TV shows in China regularly feature jump rope competitions.
But it’s not just for entertainment. Skipping rope has become competitive for primary and middle school students all over the country.
This past summer, before Yolanda Cheng’s daughter started first grade in Shanghai, her new school sent out a notice: Incoming students must practice jump rope every day. The target for first graders is 100 times a minute.
“So, at the beginning, I thought, you force me to jump, I don’t like it,” she said. “If you don’t do it, your score in primary school will be like no pass; [my daughter] has to do that.”
In China, where classrooms can have upwards of 40 students, jump rope is a relatively inexpensive sport, and it doesn’t take up much space either, so it’s become a popular measure of a student's fitness. And it’s not just a requirement, it impacts your final grade. The ability to jump rope for 4 minutes straight is one of the physical fitness tests for Shanghai's high school entrance exam.
Cheng’s daughter is athletic — she has signed her up for ballet, swimming, traditional Chinese dance, tennis and soccer — but she could only jump rope 10 times in a row.
“My daughter at that time was very poor at rope jumping, so I [paid] attention to that,” she said.
They got to work. Cheng had her daughter jump rope for a minute every morning before breakfast.
Like many other parents around China, she took a video and uploaded it to an app called Jump Rope Every Day. The app counts the number of jumps with special sound effects like in an arcade game; kids vie for the top score.
A young girl in central Henan Province currently holds the record for most skips per minute — 278. In her video, she wears a determined look on her face as she jump ropes on a yoga mat in her family’s living room. You can barely see the rope as it flies through the air.
Most kids aren’t that fast. After school and on the weekends in parks around China, you’ll see kids jumping rope under the watchful eye of parents or grandparents.
Some parents sign their kids up for jump rope cram classes.
At JUMP, an afterschool jump rope center, teachers take students through stretches and exercises and then coach them on the finer points of skipping rope. The kids master all sorts of moves, even double dutch.
Lilian Zhang sent her son.
“We didn’t pay attention to jump rope before, so he could only jump three or four times,” she said. “His coordination isn’t so good, but I didn’t want it to affect his confidence level.”
Huang Hai Min, who works at the jump rope center, said that primary and middle schools throughout China have instituted jump rope targets that students have to reach.
“Parents bring their kids to the center because they want them to have a competitive edge,” she said.
The jump-roping requirement might sound silly, but education expert Lenora Chu said it highlights how China’s education system sorts people into categories. She’s the author of a book on China’s education system.
“It’s basically like climbing a ladder with a test at every rung of the ladder. So, they will prioritize what is on those tests. Now, if the Beijing government comes down to say, ‘We now think physical education and health is important and here’s how we’re going to measure it,’ then, parents in turn will value what they are told to prioritize.”
“It’s basically like climbing a ladder with a test at every rung of the ladder. So, they will prioritize what is on those tests,” she said. “Now, if the Beijing government comes down to say, ‘We now think physical education and health is important and here’s how we’re going to measure it,’ then, parents, in turn, will value what they are told to prioritize.”
Recent education reforms in China have shut down afterschool and weekend tutoring centers in China, but Chu said families are still looking for any way for their kids to get ahead.
“As long as those testing mechanisms are there — and they’re so critical and important — then, anything that they do is not going to take away that pressure,” she said.
But parent Cheng said she’s encouraged by the stronger emphasis on physical education.
“I always think in the future competition it’s not just your IQ, your academic performance, it is also how energetic you will be,” she said.
She said for all her annoyance at being forced to send videos of her kid skipping rope every day, it worked. After spending the summer cramming jump rope with her daughter, she saw an improvement.
“You know, she can jump 120 and even higher for a minute and she can jump on one foot and she was very happy at that,” she said.
And she added, recently, she went out and bought a jump rope for herself.