“The Long Goodbye” is part of our cover story, Home Bound, which explores Chinese society’s ever-evolving views of home and homecoming in an urbanizing age
The top scorers in China’s National Higher Education Entrance Examination (gaokao) make the news every year, assured that a place in the country’s most prestigious universities means a glorious future.
But sometimes these academic high-fliers hit the headlines again for failing to deliver on these promises, as in the case of Lu Buxuan, the Peking University graduate who was discovered running a butcher shop in Xi’an in 2003.
Though Lu then manipulated the media’s attention to expand his business, other young strivers find the shame and dishonor too much to bear—and simply disappear.
“Son, wherever you are,” Sichuan farmer Yang Chongsheng begged his son, Rongren, in the Yangtze Evening News in August, “whether you’re poor or rich, I hope you see this news and come back.” Yang’s wife, dying from cancer, was desperate to see the son who had “disappeared” nine years before.
Yang Rongren had been the pride of his family. As his county’s gaokao champion in 2003, he received a place at Beihang University and optimistically hoped to earn over 1 million RMB within a year of graduation. But at Beihang, he skipped classes and missed an exam that cost him his diploma. He failed numerous interviews, then embarked on a succession of low-skilled jobs, including clerk and waiter, none lasting more than six months.
After seeing his father’s appeal, Rongren returned home to explain his almost decade-long absence. “I wanted to succeed,” he told China Youth Daily. “After graduation, the criteria for success changed from examination results to financial achievement…I felt great pressure from my parents, relatives, and society…and I could not face them.”
He wasn’t alone. Wang Meng (pseudonym) hasn’t been home for Spring Festival since 2006, and began blocking his parents’ numbers six years ago. According to a 15,000-character letter Wang showed Chengdu Economic Daily last January, his parents’ domineering behavior caused him to become socially awkward and unsuccessful at school and in the workplace. Wang’s parents used to purchase all his clothes, and restricted his social life at home and even during his studies in the US. Eventually, the 34-year-old Peking University graduate chose to sever ties in the hope of escaping his family’s control.
The plights of both students have triggered discussion online. The rural-urban divide resonated with many, as did the parenting styles that focused on achievement over affection and communication.
Concerns that families overemphasize the gaokao, to the detriment of other aspects of a child’s upbringing, are not new. In 2012, National People’s Congress member Bu Fangying proposed measures to “guide society to establish correct values on education and talent.” On May 8, 2018, the Ministry of Education published an official notice banning excessive media coverage of gaokao scores and corporate sponsorships for the champions, in the hopes of dampening some of the hype that can overwhelm anxious students. The authorities have a tough job ahead, though—Chinese society has been obsessed with “imperial examination” results for over 1,300 years.
Cover image by José Alejandro Cuffia on Unsplash
“The Long Goodbye” is a story from our issue, “The Homecoming Issue”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.