It’s a stereotype played out on the big screen and the presidential campaign trail: Chinese people are good at math. But how much truth is there to it?
In The Big Short, the 2015 film about the days leading up to the subprime mortgage crisis, a Deutsche Bank executive played by Ryan Gosling is in a meeting with potential clients.
To prove his point, he casually points to his quant—“my math specialist”—and asks people in the room if they notice anything different about him.
The punchline: He’s Asian.
The stereotype that Asians, particularly Chinese people, are good at math is so pervasive that Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang made it a central feature of his campaign. “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian guy who likes math,” he frequently tells rally goers.
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For students and teachers in Asia, they feel some truth in the stereotype. “I think at math competitions, then it’s true,” says Chu Cheuk-hei, a 15-year-old student in Hong Kong who competes in international math competitions. “Chinese or Asian students normally do perform better than other students.”
Not every Chinese student is good at math, cautions Alex Dutton, a physics and math tutor in Hong Kong, “but in general, all my Chinese students are just the next level above all the non-Chinese.”
“[Westerners] attribute more success and failure of their child, especially in mathematics, to innate ability.”
Frederick Leung, a math education professor at the University of Hong Kong, has been studying this subject for the past two and a half decades.
Every four years, he administers a math test for students aged 10 to 14 in over 60 countries and regions. He publishes the rankings in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.
Consistently in the top five are Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. (Mainland China is not on the list because it does not participate in the study.)
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Leung believes one of the reasons why they consistently outperform other students is their shared Confucian culture, which values hard work and merit.
“In this old Confucian culture, there’s this stress on education,” Leung says. “In London, when I interview parents and ask them, ‘Oh, your child is not doing very well in mathematics. Why do you think this is the case?,’ they say, ‘Oh, he’s not very good in mathematics. No, I was not good at mathematics myself, you know. But he’s very good in basketball or music or art.
“In Beijing, the same question to parents. ‘Oh, he’s lazy.’ So it’s a big contrast to Western parents,” Leung says. “They attribute more success and failure of their child, especially in mathematics, to innate ability.”
An obsession with tests
A pillar of China’s meritocratic system is national examinations, which today are still used to determine university admissions and placement in government jobs.
One of the subjects, of course, is math.
National exams have their origins in the seventh century during the Sui Dynasty, when the court required people to pass exams on classic Confucian texts, law, and politics.
It was one way to move up the social ladder and land a prestigious government job. Exams fueled the idea that studying hard could improve one’s lot.
“So through generations, we have this very deep trust in examination,” Leung says.
Today, the obsession with tests has fueled the growth of private education industries including tutoring and cram schools.
In China, more than 90% of parents pay for cram school, making it a $383 billion industry in 2019.
Chinese is better for math, research shows
Is it easier to learn math in certain languages? Some studies suggest yes.
“The digit system is very simple in Chinese,” Leung says, “making at least arithmetic very easy to learn.”
Researchers of early childhood education have found that the way a language describes numbers can affect how quickly children do sums.
Take the number 11, for example. Languages such as English, French, and Spanish have a unique word for it—eleven, onze, and once.
But in Chinese, the number is pronounced as “ten” and “one.” And the digits are monosyllabic, making them easier to commit to memory.
The same number system is used in Arabic, Korean, and Japanese.
One of the benefits of this system, Leung says, is that math can be taught with mnemonic devices, such as songs.
“When I was young—I’m Cantonese—we didn’t have a times table,” he says. “We had a song, the ‘Nine Factors Song.’”
These mnemonic devices make it easier to commit multiplication tables to memory, which build the basis for higher-level mathematics.