China’s Controversial 17-Year-Old Math Genius Has an Entire Country on Edge

A 17-year-old Chinese student from a rural vocational school who shocked her country by ranking 12th among 802 participants in an elite math contest is now facing accusations of cheating.

Math contests are a big deal in China, but it’s very rare for such competitions to capture the attention of an entire country like this year’s Alibaba Global Mathematics Competition. Organized by Alibaba’s DAMO Academy and the Alibaba Foundation, the contest is free to enter for math enthusiasts from around the world, but it is usually dominated by math majors from prestigious institutions such as Harvard, Oxford, and MIT. However, this year, something extraordinary happened. Not only was 17-year-old Jiang Ping the only girl in the top 30 after the first round of the competition, but she was also the only one whose studies didn’t focus on math. The unlikely math genius studies fashion design at a rural vocational school in Jiangsu Province, and only studies advanced mathematics as a hobby.


Jiang Ping’s story inspired the whole nation. A poor girl from rural China with a simple educational background whose exceptional intelligence and passion for mathematics helped her rank 12th among 802 math enthusiasts. Everyone loved it, and before long, news reporters and Chinese influencers flocked to the girl’s home village to learn more about her.

According to Jiang Ping’s parents, she had excelled at math since middle school, but because this was the only subject in which she seemed to take an interest, the rest of her grades were poor, and since her family couldn’t afford to spend money on preparing her for competitive admission exams at a prestigious school, her only option was a vocational school, or what many in China call an ‘educational dead-end’.

Jiang Ping’s probably would have never even dreamed of signing up for the Alibaba Global Mathematics Competition if not for her vocational school math teacher, Wang Runqiu, who had participated in the contest himself, but had never made it into the top 100. He allegedly saw the girl’s potential and introduced her to advanced mathematics. She studied the field alongside her fashion design curriculum, and when Wang told her about this free elite math competition, she decided to take her chances.


The public loved Jiang’s feel-good story of how her family had just applied for a sustenance allowance and how the 17-year-old student had to take a part-time job every summer to help her parents make ends meet. Her incredible tale was compared to that of the movie ‘Good Will Hunting’, in which a self-taught math genius working as a janitor at MIT can solve advanced problems. But then, things started going downhill…

On June 18, renowned math competition coach Zhao Bin, who had participated in the Alibaba math contest three times, making it to the finals on all three occasions, posted on WeChat that Jiang Ping’s incredible result in this year’s contest was 99.99% ‘fabricated’. He was so sure of his accusations that he promised to personally pay Jiang Ping’s tuition fees if she proved a true math genius and made it to university. Zhao’s post went viral and cast a shadow on the 17-year-old’s shining image. But it was only the beginning.

In his allegations, Zhao Bin referenced a video in which Jiang Ping wrote the solution to a math problem on a blackboard from a scratch paper. The math coach pointed out several issues with the 17-year-old’s solving process, including “the domain of definition was incorrect” and “the differentiation symbol is written in the wrong place,” which he claims suggests that she isn’t that familiar with math and she just copied the solution.


The very next day, a group of 39 other participants in the Alibaba Global Mathematics Competition launched a petition asking organizers to investigate Jiang Ping’s performance, referencing some of the issues cited by Zhao Bin, as well as the 17-year-old’s girl impeccable mastery of LaTex, a complex typesetting system for scientific documents. Her proficiency in LaTex contradicted her poor performance in the video of her solving a problem on the blackboard and raised questions about her result in the competition. The 39 petitioners asked organizers to submit the girl’s answer sheets for review by the finalists and to open a third-party investigation.

Peking University professor Yuan Xinyi posted a lengthy analysis in which he explains that a vocational school student who doesn’t even study math couldn’t possibly master LaTex to the degree shown in Jiang Ping’s test results. To make matters worse, leaked documents showed an older math test allegedly taken by Jiang Ping in which she scored an average 83 points out of 150.

The controversy surrounding Jiang Ping’s performance during the first stage of the Alibaba Global Mathematics Competition has been growing over the last couple of weeks, due in no small part to the lack of communication from the organizers. On June 27, the local government in Jiangsu Province confirmed that an investigation was underway, but nothing else. Rumors regarding Jiang’s performance and the involvement of her coach, Wang Runqiu, in her alleged cheating have been running rampant on Chinese social media, and so far none of the affected parties have addressed them


Jian Ping recently participated in the second stage of the global math competition that made her famous, but with results only released in August, the controversy around her performance remains and the whole of China is still on edge.

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