The Linear Path of Life in China
A reflection on the experiences of Chinese people, not the government
I have never met anyone who shares my Chinese first name. In fact, it is not hard for a Chinese to have a unique first name among the people he/she knows.
When Chinese parents decide on a name for their child, there are a lot of considerations involved: gender, the time of birth, the generation of the child, the five elements in Taoism, the good virtue and fortune celebrated in classic literature and ancient tales…
The resulting name encompasses the parents’ expectations for the child. For example, my first name is Wenlu, with Wen standing for culture and Lu standing for jade, signifying that my parents wish for me to be cultural and graceful and to be mellow but have strength.
These expectations from parents are so important that — in my observation over the years — they tend to shape who the child becomes, and are oftentimes so specific that they give the child a sense of uniqueness. Therefore, in the earlier years of my childhood, I always felt like I was special, or at least very much encouraged to be so.
However, this sense of uniqueness was soon challenged when I enrolled in primary school. Suddenly the only things that seemed to matter were grades and the disciplines that would help achieve those grades.
I was told how to take notes, how to memorize, and how to prepare for tests. I was also told what I should be doing during breaks, where to put my arms in class, and how to line up to go downstairs as a class. I was fine with many of these micromanaging rules — except for one, which encouraged all girls to put their hair up if not cut their hair short. My hair has a natural curl rare among Chinese girls, and I loved to let it down. Nevertheless, after several times of getting caught and being scorned for my hair, I gave up. Eventually, it was cut short by my mom for convenience.
With everyone following the same standard of behavior, it is easy for a kid to feel just like any other. The only way to reclaim their sense of uniqueness is to get good grades, if not the best grades.
And you do so not by being different, but by being better; not by breaking the rules, but by better following them, or even helping to reinforce them.
Students in elementary school are exceptionally malleable and, like most others, I soon had no problem following the system. By the time of middle school, I learned to be more diligent, perseverant, adaptable, and overall better disciplined.
Nonetheless, even for a good student like me, there were days that I was annoyed by how intense some rules were or how invasive the system could be. Whenever I felt this sense of annoyance, the first thought that occurred to me was always “well, what can I do?” and “besides, it will all be over after GaoKao (the college entrance exam in China).”
But what is after GaoKao? I never gave it serious thought — whatever it is, it felt very far away from the middle school me, both in terms of time and the level of comprehension.
However, the question lingered in my mind and started to surface at the dinner table at the beginning of high school.
“Dad, I sometimes wonder why I need to study.”
“But why do I need to go to college?”
“Why do I need to get a good job?”
“Why do I need to get married?”
There was never one thorough and profound conversation that answered all my questions, but one day, when I was walking on a pedestrian bridge, the view of traffic going by suddenly brought me to a moment of clarity.
From the bridge, I saw people looking for the right stairs to their exits; I saw those climbing the stairs in a hurry to get up or down the bridge; and beneath the bridge, as the traffic lights turned green, dozens of cars raced toward the same direction, leaving the sun sinking behind them.
Children, the elderly, women, and men… Everyone seemed to be rushing, and everyone seemed to have a place to be, but for what? I came to a full stop, and everything I had been absorbing to understand my questions slowly pieced together.
That day, I realized that life after GaoKao is much closer to my experiences than I had imagined, because I was already living in its miniature: the Chinese school.
In school, we follow the rules and obey the teachers; in Chinese society, we adhere to norms and conform to peer pressure. In both environments, there is only one definition of success and one linear path towards that success.
The only significant difference might be the role of gender, which matters much more outside of school.
If you are a man, your success hinges largely on your ability to financially provide for your family.
Therefore, you should go to graduate school after college; a good degree largely determines your value in the Chinese job market (can rarely be replaced by work experience). Then, you should find a high-paying and stable job while trying to own a house and a car before your early 30s, all of which are necessary for finding your future wife and satisfying your in-law family. After marriage, you should continue to advance your career and income to provide a good standard of living for your family and, very importantly, a good education for your child.
On the other hand, if you are a woman, your success depends heavily on your ability to find the “perfect” man and take care of your family; as for your career, you are encouraged to pursue it, but only as long as it does not hinder you from achieving the former two metrics of success.
Therefore, after college, you are encouraged to enroll in graduate school but not to pursue a Ph.D., which will take too long and be too intimidating to men, lowering your chance of finding a suitable man “at the right time.” “The right time” to get married is before your 30s, after which you will be given the label of “leftover women.” After marriage, you are expected by the elderly to have a child soon. Meanwhile, you should take on a flexible job to have the time to take care of not only your child and husband, but also the parents on both sides.
There is one similarity in the paths for men and women: your responsibility for your child does not end with their reaching adulthood. You should still be actively involved in their adult life, during which your child goes through the same experiences as you or your partner did at their age.
The end of your adult life is well connected to the beginning of your child’s. It is a cycle perpetuating through generations.
It is undeniable that Chinese society has gone through many changes since I was in high school. However, if you ask for the most typical life of a Chinese in the city, you will still hear a story remarkably similar to one of the two paths I described.
After all, any deviation from these norms will soon be detected by your family, friends, and your wide circle of acquaintances. Their constant judgment and occasional intervention, like the scrutiny of teachers in school, will likely remind you of the lesson you learned in your childhood: to be better, not different.
When I first came to these realizations in high school, I was too preoccupied with the phenomena to try to understand their origins.
Only many years later did I realize why life in China revolves around linear paths today: these paths are not just imposed by one’s social circles, but are rooted in Confucian values that have shaped Chinese civilization for thousands of years. While traces of history can hardly be seen in the landscape of Chinese cities today, they are still wide-spread and deep-rooted in Chinese minds.
Life in China largely revolves around family, the result of Confucian values that remain imperative to the Chinese today.
In the view of Confucianism, family is the cornerstone of the nation, and establishing a harmonious social order in the society requires such to be done first in the family. Therefore, Confucianism has an elaborate system that defines the ranks and roles of each family member based on age, gender, and blood relation.
Some scholars believe that shortly after the time of Confucius, the Confucian theory that correlates the stability of family to that of a nation no longer held truths. However, the impact of the theory was already wide-spread and ingrained in the mind of the Chinese, giving birth to the two linear paths that best fulfill individual responsibilities toward the family today.
For example, in the parent-child relationship, the one most valued by Confucianism, Confucianism asks parents to raise and educate their children and urges children to provide care in return, an obligation that includes propagating the family.
Thus, entering your adult life, you stay on the path that will help you undertake your duty as someone’s child, and soon as someone’s parent: to fulfill your filial piety, you do not stay single until you are forty even if you do not think you have met the right person; to offer a stable life for your child, you do not get a divorce despite a broken relationship or marriage violence; to be responsible for both your child and your parents, you do not go travel around the world for a year right after college or between jobs, and you do not quit your job either at a whim or to pursue your true passion…
Over the years, I have heard a fair share of conversations among Chinese about the way many of them live the same lives, conversations in which many attribute it to the lack of creativeness or courage in Chinese people. However, I think the reason lies less in the ability to exercise creativity and courage, but more in the choice to prioritize family responsibilities over personal gains.
After all, being creative and courageous means taking risks and sometimes being unrealistic, but responsibilities make people sober and people often sacrifice for love.
Beyond Confucian family values, there is another reason for Chinese people to live similar lives: the Chinese education system.
I did not live through the whole system, but I experienced enough to say that it rarely requires original thought: I was seldom asked questions that prompted critical thinking, not just in tests, but throughout my entire Chinese academic journey.
If you do not contemplate the meaning of historical events, nor come up with your own study plans, then it feels natural that you do not seriously ponder the significance of major life events, nor actively seek out your individual aspirations. Everything already has the best answer — you just need to recite it during tests or follow it in life.
This education system also partly stems from Confucianism, which embraces tradition more than innovation. The philosophy itself is one largely built on the interpretation of great cultural inheritances rather than revolutionary ideas, and this root of revering heritage was never left behind. Therefore, when it was combined with an imperial examination system that focused heavily on standardized knowledge, the meaning of education was defined for the Chinese: master the classics.
There were good reasons for our ancestors to adopt this definition of education. They lived before the technological revolutions and industrialization, before significant lifestyle changes could take place in a decade. Thus, they saw tradition as knowledge still applicable to their time and wisdom gathered from the experiences of countless generations.
While this reasoning is no longer as relevant to China today, a tradition that has endured centuries does not simply go away. This is especially true for a country that reveres tradition as much as China does.
Admittedly, due to increasing public exposure to overseas education, criticism of the education system has soared in China over the last two decades. However, these conversations mostly occur among privileged groups with above-average financial means and oftentimes higher levels of education. They envision a system that will encourage their kids to become more well-rounded, to develop interests and abilities that might not be evaluated by tests, and to have a carefree childhood.
There is nothing wrong with this vision — my parents share the same — but I do believe that it is the financial means of these families that allow room for their vision; many others just want their children to have a better standard of living than they had. A similar line of reasoning could be applied to the current Chinese education system as a whole. There are many improvements that could be made, but for many Chinese, these are distant concerns in the face of the system’s primary function: providing social mobility.
Under the pressure of income inequality and increasing resources for the privileged, a standardized and conformant system that awards students based on their merits — and thus minimizes the necessity of a good background — is one of the last hopes for the less advantaged to change the destiny of their families.
When I first realized that my adulthood in China would likely resemble my life in Chinese school, I did not bother to understand why. At the time, it was also easy for me to avoid thinking about this issue, because I was already put in an international high school by my parents, rendering adulthood in China seemingly irrelevant.
Soon, I started my college life in the U.S, away from my family, my community, and my country. I thought that I would gain the freedom of choice I could never have in Chinese society, and I did. However, I also came face-to-face with the responsibility attached to that freedom: before setting out for my adult life, I needed to first understand myself through reconciling my Western values with my Eastern ones, my individuality with my family, and my present with my past.
That was the time I recognized that to walk my own path, I need to first understand the paths that have been paved before me; to find my way in America, I need to first understand my past in China.
It was this awakening that led me to reflect deeply on my experiences in China and to understand the historical roots of the phenomena I observed. This article is my first attempt at connecting modern Chinese society with that from hundreds of years ago. In the following articles, I will share my perspectives on family, academic, and romantic life in Chinese cities in further detail.
Observations like these are unavoidably generalized and certainly within the limit of my knowledge, but I will try my best to present the story of growing up in a Chinese city and the cultural history shaping that narrative.