Claire Zhang reports on Chinese youth culture

I went to China last summer because I had been starting to feel less Chinese. I went because my mother has said things like, “You’re so American.” I went because I can’t remember how to say “turn right” when a couple of Chinese tourists ask me for directions on campus. My waiguoren friends’ pictures in China are splashed all over Facebook, and yet, I have not been in the country  since I was 11 years old. I am not immune from the old cliches of the immigrant child caught between two worlds. My official reason for going to China was to write a story about the culture of Chinese youth, but a part of me wanted to prove to myself that I could be part of this culture, that I could be Chinese too, make friends with, and be a local, native Chinese young person no different from them.

To find other university students, there is no better place than the district of Haidian, Beijing, home to the best universities in China: Peking University and Tsinghua University, and a host of others. The first students I meet are Jiang Lai, her boyfriend, Liu Yue (“Harry”), and Du Xiangyua, Lai’s childhood friend from her hometown of Chongqing. We meet (different word) at an enormous shopping complex, which, after already spending a month or so here, I realize are ubiquitous in China today.  They are always at least six stories tall with shiny floors and bright lights and flashy brand names, Prada, Burberry, Louis Vuitton. Walk into one, and you can almost forget you’re in China if it weren’t for the salespeople aggressively accosting you to buy things.

We have dinner in a Sichuan restaurant at the top floor, where there are a number of other restaurants filled with young college age students like ourselves chattering noisily. Lai begins in English and I quickly explain that I can speak Mandarin if she would prefer that. She smiles and says, “Oh so you can speak Chinese!” I say, “I’m decent, I can’t say some harder things though.” I feel a spark of pride when she says that I speak pretty much like a native Chinese person.

* * *


Lai and her boyfriend are public health students at Peking University Medical School, and Xiangyuan is a math and physics technology student at Tsinghua University. Peking University and Tsinghua are the top two universities in China, parallel to Harvard and MIT, and to say that the admissions competition is fierce would be an understatement. The high stakes standardized test known as the gaokao is the only way to gain admission to college in China with no consideration for the broader holistic factors American universities. The high pressure that the test inflicts on Chinese students has become famously known outside of China.

Each university has a certain cutoff score, and to gain admission, one must attain this score or higher. In addition to cutoff scores for admission into university, different majors have cutoff scores too. Thus, even if a student scores high enough to enter a top university, they may be unable to study the subjects they are interested in – if they are interested in anything at all. The majority of students simply wait until after they receive their scores and decide among the choices they are given. Switching majors is only possible if you scored high enough for the major you want to switch to and maintained extraordinarily high grades. As a result, many students don’t care for what they study. With sudden freedom, a lack of interest in major, and burnout from the pressure cooker of high school, some students give up on their studies in college, skipping class and playing computer games instead, then graduating and using parental connections to find a random job.

* * *

Liu Zihao, a Japanese student at Renmin University, and a high school friend of my second cousin’s, lamented Chinese students’ lack of passion.

“Chinese schools don’t really know how to nurture talent. China schools will definitely always have very talented students, but they will always have the competitive aspect too. Everyone only cares about tests,” said Liu Zihao, a Japanese language student at Renmin University, says over dinner along with my second cousin, Lin Chutong and another friend, Li Jiaqing.

We’re enjoying noodles and wontons and other small dishes in the “xiaochi” (translated literally as “small eats”, similar to tapas) side of a restaurant located near his old high school, a boarding school associated with Minzu University. It’s one of the most prestigious high schools and colleges in Beijing and specially designated for Chinese ethnic minorities. Students must test for admission. The surrounding area is typical of a Chinese college district, streets lined with little stalls selling all sorts of snacks – boba milk tea, tofu drizzled in hot sauce, egg waffles filled with red bean paste – and young students strolling with snacks in hand. Vendors attempt to peddle wares like cheap hair accessories, shoes, and even shampoo bottles, laid out on blankets by the sidewalk.

Zihao had not originally been very interested in Japanese, but like many others was assigned the major after failing to meet the score cutoff for other majors.

We decide to visit their high school after dinner. They show me various textbooks and old tests.

“This is a test prep book,” Chutong explains as he shows me one. “In China, to prepare for science tests we mostly just do a lot of practice problems. But for humanities tests we just memorize lots of things.”

They show me a politics book and ask if I have that sort of class in America. I tell them we do, and Zihao snorts, quipping that American politics classes would certainly be different from China’s.

We sit down on top of the desks and begin to chat. They talk about their high school days: classmates who were a bit weird (some that they speculate are gay, some who are shockingly actually, really, truly gay), what other classmates are doing now, who is dating who, those particularly mean teachers, all the ridiculous rules and regulations they had to endure in high school. They were required to not only wear uniforms, but also to style their hair in a certain way. Chutong points at Jiaqing’s hair and says that her style wouldn’t have been allowed because bangs were forbidden. Hair was to be kept out of the face. They were not allowed to leave campus except from 5PM Saturday to 5PM Sunday. Jiaqing recalled how everyone would rush to the dorms to change into jeans and pants on Saturday afternoons immediately after class. Dating was severely discouraged.

“Once they came into the exam room holding hands,” Jiaqing says of some old classmates.

Zihao chuckles at my face. “Haha, she doesn’t get it. To you, it’s really normal, but to us it was a big deal,” he says to me.

“Yeah I mean, the school seems to just control everything,” I say.

“Yes, everything. Even how short your hair is. Teachers would actually go desk by desk and check how long your hair was and pull you out of class if your hair was too long,” Zihao says.

“Would the school punish you if you dated someone then?” I ask.

“Your teachers and your family will all scold you,” Chutong says. “They think it will distract from the gaokao, that’s mostly why.”

“You know, thinking on it now, I think high school was very beautiful. But I wouldn’t want to go back,” Jiaqing says, sighing. “Just looking at these old tests makes my head spin. It was too much stress. And now we’re so old already.”

* * * 

As I talk to more and more students, I begin to sense a pattern in their explanations for the less than stellar education experience they’ve had in China. There is the sense that there is nothing they can do about it. “Meibanfa,” I hear over and over. “There is no way.” Even though the gaokao is stressful and can be detrimental, it is the only one that can work for China. China is a “guanxi” (relationship) society. China is different from the United States.  There would be sketchy backdoor admissions. There are too many people in China. They need some kind of method to handle all these people. Even if it isn’t great, their system is the one that is best suited to their society. This kind of reasoning will apply to almost everything, not only education, but also for example, to Chinese medicine versus American medicine (Chinese people’s bodies are different from Western people, so this might be why Chinese medicine does not work for Westerners).

Li Xuefei, a Chinese major at Peking University, was one student I felt particularly connected to. Like myself, she loves literature. One of her favorite authors is Milan Kundera. Aspiring to translate foreign literature into Chinese, she decided to pursue a Chinese major, but plans to switch to French next year because the Chinese major does not allow for enough exposure to foreign literature. I am pleasantly surprised to meet someone who seems to actually be pursuing a passion, but she too feels that the rigid test-based educational system is necessary.

“There are more people in China, so the resources are limited. If we use your method and try to apply for schools, there will be lots of problems. For example, say you are admitted, but I am not. I will wonder, if there are not scores as standards, whether it was unfair to me. Especially in China, I will think perhaps you used your privilege. So everyone agrees in the end, that although a comprehensive ability is important, although we need creativity… for the fairest way, they will agree to use the score as the final standard,” she said.

In my very first conversation, with Xiangyuan and Lai, Xiangyuan had similarly connected the difference in the admissions to the broader difference between the two societies.

“Both societies’ have different societal systems. America has a democratic system,” Xiangyuan said then. “Why can’t China have that system? We can borrow some ideas, but we can’t walk that exact path. It really doesn’t work for China. Why? If you think about it, China has a billion people. It would overload the system. Not only that, there’s a large portion of people who don’t have much education. They don’t really understand what democratic power is. So they have no way of using democratic power.”

Many students seem to feel more or less content, or at least, not unsatisfied, with the efforts of their government for the time being. Problems take a long time to fix, they say, and China is still a developing nation. It will take significant amounts of time to address all the issues, and the system they have is working best for their specific situation.

Some do see democracy as a future possibility, but with the caveat that they are not sure what form a democracy for China would take or how they would get there. A recent study, called “What Kind of Democracy do Chinese Want?” from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, found (unsurprisingly) that the majority of Chinese youth are rather lukewarm about the idea of democracy. They liked to give answers like: “can’t generalize, has to be in context of whether it is appropriate for China’s current conditions.”

Those kind of answers seemed to hit the mark. Recent China scholars have pointed to an increasing pragmatic approach in Chinese politics since Deng Xiaoping’s movement to focus China on economics and modernization in the 80’s. Many have been hopeful that such focus on pragmatism would eventually lead to democracy. But in a paper titled “How can a Chinese Democracy be Pragmatic?”, Sor-Hoon Tan, a professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore, concluded that “both historically and in its current practice, Chinese deliberative politics is more authoritarian than democratic. […] Genuinely democratic deliberation or Deweyan social inquiry would require considerably more decentralization of power than the CCP seems comfortable with.” She also noted that “If democracy proves less educative than Dewey believed, if the people continue to behave like Lipmann’s ‘bewildered herd,’ to prove themselves to be incorrigibly selfish, shortsighted, narrow-minded, and belligerent, then the results could be disastrous for China.”

It seems like this is the fear that holds these students, arguably at the top of their generation, from fully endorsing an American style, liberal democracy.

“As I understood more and more things, and thought it over, in the end I felt that the Chinese Communist Party does some things really well for China. It would be very hard for another political party to come in and do things better. They wouldn’t necessarily be able to do anything better,” Xiangyuan had said with such confidence and self-assurance, sounding almost professorial. He adds that he has already become a member of the Party.

* * *

Diana Gong, an undergraduate law major at Peking University, studied abroad at Columbia Law School for a semester and found herself more disillusioned with America after her time there. Growing up, Diana’s father had always spoken of the American political system as the best system (he was unable to immigrate, because he “screwed up his grades”), while her mother was more traditional Chinese in outlook. But after she went and visited, she felt that her father had idealized America, that it had many of its own problems as well.

I explain that Americans sort of believe that a democratic society is the ultimate goal for most nations.

“That’s one of the things Americans do. I don’t know how you feel about the word American exceptionalism – the feeling of many people is that even though America has its problems, it’s still the best, whether in culture, or other things,” says Diana. “I get the feeling of superiority.”

The funny thing is, exceptionalism was the feeling I was getting from the Chinese too. And it turns out I wasn’t the only one. While I was in Beijing, in July 2013, a controversial and much discussed TED talk given by Eric X. Li, titled “A tale of two political systems”, which championed the Chinese political system was released. In 2012, he had written a New York Times Op-Ed titled “Why China’s Political Model is Superior”, and in an interview at the Aspen Institute, he argued that there “is Chinese exceptionalism just as there is American exceptionalism. And, second that the American idea is fundamentally borne from Judeo-Christian theological roots, concepts that are entirely alien to the development of China. Ergo, American notions of democracy – as an end in and of itself – will not work for a country like China.” Sound familiar?

I wonder if it’s possible to be composed of two worlds that both assert that they’re unique and different from everybody else.

* * *

I find myself having a similar debate about the two political systems over hotpot dinner with an economics major at the Capital University of Economics and Business, Zhang Yuchen, and my second cousin. Like all the other students, he is very friendly, showing me around his campus and treating us to what he said was the best boba milk tea he’s ever had.

But Yuchen also says he doesn’t really like America and also asks me which country I would defend if a war broke out between America and China. I tell him that I can’t answer that question (though I think I would truthfully have to say America). He asks if I think government supervision is a good or bad thing, and I tell him that I think less is better.

“That’s probably because you grew up in America,” he says. “I always thought that if we had America’s method of administration, people would be unsafe. Do you feel like your life isn’t as safe in America?”

This is a question that Lai has asked me before too, since she is planning to study in American graduate school. Her concern was because of the Boston marathon bombing and school shooting. I try to explain that I generally feel quite safe in America, though I acknowledge that there have been a few big incidents lately. Yuchen attributes this to the laziness of the American government to take care of its people. “Sure, my meaning is just, on America’s freedom, the way they create it, we should learn from it, but on their administrative parts, there are a lot of problems,” Yuchen replies.

This is then again circled back to the education system, just as Xiangyuan connected the two, but in the opposite direction. “I think right now this [education system] is a good thing, because if China is like America, then our economy would likely not be as great. I said before that some people who worked too hard in high school get burned out and don’t do anything in college, but there are also a lot of people who are the opposite, they then work very hard. We need these kinds of people to improve China. If we had America’s educational system, we might not even have these kinds of people, because there are very few people born with the desire to work hard.”

* * *

Despite the dichotomy drawn between Chinese and American, everyone agrees that their generation is much more open-minded than the previous generations in China. A vertical difference, instead of a horizontal one, as one student put it. There is more tolerance of gays (in comparison to previous Chinese generations, not so much America). Overseas travel seems to be a trend as well, with students venturing abroad to Egypt and Israel and Laos and Taiwan, in addition to the United States, and learning French and Hebrew and German.

“I think that modern young people have similar thoughts to me, very independent. They try not to copy other people – they’ll have their own ideas. I think, before, our parents’ contact with other worlds was small. They only had contact with their surrounding family. Now it’s different because everyone’s thoughts are livelier and they have embraced more things. China has become more open to the world. So now, opinions are more interesting,” Zhang Lei said.

The increased prosperity and improved economic conditions afford today’s youth the opportunity to be more individualistic and optimistic. They have more choices. There are a number of students who, in spite of all the talk of Chinese students lacking passion, do pursue their own interests.

Yet there are some who still worry that all this change and modernization also means excessive Westernization and a loss of Chinese culture. It’s an anxiety that immigrant parents often have about their children, which tends to cause their children a lot of stress – like myself.

Lang Jialing, a materials science student at Tsinghua University and my cousin’s old high school deskmate, seemed to be the most concerned about Westernization. He’s dark skinned, from Dongbei, also known as Manchuria, and he has tutored and worked with children in more rural, poorer areas of China.

“Now with China’s rapid development, everyone values Western ideals. They don’t think of Chinese traditional culture’s many strengths. Young people think less of old traditions and don’t like to practice them. This year Christmas seemed like a more popular holiday than Chinese New Year for young people. This is a really bad phenomenon. I think becoming more open and liberal is understandable, but I also feel like we’re losing our culture very quickly. China also has few good authors right now, and their influence is diminishing. I just think that our generation needs to seriously reflect a bit,” says Jialing. My cousin enthusiastically agrees. Jialing adds that Koreans used to be influenced by Chinese culture and are now more influenced by America instead.

Sun Yuman is a Chinese major at Peking University, and Xuefei’s roommate. Studying Chinese means that traditional Chinese culture is especially important to her, she says, but she also loves traveling and learning about different cultures. She participated in an exchange program in Taiwan last semester and found the experience changed her perspective on Chinese society. She believes that China is not necessarily becoming more westernized, but rather more open and international, and this is all still compatible with traditional Chinese culture.

“I feel like there’s this tendency to either worship western culture or fiercely defend our own culture. My viewpoint is more moderate. I think society will naturally adjust itself,’” said Yuman.

There is confidence that China will be able to gain from the best aspects of the modern world, while at the same time maintaining its precious traditions. It sounds a little bit like the opaque “democracy with Chinese characteristics” I have heard often about, and again I am skeptical. But it also sounds a little bit like what I often declare about my own Chinese and American identities, that I am composed of two worlds and that I balance and maintain the characteristics of both.

* * *

Ironically, the improved economic conditions seem to mean that there is in fact less choice than the students might like. There is more opportunity, but there is also extraordinary competition for these new opportunities, and so the pressure to obtain a good job pushes many students into certain paths that seem more stable, like government positions or bank jobs. China’s job market for new graduates is at its lowest since 2010, and while students talk of more choice and freedom, there is still a high level of societal pressure to be successful and earn money and social status.

“Even though many people say that Chinese people have become more and more open, actually I think many of them are conservative. For example although we stress that you have to show your talents, it’s not a shame, at the same time we always stress you have to be modest and you cannot show off. Although we say that you choose your own values and we say that you can pursue your own interests, we also say that you have to consider your parents, you have to consider your responsibility for your family,” Xuefei says in the Peking University cafe.

“Once I visited a retired teacher in the PKU philosophy department. He says tradition is just like the stream. What’s underwater you may not realize, but actually it’s in fact every way of your life. On the surface, you think you take many new ideas and you think you are changing, but other than that you’re still holding your traditional values.”

Illustration by Christina Zhang

Claire Zhang is a junior at Yale University. Contact her at

This article appears in the April 2014 issue of China Hands.