International

At Elite School in China, Day Begins with Eye Exercises, Jumping Jacks

By Sean Cavanagh — April 06, 2007 4 min read
The daily routine at the Beijing Fourth Secondary School includes eye exercises to help students relax and improve their vision.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Hundreds of teenagers stood quietly in the massive school courtyard on a chilly spring morning, in perfectly straight rows, evenly spaced.

The voice over the loudspeaker bellowed out a command, and all the students brought their hands up to cover their faces. It looked like some form of supplication—or the beginning of a communal game of hide-and-seek.

We waited, and gradually, we could make out the slightest signs of movement: All the boys and girls were slowly squeezing with both hands, massaging their foreheads and cheekbones.

From our perch in a third-floor classroom at the Beijing Fourth Secondary School, we were receiving an introduction to what is a routine part of the school day across China: mandatory daily exercises, which in this case began with eye exercises.

In American high schools, where students can sometimes opt out of physical education classes, and pretty much everyone is free to do as much or as little strenuous activity as they care to, many would surely recoil at the idea of mandatory group-fitness activities. But the physical exercises we saw during our April 4 visit to the school seemed as routine and inconsequential to Chinese students as when they stand to address teachers whenever they are called on to answer a question in class.

After several minutes of eye exercises, another directive echoed across the courtyard. The students, males and females dressed in blue and white uniforms, brought their arms back down to their sides and began a series of sharp turns. “Stand straight!” the voice said in Chinese. “Turn to the right!”

And they did, with great precision.

‘Walk In Place! High Knees!’

Beijing Fourth Secondary School, a public institution, is one of the most elite schools in China. Admission to its campus—a series of white, multistory buildings in a bustling neighborhood—is highly selective. Its graduates go on to attend China’s top universities and include top Chinese government leaders and financial executives, as well as some of the country’s best-known artists.

Education Week Director of Photography Sarah Evans and I were waiting for a series of interviews with school officials at the secondary school when we saw the morning physical education routine. We opened a window that looked down to the courtyard, about the size of a couple football fields lined side-by-side, so we could hear better. We were joined by our translator, Fan Li, who goes by the name Flora, who told us what the voice on the loudspeaker was saying.

Music and instructions are piped in over a loudspeaker so all students can follow along in unison with stretching exercises.

Flora, a 23-year-old student at Beijing Foreign Studies University, knew some of the exercises by heart. Growing up in the city of Chengdu, in the southwestern Sichuan province, she was also required to go through similar routines in school, with some variations. She and her classmates went through eye exercises, which are designed to strengthen the muscles around the eye and help students relax later while in class. (An online medical journal says Chinese eye exercises are based on acupuncture points, and are regarded in the country as a way of preventing myopia.) Flora remembers her school having a contest to see which student could do the eye exercises the best.

Below us, the students continued in their turns, marching in place to the steps called out over the loudspeaker. “One-two-one!” the speaker called out. “Walk in place! High knees!”

Then the students were stationary again. They moved their arms in tight circles, then stretched them high overhead, leaning to one side and another in unison.

Occasionally, the spell of watching the morning routine was broken by horns and city noise from the street just outside the high walls that surround the school. Mostly, though, we just heard what was directly below us. Music poured in over the speakers, alternating between soaring, patriotic-sounding recordings and songs that many Westerners would recognize. Sarah was able to identify one tune from “The Sound of Music.” I knew another by its melody—I can still hum it—though I can’t name it.

‘Adjust Your Breath … Relax’

The courtyard included several basketball courts and areas for playing soccer. Its walls were decorated with several large signs, which Flora translated. “Cooperation,” one said, alongside “Interaction,” “Civilization,” and “Self-Discipline.” Farther along the wall: “Say Goodbye to Bad Habits.” Then: “Good Health, Good Study, Good Work.”

Flora has proved to be a skilled translator, but some Chinese expressions, she conceded, simply do not translate well into English. One of the schoolyard signs, for instance, said something like “Shake Hands with the Basketball.” It perplexed even her.

Eventually, the morning exercises became more intense as students began doing jumping jacks to a “one-two” series of commands. Then they went through what appeared to be various martial-arts moves, sharp and efficient.

After the more vigorous exercises were completed, the pace of the morning routine slowed, and the voice over the loudspeaker seemed quieter. “Adjust your breath,” the adult male voice told the students. “Relax.”

Not long after those commands, the students were dismissed. They dispersed with a clamor, some jogging back toward the academic buildings, others lagging a bit, laughing and talking.

Our hosts arrived, and the interviews began. As we went to work, new groups of students entered the courtyard, going through the same exercises as those we had just been watching.

Throughout the morning, I could hear them, even with the window closed. After a while, it became as natural as the background noise you’d hear at an American school such as a bell ringing to start a new period or sneakers squeaking on a gym floor.

The voice on the loudspeaker outside in the courtyard called out, and the students responded back, several hundred strong.

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Challenging the Stigma: Emotions and STEM
STEM isn't just equations and logic. Join this webinar and discover how emotions fuel innovation, creativity, & problem-solving in STEM!
Content provided by Project Lead The Way

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

International England Pushes for Cellphone Bans in Schools. Could the U.S. Be Next?
England is the latest country seeking to keep cellphones out of class.
3 min read
Tight crop photo of a student looking at their cellphone during class. The background is blurred, but shows students wearing uniforms.
E+
International Photos PHOTOS: Take a Round-the-World Tour of the Return to School
Here's what back to school looks like in classrooms around the globe.
1 min read
A teacher gives a lesson on the first day of school at a cadet lyceum in Kyiv, Ukraine on Sept. 4, 2023.
Young cadets sing the national anthem during a ceremony on the first day of school at a cadet lyceum in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sept. 4, 2023.
Efrem Lukatsky/AP
International Opinion School Reform Is Tough All Over, Not Just in the U.S.
Even though some reforms produce evidence of student success, that often isn't enough to overcome political hurdles.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
International In Their Own Words What a Teachers' Union Leader Saw in Ukraine
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was in the country just after widespread air strikes from Russia.
4 min read
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten prepares to cross the border into Ukraine on Oct. 10.
Randi Weingarten visited Ukraine on Oct. 10—the day Russian missiles slammed into Lviv, Kyiv, and other cities.
Courtesy of AFT