Fashion Faux Pas: A Chinese School’s Plan to Force Underachieving Kids to Wear Special Kerchiefs Draws Ire

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The Chinese Communist Party may not carry much ideological relevance these days, but millions of Chinese children still wear little red kerchiefs to elementary school. The trademark neckwear of the Young Pioneers—a mandatory Communist Youth League-sponsored program that teaches kids Party discipline—evokes the fighting spirit of revolutionaries who spilled their blood for the socialist cause.

But this month some kids in the northwestern Chinese city of Xi’an took to wearing green scarves instead. No, these weren’t youngsters who were committed to recycling or other ecologically friendly pursuits. Instead, the green scarves denoted kids who underperformed at school. (In China, red is considered a positive color and green often acts as its negative counterpoint.) China’s state-run English newspaper, the China Daily, elaborated:

The school decided to make children whose schoolwork and general behavior were not yet good enough to wear green scarves instead of the red scarf of the Chinese Young Pioneers. Parents whose children were given green scarves did not understand the reason behind the school’s measure and thought it was inappropriate to make some pupils wear green scarves. “The children still need their self-esteem even though they are very young, and they know the green scarf means something is not quite right,” said a mother surnamed Su, whose daughter was also given a green scarf.

The sartorial controversy galvanized the Chinese blogosphere, with many people criticizing the principal of the Xi’an Weiyang District First Experimental School for such a stark visual of the kids’ progress. Some online news sites printed pictures of kids wearing green scarves—with their faces digitized so their shame wouldn’t be broadcast to the world. On Oct. 19, China Daily reported that the deputy director of the provincial youth working committee had deemed the alternate hued scarves incompatible with Young Pioneer provisions. The same day, with a national frenzy ensuing, green had swiftly turned back to red. The Xi’an school announced on Wednesday that it had suspended its green-scarf policy.

But the debate raises a larger question. In a country concerned about its coddled “little emperors”—only children who are products of the country’s family-planning policy in urban areas—is there any merit to the traditional Confucian method of strict parenting? So far, the answer, at least among middle-class city dwellers, seems to be a firm no. The so-called Chinese style of tough love described in the American book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is, in fact, not how many Chinese parents want to raise their kids today. (In fact, that best-selling book by an Asian-American author tends to be sold in China as a foreign perspective on parenting, even as it’s marketed as an Asian approach in the U.S.) Instead, many Chinese yuppies are following a softer, gentler approach in which every child is considered a winner—and worthy of a red scarf.

Or perhaps deserving of no scarf at all. The Economic Observer, a Chinese weekly, published a commentary that decried kerchiefs both green and red:

It doesn’t matter if children wear a green or red scarf, both of them are relics of attitudes to education from the time when the Chinese were “subjects.” Over the past fifty years, China made the transition to a “society of citizens” from a “society of subjects.” However, its universities, schools and even kindergartens still employ an outdated way of cultivating “revolutionary successors” instead of qualified citizens of a modern society.