Do Chinese Students Have a Creativity Deficit?

By Carol A. Mullen

Do they? Do Chinese students have a creativity deficit?

No doubt, an unfortunate stereotype is that the Chinese learner is a robotized human lacking creativity. China’s own government believes its citizens are uncreative—incapable of creative and critical thinking. This deficit Asian stereotype is perpetuated in the global news and even published scholarship. Stereotypes interfere with what can be discovered about creativity in that rapidly evolving nation.

In China, students do take their directions from teachers who in turn get their signals from authorities, all carriers of the regime. Given its millions of followers, it seems likely that Confucianism has reinforced allegiance to the nation’s government. To survive, Chinese students have had to become good at tested subjects, sacrificing development in creative, open-ended problem-solving. But, it’s still a generalization to characterize this entire student population as math-smart, creativity-poor.

Where does this idea come from?

 At least three factors account for the bias of Chinese students as rote learners lacking originality. First, the imperial exam, administered by the keju system across dynasties tested memorization. Norms of standardization are an honoring of ancestral lineage. But, rote-based education readily allows for teaching to the test.

Besides China’s living past, a second factor contributing to the bias is political. The Communist Party’s public stance on creative innovation and policy-based educational reform is contradicted by its test-based system separating winning from losing schools. Transmissive learning occurs a closed knowledge system that prizes high student achievement scores.

Byproducts of the test-centric culture are tight restrictions on freedoms that drain creative energies. Escalating is the high suicide rate of failing students who feel shame for having disgraced their families. The dubious honor belongs to China when it comes to top international rankings in tested subjects. While Shanghai’s spot at the top of international ratings has spurred the West to imitate its success, within China education has been condemned. Flocking to overseas universities, students question their homeland’s quality of education while Beijing tries to change China’s education system but how?—by instilling creative thinking in a new economy that ties invention to healthy labor markets.

Finally, a third factor compounding the belief that Chinese learners cannot create is the literature on China. Writing on creativity across countries and disciplines produces the image of a rigid, uncreative Chinese learner within a nation that emphasizes and rewards recalling facts. The problem attribution is to China’s hierarchical society and rigid educational system.

China’s teaching institutions do not have much wiggle room with the test-geared curriculum. So, students lack opportunities to be creative and take risks, with little exposure to open-ended curriculum. Students’ creativity is up against restrictive tasks and contexts in which they are not given instructions to be creative. Chinese graduates emerge with strong memory, math, and science skills but impoverished creative capacities. For such systemic reasons, a popular belief is that Chinese students have a creativity deficit.

Observing Creativity

Yet, one can observe unexpected creativity, even in rather robust forms, in China’s test-centric culture. As I share in my new book Creativity and Education in China: Paradox and Possibilities for an Era of Accountability creativity and innovation do exist in China’s educational and entrepreneurial sectors.

I witnessed remarkable signs of creativity within different types of schools and universities, including the under-resourced among them. Helping students see their vital role in the future demands that educators model new pedagogies and techniques of learning.

While I was in China, students and teachers alike expressed their creative selves. Activities included beautifying and personalizing garden spaces, caring for the environment by growing vegetables, and raising fish throughout their life cycle. Creating artworks and robotics for competitions is common, as is performing dramas—always with their ancestral symbols (e.g., dragons) and traditions uppermost in mind.


Chinese people are capable of being creative and of generating creative learning environments. This pushback against the deficit Asian stereotype has also been put out there ever so gradually. Chinese learners’ stellar success, worldwide, cannot be strictly attributed to rote memorization of material.

Consider Chinese students’ academic achievement on international testing and in universities that surpasses Western students, especially in math and science. Besides, learning any complex subject inevitably involves memorization. We memorize something (e.g., a musical masterpiece) before understanding it. The paradox of the Chinese learner may exist largely due to misconceptions about neo-Confucian cultures and learning.

Given these weighty issues, China is poised as a case of extremes engendering debate. In this nation’s competitive culture, change occurs where education sectors or individuals have moved towards dynamic learning to stimulate inventiveness, confidence, creativity, and critical-analytical thinking. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s dream for the nation’s rejuvenation sets the tone for innovation—although inventiveness is prized for its capacity to generate profits in manufacturing.

Creativity and Change

China is changing; it’s a highly adaptive communist regime. Measurable economic recovery is evident in the rapid construction of cities, schools, and universities. Less known, China has a capacity for creatively adapting in different domains of life. As examples, the Chinese government’s efforts to effect change in education has introduced democratic components in mandates for teaching creative curriculum.

However, conflicting with its growth and prosperity is China’s brain drain. Secondary students take the dreaded exam called gaokao, the outcomes of which decide their university fate and future. The all-consuming preparation for the exam comes at great cost, impeding students’ imaginations and creativities. The brain drain shows up in its monumental exodus. The instability is so great that creative solutions are well behind it.

We return to the question, do Chinese students have a creativity deficit? China’s exam-crazed accountability culture makes it difficult to imagine and observe creativity in schooling. I traveled to the other side of the planet and witnessed creativity in education. Expecting university graduates to improve the world demands educational opportunities to learn within unstructured spaces. Reflect. Risk. Create. Collaborate.


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