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Imitation life

The Nightmare. Light guides your eyes to the center of a dark room, where a girl dressed in a school uniform looks up at the children’s backpacks that dangle above her. The backpacks are accompanied by threatening metal daggers, and she is surrounded by the weight of a three-ton circle made of graded examination booklets and children’s drawings. “The Nightmare” is a sculptural art exhibit created by Li Zhanyang in reaction to the school pressures that his daughter and other Chinese children face.

This obsession with high achievement and education is tied up in Confucian values, but it is also becoming increasingly related to western materialism, China’s economy and upward mobility. In China, “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother” is a best seller. Even during the Cultural Revolution, when scholars lost favor with the government, China strived to raise its literacy rates. And despite the push for achievement and academic success, the odds are still slim for a rural Chinese child to attain a university education.

While out to dinner with a group of Peking University students, I met one student who had migrated to Beijing for college after living his entire life in a rural village. He was the only person in his village to ever attend college. Though he was quick to downplay his achievement in gaining admission to the Harvard of China, he described a long and taxing road to success. He said that during his last two years of high school there were no weekends or holidays. Every day he would wake up at 6 a.m. for reading classes, eat breakfast at school, attend eight classes and end the school day at 6 p.m. After eating dinner at home, he would return to school for another three to four hours of studying and lecturing from the teacher to prepare for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination or Gaokao, an entrance exam into all higher education institutes. The examination, which tests math, English and Chinese, looms large in the minds of Chinese school children. It is the score that will determine their future.

On the wall installation of “The Nightmare,” bundles of sharpened pencils stick accusingly outwards at the onlooker. The pencils are wrapped in the red scarves that are typically worn to distinguish the highest achieving primary school children in China. These scarves are a symbol of the national flag and Young Pioneers of the Communist Party. At a young age, Chinese children understand the need to achieve and receive high marks. Competition in the Chinese educational system is intense and the pressure is constant, but it is unclear if this promoted pathway is truly the glittering road to success that Chinese parents consider it to be. Unlike the slowing supply of Chinese manufacturing laborers, the number of Chinese college graduates is on the steady rise. The New York Times article “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work” highlights the immense supply of educated engineers in China. When Apple needed 8,700 industrial engineers to oversee an assembly line of 200,000 workers, the company predicted it would take nine months to find enough American engineers. In China, it took only 15 days.

However, life as a Chinese engineer is not necessarily paradise or even a guarantee of decent living. Some of Beijing’s most recent graduates are labeled “ants” for their hardworking attitude but cramped living quarters. Until being relocated by recent redevelopment, many young Chinese engineers lived in small, 20 square-meter rooms in the poor Beijing suburb of Tangjialing. According to Chinese sociologist Lian Si, there are no fewer than 10 “intellectual slums” near Beijing.

China has catapulted itself onto the international stage and is positioning itself to become the most powerful country in the world. To maintain a global appearance, the country has gone to some humorous and not so humorous lengths. In 2008, China decided to control the weather. The government flew planes that dropped dust particles in an effort to stimulate the formation of clouds so that it would not rain during the Beijing Olympics. During the development of a national road, the government paid the owners of houses near the road to repaint and redecorate. Chinese “intellectual slums” and inhospitable factory working conditions seem to be a less laughable matter.

In contrast to India, where I observed poverty, corruption and inequity on a regular basis, China’s societal problems are less obvious in glistening Beijing. It took a walk down a quiet street for a Peking University student to say, without provocation, that the most difficult problem China faces is its own inequities in health and education among its people: rural and urban, low and high income. In “The Nightmare” Li Zhanyang comments on the loss of childhood in search of economic and academic success. These issues seem to be the result of China’s rapid growth, but the real question remains: Whose nightmare is this?

Kristen Lee is a Trinity junior who is spending the Spring in Udaipur, India and Beijing, China through the Duke Global Semester Abroad Program. Her column runs every other Monday.

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