Ever-increasing cultural and economic pressures are taking their toll on Chinese students.
Shortly after I had started my fieldwork among Chinese elite university students, a young woman jumped to her death from a university building. Statistics around student suicides in China can be difficult to obtain, but suffice it to say that her death was not an anomaly—the phenomenon of suicide among Chinese students at elite universities is something of a public secret: generally well-known but rarely discussed in official channels. I was drawn to this paradox of why young people like her, who have made it to the top of China’s extraordinarily competitive educational system, would choose to take their own lives: What actually happens to the lucky few at the top of the pyramid?
Suicide among Chinese students at elite universities is something of a public secret.
In recent years globally-oriented educational debates often play out in relation to the ambiguous rise of China, which has emerged as a figure of both allure and anxiety for a number of reasons. China’s system of rigorous testing is well known; The fact that Shanghai students topped the PISA tests in 2010 (tests designed by the OECD to assess scholastic performance across countries) gave rise to a sense that China is beating us on our own terms. And yet, as the West seems to be looking East to find the key to success in a brave new knowledge society, the East is looking West.
Since the 1980s various reforms that go under the name of “education for quality” (suzhi jiaoyu) have attempted to reshape the Chinese educational system so that it produces more than professional test-takers but rather individuals who possess innovative and entrepreneurial skills that can pave China’s transition to a knowledge economy. The move to cultivate more creativity and critical thinking in Chinese curricula forms a departure from more traditional ideas of education, namely the Confucian school system, which prioritized the recitation of the classics, and was intended to prepare children for the civil servant examination; the higher the score, the better one’s position in the civil service, thus the emphasis on committing information to memory, knowledge retention, and testing.
In China young people experience a pressure to be both self-sacrificial while also embracing these newer demands to be self-affirming.
Chinese educators and parents alike are now looking to the West for guidance in order to identify and cultivate the qualities that are viewed as lacking among Chinese children and youth. But the push for Western-inflected suzhi jiaoyu in the classroom and in the home introduces a double bind: parents and teachers aim simultaneously to cultivate precocious children who develop an independent self while just as fervently wishing to raise disciplined children who are respectful of authorities. To some extent parental anxieties reflect a contradiction between an idealized Western perspective and a more traditionally Chinese perspective on how to manage uncertainty in an increasingly competitive and crowded society. The one-child policy only exacerbates this tension because, while discipline is encouraged, the pressures of creating and educating a perfect child are enormous.
Thus, in practice these educational reforms often come across as having little effect since exams remain the inevitable path to advance to the next level within the educational system. Therefore students and teachers tend to experience the reforms as intangible and contradictory, or sometimes as generative of new forms of diffuse pressure to stand out from the crowd.
In China young people experience a pressure to be both self-sacrificial—to work hard, do well in exams, and land a well-paid job so as to be able to return the care of parents (fulfilling the traditional Chinese virtue of filial piety) while also embracing these newer demands to be self-affirming—to chart a unique path, pursue individual fulfillment and self-realization. These dilemmas are often in tension and it is difficult to realize both at the same time—they entail a double-bind. For example, how is it possible to be both a filial daughter and live out one’s own dreams of higher education abroad? Can striving for success go hand in hand with personal fulfillment? What happens when one’s struggles for higher education turn out not to be rewarded with a job upon graduation and one is left unable to return the care of parents? And how can the Chinese state’s new focus on innovation and critical thinking be reconciled with the coexisting wish to maintain social control? Can the desire to win Nobel prizes be reconciled with attempts to reduce the pressure on young people?
When I started doing fieldwork at China’s elite universities, I was researching Chinese society and it was only later in the process that it became clear that the story I was trying to tell, is not only a story about Chinese society undergoing change. In fact even in Demark, a country known for liberal educational practices, the newer reforms go in the direction of a much more test-oriented ethos, choosing private over public schools and a parenting culture increasingly directed at raising exceptionally gifted children. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious, but it seems to me that something vital is lost, when the importance of play is no longer self evident in education—to either students or teachers: educators lose their passion for teaching while a high percentage of young people suffer from anxiety, depression or other psychological problems from the stress of having to live in the hamster wheel.
The intimate experiences of students at Chinese elite universities, offers a specific vantage point from which to problematize the human consequences of the so-called knowledge economy. The worldwide race for competitiveness seems to be ever increasing. The pace of life seems to be ever increasing with it—but is this really where we want to go? One student I met described the situation as we sat with a view to crowds of people making their way forward—he put it like this: “It is as if we are on a train, racing towards the future and everybody pushes on out of fear of being left behind, but no one seems to really stop and think about where the train is going.”
How high stakes exams create hurdles that many Chinese students will never overcome.