A certain kind of news story appears in the Chinese media every so often: a junior middle school student hung herself, a university student threw sulfuric acid at some zoo animals, a biotechnology student murdered his classmates. These media stories are extreme and sensational indeed. But they also do important cultural work. In the context of education reform in late socialist China, the collective interpretation of horror stories provides a moral arena in which truths about how to raise and educate children correctly are produced and naturalized. They constitute negative models, usually of “bad parenting,” in contrast to stories about children who, despite limitations or difficulties, manage to ascend to great heights thanks to “good parenting.” This article examines two well-known public stories that circulated in the early 2000s in relation to the reform movement known as suzhi jiaoyu gaige, which aims to cultivate well-rounded individuals with a spirit of innovation. The first story I will analyze concerns a teenager, an achieving student, who murdered his own mother. The second concerns a father, a factory worker, who transformed his disabled daughter into a genius child. While starkly opposite in content, one displaying errors to avoid, the other wisdom to emulate, I argue that these public stories provide the hinge on which education reform turns. Horror and exemplary stories provoke thought and make moral arguments for attending to the inner subjectivity of children, rendering the ideals of suzhi jiaoyu self-evident and common sense.

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