An Angry Father

By Yaxue Cao

Earlier last week, I was on the phone with an artist friend of mine in Beijing. We talked about the documentary he was making, my ideas about a story, and we chitchatted a little about our children. He too has two children and the older girl was a fourth grader, a couple of years younger than my daughter. The next day I received the following email from W:

“I attended the Reading Festival performance of my daughter’s school this morning. I sat through the hour-long event horrified. The entire show had nothing to do with kids or reading, nor did the children look innocent and lovely. Instead, I watched Party’s propaganda, shrill patriotism, and twisted rendition of history. The fawning on teachers gave me goose bumps. What a jumble of collective mindset and bad taste. Several times I wanted to rush onto the stage to stop them. I trembled at such shamelessness, and I am still trembling.”

I checked the time when he had sent the email: 4pm. At 4pm, he was still trembling.

He went on, “As soon as the show was over, I went to see the teacher. She was a little embarrassed, and asked me to talk to the Director of Academic Affairs. I am going to tomorrow morning.”

I read his message and hit the reply button. But for a long while, I didn’t know what to say. I knew all too well what he was talking about, I felt his pain, but I didn’t know what to say to him.

It’s like watching your child being poisoned but unable to stop it.

I have always wondered what parents in China, parents who are acutely aware of these things and pained by them, do to “detoxicate” their children. For example, what does my friend W do to undo what the school is instilling in his daughter? What does he say to her every day? I would very much like to know.

Every time I talk to my daughter, I also wonder how a parent in China would talk about the same thing. For example, now and then I would say to my sixth grader: “Treat your work with respect. Treat your teachers’ work with respect. Always give your best. It is from such respect and dedication that you learn to be a just, responsible and trustworthy person.”

More than anything else, I want her to grow up to be a good, solid human being. I tell her that she must not be afraid to take a clear moral stand. “If you see someone is being bullied,” I said, “speak up for that person.”

“Be the keeper of the good.”

Chinese parents would have to think twice, three times, or even lose sleep, if they are to instill these values in their children, because these qualities won’t serve them very well in the Chinese society.

When I was a child, there were two things that my mother warned me, and reinforced in me, tirelessly:

  1. Don’t speak your mind—calamities come out of your mouth (祸从口出);
  2. Beware of people—you never know what a complicated web exists among people and what trap you might step into (人际关系太复杂了).

When I was eleven or twelve, I once made a comment about the party secretary of my father’s work unit as I overheard my parents’ conversation about some unpleasant entanglement at work. All of a sudden, my mother turned around and dealt such a blow on my face that the lymph on one side of my chin swelled badly and hurt for days. Ever since, it has always been prone to swollenness whenever I am tired or not feeling well, and every time I am reminded of that blow against speaking my mind freely. Not even at home.

And that was the only time my mother had ever struck me.

I fidgeted and measured my words writing a reply to my friend. “Please don’t get into an argument,” I began. “I’m so afraid that they will mistreat your child in school as a result.”

I was angered by the fact that I was giving my friend this piece of advice. But in my mind, I can just see what some of my teachers would have done to her. She will be marked and excluded from a lot of things, to say the least, and she won’t fully understand why.

What will I do if I were W? I will tell you right here: Until I know how to protect my children from that system, I will have to swallow my rage and pain and everything else for their sake. If it’s too much for me to swallow, I will dice it up and wash it down with wine, curses and tears, one piece a time.

On Twitter, I heard some parents talking about homeschooling their children to avoid the churning of the system. If they do, a commitment logistically unthinkable for most, they will have to keep reminding themselves that to reject the system is to prepare their children to be outcasts.

In China, to be good is to be the other. (Of course my good is not their good, and vice versa.) And if you’re a parent deeply concerned about the upbringing of your children, you will find yourself in a hard-to-negotiate spot.

While a lot remains the same in China, obviously it is a very different country from the one I grew up in. Despite the system, there will be more and more “outcasts” by choice. The more the better.

My friend didn’t write back to tell me whether he went to see the Director of Academic Affairs or not, and if he did, how it went.

29 responses to “An Angry Father”

  1. Is detox possible? I hate to be blunt – NO! Every one of us is a product of conditioning by the overall socialising system. We can reduce or elevate certain elements of that conditioning by degrees and turns in our own small way, but the essence and general direction of (later) development remains. This is how operant conditioning works (which in fact I’m a huge fan of – a fact that also gets me plenty of stinkeye from others).

    I feel for this friend of yours, really I do. I see varieties and degrees of the same thing in my own folks and in my friends’ children all the time, in all the places I’ve ever lived in.

    To be very blunt again, it is the luck of the draw of life that your friend lives in a place like China with these kinds of activities going on. And then having to have children growing up, living and eventually passing on and witnessing all these (excuse my colourful French) farkin’ crap laid on and happen to, for and with their children. It must be one helluva heartache for your friend to experience this.

    Your mother’s two warnings are exactly those received by my grandpa in his generation of people during their formative years (pre-First World War times). It can’t be helped – it’s just the name of the game in those olden days and still is in China today.

    I reckon your advice to your friend is very sensible indeed. Even a loudmouth like me would probably give the same advice. China is China – it is what it is. Going against a monolithic system of strong institutionalised values is plain bloody dangerous there.

    It’s very easy for a person like me sitting in Hong Kong, thumbing my nose at China and parading self-congratulating platitudes like “Oh, look how lucky we are here and you’re not.” It just might be our turn next to face the music like your friend is facing, come 2046 when Hong Kong legally and properly becomes part of China. (Indeed, it is starting to happen right now for us Hongkongers.) Then where’s our god now?

    Please tell your friend that I feel for him.

  2. Alec O says:

    I hope you follow this up and let us know how the story progresses. Very interesting case study!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I knew what your friend had described, but was surprised to see his strong reaction, unless he was not a Chinese. We grew up in this, and there was not much feeling seeing it again. A reasonable personal who was educated through Chinese system would be scared when attending a church service in the US, and found 80% of US people believe in God more than theory of Evolution. While if you believe in God, but also Evolution, what a hypercrite, anyway. Children in the US system started reciting pledge to the legion (one country, under God) from daycare, everyday. And everyday, for more than 10 years. That, would also be a scary thought even for Chinese who went through the Communist propaganda stuff. And what about the idea that a Latino kid can get into an elite college with 50% of grade of an Asian kid who lives next door while the Asian kid can’t, just because of his skin color? Stop being pretentious, please.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      I’m an athetist, but between fawning on God and fawning on the Party, I will happily choose the former.

    • MAC says:

      Children in the US system started reciting pledge to the legion (one country, under God) from daycare, everyday. And everyday, for more than 10 years.
      Hahahaha you have so many things wrong here I don’t even know where to start.

  4. MPR says:

    Terrible story, Yaxue. China will be free one day. In a recent interview outside the London Book Fair, Jonathan Mirsky said: “If they collapse, that will be one of the happiest days of my life.”

  5. Lao Why? says:

    I was speaking with my coworker the other day, a Beijinger, who told me that he hoped to be able to send his child to study at a US university. He said he brought this up with his 7 year old son, who immediately rejected the idea, not on the grounds of being away from home, or away from friends. Instead his son did not want to go to the US because he feared he might have to help the US build aircraft carriers with which to attack China. Kind of sad for a 7 year old to think that way and certainly not a product of my colleague’s parental teaching.

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    A seven year old child is too immature to process being sent away from his familiar life to study in a foreign country. I agree with tnl’s comments above. We are all products of our society’s ideology. Some years ago a relative who was a teacher of five year old children (known as a Primary School teacher in UK) related happily that her school had lined up the children at the local railway station to wave flags at the Queen who was passing through. The school had not asked for the parents’ permission for this activity and I told her that I would have objected if it had been my child as I did not approve of the monarchy. I have no dislike of the Queen personally but she is a figurehead for an outmoded institution which many Scots do not like. Relations between this relative and myself have remained frosty but I am just a “pinko liberal” retired social worker in her eyes! Yes, we all have our social conditioning!

  7. Lorin Yochim says:

    More stinkeye from this reader, @tnl. Whether or not one is a huge fan of “operant conditioning,” thoughtful people give it the stinkeye because it does not describe the practice of education anywhere, except perhaps in torture chambers. Indeed, the bulk of your comment demonstrates that your understanding of education and learning is a much more complex one than your fandom suggests.

    @Yaxue, the artist friend’s response (and/or lack of response in the moment) and those of commenters is interesting. Of course it is true that there is a degree of conformity, but we are wrong to assume from what we can see (i.e., lack of overt action) that there is an underlying conformity of thought or an absence of outrage. Is the slapping mother described in the post a conformist? No. Would other parents attending the Reading Festival have picked up on the father’s outrage? Unlikely. Can the actions of anyone in the post be described as the effect of operant conditioning? Clearly not.

    @Meryl is barking up the right tree below. There is such a thing a “social conditioning,” but as a concept it is much more subtle than operant conditioning. It is not social determination. It takes into account the existence of the very intelligent and reflective people commenting on this post. Having said this, the unfortunate “pity the poor educationally deprived/bereft of the capacity for critique Chinese” position that consistently crops up is condescending and does not describe reality.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Lorin, I have to run off to the grocery store, but let me just say that the word “conformity” didnot for a second enter my thoughts yesterday when I wrote the post, and I don’t think this post is about conformity. This incident about my mother slapping me has nothing to do with conformity. It’s about maternal teaching and that teaching is “Fear, be very fearful.”

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        My apologies, Yaxue, I should have started that sentence “RE @Yaxue’s comments.” I meant to draw to your anecdotes as a rejoinder to those who diagnose conformity, and as an expression of optimism about human nature.

        It’s a good post and raises a number of significant issues about the tensions that arise around parental authority and state power. While these tensions may be particularly acute in China, all parents are familiar with the problem, as @Meryl illustrates very convincingly. I anticipate negotiating these tensions not only in China (we plan on relocating our family to Beijing specifically so our son can absorb the positive aspects of “Chinese” education) but also in Canada. In some ways, I dread the latter more. The politics of education in liberal-democratic societies are incredibly complex in part because democratic ideals serve to legitimize the institutions (and, therefore, its agents) in a far more powerful way than those that currently undergird the Chinese system. We can easily mock, dismiss, and avoid propaganda, teach at home, etc., which is to say that we take for granted our ability to leave China at any moment, the same privilege that Chinese with the means to go overseas enjoy.

  8. […] I can’t imagine anything worse than being a parent — and I say this with all due respect for parents everywhere, because I simply cannot imagine living with the nightmare that is a toddler, then a young child, then a rebellious teen, etc. But to have to put up with this… “I attended the Reading Festival performance of my daughter’s school this morning. I sat through the hour-long event horrified. The entire show had nothing to do with kids or reading, nor did the children look innocent and lovely. Instead, I watched Party’s propaganda, shrill patriotism, and twisted rendition of history.” [Yaxue Cao, Seeing Red in China] […]

  9. whatsis says:

    Some schools require children to recite the pledge of allegiance, others don’t. It is far from universal and is not taken very seriously. And while the indoctrination that goes on in modern day American churches can be scary, it’s not mandatory. People choose to go to church. Children cannot choose not to go to school. Your last comment about Latino and Asian students, aside from being baseless, isn’t relevant to this conversation.

    • Anonymous says:

      The last observation of course is relevant to this converstaion, because in the US people are ‘social conditioned’ to say one thing, while do the opposite witout a blash on the face nor a sense of guilt in the heart. Chinese children are strategically discriminated and openly punished because and only because of their skin color, all in the name of ‘equality’. I failed to see how much better that is, comparing to the show put up by a Chinese school to tell kids to respect the ruling Party.

  10. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout…About TomAbout Yaxue CaoAbout CaseyComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China Movies中文 ← An Angry Father […]

  11. Jimmy says:

    shrill patriotism, and twisted rendition of history?
    Do you mind giving us more details of what the students or/and teachers have said or performed?

    Why is patriotism now the victim? What is wrong with patriotism? Doesn’t every country advocate that?

    • Anonymous says:

      What’s wrong with it? Even if we ignore a history where patriotism is often used for nefarious purposes, isn’t patriotism basically putting what’s good for one’s country above the general good?
      And no, most people in my country don’t advocate patriotism. BTW, countries don’t advocate things. People or propaganda departments do. If all countries had propaganda departments advocating patriotism, would that make it any better?

  12. asdf@asdfd,com says:

    “In China, to be good is to be the other. ”

    Give me a f*king break. Overdramatized horseshit.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      In China many people have to be like a radish – a small vegetable which is red on the outside but bite it and see that it is pure white on the inside.

  13. Yaxue C. says:

    For record: 刘萍: 我女儿因为我独立参选几度被威胁,不能报考公务员、研究生、不能出国、找不到工作、不能入党、所有大门均向孩子关闭。。。因此母女之情被离间。现在安徽蚌埠财经大学大二。刚接学校辅导员电话;【蚌埠市有人找我来学校】找她喝茶。她非常害怕!求扩散!女儿现在在学校被第一次喝茶。via Twitter

    I will come back to give a translation later.

    • Chopstik says:


      • Yaxue C. says:

        Sorry, Chopstik, for reminding me. I totally forgot about my promise. Translation:

        From Liu Ping: Because of my attempt to become an independent candidate [for people’s representative], my daughter has been threatened several times, and all doors are closed on her: [she was told] she’s not allowed to take exams for civil servant nor for graduate school; she can’t go abroad; she will not be able to find a job and cannot be accepted for party membership… She resents me and our mother-daughter relationship has become tense as a result. She’s currently a sophomore at Bengpu University of Finance and Economics, Anhui. I just received a call from her school counselor: “Someone from Bengpu municipal government is on his way to school” to have “tea” with her [the daughter]. She’s very scared! Please spread the words! My daughter is in school now and she’s been “hecha-ed” for the first time.

      • Chopstik says:

        Thank you for the translation. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, people practice self-censorship not to protect themselves as much as to protect those that they care about. Yet, regardless of the reasoning, it is still wrong.

  14. […] to the “angry father” post. “Yesterday Yaxue posted a piece entitled ‘An Angry Father,’ in which she asked the question – How can a parent protect their child from the poison of […]

  15. […] An Angry Father I tell [my daughter] that she must not be afraid to take a clear moral stand. “If you see someone is being bullied,” I said, “speak up for that person.” “Be the keeper of the good.” [But] Chinese parents would have to think twice, three times, or even lose sleep, if they are to instill these values in their children, because these qualities won’t serve them very well in the Chinese society. […]

  16. Chopstik says:


    I feel very much for both the father and the child in your post. The father is understandably angry because his daughter is being taught (I was going to use “indoctrinated” but that term can be interpreted differently in this context) something with which he does not agree and he feels powerless to do anything about it because of the potential impact it will have for his daughter within the system they live. The daughter likely does not even realize what she is being taught and how it will potentially impact her in the future.

    I can recall the days where my father was upset with things I was taught because they did not agree with what he believed and he was quite vociferous in his opposition – a trait I fear I’ve learned quite well as I have grown and developed. The difference was that my father could speak and, while there may have been some resentment on the part of faculty who taught me, it was rarely ever taken out on me and I did not necessarily suffer as a result (at least not directly). I also learned the value of being able to speak my mind openly and directly and have been fortunate to live in a society/system where it is permitted and, in some ways, even encouraged. The same cannot be said for China (or many other places) and therein lies the tragedy.

    I also can relate to the incident where you were slapped by your mother for speaking your mind. It is something that I would not have understood 15 years ago but life experiences have shown what it means and I have met far too many people who live with the same sense of fear of speaking openly. They do so very rarely and only with certain company. Unfortunately, they will likely never change because the system (in my case, they are Chinese) ingrained it too deeply into their psyche. It is my only goal to ensure that it stops with my generation.

    Finally, for you and all of the readers here (albeit a month late), there is a story that I think might be instructive here to the system you describe. I will post the link here:

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