Confessions of a Chinese graduate

An essay by Danwei staff writer Eric Mu. 

When I was a kid, university graduates were as rare as unicorns, now they are more like popcorn: cheap and plentiful. No big surprise, considering there are millions of fresh ones every year to join a large pool of millions of existing graduates. All are desperate for white-collar jobs that are not easy to come by in China’s manufacturing economy. The problem of university graduates finding jobs has been debated in the media for at least a decade as a difficult social issue and it never improves.

My father is a cleaner at a local paper mill. In his mid-fifties without any professional skills, he works for 50 yuan a day. What can 50 yuan buy?  Two cups of coffee at this not-too-fancy coffee shop in Beijing where I am typing these words. But if you are a college graduate and want to find a job in my hometown, you can expect to start with an even lower salary than my father. Earlier this year when I went back to my home village, my parents told me that a girl in the village had gone mad. Why? She went to college, where she studied English for four years, and the best job she could get was to peel shrimps with coworkers who had only finished middle school and were at least four years younger than her.

So, a college degree, once a coveted holy grail, a glamorous passport to a fulfilled and secure life, has lost its luster, right? So  people are shunning it and pursuing happiness through a different course, right? The fact is that despite the bleak financial prospects and diminishing advantages of being a graduate, the competition to become one has never been any more severe.

My high school life, which was not so long ago, might give you a small glimpse into the real situation: How too much competition poisons people’s relationships, and how when you feel that the guy sitting beside you is your potential enemy who may rob you of a lifetime of happiness, altruism is not going to be your guide. Students hold to themselves and are reluctant to help others. If you have a math question you cannot crack, you keep it to yourself, because all the students are very proprietary about their learning. To offer your knowledge or even your questions for free is not only time consuming but an aid to  your enemies.

I have to say that high school is a monastery and an army boot camp combined. Eleven classes every day. We had to rise before dawn and went to bed after 11. After the last class, we were encouraged to use any bit of extra time for study. There was one student who would go to read his lessons every night in the toilet, because that was the only place where the light would be kept on 24 hours. Everyone hated him, because his breach of a delicate equilibrium that is vital for us to live in peace with each other — he studied just a little too hard. The school encouraged us to be frugal with our time. It had a slogan hanging from the main building: “Time is like water in sponge; if you squeeze harder, there is always more.”

Even though you can always squeeze, even God may need to take a day off every week. For high school students, it was every four weeks. The day was meant for us to go home to pick up some spare clothes and money to sustain us for the next four weeks. But it also offered a rare chance of leisure. One day, think about it, ten hours of freedom, plus undisrupted sleep. How wonderful! I always anticipated the day so much that I kept planning and planning: Going to the bookstore to read the history book that I hadn’t finished? Going to the noodle place in the market to have noodles with lamb soup? When the day eventually came, not a single second passed without causing great anxiety in me like a stingy man counting every penny that he has to shell out.

Teachers are a mixture of army training sergeants and Amway salesmen. The former abuses, the latter promises. A teacher is not only expected to teach, he also needs to motivate. Some male teachers were very good at that, capable of evoking in their subjects the deepest sense of shame that even a Freudian would admire. They did it with verbal ingenuity that a rapper would envy. I remember a teacher once warned us that if we didn’t work hard we would “go and poke a dog’s teeth,” What he meant was that we would end up being tramps or beggars. Now many years have passed but the image of myself with a beggar’s pole trying to fend off a bunch of barking dogs still haunts me.

The first few days of my high school life I was pumped up by a sense of triumphalism and I was a bit stuck up. After all, I had just passed a very difficult exam, I thought. My teacher spotted that dangerous tendency and he talked to me about it. At first he was using metaphorical language, telling me how a full bucket cannot take any more water. When he found out that I was not improving, he called me an ingrate and a mistake of my parents. It was only later that I realized that the teacher didn’t say that only to me. He said it to most students with the exception of the very best and the very worst in the class. The top ones were treated with respect and the worst don’t deserve his time because it won’t make a difference anyway.

It was not only the students dealing with a lot of stress, but the teachers as well. A teacher’s salary was correlated by how many of the students that they were responsible for went to university. Even the school principal would be evaluated on such statistics. At my junior year, a girl committed suicide. Not a big surprise. There are always weak ones who just can’t make it. That is how natural selection works. The cause of the suicide was that the girl’s head teacher asked her to forgo the college entrance exam. Not that he hated her personally. He simply talked to all the students who were deemed hopeless and would only dilute the average results of the class. The girl refused. The teacher told the girl something that must have been very humiliating, and she drowned herself in the sea that afternoon.

Three years of running this strenuous marathon. The inevitable climax was more of an anticlimax. The test didn’t turn out to be as I had imagined it – a grand battle. I had been seeing myself on stage, with a war bugle blowing and bullets whizzing by and here I was, a soldier crouching in his trench and ready for a bayonet charge, to take my fate by its throat. The reality was much duller though. A room packed with 40 students huddling in front of their small desks, under the scrutiny of a surveillance cam and two chatty supervisors. We were no warriors but prisoners. If we were fighting for anything, it was just for our own survival.

During the few days prior to the exam, some interesting changes took place. My head teacher seemed to have a personality transplant. He appeared to be a different person. He was now such a nice guy that I barely recognized him. In our final class, he gave us his goodbye speech. He told us how pleasant it had been working with us for the past three years, that he had been proud of us and would never forget us. I had been thinking the exact opposite – that we were the worst class he had ever taught and that he had always hated us — particularly me, the sullen mean type who just won’t cooperate — and wanted to wipe us from from his memory as soon as we are gone.

He proceeded with his emotion-charged speech. “If I ever hurt any of you, it was not my intention. As a teacher , I always had my students’ best interests in mind.” Some girls were moved to cry. “One day as a teacher, a life as a father,” he quoted an ancient saying, which gave me a feeling of embarrassment for the hypocrisy.

All theatrics aside, the message was clear to me: “I know I abused you but I don’t want to be hated. Now, as you are about to leave, there is no point for me to be harsh any more. What can be done can’t be undone, and it is all the past, so let’s move on and forget it and be friendly to each other.”

“I love you.” was the signal for the end of the speech, a rather clichéd wrap-up. “We love you too.” The students yelled back. Liars!

But a ritual like this worked. Reconciliation was achieved. Damages were forgiven. Grudges healed. Even I, the most foolhardy, unrelenting hater, felt that it might not be fair to blame the guy for his offensive remarks about me. He was, after all, doing his job.

The morning before the exam started, I walked through a crowd of students’ parents. They were anxious and gazing expectantly at their children, praying that they would ace the test. My dad was there too. He brought me a can of Red Bull.

“Son, don’t be nervous.” My dad passed me the can.

How can I not be nervous seeing you wimpy like that? I was thinking, gulping down the liquid.

“Your teacher said you are good. He said you have no problem.”

My teacher? My teacher doesn’t care about me at all. All he cares about is statistics.

“We can try again next year if you fail.”

But next year. How many next years I am going to have?

But I just said bye to my dad, throwing the tin can as far as I could, and strode into the exam room, ready to take my destiny by the throat, or, be taken by my throat.

The three days of examinations proceeded without incident, except occasionally the kid in front of me snuck a look or two at my exam sheet and the teachers there pretended not to see it at all, or they were too involved in their chat. But how can I let my three years of hard work be stolen by this sneaky bastard? I stared back at him with my hard, venomous eyes, covering my sheet up. The thief turned his head back.

Then everything was over. I walked out of the room feeling like an abandoned condom, used and hollow. Exhausted too. All I wanted to do was to catch up on all the sleep that I had missed over the past three years. It was not only because I was so sleepy, I wanted to sleep away the horrible three years, to forget them like a bad dream. When I woke up again, I hoped that I would find myself a fresh person with a new life.

A month later, I got the admission letter from a university, my family was exhilarated. But I was only relieved to have my burden removed, if only temporarily. I knew intuitively that university would by no means be as wonderful as the teacher depicted to me. Compared with three years ago, I was now older and in no small measure, wiser.

My feeling was vindicated; university life was but another cycle. We would go through another round of anxiety, angst, boredom and disillusion, only with different tokens for goals: then it was about passing the exam and going to university, now it was about becoming a Party member and finding a girlfriend and getting a job.

See also on Danwei: Blowing up the school.

37 Responses to Confessions of a Chinese graduate

  1. “the competition to become one has never been any less severe.”

    I think you mean “has never been MORE severe”, right? Your point, I take it, is that it is more severe now than ever before; in other words, that it has ALWAYS been less severe than now.

  2. A very good insight into the Chinese education system. I hope that you will follow it up with two essays, one about 3-5 years after graduating from the university on whether or not it was worth all the time and effort, and another one speculating on what your life might be like if those instructors had been much easier on you and if you still believe that they hated the students.

  3. There are not enough good schools and too many students in China- so there are a lot of competitions- the teachers are doing the right thing, the students have to be motivated, so that they can win the competitions- the teachers can not give everyone the same amount of care because they are too few and the chances are also limited – quite simple, nothing to complain. Complain changes nothing, only the weak people complain. If you are good enough, win the competition and create more chances!

  4. My middle school time schedule (summer):
    05:00~05:40—waking up, washing, doing exercise (just running)
    06:00~07:30—mandatory self-learning (memorizing, memorizing, memorizing, …)
    19:40~22:30—mandatory self-learning (memorizing, memorizing, memorizing, …)
    In 1990’s, we students in Shandong province had to get 250% higher points in so called National College Enrollment Exam to enter universities than those in Beijing, Shanghai, … . Most of my friends, 85%, who got very good grade in middle school could not be accepted by colleges and are farmer workers today. Shandong students are viewed as clumsy, dead-head, and suffered of creativity. Yes, we do, but we do not have any choices. I hate very very very much the education in China—people cannot learn much from it, which only kills gifted people and is unfair.

  5. great insightful article about sick chinese education system stealing childhood from children in all it’s brutal effectiveness compared to western “lazy” systems. and what is the point? just be another popcorn if you will not run away abroad :-(

    I recommend you to watch movies Fight Club and American beauty, it’s never too late to change your life

  6. We feel your pain, but I feel there is more pain tocome. Well written. The English is outstanding:) You did learn something. Life lessons to come later.

  7. Great article although I’m surprised you didn’t touch base on the huge amount of unaccredited schools that have risen up to accommodate all the students who can’t make the cut for the established ones – same problem is going on in the US right now too.

  8. Magnificent article and beautiful English, I detested Yang’s comment above.
    You and he belong to different species. However we do in some ways mirror the problems re education that you describe so feelingly. Too much competition for not enough available jobs. There is an answer but both the West and Asia have turned their back on it. It’s Socialism – real Socialism. Five hour days, three day weeks, and six month vacations. Everybody could then be employed and their full potential released. Impossible of course because such a system cannot not be done in isolation. Every country would have to practice it.

  9. I truly truly emphasize with you, but that can’t be helped, given the huge amount of population in China. University is the only way out, for many, despite the fact that the potential job market is pretty saturated with uni graduates for “white collar” jobs. It is hard to exhaust the reasons for the bloody truth. Yet it’s certain that some improvement is needed on the educational system.

  10. My high school life was pretty normal. Even in the third year, we had seven classes a day and two days off a week just as regular. Stressful? Definitely. But never as bad as described in the essay. It really depends on which province you are from and which school you go to. As for the job, it also depends on the popularity of your major and the reputation of your university. None of my classmates had a problem finding a job- the difference is between a good one and an ordinary one. This essay tells the dark side of China’s education. For that matter, it is true; but things can be worse and more complex. Was it the hellish training in high school that, to some extent, gave the author such proficiency in English? I’m wondering. Mine just prepared me to write such comment.

  11. hey great essay you wrote. Its the same problem with the indian education system, compeation and a lot of stress.I guess the two worlds largest populas countries are in the same boat.
    Go for a book.You may get great reception.

  12. Thank you. I enjoyed reading this: it was well written and conveyed the intensity of your experiences… Actually, I have to admit, I *loved* reading this.

  13. I’m a Westerner (UK) who has lived in Asia (Japan) for a while. I had deduced from the vibe in Japan (misery) that school would be as you describe. I find it inhuman and thoroughly unproductive for anyone to be treated in this way. I am very sorry that this system of socially forced education and work exists anywhere in the world today.

    The countries with the most successful educational outcomes are well known to be those with the most lenient school hours (e.g. Sweden). I never went to school, my parents chose not to send me. I spent most of my childhood playing with friends, reading fiction, exploring my environment and learning naturally. At college age there were gaps in my knowledge, particularly with subjects I hated (geography and history). However, I’ve done fairly well since, I’ve filled in the gaps that matter to me, and most importantly I enjoy every minute of my life. Even when I was working very hard for a PhD I knew that I had a reason to be doing so. I’m not sure I would have a clear idea what the purpose of my life and endeavours was if I had been victim to the system you describe.

    Conformity is a symptom of a deeply insecure society afraid of the power of the free-thinking individual, and it will steal your soul. I can not believe that humans are made to live in these high-pressure identikit visions of the modern world, where happiness is replaced by the deeply less satisfactory feeling of “fitting in” and ticking someone else’s boxes. I can not believe that this is the road to either individual excellence nor true social cohesion.

    The Earth needs a new age of enlightenment, a realisation of individual freedom and responsibility as irreplacable vital forces; we are neither pawns nor robots, we are human, and we are legion. The world is our clay, shaped through our choices, our lives, and our relationships. Choose your image not from the expectations of politicians and the grey shades of the broken; but with the warm light of imagination. Humans have so much more potential than most people are ever allowed to realise.

  14. Great pace of writing, with that ubiquitous Chinese dramatic flourish of words and metaphors. Very atypical sexual similes LOL. I especially dig the “felt like an abandoned condom.”

  15. It seems Chinese kids heads are so full of knowledge they have no space for thoughts. I’ve managed several teams of Hk and mainland youngsters. Can anyone explain why it was always impossible to inspire them to solve unanticipated problems and use initiative? Is this the fault of Chinas education system? My lasting impression of working as a manager in China was that this country may never be a world leader in technology, the arts, services or anything high value. Robots cannot program themselves. Taiwanese people seem much smarter and more creative, with more imagination and sense of fun, empathy and willingness to take mental leaps. Thats probably why complex electronic components are invented in Taiwan and bashed together in China.

  16. This essay reminds me of my high school days,the very same as yours. It seems nothing ever changes after all these 6 years.

  17. @Boots: The answer to your question is actually very simple if you rephrase it a little: Who would profit from a people who, for the most part, are very uncritical, and discouraged to think for themselves, but only work? Someone who wants to secure the stability of the country, maybe? Someone who wants to secure their own power, such as the Chinese government for example? There you have it.
    The education system is kept that way because they don’t WANT people to develop a sense of creativity and critical thinking. Critical thinking means a threat to the government. It would encourage people to question the situation they’re living in, the ways of the party, their political system.. we wouldn’t want that now, being a political leader, would we?

  18. Firstly, this aticle is wonderful! My highschool time was stressful too. I am not hate it but I pity myself. I am a vitim of this kind of education system. Now I was graduated from University after I got my master degree in a so called famous university in China. But I am not happy at all, because I found my knowledge is no use in this economical society. I realize that I am a stupided one who do not know what I want and what I am living for, have no soul,no belief, no creativity at all. So who should be blamed? ME! Beacause I believed it(this education I receieved in school), I am a good student in school but I am a loser in the reality life. Even this situation is bad enough, but I want to change, more reading, diversity of books , not one . And keep learning , from the life , from others ,and live with heart…

  19. II feel compelled to write my response to your article which recalls all bitter memory of my high school life in a remote mountainous county of Henan province.

    Like one poster wrote aforesaid, we wake up at 5am each morning and run 2~3 kilometers before we get back to classroom for morning self-study session at 6am with whole body wet through in perspiration. We are required to read loudly during self-studying, as loud as you can imagine when the whole class of 60 students pump up their lungs. Then we continue with incessant classes with short breaks until 22:00 at night . A lot of students has sleeping problems due to high stress and some even have psychological illness. Suicides happens. I have sleep difficulties as well and took sleep care medicine for consecutive three years in my high school life and even today my sleep problems trouble me.

    Our teachers are two kinds: those practicing Fascism and those practicing Marxism. The former coerces, intimidates and even beats students when they are lazy and the latter portraits a heaven like promising life with wealth, status and respect after having a college degree to coax students to swallow their pains for a brilliant future. In the end both kinds will be loved by students who passed the college entrance exam. Some students who were beaten would forgive their perpetrators by saying “teacher beats me for my good”.

    Even with such hellish endeavor, only 10% of the whole grade (around 600 students) will enter college in my high school, lest only less than 5% will enter a better one with national reputation. The rest will either end up resuming their parents’ fate as a farmer or being a migrant worker.

    That is in 1990’s and I am one of those 5% by fortune. Although the college degree did get me a white-collar job and a decent life, I am now suspecting if it is worth the loss of my youth and drainage of my creativity, after all three years’ suffering. Even today, flashbacks of high school life sometimes woke me up from nightmares with a thankgod relief realizing it is just a dream. I found my high school has left a inerasable bitterness in my life and it will entangle with my soul all the time to the grave.

  20. Great article, and all too true. I was recently in China and it’s amazing how it seems everyone is always being looked at and evaluated in all aspects of life. Student’s walk 2 by 2, English speaking tour guides always have a counterpart watching them, factory workers are always in pairs, and even retail workers don’t work alone. I don’t know how higher education plays a part in the job hunt in China, but my husband went to a Chinese university. He said, unlike in the west, you don’t ask questions, just accept what the instructor tells you. Either you understand or you fail. That’s it, no exceptions. Thank you for the illuminating view into the Chinese educational system.

  21. Playing devil’s advocate here… it seems the population want to be professionals without any entrepreneurs ahead of them. If you’re part of the first generation to be highly educated, you’re going to have to go out there and start the companies yourself. Small businesses need people with a balanced skillset who are willing to try their hand at anything. I think you’re crazy to go shelling prawns for the rest of your life, but there’s nothing wrong with shelling prawns and thinking about better ways to run the business, then setting up your own business. Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, and I know businesses obviously require start-up capital… but you obviously have what it takes to put in the long and initially unrewarding hours required to set up a small business (at least in the way it works here in Australia). Rather than waiting for someone to hand you an opportunity, I’d encourage you to go out and make one for yourself. I hope your countries laws aren’t so restrictive that you aren’t even allowed to do that!

  22. This is a really spectacular essay. It can condemn in only a few words and nothing in it is trite. I never knew the extent of competition in China, today. This is great journalism, it investigates the subject matter with humanity but also a sort of isolated distance. Thanks for writing so well about a subject matter that is rarely given such judicious treatment.

    All the best for University!

  23. Your article reminds me of my high school years, everyone turning into a “monster”. But now in retrospect it was not that horrible. It is a time we really striving for something. And those knowledge, basic ones, benefit us a lot in life.

  24. This may be your own experience and your own perspective towards high school but it does not mean EVERY CHINESE STUDENT feel the same. To me and most of my friends, high school is one of the best experience that we will value all our lives. Given chances, we would like to go back to highschool and be highschoolers again. In fact, we do go back to highschool every now and then to visit our teachers , to feel highschool again.
    I respect the author’s opinion; however, in some respect, it is misleading. I love my highschool and I cherish my highschool life. I am sure I am not the only one.

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