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Friday, January 8, 2010

Announcement of a New Book by Steve Koss

After five or six long years in the making, I am pleased finally to announce the availability of my new book: China, Heart and Soul. The book is a memoir about my experiences living and teaching in Suzhou, China (about fifty miles west of Shanghai) from 2001 to 2004, with an update through the summers of 2005 and 2006.

While my book is not solely about Chinese schools and their education system, a significant portion describes my edcuation-related experiences -- participating in weekly English Corners, addressing students in a college part of whose curriculum was offered via distance learning, teaching simple English to Buddhist monks, working as a full-time instructor in an undergraduate business program, and serving as a weekly guest teacher at two high schools (and introducing the teachers and students to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, The Simpsons and South Park, poetry slams, and Christmas carols). The story's broader context encompasses my learning process about Chinese life and culture and how they (and the physical city of Suzhou itself) are changing under the rapid, post-millennial advance of industrialization and globalization.

For centuries, education in mainland China revolved almost exclusively around the Confucian classics, heavy on memorization but at least providing opportunities of a sort for merit-based advancement through a series of local, provincial, and national exams that culminated with examinations before the emperor in Beijing's Forbidden City. To this day, the country's education system is still built around a national exam (this one for college admission) that is virtually the sole measure of students' worthiness for university study as well as the determinant of which college(s) they may attend. As a consequence of this testing regime, China's entire K-12 education system is shaped around preparation for this one-shot, three-day, eight-subject college exam.

China, Heart and Soul illustrates from my first-hand experiences how this NCLB-like obsession with standardized tests has perverted China's education system. One teacher (whom I cannot name) even relates in a moment of unusual candor over lunch just how damaging the system is to his/her students. Much of what that teacher said is consistent with the recent writings of Yong Zhao in his recently released Catching Up or Leading the Way, a book for which I will soon be posting a review on this site.

My overall objective in writing my book was to portray Chinese daily life as it is actually lived--to help dispel so many of the false perceptions Westerners have about China--and also to convey how it is changing at a breathtaking pace. The book's locale in Suzhou is particularly poignant, since that 2,500-year-old city occupies a special place in the hearts, minds, and cultural soul of Chinese people (including being long referred to in the West as "the Venice of the Orient" and in China as a "paradise on earth"). The city government has been struggling to preserve their rich heritage and many cultural sites even while bringing it full-speed into the twenty-first century.

For more information about the book, please visit my book website, The website provides links to or, or you can just click on the links here.

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