By all accounts Zhong Fangrong is a quiet girl who takes solace in her studies. She was born into rural poverty and was raised by her grandparents because her mother and father had to live and work in the city as migrant labourers.
Despite her challenging upbringing, Zhong came fourth out of 194,000 high-school exam takers in Hunan province’s gaokao (college entrance exam) this year, meaning she had her pick of universities and degree courses across China.
Her choice of Peking University was uncontroversial.
Her decision to study archaeology triggered a nationwide debate on the question of following your dreams rather than providing for your family.
“She should choose a major that will earn her money and allow her to improve her family’s conditions,” wrote one of the 420 million people who viewed the topic on Sina Weibo.
“She should study archaeology as a hobby when she is rich and free,” added another.
Until recently, her choice of study suffered from a poor reputation in China – very few archaeological digs were carried out and the only jobs available were in ossified, badly-paid state institutions.
A huge propaganda drive extolling China’s ancient roots has helped to change archaeology’s image, particularly after some high- profile discoveries. Yet many Chinese parents still prefer to steer their children away from study of the humanities in general, in favour of more ‘lucrative’ subjects such as engineering, computer science and finance.
Zhong said she became interested in the subject after reading about Fan Jinshi, a venerated archaeologist who devoted her life to the study of the Buddhist grottoes around Dunhuang in western Gansu province.
Zhong’s head teacher was among those who tried to dissuade her from choosing archaeology as well, saying she had to study a major that would ultimately allow her to provide for her parents. But the 18 year-old apparently did what she always does: listen and quietly make her own decision.
In an interview with Xinhua she explained that she liked the idea of archaeology because it would allow her to do academic research and fieldwork. “I grew up in the countryside. I can cope with the physical demands of archaeology,” she said.
Her parents – neither of whom finished high school – were initially confused by their daughter’s decision because they didn’t entirely understand what archaeology was.
Growing up Zhong saw her parents a couple of times a year but they sent almost all their earnings home so she could attend a private boarding school.
When news of her choice became public, several famous archaeologists sent her gifts and academic material in support – even as some local officials and relatives tried to get her to change her mind. Eventually, Zhong escaped to Shenzhen (where her mother works) and stopped answering her phone or responding to media requests.
However, one message that did get through was from her hero Fan Jinshi, who encouraged the teenager to ignore the naysayers and follow her dreams: “Don’t forget your original aspirations, stick to your ideals, and get down to studying hard,” the 83 year-old wrote.
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