If a Chinese Person Says You Are “A Good Student” What Does It Mean?

An American writer named James McGregor (in One Billion Customers) called China “a nation of bookworms”. In China, entry into college is heavily controlled by a nationwide test called the gao kao taken near the end of high school. For hundreds of years, China had the most sophisticated civil service entrance exams in the world. Chinese students study much harder than American students. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (in which a mother puts a huge amount of pressure on her daughters to succeed in conventional ways) was presented by Chua as reflecting Chinese parenting values. It’s true that Chinese parents push their children much harder to do well in school than American parents.

All of which might lead unsuspecting Americans to believe that Chinese people value being a good student. Not at all. A Chinese friend explained to me that being called “a good student” is essentially an insult. “You are a good student” is what you say to someone when you can’t think of anything nice to say. It means

1. You are not interesting.

2. You have no sense of humor.

3. You have no interests outside of school.

Drone might be the closest English equivalent to the Chinese “good student”, except that no one would ever say to someone “you are a drone” and the meaning of the term has recently changed (to mean mini-planes flown remotely).


5 Replies to “If a Chinese Person Says You Are “A Good Student” What Does It Mean?”

  1. In the UK, “you are a swot” comes close. It implies that to do well in exams you have to devote your time to them rather than being so naturally bright that you can make time to fit lots of other things into your life too. Of course, it rather overlooks the fact that some children are probably well fitted to being swots, and that some who disparage swots could scarcely do well in an exam however many hours they worked.

  2. Is your friend a young person?

    I have a Chinese roommate who is a PhD candidate at Berkeley in microbiology. He says this attitude is a generational change, partly as a backlash to the huge pressure, and partly due to the shift to money-making as a desirable goal.

    Seth: Yes. My friend is in her twenties. Consistent with what your roommate says.

  3. years ago among young people in Taiwan describing a girl as “very patriotic” was a popular wink-and-a-nudge euphemism for “pretty unattractive”.

    don’t know if this expression is still current, or if there was/is a mainland equivalent, but sounds close to the “good student” thing.

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