education in China and in US and Europe again.  What do you think?

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