Do you want your kid to grow up to be a wolf or a lamb?
That used to be an easy question because in Chinese culture, as in many others, the wolf symbolizes aggressiveness and cruelty while the lamb stands for obedience and geniality.
But an elementary school in Shenzhen recently erected a statue of a pack of wolves on its campus. The message is simple: What lies ahead is an unknown world, fraught with challenges and crisis. Wolves have the strength and audacity to brave it all.
At least that is the explanation by Liu Senli, principal of Xuefu Elementary School at Nanshan District, Shenzhen, where the statue stands.
Principal Liu contends that the "lamb" represents the goal of "Eastern education" that children should be meek and receptive to social conventions, while in the West kids are trained to be "wolves," playing up their individuality and transcending social restrictions.
"In a world of survival of the fittest, we have done a careful study of the qualities of the wolf and use it to teach our children to be strong," says Liu.
Chen Shiying used to have a negative impression of the wolf because all idioms associated with the carnivorous mammal are pretty bad. "But now I feel that, given the cutthroat reality, frailty and subordination will not lead you anywhere. Only the strong survive," says the elementary student.
But some experts have a different opinion. "Both wolf and lamb have multifaceted attributes," writes Xu Feng, a media commentator. "We should not encourage docility or submissiveness, but what is so wrong with being genteel in a civilized society?"
Xu says it is simplistic to just reverse the traditional implications of the two animals. And they can hardly reflect the full character spectrum of people in either Asia or the West.
"More importantly, if you look at history, those who came out ahead by being brassy or bellicose tend to crumble quickly," he says.
Xu further suggests that, instead of the wolf as the object to emulate, our schools should use "human nature" as the character to develop. "A human being can be kind yet competitive," he reasons.
As a matter of fact, the transformation of the "wolf" as a public symbol started a decade and half ago when a Taiwanese pop singer by the name of Chyi Chin blanketed the mainland with his signature song "A Wolf from the North." The animal took on an aloof and temperamental image.
After that, more and more pop stars have tried the wolf approach and succeeded. Howling is used extensively in pop singing as the macho trademark. One of the singers has even adopted a stage name: Old Wolf.
The subversion of Chinese tradition is also reflected in the revisionist tampering with a 1,000-year-old allegory. Titled "Kong Rong and A Pear," the story has been fed to pre-schoolers for centuries and is indelibly etched in the national imagination as the ultimate hallmark of altruism.
Four-year-old Kong Rong was the second youngest of six sons. When his father asked him to pick a pear from a plate, he chose the smallest, reasoning that his elder brothers and the youngest brother should have the bigger ones.
When a Chinese American expert on education read this parable to her 5-year-old, the kid did not see it as an epiphany of virtue, as children in China are supposed to feel. Instead, he responded: "How stupid of Kong. I would have picked the biggest pear."
The educator, named Li, got a shock and a revelation. Ancient style of modesty will no longer work in this world where self-protection demands that one consider self-interest above else, she concluded.
Contemporary Chinese children no longer draw the uniform conclusion their predecessors did from this parable. When a bunch of kids were asked to interpret the story, some said Kong Rong probably never liked pears anyway. Others said the story was made up by people who want to sell substandard products to consumers and quash their will to protect their rights.
The most unnerving interpretation: Kong Rong was a hypocrite who tried to curry favour from his dad by acting self-effacing. It looks like times have truly changed.