BEIJING – Zhang Xinyu meticulously completes her eye exercises twice daily. Her teacher tells her they will help keep her eyesight sharp. At age 12, Xinyu has already been wearing glasses for two years.
For 49 years, the Chinese Education Ministry has required students to exercise their eyes in the name of the Communist Revolution and to combat myopia, or short-sightedness.
The prevalence of myopia, however, is skyrocketing. An estimated 80 to 90 percent of Chinese are short-sighted by the end of high school – triple the U.S. rate. Few Chinese questioned the effectiveness of the eye exercises over the past five decades – until a recent post challenging the exercises was published earlier this summer on Sina Weibo, China’s widely popular answer to Twitter.
“China has had eye exercises for 49 years,” posted a microblooger under the alias “Live from Shanghai.” “Of all the countries in the world, only China uses these eye exercises. The eye exercises are no good for people’s vision. Today, more than 360 million Chinese teenagers have myopia, the second largest percentage in the world.”
Watch an educational video about the eye exercises distributed by China's Ministry of Health in 2009.
The post ignited a firestorm online. Within a day, the post was re-tweeted more than 10,000 times and had received 1.5 million comments on Sina Weibo.
What are Chinese eye exercises?
All schools in China require students to do the exercises daily, playing familiar music over loud speakers during the workout. The Education Ministry even organizes occasional competitions to reinforce the program.
This uniquely Chinese activity dates back to 1961, when the Beijing Education Bureau noticed a sharp increase in the rate of myopia and appointed a Chinese doctor to create exercises to stop the growing problem.
“The Beijing government must have taken this issue very seriously,” said Yan Yirou, a retired employee from the Beijing Education Bureau who worked closely on developing the eye exercises. “There were only three people in charge of students’ health, and two were sent out to handle the project.”
It took two years to develop the exercises. Chinese students have been performing them ever since, except during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when schools were often closed.
Are they effective?
“For the Communist Revolution, let’s protect eye sight and prevent short-sightedness,” was the explanation school children received for the exercises until recently.
The Chinese Education Ministry cannot provide a scientific rationale for this practice. Under pressure from netizens following the recent Weibo post, the ministry told the Oriental Morning Post, “We’ll ask the experts and make an announcement as soon as possible.”
Ministry officials declined an interview request from NBC News to explain the benefits of the exercises.
Zhu Tianyu, a Beijing local in his 40s, admitted his doubts about the exercises. “I do not know whether they help or not. My eyesight is awful, but I never took the eye exercises seriously.”
His wife, Du Yu, disagrees. “It works,” she said. “I still do them now. Every time I exercise, I feel my eyes are more relaxed.”
Not everyone is convinced.
“It’s difficult for me to say whether they are good or not. But even if they are, their advantages are not apparent,” Xu Yujing, who's been a high school teacher for more than 25 years, told NBC. “Students do not know the pressure points… Everyone does it for the sake of inspection.”
Ian Morgan, a visiting scholar at Zhongshan Ophthalmic Center in Guangzhou, is even more skeptical of the Chinese routine.
“I think it is pretty obvious that Chinese eye exercises do not prevent myopia,” Morgan said. “There is no scientific evidence that they do anything useful at all.”
There is broad consensus that China's hyper-competitive education system is a prime cause of the prevalence of myopia.
“The Chinese believe that exams and the Gaokao [the Chinese college entrance exam] decide a student’s future,” said Yan Yirou, the retired Education Bureau employee. “The eyesight problem is obviously from the heavy school work. In my survey for the Education Ministry, I found myopia rates were the lowest during the Cultural Revolution because no one was studying."
Chinese school children's excessive workloads have only gotten worse with time and are widely believed to be contributing to the problem.
“When I became a teacher in 1986, only one third of students were short-sighted,” said Xu, the longtime teacher. “Today, most students in my class are.”
Pressure for students to study is intense – especially since a student’s Gaokao score can largely dictate his or her future career path.
Despite the prevalence of myopia and the flawed eye exercises, there appears to be no solution in sight.
“It’s unlikely that either the Chinese education system or the eye exercises will change anytime soon,” said Zhang Xin, chairman of the Beijing Education Association Students' Health Division.
Some recent research has shown that children who spend more time outside during daylight hours do not become short-sighted, even if they study a lot. But getting children outside is difficult when the pressure to study is so great.
Some Chinese parents are now taking their overworked children to so-called “eye exercise centers,” where children can rest while masseurs do the eye exercises for them.
At only $3.50 for one treatment, the cost seems like a bargain way to combat short-sightedness for the glory of the Communist Revolution.
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