Yesterday, tweets and pictures of a cute American teenager scanning items for customers in Target went viral and #AlexFromTarget became a trending hashtag on Twitter as well as other social media in the U.S. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, a Chinese young man became as famous as, if not more so than, Alex from Target, on social media, although for very difference reasons. On Sina Weibo, the hashtag #WorshippingTsinghuaStudyGod (in ZH) occupied the top of the trending topics yesterday, and a page hosted by People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CPC, is dedicated to it, attracting tens of millions of viewers. The young man in the center of this public attention, Tsinghua University senior Han Yanjun, may not be as cute as Alex (or is he?), but he is sure smarter than most of his peers. One of the most viral weibos on the topic, posted by the People’s Daily, reads:
[Stop claiming you have a solid math and sciences foundation. . .] Yesterday at the defense of Tsinghua 2014 Special Award, the transcript of Han Yanjun, a senior in the Department of Electronic Engineering, was shown, and some students said, “The result of the defense is really not important anymore. Look at the photo below, and I think it says a lot.”
A photo is attached to the weibo, which shows a powerpoint slide projected on a screen that lists the student’s perfect grades for the core courses required in his major.
To those who haven’t experienced the brutal competition that Chinese youth are faced with in their education, it seems absurd that a college student should make national news solely because of his perfect grades, let alone be crown as a “Study God.” However, anyone who has experienced or witnessed such pressure will know exactly why such a academically successful student is set up publicly as a sort of demigod for students and parents to worship. As academic performance is an overwhelmingly dominant criterion in students’ evaluation that determines the quality of college education they receive and their future career opportunities, Chinese students, their parents, and their teachers put enormous emphasis on exams and grades.
The most notorious hoop that most high school graduates have to jump through is the college entrance exam. For many students, from elementary school through high school, all those years of hard studying all comes down to this one exam. Although college admissions have been growing exponentially since 1999, and since 2008, the number (in ZH) of high school graduates who participated in the college entrance exam has declined (due to, among other factors, an increasing number of students seeking college education overseas), the exam remains extremely competitive. According to the latest available records (in ZH), in 2012, 9.15 million high school graduates took the college entrance exam, and 6.85 million, or 75 percent, were admitted. The admission rate does not seem low, but, due to the vastly varied quality of education across colleges and universities, high school students are competing with each other for the few spots in better universities that will give them an edge when they go on to the increasingly competitive job market after graduation. For rural students, especially, getting a college education and landing a job in the city is not only a way to escape the fate of low wage jobs as those that tens of millions of migrant workers have, but an opportunity to change their resident status from rural to urban and have access to many resources and services that are unavailable to the rural population.
In any case, you get the picture. Academic competition is fierce in Chinese schools and universities. In addition, unlike in the U.S., for instance, where students’ grades are considered privacy and not for disclosure without students’ consent, in China, the competition is done publicly, where students’ grades are published in school and students are often ranked according to their grades. Top-ranked students are praised by teachers and revered by students and their parents, and those on the bottom and their parents are often shamed. Such public ranking of students according to their grades puts even more pressure on not only students, but their parents as well. In fact, academic pressure is a leading cause of suicides among youth in China, where youth suicide rate is higher than any other country in the world (see some of the reports here, here, and here, in ZH).
In this context, the state sanctioned celebration of a “Study God” no longer seems that strange. However, the term “Study God” itself is no ingenious invention of the People’s Daily. Rather, it is a term coined by the tormented and self-mocking Chinese students. Besides, the term is not one of a kind, either, but one of an array of terms that characterize different types of students based mainly on their academic performances, while addressing, at times, some nuanced characteristic demeanors of the students in each category. The Beijing Youth Daily summarized some of these terms:
- Study maniac (学魔, xuémó): They are obsessed with studying, unable to live without doing exercises in their workbooks.
- Study Master (学霸, xuébà): They’re highly intelligent, social, and well adjusted. Good at everything, they’re born with charisma and class.
- Study God (学神, xuéshén): They’re tall and handsome/beautiful, spirited, and aloof. They’ve gone through countless advanced workbooks yet still are able to keep the cool with little effort.
- Study Punk (学痞, xuépî): They sleep in class, and fucking around outside class, yet they always get high grades.
- Study Plebeian (学民, xuémín): With average intelligence, they worship Study Masters but despise Study Scums (see below) and the ranks below them. They only have one belief, that one day, they’ll surpass Study Masters, for which they work extra hard.
- Study Imbecile (学弱, xuéruò): They burn the late night oil all the time, frail, unable to bear the pressure for long.
- Study Ash (学渣, xuézhā): Half of their intelligence has been burned in studying. They work hard, but never succeed.
- Study Disabled (学残, xuécán): They’re completely burned by studying. They’re in much pain and unrecognizable from the torment of studying.
- Study Scum (学沫, xuémò): They always feel lacking in intelligence, but they’re not hard working either, getting by each day, hoping to get something for nothing.
- Study Water (学水, xuéshuî): Regarding them, intelligence is no longer relevant. They’ve given up long ago.
Certainly, a hierarchy is assumed in such a lexical invention. Indeed, some of the terms are quite humiliating and it is not hard to imagine the damages they can do to kids who are labeled with them. On the other hand, one cannot help being amazed by the kids’ sense of humor under such pressure to perform. Even the most derogatory terms among them have been used by kids in such self-mocking ways that express no other than their resistance and rejection to an educational system they resent, for good reasons perhaps.
On a final note, one may not see many high school students working in retail stores in China, saving money for his first car or the next iPhone, like Alex, since most of the Chinese kids are hard at study, stuck between the pages of their textbooks, notebooks, and workbooks. However, Americans may see more and more Han Yanjuns landing in graduate schools in American universities after they graduate from Tsinghua University, Peking University, or other top Chinese universities. After all, more than a quarter (in ZH) of undergraduates from Tsinghua and Peking University went on to attend graduate schools overseas after they graduated in 2013. As to Han Yanjun, word on the street (actually, according to the People’s Daily, in ZH) says that a professor in Stanford has remarked that he “has exceeded the requirements for a Ph.D. student.” I guess one would hardly expect anything less than that from a “Study God.”