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Little Horse: A Visit to a Chinese Kindergarten

by Clifford Hill - 1991

U.S. college educator describes his experience visiting a prestigious kindergarten in Nanjing, China, noting his response to the Chinese learning style versus the Western learning style. (Source: ERIC)

Last summer I visited China for the first time. I went to discuss with faculty and administrators at Nanjing University how best to set up an English-language center. The talks went well and we were able to put together a report two days before I was to deliver it to the state education commission in Beijing. Since I had some unexpected free time, I decided to contact Xiao Yan, the young man assigned as my guide who had taken me to historical sites during my stay: Sun Yat-Sen’s memorial tomb with its somber echoes, Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s summer home with breezy porches under great oak trees, the towering bridge over the Yangtze River that Chinese engineers managed to build after European engineers had given up.

When Xiao Yan arrived at my hotel, I told him I had done enough sightseeing and would like to visit a kindergarten. He seemed taken aback by this request, so I explained my interest: Before coming to China, I had been doing research in kindergarten classrooms in New York City. Besides, I had heard a good deal about Chinese enthusiasm for early childhood education. Some of the Chinese I had met, including Xiao Yan himself with his beloved three-year-old Linlin, claimed that the one-child policy of modern China was affecting early schooling in unpredictable ways. I wanted to see for myself what was going on.

Xiao Yan immediately arranged for us to visit the most prestigious kindergarten in Nanjing. On a rainy Friday morning, he arrived on his bicycle to pick me up. I saw that he, like other Chinese, was able to ride and hold an umbrella aloft at the same time. I set off beside him on my own bike, my umbrella askew and the handlebars wobbling from side to side. I noticed several people stopping in the street to observe my waving umbrella. I hoped they would take it as a sign of friendly greeting.

Fortunately it was a short ride to the kindergarten, where we were met by the headmistress, who whisked the two of us—a dry Chinese and a rather wet American—away to a parlor where a pot of tea welcomed us. Pouring the steaming green tea into porcelain cups, Ms. Chung recounted the history of the school as though reading from a script. Gu Lou (Drum Tower) was founded as an experimental school in 1923 by Chen Heqin, a scholar who had studied under John Dewey at Teachers College, Columbia University. Heqin, following Dewey, was committed to the idea that children should learn by doing. The school was still filled with evidence of this conviction: Looking through a lace-curtained window, I could see a greenhouse with flowering plants and shrubs and, just beside it, an enclosed space with rabbits, guinea-pigs, and bright loud birds whose names, except for a parrot, I did not know. A number of children were busy at work, feeding bits of lettuce and carrot to some fat rabbits. Ms. Chung explained that the older children—the five-year-olds—were responsible for tending all the plants and animals.

After completing her speech, the headmistress wanted to know if I had any questions. I told Xiao Yan I wondered how children were selected for Drum Tower and whether they had to pay. She told us that children from the neighborhood could attend without paying fees; they paid about $5 a month for a hot lunch, which, to judge by the aroma coming from the kitchen, was money well spent. In addition, certain places were reserved for children whose parents paid nearly $10 a month, a substantial sum in a country where the average salary is just over $30 a month. Apparently parents who can afford these fees compete vigorously for the places held for children outside the neighborhood. This arrangement captures an ingenious feature of Chinese socialism: state and private capital joining forces to provide high-quality services. Those with financial resources are allowed to buy special services, but not to the exclusion of the larger community. Others have to be invited to share the benefits of wealth. In this way, private resources are continuously fed back into the public domain.

When the rain stopped, Ms. Chung suggested that we begin our tour of the Drum Tower. As we moved past birdcages, we could see children across a courtyard: They were wearing red uniforms and marching out of adjacent classrooms. Ms. Chung explained that the four-year-olds were now assembling for morning exercises. Two loudspeakers filled the courtyard with martial music and the children were soon lined up in strict formation. A slim teacher with long black hair in a ponytail led them through a series of bending and stretching motions. The children seemed almost mechanical as they followed her movements. After nearly a quarter of an hour, the martial songs suddenly gave way to folk music. At once the children’s mood lightened—they broke out of the straight lines and formed a wobbly circle. Their silence turned into a chorus of giggles and chatter and song. The teacher was no longer their commander—she, too, was singing as she danced among the children. Just as I was imagining myself joining in, the music stopped and the children ran to take their places in the strict rows. In silence they marched single-file back into their classrooms.

Ms. Chung invited us to follow her into one of the rooms. As we entered, all the children jumped to their feet, bowed from the waist, and greeted us in unison. I asked Xiao Yan what they had said and he replied with an embarrassed grin, “Good morning, grandfather.” I was taken aback—although my hair is greying, I do not think of myself as elderly. Xiao Yan diplomatically explained that the children were just showing respect. We made our way to the side of the class where two chairs had been arranged for us. The children—more than thirty altogether—were seated in small chairs arranged in circular fashion. They were sitting up straight with their attention fixed on the teacher. She stood at the front of the room beside a board mounted on a wooden stand; a dark blue cloth was draped over it. In a teacherly voice she explained that they were about to hear a story. With a sweep of her arm, she lifted the cloth away and there, magnetically attached to the felt board, was the cast of characters. On the left stood a mother horse and her baby under a bountiful tree; in the center stretched green pasture; and on the right flowed a river with a squirrel and a cow standing on its near bank. Beyond the river, at the right edge of the board, a white water-mill was gleaming. It was a promising scene for a story. Just as it was about to begin, Xiao Yan explained that the story was sure to play on the fact that the word ma is used for both “mother" and “horse.” Only a contrast in tone—flat versus rising—distinguishes the two: I was pleased that the linguist was irrepressible in my interpreter.

Once upon a time there was a mother horse with a son who was just beginning to grow up. She had worked hard caring for him and so it was now time for him to help her:

“My son, do you think you’re now big enough to help your mother?”

“Yes, I’ve become a big horse and I want to help you. You have taken good care of me and it is now time for me to take care of my mother.”

“You are a good son. I need your help for I have grown tired. Here is a sack of corn. Take it to the mill on the far side of the river. Give it to the miller and ask him to grind the corn.”

“But, mother, am I big enough to cross the river all by myself?”

“Do not be afraid, my son. The river is not deep. You are big enough to cross it by yourself.”

“You are right. I can cross that river by myself.”

Mother Horse loaded the sack of corn on her son’s back and he galloped off across the green pasture toward the river. He was racing along when he met a brown cow near the bank of the river.

“Good morning, Mrs. Cow. I’m on my way to the mill with a sack of corn. My mother wants the miller to grind the corn.”

“You’re a good child to help your mother. Be on your way, Little Horse. The river is not deep. I cross it every day.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Cow. I’m not afraid to cross that river.”

Little Horse was just about to enter the river when he met a gray squirrel.

“Good morning, Mr. Squirrel. I’m on my way to the mill with a sack of corn. My mother wants the miller to grind the corn.”

“But you’re too small to cross this river. It is very deep. It was just last week that it swallowed one of my brothers. You must go back and find your mother. She will help you cross the river.”

Little Horse became very frightened. He did not know what to do. He could see the mill gleaming on the far side of the river. If he were to help his mother, he needed to carry the grain across the river. He could also see the bright water of the river, but as he stared into it, he could not see the bottom. If he entered the river, surely he would drown. He decided to run home and ask his mother for help. Little Horse galloped back across the green pasture as fast as he could go. When he came to his mother, he was panting so heavily that he could not speak. She asked in a surprised voice:

“My son, why have you come back so quickly? Surely the miller did not have time to grind the corn.”

“When I came to the river, I met Mrs. Cow and Mr. Squirrel. She told me to cross the river but he told me that if I entered the river, I would surely drown. Just last week it swallowed one of his brothers.”

“You must learn to use your own brain. Are a cow and a squirrel the same size?”

“No, they are not.”

“Which is smaller?”

“Mr. Squirrel is smaller.”

“My son, because he is small, the river is too deep for him to cross. You are becoming a big horse. You must learn to think for yourself.”

“You are right, my mother. I must learn to think for myself.”

“Quickly, return to the river and cross it. If you always listen to others, you will be afraid to act.”

“My mother, I will go back. I am not afraid to cross that river.”

So Little Horse galloped off once again. This time he ran even faster than before. When he came to the river, he met the cow once again:

“Little Horse, have you still not crossed the river?”

“Mrs. Cow, I will cross it now so that I can help my mother.”

Little Horse hurried on his way and, once again, he met the squirrel.

“Baby Horse, are you still planning to cross the river?”

“Yes, Mr. Squirrel, I am. I am no longer a baby horse. Now I can use my brain and think for myself. If I always listen to others, I will be afraid to act and cannot help my mother.”

Little Horse immediately plunged into the river. At first, he was frightened since the water came up to his neck. But he pushed forward as fast as he could until he reached the other side of the river. He continued on his way until he came to the mill. When he saw the miller, he said:

“Good day, Mr. Miller. I have brought a sack of corn. My mother wants ground corn.”

“Little Horse, it is good that you help your mother. Give me the corn so that I can grind it for you.”

The miller took the corn, ground it, and then loaded it on Little Horse’s back:

“Carry this ground corn back to your mother.”

“Thank you, Mr. Miller. I will carry it to her as fast as I can.”

Little Horse galloped back to the river and bravely crossed it. He then hurried across the green pasture to find his mother. He was running so fast that the sack on his back seemed empty. He soon came to where his mother was standing and shouted breathlessly:

“My mother, I have brought you ground corn.”

“Thank you, my son. Today you have helped me and you have helped yourself, too. You have learned to use your own brain and to think for yourself. You have now become a big horse.”

“You are right, my mother. From now on I will be able to take care of you.”

When the teacher finished the story, the children let out a collective sigh—it was the first sound they had made since the story began. She then began to question them about its many details: Who encouraged Little Horse to cross the river? Who discouraged him from crossing it? What did he do after talking to Mr. Squirrel? What did he do after he returned to talk to his mother? After each question, children raised their hands and waited quietly to be called on. When they were called on, they repeated the words of the story in a loud voice. If their words strayed even a bit from the story, the teacher supplied the story’s exact words for them to repeat: “Little Horse must learn to use his own brain.”

After nearly ten minutes of questioning, the teacher announced that they would listen to the story again. She went to the far side of the magnetic board and turned on a record player. Suddenly another woman’s voice, accompanied by music, began the story. When it came time for little horse to gallop across the pasture, the voice stopped altogether and the music grew loud: All that could be heard was the rapid beating of hooves, The children were listening as if they had never heard the story before, even though, according to Xiao Yan, the words were nearly the same. I heard him repeating the familiar phrases: “You must learn to use your own brain. Are a cow and a squirrel the same size?”

Once the story was over, the teacher asked the children to repeat various parts of the dialogue. She pretended to be Mother Horse and asked them to take turns being Little Horse. The children, after two hearings, were able to repeat his exact words. Finally, the teacher left the dialogue practice and went back to questions. This time they were not concerned with plot but with what the story meant. The shift did not bring any greater freedom of response. In response to her questions, the children still drew on the very words they had heard: “think for yourself,” “don’t listen to others,” “act on your own.” At one point a dreamy-looking child did veer off from the expected answer, “Little Horse was bad—he had to learn to obey his mother.” The teacher looked puzzled for a moment, then asked him to repeat: “Little Horse learned to use his own brain and to think for himself.” The boy somberly repeated these words and the teacher moved on to the next child.

Once the story’s formulas had been sufficiently rehearsed, the teacher announced that the class was over. I looked at my watch and discovered that nearly an hour had gone by: A room full of four-year-olds had listened to the same story twice, answered questions about it twice, and even practiced its dialogue; and not once had a child spoken out of turn. As Xiao Yan and I stood up to leave, the children rose from their chairs, bowed in our direction, and exclaimed in chorus, “Goodbye, grandfather. Thank you for coming.” This time I was prepared for Xiao Yan’s translation; I attempted a wise and benevolent gaze as I waved goodbye.

As soon as Xiao Yan and I left the room, the children raced out after us. It was now recess time and they were free to play in the courtyard. It was as if they had shifted from the martial tunes to the folk songs. They crowded around me, reaching out to hold my hand and trying out English words: “hello,” “bye-bye,” “thank you,” “America.” I tried to make sure that everybody touched me who wanted to. My wish to dance with them was now being granted.

After some time, Xiao Yan encouraged me to say a real good-bye to the children: The chorus of English words was approaching a noise level that, to one who lives in a one-child family, must have been uncomfortable. After numerous “bye-byes” and touching of hands, I managed to extricate myself. We hurried back to the parlor, where the headmistress was to come and see us off.

On entering the room, I could tell that Xiao Yan had something on his mind. During our two weeks together, we had managed, while wandering around Nanjing, to talk about important things—politics, religion, love—and since these subjects breed impatience with conversational formalities, I asked Xiao Yan what was bothering him. He was hesitant in his response: “I know what you’re thinking—the story was contradictory.”

I shrugged and made some noncommittal remark. Despite our intimacy, I was not eager to criticize what I had observed—Xiao Yan was my host. So I decided to leave the story to the side and query only how the teacher had handled it: “There was one thing I was wondering about. Since the story is about learning to think for yourself, I was puzzled by the teacher’s insistence that the children keep repeating its exact words.” Xiao Yan smiled indulgently. “There’s no real contradiction here. It’s just that, for us, memory is fundamental to education.”

I looked a bit quizzical, so Xiao Yan went on: “Take my daughter, Linlin: She has already begun to memorize classical poetry. The day we celebrated her third birthday, she was able to recite three of Li Bai’s nature poems. My father was very proud. He believes that as she memorizes the words, they become a part of her, even if she can’t understand their meaning. Still, when she becomes an adult, they’ll be there for her.”

“So the teacher was just taking the children through a kind of memory practice.”

“No, it’s more than that. It’s true that the teacher wants to strengthen their memory. But she also wants them to possess the story’s elegant language—they’ll be able to model their speech on it as they grow older.”

I nodded in approval. “It’s nice to have the story’s language as a model. But what about its meaning? Is that what four-year-olds need to learn? What if they really do go off and act on their own? Someday they’ll come upon a river that’s too deep and that will be the end of them.”

“You’ve missed the point. The mother wouldn’t have sent Little Horse off in the first place if she hadn’t been sure of the river’s depth. She was in control of the situation throughout. The fact that her son listened to the others was a failure to trust her.”

With some sense of vindication, I ventured: “Okay, so the little boy the teacher corrected was right after all: The story’s really about learning to obey your mother.”

“That’s too simple. You’re insisting that the story can just mean one thing.”

I quickly swallowed the bait: “But surely the story can’t mean contradictory things: If Little Horse really thinks for himself, then he can’t always obey his mother.”

Xiao Yan laughed and answered slowly: “That kind of logic obscures the deeper point: No one ever really thinks independently of others. What’s important is that society maintain the illusion that one is doing so; Confucius taught us long ago that our sense of social harmony depends on this illusion.”

Feeling a bit slow and Western, I was relieved to see the-headmistress enter the parlor. She graciously offered us tea but this time Xiao Yan refused. He explained that the sky was threatening to open again and we needed to be on our way. He translated my own thanks to Ms. Chung and she escorted us to our bicycles. We mounted them and, waving goodbye, set off in haste, but before we could reach home, the sky made good on its threat. This time I watched closely as Xiao Yan put up his umbrella; as we rode side by side, I managed to hold both bicycle and umbrella steady.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 2, 1991, p. 290-296
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 232, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 12:12:58 PM

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