Sunday, May 5, 2013

Broken Fact: Fu Ping's Fractions Myth

The Original Story:
On Pages 62-63 of Bend, Not Break, Fu Ping recalls that she did not know the concept of fractions while attending a college math class:
Calculus class was mandatory. I could follow most subjects if professors taught them from the beginning, but in this course, a great deal of mathematical knowledge was presumed. I had learned some math in an unstructured way throughout the years -- from my older siblings in Shanghai, Nanjing Mother, older children at NUAA, counting money to manage my household, and doing calculations while working at factories during my teenage years. But when the professor put fractions on the chalkboard, I stared blankly at the strange notation, which I had not seen before. I stopped him after class.
I placed my index finger on a fraction. "That. What does it mean when you put one number, then a slash, then another number under it?" 
"You don't know fractions?" he asked, squinting his eyes at me.
I went to the city library and started thumbing through math textbooks. I didn't find fractions in the high school math book, nor did I find them in the middle school texts. Finally I found them in the second-grade math textbook. Even high school math was too advanced for me. I ended up checking out the entire math curriculum from first grade on. I knew how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. But other than that, some basic concepts such as fractions, long division, square roots, and logarithms were unfamiliar to me.
In her earlier book Drifting Bottle, Fu Ping also described her difficulty with math in a Partial Differentiation Equations class. However, she did not specify the problem was with fractions.

The Changing Story:
In an interview on the John Batchelor Show on March 19, 2013, Fu Ping appeared to try to modify and justify her story:
As to computer science, I wrote this thing about fractions, it wasn't like I didn't know anything, I was trying to show the knowledge gap. When you don't have a formal education, you cannot pick up those things. It's just pieces here and there. I was working in a factory. I study from workers and farmers. I actually picked up some academic information here and there. What I found when I came to United States is that I have a lot of knowledge gap. Some thing everybody thinks they know but I didn't. Then there are some things I just know. Sometimes I feel I am quite smart, I feel like I am the most stupid person in the room because I didn't know what people are talking about. This fraction is just one example of it even though I may know some more advanced math. It is this particular thing that 3 over 5 that I didn't know. I just didn't study it because I wasn't in school in the 2nd or 3rd grades. So I skipped over those knowledge and then later it catch up on you. 
The Debunking:
Before you should ask, math textbooks in Chinese language use the same algebraic symbols as in the west: fractions are often represented by the number-slash-number notation. Fu Ping clearly indicated that her trouble was not with the notations but the whole concept of fractions, so much so that she had to go back to second-grade textbooks to "discover" it.

In 1977, when the college entrance exam was reinstated in China, Fu Ping made a big deal on how hard she studied to pass those exams. As a matter of fact, she had taken the exams twice, in 1977 and 1978, respectively. So she had plenty of time to study. Although she had chosen to take the "liberal arts" exams, it also included a mandatory math exam, which was only slightly less advanced compared to the same math exam on the "science and engineering" side.

For at least a year of preparing for exams including math, she wants us to believe that she had never come across fractions?

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