‘Little Emperors’ Learn the Hard Way in China

Times Staff Writer

Asked whether anyone has ever been beaten by his teacher, all the boys point to Chen Chen. The 12-year-old lifts up his shirt. Sure enough, there are four faint welts on his back from the feared whip.

“Of course it hurt,” Chen acknowledged. “But it was because I misbehaved.”

“We were all scared to death,” classmate Xia Jingying chimed in.


If you think these children are victims of substandard public schooling, think again. Their parents paid to send them here to West Point, a popular boot camp named after the American military academy but designed to straighten out the “little emperors” of China’s one-child generation.

For more than two decades, China’s strict family planning policy has created a culture in which the coveted lone male heirs tend to run amok at home and in school because besotted parents forget to teach them the meaning of discipline.

One woman believes the only way to rein in all these spoiled boys is to stop sparing the rod. At Wan Guoyin’s West Point, every child knows the consequences of bad behavior.

The worst offenders get a whipping, minus their shirts, even in the dead of winter, and in front of the entire school. Minor offenses such as cussing can result in being forced to swallow a spoonful of hot chili sauce or chew on a bitter herb that turns the tongue yellow for hours.

“I saw a kid spit it out and throw up,” said Zheng Dongxin, 12. “The teacher made him eat twice as much!”

“We do it more for the humiliation than the pain,” said Wan, 47, who looks nothing like Cruella De Vil in her simple black cotton dress, braided hair reaching to her waist. “The goal is to give them a memorable lesson.”

Wan got the idea for the school a few years ago when she was a guest on a radio program about problem children. The former kindergarten teacher and mother of a 22-year-old daughter remembered that nearly 90% of the callers complained about disciplinary problems with their sons.

A couple of years ago, she started a small after-school program to see whether she could help. Parents liked it so much that the program grew from a dozen or so children to the current 100 full-time summer camp students, with more than 100 on the waiting list.

In the summer, the boys live full time at a rundown campus rented out by a foreign language institute on the outskirts of town. They remain here for the two-month program, living in dorms where everyone gets up at 6 a.m. and spends the day either studying in stifling classrooms or training outside in the heat. There is free time to play, but no television. (The older children are permitted to watch half an hour of the stodgy official CCTV newscast at 7 p.m.)

“My son has improved so much his teacher says he is a changed boy,” said Yang Yang, the mother of 12-year-old Ling Ling, who had had behavior problems since his first day of school.

The majority of Chinese children still live in the countryside, and many suffer from poverty so dire that they can’t afford even a basic education, much less expensive extracurricular activities. But in another sign of China’s growing wealth gap, alternative schools of hard knocks have sprung up across the country to meet the rising demand of mostly urban parents frustrated with the wayward ways of their overindulged sons.

“As only children, their parents give them everything they want and they don’t have to do anything for themselves,” said Wan, who charges about $300 a month for her program. “The kids still say they are unhappy and misbehave. That’s because they don’t know what happiness is. Here we provide bitterness, so they have a point of reference.”

By bitterness, she means a military regimen for the boys, 6 to 12 years old, that involves running laps, crawling on the grass and doing sit-ups, push-ups, headstands and the “horse stance,” a kind of awkward martial arts pose that looks like a semi-squat with arms out front.

“We have to keep the position for 10 minutes at a time, and if you move you have to do it for an extra minute,” said Li Junjie, 12, whose parents sent him here because he spent entire nights at the computer playing games. “A lot of kids cry doing it.”

The rest of the day involves homework, calligraphy practice and English vocabulary lessons in sauna-like classrooms, as well as learning to make their own beds, eat a meal and brush their teeth without complaining.

At first, whippings were not part of the daily routine.

Then a student accidentally spilled a drop of soup on another. The student with the stained shirt reacted by pouring a bowl of hot liquid on the offender’s lap. Wan happened to be standing nearby and without thinking whipped the boy with the plastic jump-rope in her hand.

“Even I was shocked at what I did,” Wan recalled. “All the students froze.”

Stricken with remorse, Wan immediately contacted the student’s parents and apologized. To her surprise, the mother told her, “You should have done that long ago!”

Gradually, Wan began to work the whipping into her repertoire, and it became the hallmark of her academy.

“Some parents beat their children too, but it’s often random and the children don’t always understand cause and effect, so they get hurt for nothing,” said Wan, who says she’s careful in her canings. “Here we would never make anyone bleed. I’d only strike on the back and only on the skin, not the bone. That way it looks bad but heals fast.”

Each week, about a dozen boys are pulled out of their regular classrooms and singled out for special punishment and an obligatory public whipping.

They have to endure several hours more physical training in the grueling summer heat and must pull weeds and clean the campus. And they are permitted to eat only plain rice for lunch, while the other boys enjoy meat and side dishes.

“After three days of severe punishment like that, they all realize going back to the classroom to do homework is a much better option,” Wan said.

The flip side of Wan’s iron fist is a soft heart.

Her office is stacked with toys and snacks, which she hands out for the slightest sign of good behavior, such as saying thank you or telling the truth. She even hands out cash, which the students can save up and take home to their parents -- and in the process learn the value of money.

“I won a mini electric fan, some money and beef jerky,” said Li Junjie, 12, a computer addict who had hated coming to camp. Now he says he loves it. “I’m not afraid of Teacher Wan. If we get punished it’s because we brought it on ourselves.”