The Chens choose

A family’s education points to a changing China

The Chens choose

Dreaming spires, ivory pagodas

Talk of towers in China and the image is of the industrial chimney variety, belching out smoke and noxious gas.

But the ivory towers of higher education exist in China too. In fact, the term translates into Mandarin very directly, with the same connotations of a world of dreamy academia, distant from the realities of everyday life.

The competition for places at good universities in China is still red-blooded, of course – as we mentioned in our review of the annual gaokao entrance examinations (WiC 19).

But while news of the gaokao hogged recent headlines, the New Century Weekly magazine chose to look at a related subject: how students select their particular courses at university (assuming that the gaokao is passed). It studies a single family and asks how its choices have differed across three generation. In doing so, the magazine is also saying something about how China has changed too.

The commentary begins with Chen Lizhu winning a place at the prestigious Peking University in 1955. He opted to study Russian, a decision very much shaped by the political context.

Five years earlier, Mao and Stalin had signed the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty and thousands of “experts” from the Soviet Union were sent to China. Russian was also taught in secondary schools. Chen claims that he was choosing patriotically, as he was inspired by slogans of the time such as “the country’s need is my choice.”

Twenty-five years on, Chen’s son, Zhong, also applied to Peking University, sitting the gaokao in 1979, shortly after the Cultural Revolution. In the educational chaos of the preceding decade, students who turned up on campus tended to do so only to harangue their terrified teachers.

Zhong’s own choices were revealing ones. He wasn’t interested in choosing a subject that would serve the motherland. Instead he wanted something that would give him good employment prospects.

He initially considered chemistry (the ‘red capitalist’ Rong Yiren was promoting the industry heavily at the time as part of government efforts to modernise the domestic economy) but instead opted for computer studies, which he thought had the better prospects.

It seems a pretty far-sighted decision for a teenager to make in the China of 1979. Bill Gates had started Microsoft in his garage only four years earlier.

Twelve years later, it was Zhong’s sister’s turn to make her own university choices (in fact, it was her father making the decision for her, as is still common today).

This time round, the preferred subjects were finance and industrial foreign trade, hinting that China was on the move again, as it began its wider integration into the international economy.

Now, finally, the third Chen generation. Xiaoxuan, the granddaughter, is preparing for university next year but her subject for study does not even get a mention in the Weekly. Her main focus is on getting a place at a university overseas.

She won’t be bothering with the gaokao either as she will soon travel to Hong Kong to sit the SAT tests required for a place at an American school (the US is often the preferred destination since there are more scholarship funds on offer).

Xinhua reported recently that 180,000 Chinese studied at overseas universities in 2008. In 1978 only 12 were given permission to do so.

The Chen family choices are instructive ones, says the Weekly. The first generation thought primarily about serving the state. The second chose on the basis of self-interest, focusing on a good job with a reliable income. And the third wants to study abroad.

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