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17-year-old fashion student beats hundreds of competitors from top universities in a global mathematics competition
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17-year-old fashion student beats hundreds of competitors from top universities in a global mathematics competition

A math genius shows how China's competitive education system can crush young talent, rather than cultivate it (and when talent is cultivated it happens by accident and against all odds)

A 17-year-old self-taught mathematics enthusiast from a small city in Jiangsu province has come twelfth in the preliminary round of the Alibaba Global Mathematics Competition (阿里巴巴全球数学竞赛).

No, I hadn’t heard of this competition either! It’s run every year by Alibaba’s DAMO Academy (达摩院). Now in its sixth year, the competition was founded by Jack Ma in 2017. It is open to competitors from around the world, and unlike other mathemtics competitions, does not restrict which schools entrants study at.

Participants compete in different “tracks” of mathematics, including algebra, geometry, and applied maths. 

This year, competitors are also allowed to use AI. According to the rules, participants start training their AI models on registration, and submit them before the competition begins.

Over 800 competitors from around the world qualified for the finals of the 2024 competition, which will be held on June 22 (today).

With an average age of 22, most finalists have studied mathematics at top international universities including MIT, and Cambridge University, as well as China’s top institutions such as Peking University, and Tsinghua. 

The surprise finalist this year is Jiāng Píng 姜萍, a fashion design student at the Lianshui Vocational School in Jiangsu (涟水中等专业学校). 

Vocational schools are looked down on in China.

Under its highly competitive education system, a student like Jiang Ping secures a place in a high school based their performance in the intense Zhongkao exams (中考). Their overall score (总分数), aggregated across all subjects, is what schools judge students by.

High schools are split into two kinds in China: "general high schools" (普高), and “vocational schools” (中专), which are also known as 职业学校. Some provinces, such as Jiangsu, have strict quotas for the number of students which can enter general and vocational schools. This is usually based on a 50-50 split. 

Parents are reluctant for their children to attend vocational schools, because the perception is the quality of education is lower. The reality is, if a child does not get into a good “general” high school, and instead is accepted into a vocational school, their chances of going on to a good university through the Gaokao exams is virtually impossible. 

But, many say Jiang Ping, and her success in the maths competition, is ironically an accidental product of China’s strict exam system.

Since junior high school, Jiang Ping knew she had an exceptional ability with numbers. But her parents and teachers, knowing the requirements of the exam system, reminded her not to be overly focused on mathematics. Jiang didn't take that advice, and in the end, her overall Zhongkao scores were poor. Her score of 621 points meant she was unable to enter a top high school, so she opted for the Lianshui Vocational School to study fashion instead.

However, vocational schools put much less pressure on students. In Lianshui, Jiang Ping only has two exams each semester, with no requirement to study subjects unrelated to her major, unless she wants to pursue her own academic interests, in her case, complex further maths.

During the first monthly exam at this school, her exceptional maths scores caught the attention of a teacher at the school, Wang Runqiu 王闰秋, who himself had faced disappointment in his teaching career having not been accepted for a mathematics teaching post at Zhejiang University. 

Seeing her talent, Wang coached Jiang, setting text books (some in English) for her to work on in her spare time. After two years, Wang suggested the young mathematician should take part in the Alibaba competition, for the first time in 2023, and again this year, as a way to challenge and prove her abilities. 

The only reason a student like Jiang Ping could attend is because Alibaba intentionally does not restrict entrants to just students of top universities.

With a score of 93 in the preliminary round in this year’s competition, Jiang not only beat competitors from top universities, she was also the only girl in the top 30. 

She stood out from the crowd in this competition and caught the attention of some renowned universities, who have extended olive branches to her.

It will surely open up another possibility for Jiang very soon.

通过一次竞赛脱颖而出,据说已经有一些高等学府注意到了她,并向她伸出了橄榄枝,相信不久她将会开启人生的另一种可能。[1]

Her success has brought the failings of China's education system back into the headlines in China.

If she had got into a general high school, she would have had to spend most of her time studying other subjects, in which she did not excel, due to the focus on overall gaokao exam scores required to enter top universities. 

Some prominent intellectuals are also wading in to the debate:

Recently, renowned scholar Zheng Yongnian stated in an interview that the current university curriculum is largely disconnected from real life and practically useless.

As a result, the longer students stay in university, the less useful they become to society.

前段时间,知名学者郑永年在接受采访时也表示,现在的大学学的东西和社会严重脱节,学无所用,所以导致,大学生在校的时间越长,对社会越没用了。[1]

And many of China's top companies are funding their own schools and universities to train the talent they need, that they otherwise cannot find from the education system in China.

More and more industry leaders have realised that if they can't recruit suitable candidates, they should train the talent themselves.

Cao Dewang, the founder of Fuyao Group, a top automotive safety glass manufacturer, has established Fuyao University of Science and Technology, which will soon open.

越来越多的大佬们已经意识到了,招不到合适的人,那就直接自己培养吧。汽车安全玻璃巨头福耀集团创始人曹德旺,创办的福耀科技大学也将投入使用。[1]

So, that's what we're exploring this week!

  • And if you want to read more about the gaokao pressures students in China face, and how wearing purple underpants helps, read this.


Favourite Five

脱颖而出.jpg
Artwork by Derek Zheng for RealTime Mandarin

1. 破天荒 pò tiān huāng

unprecedented, for the first time

江苏涟水中专能破天荒地排到清华前面,不是因为中专厉害,而是因为姜萍厉害 - It's unprecedented that Jiangsu Lianshui Vocational School ranks ahead of Tsinghua University. This is not because the vocational school is excellent, but because Jiang Ping is outstanding. [4]

2. 唯分数 wéi fēn shù

assessing students based on scores only

进行强基计划招生、培养改革,综合素质评价录取改革,以破除唯分数评价 - We need to implement the Strong Foundation Program and carry out reforms in admissions, training, and comprehensive quality evaluation to change the assessment system that is based on scores only. [2] 

  • More: The Strong Foundation Program, or the Pilot Reform Program for Basic Disciplines Admissions (基础学科招生改革试点) in full, was launched in 2020 as part of the general reform of college admissions. The idea is to select students who are committed to, or have the skills to contribute to national strategic needs, and who either have excellent overall qualities or are outstanding in basic disciplines such as mathematics, or the sciences. However, this is still a pilot, and commentary around this story suggests that it has limited impact. 

  • Related: 

    • 总分模式 zǒng fēn mó shì - assessment based on total scores

    • 普职分流 pǔ zhí fēn liú - general-vocational school streaming

    • 中考五五分流 Zhōngkǎo wǔwǔ fēn liú - after the high school entrance examination (中考), students are split into two groups: 50% go to general academic high schools and 50% go to vocational schools.

3. 脱颖而出 tuō yǐng ér chū

stand out, emerge as a talent

通过一次竞赛脱颖而出 - She stood out from the crowd in this competition.  [1] 

4. 格格不入 gé gé bú rù

incompatible, out of place

17岁的姜萍看起来与他们格格不入——她在江苏淮安涟水县的一所中专学服装设计 - The 17-year-old Jiang Ping seemed out of place. Unlike other competitors, she is studying fashion design at a vocational school in Lianshui, Huai'an, Jiangsu. [3]

  • Note: here this idiom has a similar meaning to the idiom “outstanding” or “different” (与众不同).

5. 不拘一格 bù jū yì gé

unconventional, open minded

这是真正意义的不拘一格,如果换个主办方,姜萍可能连报名资格都没有 - This is true open-mindedness. If it were another organiser, Jiang Ping might not even qualify for the competition. [3]

  • More: Zoe discusses this idiom in more detail in the member podcast.

  • Related:

    • 破格 pò gé – break the norm


Consuming the Conversation

Image

Useful words

6. 状元 zhuàng yuan

top scorer, champion

江苏省的高考理科状元张天一,排在了第20名 - Zhang Tianyi, the top science scorer in the Jiangsu province Gaokao exams, ranks 20. [1]

7. 偏科 piān kē

excel in one subject while not doing well in others

家长和老师也多次提醒她,不要偏科,高考不是只考数学 - Her parents and teachers repeatedly reminded her not to be too focussed on one subject, as the college entrance exam doesn't only test mathematics. [1]

8. 伯乐 bó lè

talent scout, mentor who discovers and appreciates one's talent

并不是每个人都会像姜萍一样幸运,努力+兴趣+天赋+伯乐缺一不可 - Not everyone will be as lucky as Jiang Ping. You need effort, interest, talent, and a mentor to be like her. [1]

9. 差生 chà shēng

poor student, underachiever

中职在现实中,还被视为低人一等、“差生”才接受的教育 - In reality, vocational education is still seen as inferior, something only for underachievers. [2]

10. 禀赋 bǐng fù

quality

那些让她脱颖而出的禀赋,或许正是我们寻觅已久的,关于“天才”的真相 - The qualities that made her stand out might be exactly the truth about "genius" that we have long been searching for. [3]

  • Related:

    • 天赋 tiān fù - talent, gift

11. 钻研 zuān yán

study intensively, delve into

数学有用、有趣、有难度,值得用一生的时间与精力去钻研 - Mathematics is useful, interesting, and challenging. It's worth devoting a lifetime to. [3]

Three character phrases

12. 求知欲 qiú zhī yù

thirst for knowledge, curiosity

真正支撑她通过竞技场的,是一场面向全民参赛者的数赛真正希望看到的天赋——纯粹的热爱和求知欲 - What got her through is the talent that an open math competition wants to see: pure passion, and a thirst for knowledge. [3]

13. 清一色 qīng yí sè

uniform, all the same

排在她后面的足足有800人,全是清一色的世界名校数学天才,硕博高材生 - There are as many as 800 people who ranked behind her. All of them are math geniuses from world-renowned universities or top master's and doctoral students. [4]

Idioms

14. 遥遥领先 yáo yáo lǐng xiān

far ahead, leading by a wide margin

数学成绩遥遥领先其他学生的她,引起了数学老师王闰秋的注意 - She caught the attention of Wang Runqiu, her math teacher, with her top math scores. [1] 

  • Note: This has become a popular internet slang phrase with a sarcastic tone. However, here it is the original meaning of the idiom.   

15. 心无旁骛 xīn wú páng wù

single-minded, undistracted

姜萍可以在最自由的环境里,心无旁骛地追求自己的兴趣 - Jiang Ping can pursue her interests freely and without any distraction. [1] 

  • Note: 骛 wù means "desire" in classical Chinese.

16. 阴差阳错 yīn chā yáng cuò

by a twist of fate, coincidentally

她阴差阳错地在这个学校遇到了自己的伯乐 - By a twist of fate, she met her mentor at this school. [1]

17. 寒窗苦读 hán chuāng kǔ dú

study diligently in seclusion, study hard

大部分孩子,在寒窗苦读了十几年后,找不到理想的工作这件事,可能会成为常态 - It might become a norm for most students that they can’t find a good job despite their years of hardwork at school. [1]

19. 赤手空拳 chì shǒu kōng quán

with bare hands

几乎一上来就赤手空拳地走入最高水准的数学竞技场 - She entered one of the most challenging math competitions with no formal training. [3]

20. 石破天惊 shí pò tiān jīng

astonishing, earth-shattering

面对石破天惊的名次,姜萍显得有些别扭和紧张 - Faced with the astonishing result, Jiang Ping appeared somewhat awkward and nervous. [3] 

  • Related

    • 举世瞩目 jǔ shì zhǔ mù - be the focus of the world 

    • 一战成名 yí zhàn chéng míng - rise to fame in one battle, become famous in one stroke

21. 抓耳挠腮 zhuā ěr náo sāi

scratch one's head and pull one's ears, be at a loss

当其他同学还在为试卷抓耳挠腮时,她不用费力就能考出好成绩 - While other classmates were scratching their heads over the questions, she effortlessly answered them all. [3]

Phrases

22. 被磨平棱角 bèi mó píng léng jiǎo

to have one's edges smoothed off, to lose one's personality

他们也将在现有的教育模式中,被磨平了棱角,失去对学习的兴趣 - They will also lose their personality and the interest in learning under the current education system. [1]

23. 英雄不问出处 yīng xióng bú wèn chū chù

it doesn’t matter where the hero comes from

正是阿里的英雄不问出处,才让这个世界从此少了一个平庸的服装设计师 - It's precisely because Alibaba doesn’t care about the background of the competitors that one mediocre fashion designer has now disappeared. [4] 

24. 时来天地皆同力,运去英雄不自由 shí lái tiān dì jiē tóng lì, yùn qù yīng xióng bú zì yóu

when the time is right, the world unites in one's favour; when luck runs out, even heroes are powerless

时来天地皆同力,运去英雄不自由。再说一遍,姜萍只有一个,只有励志效果,没有借鉴意义 - When the time is right, the world unites in one's favour; when luck runs out, even heroes are powerless. Let me say it again, there is only one Jiang Ping; her story is inspirational but not instructive. [4] 

  • Related: 天时地利人和 - "when the conditions are right", a well-known saying credited to Mencius. 


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