What It’s Like Being Dyslexic in Exam-Obsessed China

Dyslexia among young children is often swept under the carpet.
Koh Ewe
translated by Koh Ewe
dyslexia, children, china, intense, education, system, documentary
Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

For most frolicsome children, homework is already an unrelenting source of annoyance. But when any kind of writing consistently reads more like scrambled strokes than meaningful words, it spells trouble in the screeching pressure cooker that is the Chinese education system.

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that is estimated to affect between five to 10 percent of people. While children with dyslexia are often just as intelligent as other children, their reading ability tends to trail behind their peers at school. Even as people awaken to the need for rethinking contemporary education systems and realizing the actual practical things we should have learned in school, narrowly defined measures of academic excellence — determined by blanket test standardization — prevail in most societies. This predicament rings especially palpable in China, where cut-throat educational competition and toxic workplace culture are deemed as everyday pressures.


In a society as grades-obsessed as China, public awareness of dyslexia is sorely lacking. Dyslexic children are often misunderstood, seen as lazy or just not smart enough. The stigma surrounding dyslexia has frustrated parents, teachers, and dyslexic children themselves.

In the three-part documentary The Chosen One, we meet Xiaoxiao, an exuberant young boy who charms his way into the hearts of his peers and audiences with his sociable personality. However, despite being in the fifth grade, he is still unable to write a lot of the Chinese characters typically taught in lower grades.

dyslexia, china, education, gaokao, chinese writing, learning, school

Xiaoxiao. Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

When it was revealed that the source of Xiaoxiao’s academic woes was dyslexia, his struggle morphed into his family’s collective nightmare. At one point, boiling tensions between Xiaoxiao’s parents over their son’s education even caused the couple to contemplate divorce.

In stark contrast with Xiaoxiao’s faltering academic performance is his superb emotional intelligence. 

“Xiaoxiao has extraordinary socializing skills,” observed Li Ruihua, one of the documentary’s directors. “He is clear about utilizing his strength, so he maintains good social relations with his classmates as a form of self-protection, to avoid being discriminated by his peers in school.”

Meanwhile, Qunxiao, a fifth grade student in Jinzhong City, Shanxi Province, tries to overcome the dyslexia by studying even harder.

“He expects himself to overcome his dyslexia,” Li and co-director Fan Qipeng said. “Compared to other kids his age, he has much higher expectations of himself and is always up for a challenge.”


While Qunxiao’s parents never had to supervise him with his homework, he has to spend a lot more time, compared to his peers, completing school assignments.

dyslexia, china, education, gaokao, chinese writing, learning, school

Qunxiao. Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

Then there’s Ruoxi, a fifth grade student in Hebei Province. While her elder sister goes to a top school with stellar results, Ruoxi has long struggled with school and has never won any academic awards. Even in her extracurricular art class, she is often neglected by the teacher. No longer able to bear with the hurt caused by misunderstanding, Ruoxi was forced to transfer schools. But her learning difficulties were not solved by the move and her mother fell seriously ill. Despite these challenges, Ruoxi remains incredibly resilient.

dyslexia, china, education, gaokao, chinese writing, learning, school

Ruoxi. Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

The idea of documenting the journeys of dyslexic children came to Li and Fan in 2017, when they interacted with teachers who specialized in dyslexia research.

“We realized that awareness of dyslexia is lacking in China. A lot of children with similar problems face stigmatization and prejudice from society,” Li said. “In 2017, we decided to make a documentary to raise public awareness of dyslexia.”

According to Fan, the emphasis on “elite education” in China is a big reason why dyslexic children are often not given sufficient help to guide them in learning. The gaokao, a standardized national college placement examination for high school students across the country, is the prime example of such a narrow definition of excellence. Known for its rigorous demands and ultra-competitiveness, the preparation for gaokao is often a source of nerve-racking pressure for Chinese high school students and their parents.


While the current system allows talented individuals to overcome social stratification by doing well in school tests, the limitations of a grades-driven education system are exposed when it comes to students with dyslexia.

“It is very unfair and harmful to measure children with their academic scores. This documentary raises the question of whether there is a better way of education to supplement the current education system, to cater to children with special needs. I think this is what Chinese education needs to address in the future,” said Fan.

dyslexia, china, education, gaokao, chinese writing, learning, school

Ruoxi. Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

According to Fan, the title of the documentary spotlights the idea that “each child is a unique entity.” In a society where educational success is traditionally measured by academic accolades, dyslexic children in China, and their parents, have to grapple with rigid social expectations and doubts about their value. The Chosen One captures the adjustments that these parents have to make, recalibrating their mindsets about their children’s educational journeys.

“The parents may put emphasis on the steady improvement of their children’s grades, but that’s not their sole focus. That’s simply their way of encouraging the children,” said Fan. “More importantly, they are letting their children redefine the true meaning of education.”

Filmed over three years, The Chosen One captures the confusion and anxieties of parents as they journey with their children into the unfamiliar territory of dyslexia, at the same time striving to protect their children’s mental well-being, and seeking balance in complex dilemmas that arise on this journey.

In partnership with Real Image Media Collection.