April Dan Feng asks her compatriots what the “Chinese Dream” means to them.

A chubby, middle-aged man with glasses pretended to read on his computer while I stared at the wall in his office in the Publicity Department of the Communist Party in Chongqing. This awkward silence followed a period of seemingly smooth small talk, or rather, was ignited by my simple question: “What do you think about the Chinese Dream?”

In 2012, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, during a visit to the National Museum of China, first described the Chinese Dream as “national rejuvenation, improvement of people’s livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society and military strengthening.” Xi also encouraged young people to “dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation.” Soon the phrase became the single most important propaganda slogan in China.

Unsatisfied with only the official interpretation of the “Chinese Dream,” however, I traveled to seven cities in China and struck up interesting conversations with people of different professions and socioeconomic statuses about the “Chinese Dream.” After traveling for two months and keeping a diary of more than 40,000 Chinese characters, I find some episodes thought-provoking and worth sharing.

Besides Chongqing, Chengdu was also one of my major stops on the trip. Tianfu Square, the CBD area in Chengdu, is home to an imposing statue of Chairman Mao, with his right hand stretching out and pointing the way forward. Under the giant statue, I approached a man who was cleaning the streets. I introduced myself as a college student from Beijing and asked, “I’m just curious, but what do you think is the ‘Chinese Dream’?”

He looked at me, his eyes full of alert. After a few seconds, he chuckled awkwardly. “Well, people like me,” he looked at the broom in his hand and sighed, “are in no position to answer this question.”

“But shouldn’t the ‘Chinese Dream’ belong to the Chinese people? What is your dream?”

A long silence ensued.

“I don’t have a dream.” He started to walk away but quickly added, “Just go down to the subway station. You can find the right definition there.”

I walked down the street and finally encountered the “right definition” on a giant propaganda poster: “The Chinese Dream is my own dream,” it read. I looked back at the statue of Mao Zedong, and for a split second I wondered where he was pointing and who exactly was in the position of answering my simple question. As I headed further south to Yunnan Province, I kept asking the same question, only to receive more curious answers.

“What is your dream?” I asked Cao Xunyu, a girl from the Yi ethnic group and a senior at the Lijiang Institute of Education. Xunyu was going to graduate the very next day.

“Honestly, I don’t really have a dream.”

Seeing the surprise on my face, she explained, “I have never thought about it. April, you should understand that Lijiang is different from Beijing. Lijiang is poor and underdeveloped. I know students in Beijing dream big, and you all can achieve great things. But for us, the most practical dream is to go back home and help our parents do farm work.”

“So what’s your plan after graduation?” Sensing the futility of the “dream” conversation, I tried a more practical question.

“I want to join the Communist Party!” her face lit up with excitement.

“Why join the Party?” I was surprised for the second time.

“You will have a lot of privileges after becoming a Party member. In our school, only the best students can join the Party, for it is the most preeminent organization in China. I would be so honored to be part of this organization!” she said matter-of-factly.

For a moment, I had a strong impulse to tell her something, but then I looked into her clear, innocent eyes. She had a right to know many more truths, but why not let her keep her own beautiful dream?

Later that day, I visited the provincial government of Lijiang, Yunnan Province. The propaganda columns on the streets of Lijiang were quite different from those in major cities like Chengdu or Beijing. Some of the slogans, such as “Long Live Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and “Serve the People,” are simply too antiquated to turn heads.

In the government office I met Miss Zhang, a shy but friendly woman in her late 20s, with dark skin and big, watery eyes. “We are in charge of implementing the designed activities from above. For example, now we are organizing an essay competition. The essay topic is ‘My Chinese Dream.’”

Although the real concept of the authorities “above” may be vague, the demands of “above” are always straightforward. Whatever comes from above is to be followed. Interested by the topic of the essay competition, I asked Miss Zhang how it went.

She shook her head in dismay and told me in a low voice, “Well, it is very hard for us to really meet the requirement from above. For example, this time, we are required to submit at least 500 essays. We have tried our best, but now we still only have less than 200 essays. People are just not interested in this.”

“Why keep silent? Why not inform the authorities above about this reality?”

She shrugged, “That’s probably not a good idea. It is ordered from above, so there must be a way to do it. Now, in every school there are hundreds of students aspiring to become Party members. We plan to make them write.”

I had somewhat anticipated this answer, for this technique is prevalent in China’s administrative hierarchy. As students, my Chinese schoolmates and I, members of the lowest rank in the hierarchy, know this bureaucratic tactic all too well. So I asked, “What’s the quality of these essays so far?”

“They are absolutely terrible. People are very reluctant to share or even to think about this topic. Sometimes they just keep silent, and their silence frightens me.” Miss Zhang sighed. Then she went on to explain that people mainly talked about the cliché definitions of the Chinese Dream, instead of offering their own stories and thoughts.

For me, this was not unexpected. Nearly all of the people I interviewed in the seven cities included, some without hesitation, the official definition of “the revitalization of the Chinese nation” while few offered their own ideas. They simply chose not to think for themselves. Amid a sea of dull answers, I was delighted that an elderly woman told me in an unusually frank manner that the real Chinese Dream should be marrying a good boy!

After three more days in Lijiang, I conducted my last interview in the small city with Professor Pi, a Chinese literature professor at the Lijiang Institute of Education. She is a nice lady, always smiling and calm. After some small talk, I finally asked the question that had kept many silent, “What do you think is the ‘Chinese Dream’?”

She smiled, “Wow! That’s a really good question to ask. Very few of our students have thought about that. It seems like there is indeed a big difference in college education between Beijing and Lijiang.”

I then explained that I actually go to school in the US. “Oh, that’s even more impressive,” she added, averting her eyes, “I hear that the education there really emphasizes on critical thinking. I wonder if you have a lot of discussions in class? Are you taught to question authority all the time? I wonder how the teachers can live with these students.”

Her frivolous and sarcastic tone suddenly made me feel uneasy, but I soon collected myself and went on to clarify that in an American classroom, critical thinking is seen as the ability to form and defend your own arguments, rather than blindly accepting or instantly rejecting what you hear or read. “Critical” is not the same as negative, hostile, or adversarial; it is simply reflective. We don’t question all the time, but we do challenge authority whenever we feel necessary.

Upon hearing my explanation, Professor Pi smiled again and said, “Ah, I see. So that’s why you wonder what the ‘Chinese Dream’ is. I assume that you have an answer in mind already. What is it?”

I stopped for a moment. To tell the truth, I didn’t really know. That was why I started this research project. I wanted to know whether there was a “Chinese Dream” in people’s hearts. I looked up at her; now it was my turn to be silent. She looked at me with a victorious smile.

After a while, Professor Pi finally said, “You see, I never understand why some people always want to know why. They seem to be desperate in finding a meaning in everything. But in fact, there are so many things that have no meaning at all—until we give them meanings by actually doing them.”

She went on to explain the fulfillment of volunteer work ordered from above and handed me a small book documenting various volunteering activities in which the students at the Lijiang Institute of Education had participated. According to Professor Pi, since students in Lijiang had limited opportunities and experiences, none of them had any idea what volunteer work was until they were told to rush to plant trees and care for the elderly in nursing homes.

“Through working, we understand it more and more. Here the logic is that no matter what the government tells us to do, we do it without asking why. Usually we will gradually figure out the meaning. This is the case with the Chinese Dream you are asking about. I guess most of the people you interviewed kept silent, right? They probably have never thought about it, but they are already doing it. You see, Chinese people always champion doing more than talking.”

Professor Pi’s words resonated with part of me, because that was precisely my logic back in middle school when I was drowning in a sea of exercise questions without ever questioning the value of rote learning. In high school, I gradually picked up better study methods, but still, when I first had a seminar class at the University of Notre Dame, I considered American classes quite inefficient: people discussed so much in class, some points relevant and valuable but others far from pertinent. I was so used to having the only right answer provided from above and then trying to figure out why it was right by myself.

In colleges all over America, the students are the ones who decide what the right answers are. Coming up with the answers is always challenging, but it makes me feel like I have more control over my life. It may still be too early for me to say which way is better, but I have a feeling that once I started thinking and deciding things for myself, I realized how much more I could accomplish. I could never be kept silent anymore.

The man in the office of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China was still staring into his computer. On the wall behind him hung a propaganda poster that read: “The Chinese Dream is my own dream.” The man didn’t even want to read this “right” definition to me. He simply feared saying something wrong.

In the embarrassing silence, I finally stood up and said goodbye to him. He did not move his lips. I walked out of his office and spotted another giant statue of Mao in the tree-lined courtyard in front of the grandiose City Hall. While Chairman Mao was pointing forward, under his statue the silence was deafening.

April Dan Feng is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame. Contact her at dan.feng.13@nd.edu.

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