Guest appearances

This is a guest post by Katrina Hamlin, who last year blogged, from Chengdu, the one year anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake. Now, in the wake of the Yushu quake, she returns to the topic of youth involvement in relief efforts, interviewing (by email and Skype) her former students.


On 12th May 2009 I reported Chengdu students’ quiet but sincere response to the Sichuan disaster’s first anniversary. Walter Brown, manager at Sichuan Quake Relief, suggested that their concern and desire to help represented the growth of China’s civil society. He described children telling the world “I want to grow up to be a volunteer”. The earthquake had wrecked havoc in some of China’s poorest and most vulnerable communities, but something positive was emerging from the mess.

A desire to volunteer was strengthened by the Beijing Olympics. People were keen to play a part in hosting the games. It was an honour to be among the volunteers lending a hand, representing China. As a Brit I was repeatedly asked whether or not I would volunteer for the London Olympics. Many were shocked when I admitted that I simply wasn’t interested in the Olympics and might even be in China in 2012.

The government has also been investigating the possibilities. A number of think tanks are researching social innovation, and Beijing hosted an international conference examining the ways in which civil society can help development.

So I expected students and young people in Chengdu and elsewhere to pursue a growing interest in volunteering and the third sector. I thought that Qinghai’s quake would be another catalyst. It’s two weeks until the second anniversary of the 2008 quake in Sichuan, and the papers are full of Yushu’s tragedy. The Sichuanese are experiencing vivid deja vu. “Every time I heard earthquake it will remaind [sic] me of Sichuan,” wrote a student from Sichuan Normal University.

Qinghai’s disaster is smaller in scale than Sichuan’s but no less devastating for the individuals involved; and like the 2008 quake, it will be followed by another event that is a matter of national pride. Next month Shanghai will open the 2010 Expo. That doesn’t mean very much to my friends in England, but the festival has been eagerly anticipated in China. When I first visited the city in 2005 they already had a clock counting down the seconds until the opening. Like the Olympics, there’s an understanding that individual citizens can help show China in a positive light. Opportunities to influence the Expo’s success range from working the pavilions to breaking the age old habit of wandering downtown Shanghai in pyjamas.

I asked my former student Jasmine and some of her friends about their responses to the quakes, how they went about showing their sympathy and helping the victims. Jasmine herself lived through the Sichuan quake. She and two of the other participants were among those I interviewed on the quake’s first anniversary in 2009.

Some of them expressed a desire to be actively involved in relief work, and felt that wanting to be a volunteer was increasingly common.

If i have chance to be a volunteer or give my sympathy directly to the people here,i will help them without any hesitation – Voilet

I want to do more things to help them just as others helped me in 2008 – Demo

I would like to be a volunteer if I can ! … i think there will be more and more youth take part in volunteer jobs – Leon

…from my point of view,before the earthquake
and the Beijing Olympics,there are already many young people
wanted to contribute themself to something,but for some reasons,
like they don’t know what to do or have no determinations,these
two gave them a chance to find it out,they feel strongly that the
sociaty [sic] needs them’ – Moon

But this was not a universal reaction, and those who wanted to be involved foresaw problems. It is difficult to volunteer. After the Sichuan quake, the press and other organisations called for volunteers. This time, it is harder to find that kind of opportunity. If there is no organisation with which to volunteer, efforts may be futile and could even make things worse. China has ‘such a lot of good students, and such a lot of excellent people’ who would want to thrown themselves into voluntary work if given the chance. But if you let them get involved, there could be “some trouble”, Jasmine admitted; not everyone has the necessary expertise.

In a follow-up interview Jasmine added that there were additional problems. You could ask to volunteer with an organisation. But they would most probably ask for certain documents, or request that you go and register you interest at such and such an office, where you would be sent on to another office, and then another. An alternative would be to set up a team of volunteers of your own. But that wouldn’t be easy, they may also lack the necessary know-how, and in some circumstances it’s likely that it wouldn’t be allowed. As Jasmine summed up, “procedure will be complicated” for a would-be volunteer. She also pointed out that this earthquake, even coupled with the expo, would not push the voluntary movement forward (at least in Sichuan) because the tragedy in Qinghai is still dwarfed by Sichuan’s disaster.

The Sichuan quake also saw a great call for fundraising. Organizations and individuals gave generous donations of money and goods. But this time, things are different.

i can’t make sure if the money i donate will be used properly – Moon

about the money, I m not quite sure the all the money will be uesd [sic] where it should be – Leon

Scandals following dubious fundraising by public figures like Zhang Ziyi have caused some to lose faith in charitable giving. Others were still keen to donate, but Jasmine pointed out that unlike in 2008 there hadn’t been any requests for public donations in the media.

Civil society needs space and particular kinds of opportunities for good will to grow into something practical. In that sentence, I’m afraid the word ‘opportunities’ includes the disasters that provoke an acute desire to contribute something, anything, for the cause. In China, patriotism is also a greater motivation than it is elsewhere; “Smply,we love China!And China need us,” said Demo. But the structures and organisations needed to use these opportunities are still hard to find.

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.

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”.

As the jolly red man approaches, here are a couple of green thoughts … beginning with a message from Peking University students:


No, this does not mean “down with Christmas”.

Rather, this was December 17th, the day before the end of the climate change conference in Copenhagen. During the day, students gathered on the ‘triangle’ (an open space on campus where the Tiananmen movement was born twenty years ago) to support action promised by the Chinese government to reduce carbon emissions. Then in the evening,

thousands of PKU students turned off their lights for 12minutes and 17 seconds. The figures of “COP15”, “↓C” and “V” composed of light appeared on the dorm buildings, vividly delivering the students’ wishes to reduce carbon emission and cope with climate change.

The full story is on Beida’s website, here.

Next, a snap from a conference I attended on the 15th, on my new campus, Tsinghua University: “Green leap: a new strategy for sustainable development”. (I take the liberty of modifying their own English title:)

The gist, put most succintly by the American keynote speaker, prof. Stuart Hart of Cornell University (and horrifyingly simplified by me here) is putting the geeks who invent clean technology in the same room as more profit-minded businessmen, helping green tech to make some green dollars. China, with its high savings rate and market as gargantuan as its carbon emissions, will be key. (Not to mention China’s own contributions to green tech. On which note, this story by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker is simply a must read.)

To either side of me were Tsinghua students, clean shaved and buzz cut (I’ve yet to see any exception of note to this norm), concentrating on the Chinese translation coming through their thick headphones. They then took this headgear off to listen to Chinese panelists – from businessmen to a government representative – discuss and solidify the message. Their seriousness was as palpable as the smog outside the window.

I’ll write more specifics of Chinese student attitudes to Copenhagen after the holidays. For the moment, a merry Christmas to all, and a new year’s wish for a healthy world for China’s youth – and this youth – to grow up in.

Girl power on a male campus

Giving the ‘V for victory’/secretly-dissing-this-person sign (as far as I know, those are the two options for what it means in Britain, not sure elsewhere) is Zhu Hong. She’s a bubbly personality, majoring in hydraulic engineering at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. ‘Mickey’/having-the-mickey-taken-out-of-her (oh public school, I miss you so) is the more bashful Shu Longmei, taking civic engineering. Does every Tsinghua student study engineering, you wonder? Pretty much, it’s China’s equivalent of MIT. And how many of them are girls? Not too many.

These two, and others I’ve spoken to, guesstimate a 3:1 m-f ratio here at Tsinghua, and know of one class of forty with just one girl. To them, this is all perfectly natural: Hong tells me technical subjects like engineering are “xinku” (“tough” or “hard work”) and attract the guys – I think that’s more pride at her own merits than sign of a gender-biased society. Hong (or ‘Tracy’) is a loud and bold Southerner, unruffled as the ‘minority’ gender on campus and brimming with infectious self-confidence.Has she picked up a boyfriend in this 3:1 world? “Bu yong!” “Don’t need one!”

It seems that the campus buzz-cuts are scared off by long-locked classmates who know more about suspension bridges and treble-pulleyed-pressure-gears (if such a thing exists) than Tang dynasty poetry like the pretty girls at neighbouring Beida study. In other words, the image is that Tsinghua’s girls aren’t exactly Zhang Ziyis. Another ‘engineering girl’ I chatted with tells me a long-standing student inside-joke: “There are three types of people: guys, girls and Tsinghua girls.” Sometimes, they add a fourth: “guys who are the boyfriends of Tsinghua girls”.

This is all tongue-in-cheek of course, and there’s a campus tradition to match it. Tsinghua students celebrate ‘Girl’s day’ every March 7th (the day before Mother’s Day “International Women’s Day, incidentally also the day of the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia” – thanks Chris!; ‘Guy’s day’ is October 2nd, the day after National Day). In the run-up to Girl’s day there’s a secret-Santa-esque ballot by which each girl is alloted a secret admirer who on the day showers her with little gifts and attentions. The girl who told me this exploited a loophole and had three such admirers last year. Not a bad life…

On this blog, one of the jobs I give myself without anyone asking (mental note: must stop doing that) is to keep an eye on news related to Tsinghua and Peking University, my campuses this and last year respectively. Well, skimming through the Beijing Times (京华报纸) on National Day I came across this article, which is so strikingly newsworthy that I simply had to translate it and share the knowledge. Nitpicking is welcome, but go easy as this is my first translation.

As an aside before we begin, I have not come across this particular cat at Beida. But every lunch hour last year, as I walked from my classroom to the noodle canteen, I would pass a dozen excessively plump felines lounging on the grass, surrounded by food which passing students had thrown them. Occasionally one of the cats would deem it worthy of the effort to reach out a swollen paw and grab some of this food. Mostly, however, they just sunbathed, melting in their own comfort.


Beida’s “Academic Cat” attends the school’s classes

On the campus of Peking University, there is a cat who for five years has taken class together with students, winning the deep affection of teachers and students. Now this cat is a hot topic online, and has become famous as the “academic cat”.

Yesterday afternoon, your reporter came across this cat at a teaching building in the East quarter of Beida. With the exception of a small stump in place of its tail, it is by no means different to an ordinary tabby cat. It unhurriedly ambled into the building, then with pattering steps passed proficiently through the winding hallways. On the way, it received the treatment of an honoured guest, its fans looking on every now and then. Passing by the toilet, it even exhibited all the fine training of a “cultured cat”. It leapt up to the hand-washing basin, using its front paws to open the water faucet, bobbing its body down to begin drinking, and when finished it skillfully shut the water faucet and spun around to go out. However, possibly because the onlooking students were too many, in the end it didn’t enter a classroom to sit in on class, and left.

According to young Liang, the first Beida student to post this online, this stray cat frequently attends class, beginning from 2004, and its popularity is growing. Because its tail is severed, everyone familiarly calls it “short stump”. “Short stump”, when taking class, has refined academic tastes, philosophy and art class are its favourites. For a long time, everyone has become used to the unusual, tacitly recognising it as a member of class, and never chasing it out. One time, when “short stump” had to leave halfway through class, one of the teachers personally opened the door for it, joking “I haven’t been teaching the class well, my apologies!”

After “short stump” became well-known, many people expressed a desire to take her in as a pet. Liang says there are already compassionate people who construct housing for the stray cats on Beida’s campus and feed them regularly. But “short stump” is the only cat who goes it alone, and doesn’t like that lifestyle. Nethertheless, the attentive Liang has noticed the change in “short stump” after it rose to fame: “Because it’s often watched by others, it isn’t as carefree as before, it’s a little short-tempered, so we would be better not to disturb it’s life.”





昨天下午,记者在北大东区一座教学楼前碰到了这只猫,除了尾巴只有一小截外,它与普通黄猫并没什么区别。它慢悠悠地走进了教学楼,继而迈着小碎步在 曲折的走廊里熟练地穿行。一路上,它受到贵宾级待遇,不时有“粉丝”前来围观。路过卫生间时,它还展现了其作为一只“文化猫”的良好修养。只见它纵身跃上 洗手池,用前爪打开水龙头,俯下身子开始喝水,喝毕熟练地把水龙头关上才转身出来。不过,也许是围观的同学太多,它最终没有进教室听课,就离开了。

据最初在网上发帖的北大学生小梁介绍,从2004年起,这只流浪猫就经常去教室听课,人气很旺。因为它的尾巴断了一截,所以大家亲昵地叫它“小 断”。“小断”听课很有品位,哲学类和艺术类的课程都是它的最爱。时间久了,大家也见怪不怪了,默认它为教室的一员,从未赶过它。一次,“小断”中途要 走,某老师还亲自开门幽默道:“课讲得不好,对不住了啊!”

“小断”出名后,很多人表示想收养它。小梁说,已经有爱心人士为校园流浪猫搭建了房屋并且按时喂食,只是像“小断”这样特立独行的猫,不喜欢过那样 的生活。不过,细心的小梁发现了“小断”出名后的变化,“因为时常被人围观,它不像以前那样悠然自得了,有些烦躁,我们还是不要打扰它的生活为好。”

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