The (37 year-old) graduate


Yao Ming stood out from the crowd last Sunday when he graduated from Shanghai Jiaotong University – and not only because he is 2.29 metres tall. The main reason people were talking so much online was because of what his graduation photo signified: after seven years of studying he’d finally graduated at the age of 37. The news was of widespread interest: Yao is one of China’s most famous people.

Yao earned a bachelors degree in economics, yet his decision to return to college was surprising as he has already had a successful career as China’s top professional basketball player. Following his retirement from the NBA (National Basketball Association) in July 2011, Yao entered university in accordance with an agreement he’d made with his parents (both former basketball players themselves). He explained in his graduation speech, “I was required to make a promise before entering the CBA [Chinese Basketball Association] professional field at the age of 17 that I must return to school after the end of my athlete’s career to finish college.” According to The Greater China Journal this portrays Yao in a very positive light, denoting his adherence to one of the most deeply-rooted traditional values in Chinese society: filial piety.

“If there was no sealed commitment, I would have thought of quitting more than once after a few years of school,” he admitted. However, Yao is not the only famed basketballer to return to education; in 2012, Shaquille O’Neal graduated from Barry University after earning a doctorate in education. The American player also credited his family as inspiration for returning to university, telling CNN, “This is for my mother, who always stressed the importance of education.”

Yet it could be argued that a degree is not entirely necessary for someone like Yao, as he has already been pretty successful outside of sports. He’d used his fame to become a prominent environmental activist, sharing his opposition to the elephant ivory trade and shark-fin soup, according to the South China Morning Post. In addition to this, Yao has had some business success with his vineyard in Napa Valley, Yao Family Wines, and owns his former Chinese basketball team, the Shanghai Sharks (the name may suggest why he feels so strongly about the soup).

Still, Yao’s time living in the US – mainly in Houston – could have made him forget his Confucian promise. He might have argued to his parents that in America success does not always require a degree. Think of famed Harvard dropouts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Like fellow tech titan, the late Steve Jobs, all three viewed not having a degree as something of a badge of honour.

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