How smart are Chinese, really?

Seeing what the Chinese people have accomplished, a friend asked, “How smart are Chinese?” Conservative thinker and publisher Ron Unz says this: ‘blogger Anatoly Karlin has located the 2009 PISA scores for a dozen major provinces on the Chinese Internet, and published a lengthy post presenting and analyzing them. These scores are indeed truly remarkable, and completely confirm the apparent pattern of Lynn’s IQ samples, in which desperately poor East Asians tend to score at or above the levels of the most successful and well-educated Western populations.

PISA Test in China

PISA Test in China

The twelve provinces whose scores were released do include several of China’s most developed and best performing areas, including Beijing, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, as well as Shanghai, so the average is probably a bit above that for the country as a whole. But since the total population is at least well into the hundreds of millions, heavily rural as well as urban, the average PISA score of 520—corresponding to an IQ of 103—cannot be too dissimilar from the overall Chinese figure. And with China’s per capita GDP still only $3,700 and well over half the population still living in rural villages when the tests were conducted, these are absolutely astonishing results.

Shanghai PISA Scores

Shanghai PISA Scores

For example, the reported Chinese PISA scores are far above those of the United States and nearly every European country, many of which are almost totally urbanized and have incomes ten times that of China. I believe it is almost unimagineable that any non-East Asian population of rural villagers with annual incomes in the $1000 range would have tested IQs very close to 100. Just consider the generally dismal IQ scores we find in Southern Europe, the Balkans, Argentina, and Chile, where incomes are often ten or twenty times that level. We would certainly expect Chinese numbers to rise further as the country continues to develop, but my point is that East Asian IQs seem to possess a uniquely high floor compared with those of any other population group. Read more..

Thanks for persisting with this. You’ve saved me some future work and embarrassment.

The most exhaustive study of the subjectt, IQ and Global Inequality. By Professors Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen.

I’m unqualified to question their conclusions and, though it’s controversial and has been as criticized as all IQ comparative studies are, it’s currently the gold standard. Let’s hear the authors’ own description of how they approached the subject:

“We address the following questions. In Chapter 1, we review the major theories of economic growth that have been developed since this problem was considered by Charles de Montesquieu and Adam Smith in the eighteenth century and introduce the 192 countries of this study. In Chapter 2 we define and describe what is meant by intelligence. In Chapter 3, we summarize work showing that intelligence is a determinant of incomes and related phenomena (educational attainment and socio-economic status) among individuals in a number of countries; this is the basis of our theory that the intelligence of national populations is likely to be a determinant of per capita incomes among nations. Chapter 4 describes how we have collected and quantified the IQs of nations and presents new IQ data for a further 32 nations. This brings the total number of nations for which we have measured IQs to 113. In addition, national IQs are estimated for 79 other countries so that we have IQs for all countries with populations of more than 40,000. In Chapter 5, five measures of the quality of human conditions and their composite index (QHC) are introduced as well as 12 alternative variables that measure human conditions from different perspectives. In Chapter 6, the hypothesis on the positive relationship between national IQ and the quality of human conditions is tested by empirical evidence on PPP GNI (Gross National Income at Purchasing Power Parity) per capita in 2002, adult literacy rate in 2002, tertiary enrollment ratio, life expectancy at birth in 2002, and the level of democratization in 2002. Chapter 7 focuses on the relationship between national IQ and the composite index of the quality of human conditions (QHC) The results are analysed at the level of single countries on the basis of regression analyses. The results are checked by exploring the impact of latitude and annual mean temperature on human conditions through national IQ. Chapter 8 shows that national IQ is correlated also with many other variables that measure differences in human conditions from different perspectives. Twelve alternative variables are used in these analyses. Chapter 9 discusses the contributions of genetic and environmental determinants to national differences in intelligence and concludes that the racial identity of the population is the major factor. Chapter 10 considers the causal interactions between our most important measures. Chapter 11 (Criticisms and Rejoinders) discusses and responds to the criticisms made of our theory by reviewers. Finally, we summarize the results and conclusions of this study in Chapter 12 and discuss policy implications. Five appendices complement the text. In Appendix 1, the calculation of national IQs for 113 countries is presented and documented. Appendix 2 includes documented empirical data on the adult literacy rate in 2002, the gross enrollment ratio at the tertiary level of education, PPP GNI per capita in US dollars in 1002, and the life expectancy at birth in 2002 for the total group of 192 countries. Appendix 3 provides documented data on the measures of democracy, of the calculated values of the Index of the Quality of Human Conditions (QHC), and of latitude and annual mean temperature. Appendix 4 includes residuals of regression analyses of the five components of QHC on national IQ for single countries in the group of 192 countries. Appendix 5 provides estimated data on per capita GDP derived from Maddison (2003) for 1500 and 2000 in a group of 109 countries.”

Their conclusion is that the ‘East Asian cluster’ (Chinese, Japanese and Koreans) has the highest mean IQ at 105, followed by Europeans (100), Inuit-Eskimos (91), South East Asians (87), Native American Indians (87), Pacific Islanders (85), South Asians & North Africans (84), sub-Saharan Africans (67), Australian Aborigines (62), and Kalahari Bushmen & Congo Pygmies (54).

A test of this hypothesis, ‘National IQs calculated and validated for 108 Nations’,  shows China at 105 and the US at 98.

If you observe the behavior of China and the US – as representatives of their clusters – over the past 50 years I believe you’ll find the in-life evidence of intelligence as compelling as the results of the paper tests. Smarter is as smarter does, and the Chinese do smarter things more often and dumber things less frequently than the US.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” More..

Genetics of IQ: Wired Magazine: IQ remains by far the most powerful predictor of the life outcomes that people care most about in the modern world. Tell me your IQ and I can make a decently accurate prediction of your occupational attainment, how many kids you’ll have, your chances of being arrested for a crime, even how long you’ll live. Children tend to fall within a spread of 13 IQ points above and below the average IQ of their parents. But sometimes the apple can fall twice as far from the tree—that is, two parents with 100 IQs producing a child with an IQ of 126. Hsu puts the chance of such a positive outlier at around 2 or 3 percent, and it depends mostly on which sperm meets which egg. More…

The separation between ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’ has been an integral part of the study design since the first thought leader assessment: the assessment should not be of those who have an influence based on the power of their position but rather those who influence humanity through their thoughts. However, there is a serious argument why this separation should be waived in the case of China: there is a deep-rooted notion there that it is the role of the best minds to get actively involved in the state for the good of the people.The most well-known expression of this notion is the traditional appreciation of the career as civil servant: over long periods of Chinese history, it has been the dream of all talented adolescents to pass the annual entrance exam to become a civil servant.  More..

Assuming a normal distribution, there are only about 10,000 people in the US who perform at +4SD and a similar number in Europe, so this is quite a select population (roughly, the top few hundred high school seniors each year in the US). If you extrapolate the NE Asian numbers to the 1.3 billion population of China you get something like 300,000 individuals at this level, which is pretty overwhelming. . The USA produces 9 standouts – kids with IQs above 160 – every year. China turns out 270. You can check IQ distributions on this chart…More from physicist Steve Hsu.. 

Dimitriy V. Masterov explains Steve Hsu’s calculations: ‘Steve Hsu, above, is using the augmented 68–95–99.7 rule to calculate what fraction of the population lies within 4 standard deviations of the mean, assuming IQ has a normal distribution. Given how these tests are constructed, the mean IQ is around 100 with standard deviation of 15. Standard deviation is a standard measure of spread for data (denoted by the Greek letter σσ). If it is small, everyone’s score will be clustered tightly around 100. If it is large, scores will be more dispersed. Using the Wiki table linked above, we can see that about 0.999936657516334 of the population will have IQ between 100415=4010041540 and 100+415=160100415160 (plus or minus 4 standard deviations from the mean). That leaves


with scores below 40 and above 160.

We only care about geniuses, so that gets cut in half to 0.000031670.00003167 (since the distribution is assumed to be symmetric). If the US has a population of 322 million, that gives us 0.5(10.999936657516334)322,000,000=10,1980.510.99993665751633432200000010198 geniuses.

To get the Chinese numbers, he’s assuming that they have the same standard deviation, but a mean that is 0.50.5 standard deviations higher (so 107.5107.5). This is grounded in the PISA tests results, which are more of a scholastic achievement test rather than a test of IQ. The assumption is that achievement score distribution looks like the IQ distribution.

Assuming this is the case, this means that to make it over 160, you only need (160-107.5)/15=3.5 standard deviations instead of 4. Using the 3.5 σσ row in the Wiki table, this gives


geniuses, which is fairly close to Steve Hsu’s estimate.

The effect of environment on the IQ of young children can be significant, particularly for children living in poverty. As the influence of poverty decreases, the importance of environmental conditions as a limiting factor on intelligence also decreases. By addressing the environmental issues created by poverty, it may be possible to weaken the link between low socioeconomic status and poor student performance on IQ (and other) tests. More..

I’ve met famous scientists and known billionaires but only one genius. It’s a humbling experience that I recommend to everyone. It got me thinking about genius, its uses, abuses and unfairness. IQ Percentile and Rarity Chart 

Out of 800,000 babies one will be this kind of genius. It’s what happens next that’s interesting. 200,000 of them will be born into poverty, whose intelligence-stunting stunting effects will commence before they’re weaned. The others will make themselves known before they’re ten.  The population of USA for 2012 was about 313,221,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The population of China for 2011 was about 1,370,537,000. Taking the lowest rarity of 1/161 from above then there are about 1,370,537,000/161 = about 8,513,000 geniuses in China.

The average IQ of a science PhD is roughly 130, and individuals with IQs above that constitute a tiny fraction of all scientists. I once asked a famous theorist what fraction of the population was capable of doing good work in our field. He had already thought about this question (as later became clear), and immediately answered: 1 in 100,000. Steve Hsu, VP for Research and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Michigan State University, Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad.

Ron Unz had also found this East Asian IQ robustness in his earlier research on global ethnic IQs. He called it The East Asian Exception Hypothesis and posited The East Asian Exception to Socio-Economic IQ Influences.

Switzerland was 50 times richer than China in terms of real purchasing power. The Chinese were also more poorly nourished and carried a heavier disease burden. In addition, the average number of years of schooling in Switzerland was more than twice as high as in China. Nevertheless, the Chinese registered slightly higher IQs. More..

Being the parent of a gifted child turned out to be more of a headache for Cathlien Yim Yeung Shui-chun when her son’s school began demanding better academic results. Yim’s son, Carter, was found to have a high IQ for a Primary One pupil, prompting the local elite school he used to attend to pressure even Yim herself to get involved in the boy’s studies. ‘The class teacher called me 20 times in a month, asking why I couldn’t [help my son] study,’ she said. The pressure became so great – with Carter having to complete up to 12 exercise books for each subject – that it caused the child to hallucinate and undergo psychiatric treatment. The nightmare ended after three months when Yim transferred her son to an international school, where he has studied since. Carter, now 12, now enjoys going to school in a less choking environment. ‘Teachers now encourage me when I can’t do something instead of punishing me,’ he said. More..

The school situation for high-potential students from low income and minority backgrounds is especially troublesome.  Data from every state reveal large “excellence gaps,” the gaps at the top achievement levels between minority and white students and between low-income and more advantaged students.  These gaps indicate a failure to identify high-ability students of color and from disadvantaged circumstances and support them to reach the high levels of achievement of which they are capable.  These gaps also suggest there is a tremendous amount of talent being squandered. For those from families who can afford it, many gifted students attend private schools, attend weekend and/or summer enrichment programs, or have private tutors to compensate for what the schools fail to provide.  Clearly, we can and must do better. More..

Oxford-bound boy genius is ‘nothing special’ in China.  “We turn out dozens of people like that, year after year after year,” said Li Yunfang, a teacher at the school in the financial district, about a mile from Tiananmen Square, where Yinan was a pupil for two years. “Scoring 98 per cent is normal. Actually, lots of students only ever get 100 per cent.” More..

Written by Godfree
Visiting China and studying it since 1967. Interested in its culture, politics, education and economy.