Peter Hessler
Oracle Bones

In China, the curriculum of all schools, both public and private, was standardized and strictly regulated. Certain courses and texts were mandatory, and all students took standardized exams at the end of middle school and high school. A private institution could hire instructors and attract pupils from the open market, but they were required to teach and study the theories of the Communist Party.

After the founding of the Educating Talents School, the institution distinguished itself by starting the English curriculum in the first grade instead of the third grade. Local public schools eventually followed suit, teaching English to first-graders, but the private school had found its niche. They started courses early, and then they crammed in as many hours as possible. One of the school's selling points was that preexamination students had class every day of the week, including Sundays. Eighth-graders attended seventy-five weekly class periods—nearly double that of the average Chinese public school (forty-five). Essentially, they had applied the Wenzhou Model to education: it was the intellectual equivalent of squeezing out a profit on low-margin commodities. Instead of innovating the curriculum or improving texts, they simply taught the same stuff at a higher volume.

The private school thrived until 1998, when the local government founded a new public school. From the beginning, the public school's headmaster declared openly that he intended to drive the Educating Talents School into bankruptcy. After throwing down the gauntlet, his first tactic was to hire the best teachers that money could buy. He scouted the region for experienced instructors who had been distinguished as 'first-rate teachers' by the educational authorities. The teachers arrived with awards and certificates, and they failed miserably. English instructors couldn't speak English; math teachers couldn't teach math. Students did poorly; parents became furious. Many suspected that the awards and certificates were jiade—you could buy that stuff anywhere. Regardless, the value of experience was basically nil, given how rapidly things changed in China. After a year, the new public school fired its instructors and began to hire only young teachers.

The competition grew more intense every year. This was particularly true with regard to exam preparation, which involved two distinct competitive strategies. The first strategy was based on a simple faith: by studying systematically, efficiently, and diligently, students could improve their odds of success. But the odds were even more in their favor if they knew the examination questions in advance. This was the second competitive strategy, and it was already well developed by the time Willy and Nancy arrived. Each year, teachers and administrators cultivated relationships with powerful people who might leak information about the exams.

One official in the Wenzhou city education bureau was notorious for his subtle hints. Schools across the region invited him to give lectures to their instructors, and he accepted only the ones that made it worth his while. Willy and the other English teachers made an annual ritual of going to downtown Wenzhou and listening to the man speak. Once, Willy described the scene:

'Our principal invited the man to give a lecture, to give so-called information about the high-school entrance examination. The speech was vague. The teachers wanted to get some useful information from him, but sometimes he keeps silent. For two hours we tried to ask some questions. We asked him what would be in the examination. He just said, maybe this will be involved, maybe that. For example, he said that this year maybe your students will be asked to fill in two words, to make a sentence complete, instead of just one word.

'After that, the school invited him to go to the Red Sun Hotel, in Wenzhou. It's a very good hotel, and about fifteen-teachers had dinner with him. After that, the school gave him two thousand yuan. Later, they invited him to karaoke with a xiaojie. She's prostitute, I think. A double room for them-what will happen? You can guess. I think this guy is very segui, very lecherous. He is fifty years old. One of his sons went abroad, to U.S.A.'

The man often gave accurate information to the public schools, but his speeches were never helpful to Willy and his colleagues. Nevertheless, the Educating Talents School performed the ritual every year. When I asked Willy why they continued to pay for useless tips, he said, 'But what if one year it's right?'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.