Thirty Years of Majors

Updated: 2012-11-09 10:07

By Ginger Huang (黄原竟) (China Daily)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

 Thirty Years of Majors

In the late 1970s, bespectacled nerds were much in vogue. Provided to China Daily

Chinese university students have more freedom than ever in choosing what they study, but higher enrollment figures are throwing those who do not pick wisely into a tough job market

When Lin Xueliang took the gaokao (university entrance exam) in 1955, students did not have the option to choose their own majors - that privilege was not extended until after the early 1960s. The nationwide name list of first-year university students was later published in the newspaper People's Daily, and that was how Lin discovered he had been selected to study biology. He cut out the scrap of paper with his name on it and headed off to the college to register.

In 1966 the "cultural revolution" began, and a revolutionary frenzy engulfed the nation. The gaokao was canceled and was not reinstated until 1977, a year after the "cultural revolution" ended. For that first batch of students and those that immediately followed them, maths, physics and chemistry, often referred to as shulihua (数理化), were the most respected majors.

During that time, being working class was still deemed the most desirable social status, and the most eligible bachelors were workers and soldiers.

Then there is the tale of the mathematician Chen Jingrun (陈景润), one of the most idolized people of that decade.

Chen remained obscure until 1978, when the writer and poet Xu Chi (徐迟) wrote up Chen's story. It served to redefine the nation's image of what a desirable man should be like - a thin, bespectacled nerd who was so absorbed in his own world that he would walk into a street lamp and apologize to it.

Chen became no less an idol than the pop starlet Teresa Teng, and in the process, so did maths. His popularity, combined with Deng Xiao-ping's call for young people to "march forward toward the modernization of the sciences", produced a slogan that can still be heard in schools today: "Learn maths, physics and chemistry well, and you can walk around the world without fear." (学好数理化,走遍天下都不怕 xué hǎo shù lǐ huà, zǒu biàn tiān xià dōu bú pà.)

For 20 years after the gaokao was reinstated, university and college students did not need to worry much about jobs, as they too, in much the same way as their choice of major, were often allocated by the government. Yan Chunyou, a philosophy professor at Beijing Normal University, recalls the 1980s as an age of innocence in terms of academic choices. "As students, we didn't need to worry about the future. All we needed to do was to learn."

The 1980s were also a rare time when literature and philosophy were vital to Chinese people's daily lives. Poets like Gu Cheng (顾城) and Hai Zi (海子) were heroes, and people were fascinated with the works of whichever philosophers they could find in translation: Hegel, Sartre and Nietzsche, for example. In this more liberal atmosphere, subjects like literature and philosophy began to attract a new wave of talented students.

Romantic patriotism was another inspiration for young people to learn philosophy. Yang Qunsheng, who studied philosophy at Sun Yat-sen University in 1978, recalls in a memoir about his campus life that "at that time, the philosophy departments were seen as the cradle of (future) political leaders. All my classmates were excited and discussed where China was going and what we could do. We all felt the future of China rested on our shoulders."

But it was not long before pragmatism took the place of idealism in terms of choosing subjects. In the mid-1980s, as the government put more emphasis on implementing democracy and the rule of law, a career in the legal profession began to appear more promising, and eager students began to sign up for law courses.

Government policy was also instrumental in spurring a rise in the number of majors that included an "international" element. By the 1990s, the competition for enrollment in "international economy and trade" courses was so intense that only those with the highest admission scores could find places.

Another far-reaching change in policy occurred in 1998, when the state drastically reduced the quota of graduate jobs that it would allocate directly, rapidly increasing the number of independent graduate jobseekers from just a handful to about 70 percent of the total.

In the same year, the government laid down the kuozhao (扩招) policy, which significantly expanded university enrollment. While the increased number of places eased the difficulty of being accepted by a university, it ratcheted up the pressure in terms of finding a job. Some majors that appeared promising for future careers when students first applied for them emerged as disastrous choices by the time they graduated.

Software engineering was a case in point. Just before kuozhao was introduced, it was such a popular major that one-third of ligong (理工 science and technology) students were enrolled in majors related to software engineering and IT, according to the China University Students' Career Guide.

When Zhong Xiaofei graduated from the engineering department of Huazhong Science and Technology University in 2005, he found himself a member of an ever expanding troop of "IT peasant workers".

The term became a jocular form of self-reference for the army of young programers emerging from China's universities, who, while usually well-paid, routinely work 12 hours a day to safeguard their positions from the hordes of eager graduates itching for the chance to take their places.

Last year's MyCOS Blue Book of Employment, a compendium of statistics related to education, warned students off studying software engineering in a college for professional training (专科学校 zhuān kē xué xiào, as opposed to a university), as they were very likely to graduate without employment.

Maths, once "the queen of all sciences", was also on the watch list of MyCOS. The old popular saying has now been irreverently revised: "Learning maths, physics and chemistry well is not as useful as having a good dad." (学好数理化,不如有个好爸爸 xué hǎo shù lǐ huà, bù rú yǒu gè hǎo ba ba.)

All of this makes the choices facing 15-year-old Wang Jinwen all the more difficult as she prepared to enter high school this autumn. She is already worrying about her choice of major, and is struggling to decide what she should aim for, as she has had to focus so hard on extra studies. "I'll only be an 18-year-old when I take the gaokao. How can I know what major is right for me?"

Courtesy of The World of Chinese,

The World of Chinese

(China Daily 11/09/2012 page27)