BETWEEN 1999 AND 2001 I lived in Shaoyang, a city in Hunan province famous for clementines and murder. The clementines were best when green-skinned and sour; about the murders, I cannot speak.
Though Shaoyang means ‘the town on the north bank of the Shao river,’ it spreads along the junction of two: the pale green Shao Shui river — whose colour is said to derive from a slumbering dragon — and the wider, brown Zijiang. In 1999, the city’s population was just under half a million. From the rampart above the old city gate, one could look over an expanse of roofs whose thick gray tiles were like scales. The streets were lined with peddlers and stalls; most of the shops had roll-down shutters instead of doors. On the pavement, people washed vegetables, impaled eels on a nail, and welded engine blocks. Outside some of the restaurants there were dogs in cages that no longer bothered to bark.
I taught in a teacher training college on the edge of town. Behind the students’ draughty, six-person dormitories there were just rice fields. When you asked what their parents did for a living, most said, ‘My mother is a peasant,’ or ‘My father is a farmer.’ The students were between 18 and 21, but seemed to me far younger. The girls’ pencil cases and bags were covered with pictures of baby rabbits and kittens. They loved to sing songs. Any mention of boyfriends or kissing made them giggle and blush.
But despite their childishness, these were far from halcyon days. They were fined if they missed the compulsory six a.m. morning exercise drill or were late to class. Most of their free time was spent listening to political speeches or picking up litter round campus. Their only response to this situation was to say mei ban fa, which means ‘this problem cannot be solved.’ This is a verbal shrug, an admission of helplessness. Most students were only at Shaoyang Teachers’ College because their scores on the gao kao, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, were too low for them to get into a decent university. Most did not want to be high school teachers, because the pay was low (from 800 to 1000 yuan per month, half of what postal workers or train conductors were paid) and working conditions were poor: most school classes had over 50 students, and there were few facilities beyond a blackboard and textbook. Those who professed an interest in teaching usually explained their decision by parroting phrases like, ‘Teaching is the most glorious job under the sun.’ Though some did seem to believe this, many also spoke of pressure from their parents, who viewed teaching as a steady job. But even those who wanted to teach were adamant that they wanted to work in the city, not the countryside.
When I asked the students what their ideal job was, many said they wanted to go into business, be a manager, or work as a translator for a foreign company. Their English was too valuable an asset to be wasted on teaching. They wanted a job that would make them rich and take them far away from the villages and small rural towns where they had spent all their lives. Some spoke of ‘jumping the dragon gate’ (Liyu Tiao Long Men), a saying that refers to an old story of how a carp can be transformed into a dragon if it swims to the top of a waterfall. This was originally used to refer to success in the imperial civil service exams, but nowadays is a metaphor for courage and perseverance against great odds. T...read more