One of the most widely held clichés about China is that it counters American individualism with a deep routed collectivism. Supporting evidence ranges from the dramatic – the great mass gatherings of the Cultural Revolution where oceans of people would hold up the little red book and chant in unison ‘long live Chairman Mao – to the mundane –in Shanghai’s many wonderful parks one is almost never allowed on the grass. This annoyance is justified with an appeal to individual sacrifice in favor of the common good. There wouldn’t be grass if everyone were allowed to tread on it goes the all too common refrain.

The arguments are compelling but – after more than 6 years in China – I am beginning to suspect that the idea of Chinese collectivism is massively misunderstood.

China’s education system is intensely competitive. Overt expressions of favoritism from teachers and even parents and grandparents are commonplace. Students are publicly ranked. Count the number of stripes on a child’s school uniform and the well initiated instantly knows how well he or she has preformed. Every question has only one right answer, precisely because this is the only clear and fair way to determine who is best.

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