Waldorf in China by Ian Johnson, The New Yorker


Ian Johnson       The New Yorker


In 1994, Harry Huang and his wife, Zhang Li, were running Lily Burger, a tiny backpacker restaurant on the banks of the Jin River, in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The city wasn’t yet the sprawling metropolis of seven million that it is today, and many people still lived in the picturesque wooden houses of the old town. A thousand miles southwest of Beijing, Chengdu was a refuge from China’s big coastal cities, and a gateway to Tibet.


One day, an Australian couple came to the restaurant. The man, thin and ascetic, with piercing eyes, started talking about an idealistic education system that had been introduced in Central Europe in the early twentieth century. Emphasizing the need to help children develop as individuals, it was based on ideas of reincarnation, free will, and individuality. After four days, the couple left, encouraging Harry and Li to stay in touch.



Harry kept thinking about what the Australians had said. For Chinese of his generation—he was born in 1968—it was an unsettled time. In the nineteen-eighties, there had been a sense of great political optimism. After the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the broad-based reforms of Deng Xiaoping had made the future of China seem open. The crushing of student protests in 1989 ended these hopes, and the energy of the Tiananmen generation was diverted into other avenues, such as entrepreneurship. Harry graduated from college in 1992, and roamed China, unsure of what to do with his life. He settled in Chengdu after he met Li, who was an elementary-school teacher there. The Australians’ visit held out the possibility of a goal less self-centered than making money. And their educational philosophy seemed enticing. Li’s job had left her frustrated by the rigid methods and rote learning of Chinese education.


A few weeks later, Harry wrote to Emerson College, an alternative-education institution in England, and was offered a full scholarship to study Waldorf Education and the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian mystic who had founded the movement. He hadn’t read a word of Steiner’s works, but he immediately accepted. Li was pregnant with their first child, but later she followed Harry to England and began studying, too.


Steiner developed his educational philosophy in 1919, when the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, in Stuttgart, asked him to set up a school for the employees’ children. Germany was in turmoil—a revolution followed the end of the First World War—and the new school was intended as a corrective to the harsh discipline of traditional schools. Steiner believed that children should be slowly guided out of what he termed “the etheric world,” where they existed prior to birth, and that education should engage first the hands, then the heart, then the brain. Waldorf-educated children play a lot when they’re young, and often don’t learn to read until second or third grade. After nearly a decade of studying Steiner’s system, Harry and Li returned to Chengdu, to start China’s first Waldorf school.


Chengdu Waldorf School opened in the fall of 2004. At first, it was little more than a struggling day-care center in an abandoned fishing resort. Dank in the winter, stifling in the summer, and infested with mosquitoes year-round, it was so unpleasant that by the end of the first term all the parents had withdrawn their children. Even Harry and Li sent their children away to stay with Harry’s family. The school couldn’t pay its bills, and the couple wondered if China was ready for Waldorf.


Yet, across the country, Waldorf Education had started to attract an underground following. Stories circulated on the Internet about a young, Waldorf-educated German who was working with impoverished villagers in the south of China. He was profiled on Chinese state-run television and admired for his idealism. People also became interested in Steiner’s theories about alternative life styles: biodynamic agriculture (a kind of organic farming); anthroposophy (a complex spiritual philosophy); and eurhythmic dancing (a shamanistic communion with the world of spirits).


To win over parents, Harry and Li held workshops, and organized classes on clay modelling, doll-making, and watercolor painting. Volunteers began turning up at the school. Most were Chinese, but foreigners came, too, and they all lived together on the school grounds. Romances flourished, as did quarrels. Foreign Waldorfians worried that most Chinese hadn’t read Steiner’s works, while the Chinese wondered if the Waldorf vision was compatible with Chinese culture. The debates continued through the Chinese New Year spring festival.


“Everyone was watching: was it good?” Li said. “Finally, after spring festival in 2005, they came. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden they came.”


Harry and Li’s school now has more than three hundred pupils, from kindergarten to eighth grade. There is a five-year waiting list, and there are plans for the school to quadruple in size, with the addition of a high school and a new campus for a thousand students. Less than a decade ago, there were no Waldorf institutions in China; now there are two hundred kindergartens and more than thirty elementary schools. In a country that is still searching for its national identity, the movement is quickly becoming one of the most influential countercultures.



Waldorf’s rise challenges Western assumptions about Chinese “tiger mothers” bullying their children into becoming robotic overachievers. A growing number of parents are reconsidering the merits and the dangers of the system. People have been shocked by stories like the one that circulated widely last October, of a Chengdu boy who committed suicide by jumping from a thirty-story building. He left behind a note saying, “Teacher, I can’t do it.”


Education has been at the center of China’s upheavals for more than a hundred years. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, reformers sought to reverse China’s decline by adopting elements of Western technology. One of the obstacles was the imperial examination system, which for centuries had selected the country’s officials through competitive exams based on the rote learning of Confucian texts. The system strengthened the sinews of a far-flung empire but created a caste of scholar-officials poorly versed in practical matters. In 1906, the examinations were scrapped. China’s two-thousand-year-old imperial edifice collapsed five years later, when the emperor abdicated.


Decades of experiments in rebuilding China’s political and educational systems followed. Almost every major philosopher, novelist, and political leader pushed ideas and plans, many of them inspired by foreign models. In 1919, the philosopher and language reformer Hu Shih invited the American education theorist John Dewey to China to expound his philosophy of pragmatism. Dewey was so excited by the ferment that he stayed for two years. “Nothing in the world today—not even Europe in the throes of reconstruction—equals China,” he wrote.


After the Communists took power, in 1949, they embarked on a program of mass education. Although the Cultural Revolution led to the closing of schools and the relocation of college students to labor in the countryside, the first three decades of Communist rule all but eradicated illiteracy—a sharp contrast to countries like India, which are still struggling to create a literate workforce. All major cities now have extravagantly equipped “key” high schools, and the curriculum emphasizes math, science, and languages. The system has been widely praised in international evaluations; in a test devised by the Program for International Student Assessment, Shanghai high-school students have repeatedly outranked their peers in the United States and throughout Europe.


Nevertheless, many Chinese intellectuals now see education as among the biggest problems facing the country. I visited Ran Yunfei, an outspoken author and social commentator, at his apartment, in a historic Chengdu neighborhood. In one of his books, “Deep Pit,” he lists six issues that he thinks could cause a national crisis, among them the “trite, empty and deadlocked Chinese education system.” He believes that education reform is the only way to eliminate corruption and other problems that seem endemic to China.


Ran is forty-nine and a member of the Tujia ethnic minority, who live in the Wuling Mountains, east of Sichuan. Short and dark, he describes himself as looking like an outlaw from a classical Chinese novel—on social media his handle is tufeiran, “bandit Ran.” We met in his study, a greenhouse-type structure that he had constructed on the roof of his apartment building. When I asked about education, he pointed to two big wooden chests in the corner.


“I’ve been collecting books on Chinese education for years—I mean, years and years,” he told me in a staccato voice, his eyes bulging for effect. “I’ve got textbooks from the Qing dynasty, the Republican era, Buddhist monasteries, prisons, you name it. And, of course, the Communist era.” He said that all groups in China have treated education as a chance to mold people, but that the Communists went furthest: “They thought they could shape people by shaping the history they learned. The effect is moral decay.”


Private schools are rare in China, and Chinese children are not allowed to attend parochial schools, so the state curriculum, which is heavy on politics and on the Party’s version of history, dominates. When young people learn that the heroes they’ve been taught about are products of the Party’s propaganda apparatus, they naturally become cynical. A university student named Zhong Daoran recently published a book that crystallized the widespread feeling of disgust: “In elementary school, they rob us of our independent values; in middle school, they take away our capacity for independent thought; and in university, they take away our dreams and idealism. Thus our brains become as empty as the underpants of a eunuch.”


Although all Chinese students learn the same national curriculum, schools vary greatly. In some poor rural areas, children have to take a stool to school each day, because there is nothing to sit on; in wealthier areas, computers and well-equipped science labs are the norm. The better schools require students to pass entrance tests, and bribery is common. Recently, an elementary-school principal went on trial for accepting more than twenty thousand dollars to admit children to his school. An administrator at a high school affiliated with an élite Beijing university told me that parents donate upward of fifty thousand dollars to get their children in. “They think it’s worth it, because if you’re in the right school you can get into college,” he said. The pressure to gain admission is immense. Despite a university building boom over the past fifteen years, good schools are very oversubscribed. University entrance depends on a notorious exam called the gaokao. Students spend all of twelfth grade prepping for it, and many of them also go to private cram schools at night and on weekends. Stories abound of extreme methods taken to insure success: pupils have been hooked up to oxygen tanks so that they can study harder, and girls have been given oral contraceptives, lest their menstrual cycles compromise performance.


Government officials have started to recognize the intense pressure on students. Last year, the Ministry of Education banned written homework during vacations for first and second graders. The government has said that it will reduce the gaokao’s importance, and possibly consider other factors in college admissions. It has begun to allow discussion about how to reform schools, and there has been a flurry of books with titles like “Please Let Me Grow Up Slowly.” Ran was encouraged by these developments, but said that deeper cultural problems remained, such as an unquestioning belief in the virtues of memorization, a legacy from the traditional exams of the imperial era. Increasingly, China fears that such methods do not produce the kind of creativity and independent thinking that can make it competitive with the West.


“Right now, a lot of parents simply drop the children off at the school and think, That’s done,” he said. “But we have to take responsibility for educating our children.”


Every morning at half past eight, the third-grade students at the Chengdu school line up to shake hands with their teacher, Shi Beilei. It’s one of the small rituals of Waldorf Education that convey equality and respect. Shi talked to each child for a few seconds, looking them warmly but firmly in the eye and encouraging them to speak up or to pay attention to a subject that she knows will be difficult.


The walls of the classroom were painted a yellow-green, an effect that gave the place a light, fuzzy feel. In the Waldorf system, colors, textures, and materials in the classrooms are carefully chosen in order to avoid shocking children with an angular, overly intellectualized environment. In the school’s kindergarten, furniture is draped in pink cloth. On a linen-covered bulletin board in Shi’s classroom were paintings by the students—watercolors of trees and flowers. As in all Waldorf classrooms, there were no computers, overhead projectors, or retractable screens. Instead, there was a large blackboard with two side panels hinged like a triptych.


Class started with the desks pushed against the walls. The children formed a circle and began clapping rhythmically. The fun segued into a math exercise to teach multiplication tables. Shi called out problems on the first three claps, and the students answered on the fourth. Gradually, Shi picked up the pace, making the students think faster. Some were caught out, but none seemed embarrassed.


Then Shi opened the blackboard’s folded wings to reveal a magnificent drawing in colored chalk which she had made of Pangu, a hairy giant from Chinese mythology, who created the universe by separating Heaven and Earth with a swing of his axe. The Waldorf curriculum reflects Steiner’s belief that an individual’s development mirrors a civilization’s, so the early years include lots of creation myths and fables. Next to the drawing, Shi had written a story in verse to help the students learn the ten heavenly stems and the twelve earthly branches, part of the traditional Chinese ordinal system used to name the days of the week and years of the zodiac.


Shi swiftly organized the pupils into two groups to perform a skit about the Pangu story. While they acted, she read the tale from a book, using a stick and a small drum to keep time, like a storyteller in one of Chengdu’s traditional teahouses. Later, she had them pull the desks away from the wall, and they copied the story into their workbooks, using colored crayons to decorate the margins.


The children had a twenty-minute break in the middle of the homeroom session, and ate snacks, having first recited a chant of thanks to the sky and the earth and the farmers. Two forty-five-minute periods followed, one for English and one for handwork, which for the third grade meant knitting. Later, they’d have lunch and, in the afternoon, violin and calligraphy.


Shi, like several other teachers, told me she’d taken up the profession as a means of developing both intellectually and spiritually. Now thirty-five, she had previously worked in nongovernmental organizations that sought to alleviate poverty and improve the environment. Shaping two dozen youngsters seemed more manageable.


“It’s a platform for me to do my work,” she said. “I feel I learn a lot, too. I’m working through creation myths, which is something that really interests me.”


Not all the classes are as carefully run, however. A fourth-grade class I visited in June lurched from crisis to crisis. The original teacher was away on maternity leave, and her replacement was inexperienced. Usually, Waldorf teachers accompany their pupils from one grade to the next, a practice that creates a tight bond but can make it hard for a newcomer to take over a class. Many of the children arrived late. They ignored the replacement teacher, and some of them even slept.


David Wells, a Chicagoan who teaches English at the school, said that parents and staff are so hesitant about setting rules that anarchy sometimes reigns. “I saw some behavior like this on the West Side of Chicago,” he told me. “It’s a lack of boundaries. When I came in and said we needed discipline, some teachers thought I meant Chinese-style punishment and rewards. I didn’t, but if a student tells the teacher to ‘f’ off you need a guideline as to what you’re supposed to do.”


I met one couple who had withdrawn their daughter from the school. They told me that they had been teachers themselves, and hadn’t wanted their daughter to experience the rigors of the Chinese system. They were attracted to Waldorf because of its strong emphasis on the arts. But, the more they saw of the school, the more they came to feel that the Waldorf Education was predicated on certain ingrained cultural values that China lacked. The husband said that it was admirable that Waldorf granted children a lot of freedom, but that basic values, such as common courtesy and viewing others as equals, had to be instilled first. He thought that this didn’t occur in Chinese homes, partly because the single-child policy has created a generation of “little emperors,” doted on by two parents and four grandparents. Political upheavals like the Cultural Revolution had contributed, too, by eliminating traditional forms of respect.


“When you bring Steiner’s ideas to China, you don’t have this foundation of equality,” he said. “Children develop egocentrically. There are no limits, so they do what they want.”


Cut off from the rest of China by mountains, Chengdu has a reputation as easygoing but resistant to a central authority. Perhaps because of its isolation it was often a stronghold in wartime, and it has been the scene of several uprisings. Twice the entire population was massacred, and, after a rebellion in the seventeenth century, the city became so depopulated that the government resettled it with people from other provinces. Locals often trace the city’s famous tolerance to this event; because the inhabitants spoke various dialects and had different traditions, they had to learn to accept divergent views.


Chengdu’s many parks and temples have public areas where people congregate to chat about public affairs for hours on end—in contrast to most Chinese cities, which traditionally had fewer such spaces. The city is famous for its teahouses, which are to be found on nearly every corner of the historic center. Locals say that this unique urban atmosphere fosters open discussion of public events and hinders acceptance of propaganda. This claim is hard to prove, but the city is home to the highest concentration of dissidents after Beijing, and it has a vibrant gay scene, something that is still a rarity elsewhere.


After being in the city awhile, I learned to spot Waldorf parents. The men tended to wear baggy trousers and T-shirts. The women dressed in flowing skirts. They made sure to buy naturally dyed crayons, and wondered whether it was important for them to visit the original Waldorf School, in Stuttgart, on their European vacations. The fact that these parents had the means to vacation in Europe prompted me to ask what they did for a living. Replies were vague. “Business,” people would say, or “import-export.” One man told me that he had got rich selling fur coats to Russians. Tuition at the school is three thousand dollars a year, which is nearly as much as the annual wage of an average Chengdu resident. But not all the parents are rich. Some become Waldorf teachers so that their children can attend at half the usual cost.


I met one parent, Ju Zhen, in the yard of a farmhouse shared by several Waldorf families. We stood under a canopy of wintersweets, blooming yellow in the clear autumn air, and watched her seven-year-old daughter nail two pieces of camphor wood together: a small stool was taking shape.


Ju came to the school last summer. For eight years before that, she was an award-winning physics teacher in Nanjing. At thirty-seven, she had just about everything the state system could offer: a good salary, a car, an apartment. But she worried about her daughter. Ju had grown up in the countryside and didn’t see the inside of a classroom until she was seven. Her daughter, by the age of five, was already at elementary prep school, learning languages and math. Ju knew that the girl would soon be faced with endless tests and homework. So she quit her job and moved a thousand miles west, to Chengdu. Her daughter is in first grade at Chengdu Waldorf School, and Ju has been hired to help devise a high-school curriculum for the school this autumn, when ninth grade is added.


She’s earning far less than she did before, and her new job isn’t as prestigious. In fact, she didn’t dare tell her parents until the change had been made. “It would have been too terrifying for them,” she said. They still don’t approve, but she’s glad that she made the move. Her daughter now has less homework and is learning to work with her hands. Ju sold her car, became a vegetarian, and started to dress in cotton skirts.


“In the past, I was just mindlessly working,” she told me. “I’d work overtime and get a lot of money, but I didn’t have any time. I’d use the money at an expensive supermarket to buy expensive food. I’d be working Mondays to Fridays and then spending the weekend spending money. I had a fast-food life.”



The farm where I met Ju is in a former agricultural community of concrete-and-stucco bungalows set amid hedges, trees, and small fields. About forty families had moved there. In keeping with Waldorf tenets, most kept their children away from televisions and other electronics, and encouraged them to play outdoors. Waldorf also suggests that families eat dinner together at home, whereas upwardly mobile parents tend to leave their children with a grandparent or a housekeeper, and spend evenings in restaurants building up guanxi—the complex web of relationships that are crucial to getting ahead.


Children ran around us and out through a bamboo gate. Everyone was headed to a small tract of land that half a dozen families had rented from local farmers. We passed by a few of the locals, who stared at us. To them, the Waldorfians were strange: professional people who wanted to live like peasants but who didn’t use fertilizers.


On the way to the field, I talked to one of the parents, Michael He. A software designer, he is tall and broad-shouldered, with a big, square face. He told me that he was interested in Steiner’s philosophy but isn’t a hard-core believer. He is more concerned with giving his daughter a less rigid education and in exploring a new life style.


“In the past, when I lived in the city, I almost never went outside,” he said as we walked down a gravel path. “It’s good to read books. In the past, I’d just go online.”


We arrived at the land that the families had rented. The men quickly subdivided the tract into individual plots.


“I want a big plot!” Ju shouted, and the men obliged with about two hundred square yards. A few days later, I bumped into her at the school.


“I planted asparagus lettuce, and my daughter planted beans,” she said. “I had to show her how to use a hoe.”


Over the years, volunteers have transformed the grounds of Chengdu Waldorf School into a beautiful campus, with a bamboo grove, a pagoda, and a U-shaped elementary-school building centered around a rock garden. Last fall, I met Li in her improvised offices, a cramped conference room decorated with photographs of mayors and deputy governors who had visited the school. Now forty-two, Li has a smooth, round face with full lips. Though her manner is placid, I have occasionally seen her produce the kind of glare that can change minds in a hurry.



Discussing the early years of the school, she told me how she got it licensed. Because of China’s rigid laws, most Waldorf elementary schools are operated without licenses, and parents can’t be sure that academic credentials will be recognized outside the Waldorf system. Li said that she’d been lucky: classmates from her teacher-training days were now officials in the local branch of the Department of Education.


“When we opened, the government said don’t mess up in three areas: religion, politics, and safety,” Li said. “The child’s safety is, of course, key, but also don’t touch politics or religion. If you get involved, no one will save you.” She said that, although she was drawn to Steiner’s anthroposophical ideas, that had no bearing on the school.


Li told me that the biggest problem the school currently faces was an urgent need to expand. Many children are approaching high-school age, and the school does not go beyond eighth grade. Richer parents are eager for expansion, and have the money to finance it. Many teachers are opposed, worried that there are not enough teachers who are properly trained in the Waldorf method. But some parents don’t care; for them, Waldorf is little more than a desirable Western brand.


“A third of the parents really like Waldorf Education and study anthroposophy,” Li went on. “A third think, I love Waldorf Education, I love this method, but anthroposophy—it’s not that important. And then a third think, The teachers are good, the environment is natural, and my child is happy, and that’s it. Anthroposophy is a bit cuckoo, but my child is happy.”


I met one of the wealthier parents one day in a teahouse. His name was Wang Jundong, and he said, vaguely, that he’d made his fortune in the south and now worked in brand marketing. He was a youthful forty-seven: trim, fit, with short bristly hair and a lean face. He wore chinos, a polo shirt, and a bracelet of enormous rosewood beads, which are popular among Buddhists.


The spread of the Waldorf system, he told me, “reflects the helplessness that people feel toward public education.” After his daughter was born, in 2008, he and his wife looked at various schools. Schooling abroad is becoming a favored option for wealthy Chinese, and Wang’s work gave him the chance to emigrate. But he and his wife didn’t want to leave, and settled on Waldorf as the best of the available choices. He seemed enthusiastic about the school, but thought that it needed to be bolder and to expand more rapidly.


“The biggest problem now is that the school is run by the teachers’ committee,” Wang told me. “If the parents donate time or money, the teachers don’t pay attention. But now, to build a complete high school, we need a huge investment.”


Li had found a developer who was willing to donate land in an enormous development south of the city for the new school campus. But even if the land is donated, construction and equipment could easily cost ten million dollars. “You can’t get donations that big,” Wang told me.


The abbess of a Buddhist temple walked past, and she and Wang began chatting. She said that she was there to meet one of her disciples, who ran the teahouse. After she left, Wang said that he would patronize this teahouse more in the future.


Wang went through the numbers with me. With a thousand students, the school would make a profit, but not so much that it would have to become a for-profit entity. It could then easily pay back interest-free loans provided by the parents.


“If the school is a little more open-minded, the money won’t be a problem,” Wang said. “It can protect its independent Waldorf decision-making. But give the decision-making on practical matters to the parents.”


It wasn’t clear that Wang truly valued the Waldorf approach. “Waldorf isn’t a mature philosophy,” he said. “It’s a bit idealistic. You can’t realize it in today’s society. It’s been around for a century, but it’s never attracted a big following. It never will.” He went on, “I think children should attend a school more like Eton. The child’s character is already formed, and needs better study methods. You don’t want your child to have a bad career, right? You want him to get a good position in society. So we need something like that for our high school.”


Waldorf’s growth in China has surprised its Western proponents. I met two of them in Beijing. One was Nana Göbel, the head of a German foundation that provides funds and training for Waldorf schools. The other was Christof Wiechert, a former head of Waldorf Education worldwide. They had come to see a new Waldorf school in Beijing, and were travelling on to Chengdu. We met in a recently built hotel on the edge of a dusty road jammed with tractors and trucks. The hotel was decorated with red velour wallpaper and filled with enormous, cartoonish copies of Louis XIV furniture. It felt like a reverse form of chinoiserie, an approximation of something Western that an Eastern designer had only glimpsed from a distance. A waitress brought us hot black coffee. She seemed uncertain how to serve it and opted for a large glass pitcher.



Wiechert is sixty-eight, amiable and round, but loves a good argument. He looked at Göbel and said that the Chinese experience was, in a sense, similar to the first Waldorf School’s origins. Now, as then, people were in a hurry; Steiner’s first school opened after just a few months of preparation. “When you look at how the first Waldorf School opened, we’d call what Steiner offered a crash course,” Wiechert said.


Göbel looked at him sharply. “But those were all people with Ph.D.s, who’d been in anthroposophy for years,” she said. “They knew what it was about, and they were highly educated. The comparison is wrong, Christof!”


“And yet there was a willingness to improvise, to try something. It was right after the revolution, and they wanted something new,” Wiechert said.


“It’s true,” Göbel said. “I’ve been telling people in Europe that China will be bigger in ten years.”


Göbel’s foundation operates around the world, and she said that no place is developing alternative education as quickly as China, where Waldorf is one of a few truly global alternative-education movements. The only serious rival is Montessori, which is usually limited to kindergarten and grade schools. She acknowledged that some people in the movement wonder if China will change Waldorf for the worse. Visitors are often struck by the flimsy knowledge some Chinese teachers and administrators have of Steiner’s theories. Many Chinese have the impression that Waldorf is permissive, and allows children to play rather than to study. Göbel has tried to counter this misconception by sponsoring the first translation of Steiner’s works into Chinese. Still, schools are opening that promise a “Chinese Waldorf” experience that allows for more memorization. A few offer Waldorf classrooms next to Montessori classrooms and traditional Chinese classrooms, where the Confucian classics are learned by heart. In some ways, it’s not very different from how Zen and other Eastern philosophies were introduced to the West—as part of a jumble of exotic-sounding ideas that eventually coalesced into the New Age movement.


Göbel had been skeptical of the speed with which Waldorf in China was progressing. But, over time, she had also come to admire it. “They don’t even know if their children will get a proper degree that will allow them to enter college, but they’re willing to risk that, because they don’t want a state education,” she said.


Wiechert turned to her excitedly. “Can you imagine that in Europe? It’s impossible. They’re willing to sacrifice and risk everything—and we Europeans, we can only run after them and try to offer what we can.”