“We dare to ask which road can a student take”

Before my Journey To The West to spend the Chinese new year in mother Blighty, I saw an odd thing at the South gate of my university, Tsinghua. It was early evening, the same time I always leave the library and board the homewards sardine bus 307, usually by way of a piping hot jianbing from the talkative street-food vendor Hua shifu – Master Flower (her surname).

But this time – standing at the foot of the overpass which leads to 307 – there was a new element to the picture. A fifty/sixty-something lady with sad wrinkles, clutching a wad of sheets, pressing them into the hands of passerbys who would either reject or take and drop into the next bin – or on the street (this is China). It was a sad enough sight that I took one of her without even a jianbing pit-stop.

I glanced over the sheet on the bus, and wished I’d stopped to talk to the sad looking lady. It wasn’t an advert – my assumption – but a petition, a plea for justice for her daughter or granddaughter (hard to guess). I didn’t get more than the gist then – the Chinese was written in a flowery and overly rhetorical style, as you will see – but here I am in my Oxford home, with a dictionary at hand and a free morning.

So here it is. (In quotes, the whole thing is long.)

The plea is entitled “Beida exams are illegal and chaotically marked, we dare to ask which road can a student take?” (北大考试违法乱纪,敢问学子路在何方?). And the first sentence gives an idea of the tone in a nutshell:

我们是四川资阳人,千里迢迢来北京不为别的, 只为女儿讨回公道!
We are from Ziyang in Sichuan, we came to Beijing from a thousand miles far away, with the single purpose of demanding justice for our daughter.

The injustice in question is that their daughter Chen Xiaoyan “is a current graduate student at Beijing Foreign Languages College. At the beginning of 2008 she took the examination to a Masters program at Beida.” But the Japanese listening section was missing 20 questions, and even the supervisor was “at a loss for what to do”. As a result, Xiaoyan only got 43 marks in that section (50 is the lowest pass mark). Despite good performance in other sections, Beida didn’t take her.

What followed, they describe succintly as “first, hubbub; second, deceit; third, delay; fourth, ignored” (一哄二骗三拖四不管). As a family, they appealed to the examiners, to Beida, to local and national authorities – but were given the cold shoulder at every turn. This took its price on them all:

从去年到今年,我们全家一直生活在水生火热中,为讨公道家中积蓄花光,精神遭受崩溃试的打击,父母子女无不忧虑,风餐露宿,生死不顾。From last year [2008] to this year, all our family has constantly lived through fire and water, to demand justice we’ve used up all our family savings, our nerves have been subjected to crumbling blows, the whole family is anxious, we’ve endured arduous hardships [lit. to eat the wind and sleep in the dew], not caring what the cost is.

Next up, rage against the machine:

If the management of Beida can [only] appreciate the difficulty and suffering of the exam-taking sons and daughters of the simple, honest common folk [lit. laobaixing, the ‘Old Hundred Names’] there will never again be such obstinate refusal to care. This kind of practice makes a mockery of fellow countrymen and our society’s students, and lacks responsibility to society.

So now the family Chen is resorting to distributing flyers in Beijing – presumably while continuing to petition through formal channels – and hoping their case will attract attention and support. Interestingly, they single out the internet, saying “the materials related to this event which we published online have mostly been ‘blackened’ [deleted/censored]” (网上我们登上去的事件的资料多数都被黑了). Continuing:

We ask the masses to judge which side is right, we ask the Party and the People to support us! Our whole family, except for our little daughter who has some knowledge of the internet, are all internet illiterate, we ask those learned in morality from all walks of life, to give us plentiful advice, help and support on this matter!

I find it telling that a laobaixing family recognises the internet as a tool for getting their case out there in the public eye – though perhaps not mum/grannie, who was clearly sticking with A4, for one. I also sadden to think that they have as much chance of becoming a celebrity cause online as they do handing out flyers to uninterested passerbys at Tsinghua. Perhaps this dramatic ending flourish will help:


Beida in the hearts of students, it can be said, is a ship which has sailed for thousands of hundreds of years, with vast numbers of students as the steady flow of water*. How can this big ship be aloof and superior, when examinees’ feel indignation and dissatisfaction? All the pitiable hearts of parents under heaven [tianxia, a common – if classical – Chinese phrase], all the pitiable suffering lives of students, all the cold windows of twenty years**! Who will back us up? Who will believe the words of the laobaixing? Who will hold up a cloudless sky for our students? Where is the truth? Does justice exist? We must swear to fight on to the end! We will stop only when the demands of justice are met!

The letter is signed of ‘family of Chen Xiaoyan’, and at the bottom it gives the numbers of Beida’s central office (010-62751201) and the National Ministry of Education (010-66096114). Here’s a photo of the original sheet:

I won’t comment except to mention that Beida is plagued by accusations of admissions inequality, of which a missing set of exams questions is I imagine just an anomaly. More pressing, I’d venture, are the wildly imbalanced quotas of students to accept from provinces and municipalities with varying populations – discrimation according to birthplace. But it all shows up the problems in the system, or more to the point here, the indifference in the appeals process. And please no one say ‘but China is so big’.

Finally, good luck to family Chen is the go-get-’em year of the tiger!


* to Chinese speakers: if there’s a less cumbersome way of translating that, please tell me! And am I right in thinking that this is a really odd metaphor even in the original?

** ditto. Update: other and better translators have suggested for this “a long and arduous period of study” and “burning the midnight oil”.


  1. 广大学子们似源源不断的海水矣 So vast is the student populace, their supply as unfailing as the very water from the sea! 矣 A classical particle as you will have noticed which is used as an interjection.
    寒窗二十 a student’s long years of academic studies. This refers to the scholar studying by a cold window. If you want to find an equivalent by preserving the idiomatic flavour of this line, I would translate it as ‘burning of the midnight oil’. Just a thought.
    载 a particle of exaltation 岂。。。。载 = 难道。。。。吗?a remnant of the classical form of the vernacular which will undoubtedly add a touch of cultured authority to the line. Maybe possible to translate as 多么!何等!How pitiful it is for her to have been burning the midnight oil for so many years without the support of anyone.
    I hope this helps.
    By the way, I’ve noticed you’ve used [] in the translation at the end. I hope you don’t mind my pointing this out, but as the original text corresponds exactly to the translation, you should use (). In fact, I wouldn’t even mention this unless you wish to convey to the non-Chinese speaker a sense of the romanticism of the language. The reasons are a) The notion of ‘Heaven’ presents a certain Westocentric (Judeo-Christian) bias, which was completely unfamiliar to the Chinese before the introduction of western monotheist spirituality. b) The contemporary Chinese upon hearing the word will most probably be completely devoid of the ideas the individual characters convey semantically. Rather, they will be more likely to hear the word as a phonetic representation corresponding to ‘world’ as opposed to the idea of ‘everything under heaven’. I’ve spoken to Xiaofei a lot about this sort of thing and the Chinese don’t seem to mentally conjure up the character-based semantic idea. Take Heilongjiang 黑龙江. From what I found out by asking when I was up there, the Chinese don’t envision the ‘River of Black Dragons’ upon hearing the word, rather they understand it to signify a geographic entity quite detached from the semantic meaning of the characters. Still, that’s a different argument as we’re discussing the written form….

  2. It’s definitely okay to say “which road can a student take”. Or maybe it can be translated as “We dare to ask about the future of students”.

  3. thanks for this, I’d been scratching my head over that one.

    and if you’re still with me, how would you have translated the second clause of the title? (敢问学子路在何方)

  4. Great post.

    Small note: 十年寒窗 is a set phrase referring to a long and arduous period of study — here they’ve just added their own spin on it.

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