Recently a Chinese teenager unexpectedly stumbled into media spotlight in the country. In the National College Entrance Examination last month, Zhong Fangrong did exceptionally well and was admitted into China’s most prestigious Peking University, whose average acceptance rate is a tough 0.07 percent.
What makes her story eye-catching is that Fangrong comes from a very humble background. She is one of the “left-behind children”, a termed coined in China’s urbanisation process for kids who remain in the villages while their parents try to fend for the family by working in the cities.
After her results were announced, congratulations poured in from her village and school. Media outlets run stories about the hard-working girl changing the destiny of her own and her family. But when she was reported to have chosen archaeology as her major, many social media users expressed their worries.
One of them said, “Why didn’t she choose to learn something profitable to help her family?” Another reads, “She will regret it when she cannot make enough money to afford an apartment in the big city.” Some simply concluded, “She’s still too young to know life.”
For many Chinese students, choosing a major in college is rarely a decision only about passion. More often than not, it is made with the input of one’s family, close relatives, and insightful friends, all with the good intention to secure a financially promising future and excellent career opportunities for the student in question.
In the past 40-odd years, the most sought-after fields of study have been changing in a pattern reflective of China’s approach to development and the evolving public mindset.
In the 1980s, humanities such as Chinese, history, philosophy were the most popular. These are the disciplines traditionally valued in China for centuries. In the ancient dynasties, the ability to write a good poem, prose and argumentative piece is considered the most critical skill for any intellectual.
This tradition, having been interrupted by the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, came back with vengeance in the 1980s with new university applicants all eager to enter the field.
In the 1990s however, international trade easily replaced humanities as the top choice. It was the decade of China’s foreign trade liberalisation. Beginning in 1994, China undertook a number of reforms in its foreign trade subsidies, tariffs, corporate governance, exchange rates, and the regulatory framework.
On December 11, 2001, China became the 143rd member country of the World Trade Organisation after 16 years of negotiations. Back at that time, to be involved in international trade was seen as a sure ticket to success.
With the advent of the 21st century, law, computer science, and finance became the new fad, buoyed by the explosion of new technologies, a booming market economy, and the new-found vigour in China’s financial sector, among other things.
I still remember the stuffy summer day when I was filing out my own college application. Never good with numbers, I preferred to go into social sciences. But there was a strong pressure from my peers and family for me to choose something related to banking and finance.
Luckily a relative of mine reminded me to follow my heart and not try to compete with others on something I was not good at. With such a history in mind, you will come to see why the “well-wishers” on social media were so disapproval of Fangrong’s choice. But I was impressed by the teenager’s response to the questions. She said, “I chose it because I like archaeology. I think that is a good enough reason.” Exactly. In the past 40 years, many of us were too distracted by what employers liked to listen to the voice in our heart.
But this calling is never easily subdued. It would always catch up with us, no matter how hard we try. Giving up who we are to be what someone else wants us to be sometimes may bring quick returns, but it is hardly sustainable. Instead, when you put your mind to your passion, not worrying yourself about the prospects of becoming successful, success often comes without invitation. I’m sure this is what will happen to Fangrong and anyone pursuing their own dreams.