Are Chinese students “irresponsible”?

Jetlag and sleep deprivation are both powerful forces of slumber, but neither could make me sleep through the combination on lantern festival of firecrackers marking the 15th day of the new year, and my cat’s equally loud excitement at my return to Beijing. (My picture of this – the lantern festival, that is – up on China Beat tomorrow today.)

Now I’m back in class, and as before I will fill the cracks in my wall of homework with blogging on the Chinese youth on and around the campuses of Peking and Tsinghua universities – following six stories from the generation that will change China.

It seems an appropriate preface on both study and blogging fronts to translate an essay I read recently in my Chinese textbook: “University students’ sense of responsibility” (大学生的责任感), a 1978 essay by Zhang Yifan, taken from Man and Society (人与社会) magazine.

I’m doing this, to be clear from the outset, because I think it’s a load of utter tosh.

Here’s Zhang’s opening (after a lame apology that his isn’t an “objective” study):

I find that at present many university students lack a sense of responsibility, can’t be certain of their own part to play in society, and consequently lack the strength to make progress.

For the majority of students, he goes on, their “attitude to study is for the most part extremely passive”; those with a positive study attitude are truly rare (凤毛麟角 – as rare as a phoenix feather or unicorn horn). Or to be specific:

They study not because of their own interest, nor to improve themselves, but only to get academic credit and eventually a diploma … their only concern is to find a relatively good career.

That’s a criticism of Chinese students by older generations (this is an assumption – I think a pretty safe one – that Zhang is older) that I also hear today. Students are irresponsible: they don’t care about their studies, they only think about their CV.

That may be well and true for many (and not only in China, by the way). But can we stick with ‘many’, in that case, and leave the pronoun ‘they’ out of it? Please don’t go moaning about the ‘quality’ of Chinese students (their suzhi ç´ è´¨ – a word I’ve never liked), as Zhang does, as if you can sum up a generation in an adjective.

What Zhang does have going for his diatribe is that the system gets an earful too:

education is almost entirely aimed at [getting students through] the two narrow doors of gaokao and zhongkao [middle and high school exams].

The education students receive before college, Zhang writes, is all about ‘cramming’ (填鸭式 – a wonderful phrase, literally ‘force-feeding a duck’). And the prevailing atmosphere is of 升学主义 – a more clumsy to translate ‘philosophy of advancing up the education ladder’. Zhang goes on:

Once they’ve gotten into university, there’s no need for another gaokao, all their pressure suddenly eases, and the only goal which attracted them before and encouraged their effort disappears with it.

Students are equally mindless, we gather, when they come out of college:

To many graduates who intend to continue studying abroad, I ask them what their career aims are? Why are they taking graduate study abroad? The majority are at a loss, they don’t know how to answer, they only know they must get a PhD or master’s degree and then think again.

Again, there’s a grain of truth in this. When I showed Tony this essay, he said that the above rings a bell when it comes to many of his classmates. But Tony himself is an example of a soon-to-graduate student with a very clear goal for study abroad. In my experience (albeit at two elite universities), there are as many exceptions as ‘rules’. And … dare I say it … are young people not allowed to be uncertain about their future?

My objection to Zhang isn’t that he’s all wrong: it’s that it’s all too easy to lump Chinese youth into one category, blaming the suzhi of “irresponsible” students without any sympathy, and with only a cursory look at the root education environment. (This said, Zhang does blame schools for neglecting moral education – deyu 德育 – and family heads for only wanting their kids to get into a famous school.)

For me, the final straw was this bitter beauty of a whine:

[Students are] extremely self-centered. You only need to observe carefully, and it isn’t hard to discover that among those chatting loudly in public places, or cutting queues, many are university students. … [they] constantly raise requests, but infrequently express gratitude. … [they] are only concerned with their own interests, and don’t know how to respect and thank others.

Quite frankly, when I read that shopping-list of complaints, my mind leapt to older generations of Chinese: the loud businessman with his mobile on the subway, the taxi-driver spitting out the window, that kind of thing. I also think of the film Grumpy Old Men, and the phrase “kids these days…”. I guess: each to his own stereotype.

Of course, this post is a little spurious: it’s a 1978 essay, after all. (Which begs the question: on what basis what Zhang writing this thing, anyway? Universities only just opened again in 1978, after the college wastelands of the Cultural Revolution.)

So forgive me for falling into the same trap as Zhang did, and mouthing off. But I hear it all too often: Chinese students today only care about themselves. That’s why I enjoyed this reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun – or at least that past generations grumbling about the irresponsible youth of today certainly isn’t.

Exhibit A: here’s a member of more-or-less exactly the generation Zhang is talking about – also, to polish off the irony, surnamed Zhang – who has grown up only to complain in turn about the next generation (for those behind the firewall: Zhang Shihe, 56, quoted calling students today “the stupid generation”), thirty years on.


  1. It’s a puzzler for sure. The article is sourced as《人与社会》杂志1978年四月号张一蕃先生的《大学生的责任感》一文. so: ‘Man and Society’ magazine, April 1978… as we both noticed, the first year of college for a whole generation. Maybe Mr Zhang is pining for the good ‘ole days of the Cultural Revolution, when young people stuck to smashing Buddhist temples as Red Guards…

    (good to hear from you, btw. hope all’s well!)

  2. It was great to catch this article for the second time at Hao Hao Report, Alec. So did you ever manage to suss out the provenance of this potential “spurious” post? I, too, wondered about the 1978 year and doubly so once you emphasized it.

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