CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 24, December 2010


Resistance: Between Discourse and Practice | China Heritage Quarterly

Between Discourse and Practice

Xu Jilin 许纪霖

translated by David Kelly

While international commentators are much taken with the metric-based achievements of China's educational system, in particular the high scores of Shanghai high school students (see, for example, this article in the New York Times), some of those within the 'iron room' (tiewu 铁屋) are far less enamoured.—The Editor

I've come to feel a void with nothing to say,
An emptiness all around the impassioned voices.
In this era, talk of shortage is needed no longer,
Only the practice of pettiness, have you the guts to break with society,
And make this small step forward?
Facing reality, I feel powerless.

In my commentaries in the media over the last decade, I've always believed that China's intellectuals had a boundless role, that a single statement might raise or sink the nation, and [as in the words of a poem by Mao Zedong], 'Pointing to our mountains and rivers,/Setting people afire with our words,/We counted the mighty no more than muck.'[1]

I always thought that China's problems were like a difficult and complicated sort of illness. If only I could find the lesion, I thought, I could prescribe a cure for the patient. I felt that intellectuals were life-saving doctors who could find lesions and write prescriptions. But I was wrong.

I now realize that China is terminally ill. Everyone knows where the root cause lies, but none can cure it. What I've most fiercely attacked in recent years is the accursed college entrance examination system [gaokao zhidu 高考制度]. This rigid system has created an education with Chinese characteristics that is obsessed with exams from the kindergarten; it is one that destroys talent and wastes youth. Students hate it, parents rave against it, principals complain about it and even the Minister of Education is far from happy with it. In theory, there should be no dispute if everyone is in agreement to abolish an institution that is hated by everyone in society from top to bottom. Surely it must die a natural death? Wrong. I've savaged the college entrance examination for years, but it has not got weaker, it has become more intense!

My son sat the middle school entrance exams this year. Homes with children doing the middle school or college entrance examinations are simply like a disaster zone. It is the same when China holds the Olympic Games or World Expo—everything must make way. In this case everything revolves around the child, or rather the exam. My son worked extremely hard. Every day he got up early and did the same thing: exam preparation.

As a parent who 'saw to the education of his prince' [pei taizi du shu 陪太子读书], I ended up learning a secret: only 20% of the knowledge that students rehearse every day is of any value. The other 80% has nothing to do about acquiring new knowledge. It is all about defeating others in the arena. The preparations they do is like mental gymnastics: they repeat endlessly the same movement, rehearsing dozens, hundreds of times, to ensure that absolutely no mistakes are made in the examination hall.

After three hundred hard days, the day came when the results were published.

My son's average score for all subjects was over 85 points, higher than my own when I got into a key university. This should have been —it should have been beyond question, right? But, it turned out that it was barely enough for him to make it into an ordinary high school. So, what was the cut-off for entrance into a key university? When I checked I was stunned to find that most of them require virtually full marks. Exams are basically like a balance beam, sway just one step forward, and the centre of gravity is lost; two steps forward, and say goodbye to university (or high school)! You have to ensure there you simply make no mistakes, maybe provide a few thrills, and only then will be on the fast track to a big-name school.

As a result, for hundreds of millions of Chinese primary and secondary students, as for the national gymnastics team, every day is Basic Training, everything is about reversing your mistakes, defeating your opponents, winning gold. Today's China is a society that worships winners: those who win gain fame and fortune. Like an Olympic champion, you get a first-class seat on the flight back home. When you disembark you're presented with a bouquet and claim all the camera lenses. As for those who came in second or third place winners, they can take care of themselves… After all, the reason that exam-oriented education can't be changed isn't because people don't realise how bad it is. Rather, Chinese society is a sheer pyramid where the winners take all. Education is not about knowledge acquired for the benefit of a broader humanity, rather its about acquiring the skills to beat others.

Why must you beat the others?

Don't be fooled into thinking China really esteems harmony—that was part of the past and is over and done with. Since the Opium Wars [of the nineteenth century], the ruling principle in Chinese people believe is that it is dog eat dog out there. Mao Zedong favoured class struggle, which was a politics of dog eat dog. Deng Xiaoping 'let some people get rich first', meaning a life of dog eat dog. Life is like a battlefield, where we struggle to win. Fierce competition for survival starts from babyhood; we can't afford to miss out at that starting line of life, in the nursery—even in prenatal care. A humane society is one where income gaps are small but values differ; you and I can both live, each with our own understanding as to whether we live well or not, happily or unhappily. Take China's neighbor Japan for example: many high school students never go to college, but take up a profession instead. On graduation they become skilled workers in a company. Their salaries and the social dignity they enjoy are no different to those of white-collar office workers. There are even those who decide not study in a vocational college, but go instead to learn a trade as apprentices. They too still live well and with respect.

In today's China, however, the only people looked up to as worthy of respect are the handful at the top of the pyramid. For them, money, respect and dignity are readily available. Anyone slightly below them is disgruntled, their eyes constantly fixed on those at the top. At each level of the pyramid differences of income and respect go far beyond what is reasonable, whereas an unprecedented unity is seen in the value placed on success at each level: to get into Tsinghua or Peking University and go on to work for a top 500 corporation, your backpack had better be from Louis Vuitton, and you'd better drive a BMW or a Merc. China can thus have a Sister Lotus dying of grief after not getting into PKU, or a Sister Phoenix of Tsinghua University School of Business who ups the ante by turning down any suitors who aren't top graduates of the same school.

Everyone is struggling, but you can't change the world. The only thing you can change is yourself. Just how despairing are you prepared to be as you become complicit with this vile reality and make your children give up their individuality so they can join the throngs of kids working out like gymnasts? In your professional activities you like to believe that you are working to help enlighten a mindless society, but in the end you are brought to your senses by its arrant cruelty. If people can't have faith in their own practice, how can what they say amount to anything but hypocrisy and lies? If Lu Xun 鲁迅 was really able to arouse people from their sleep, but they had nowhere to go when they did wake up. Isn't it just as he said: better to remain in a mindless miasma and join in the revelries with the people in the iron house?[2]

I feel empty and have nothing to say, and I sense the vacuity of all the passionate declamations of those around me. We are in an age in which we don't need even more meaningless blather, but rather some small practical steps. You might not have the courage to break with society altogether, but you may be able to make a tentative step.

I'm fully aware that a single person can only make a small difference. I once said something that has gained currency on the Internet: 'I can't change the world, but I can change my classroom.' Thinking about it now, I know it's probably only empty bravado. Of course, I have control in the classroom, but what I can't control, is minds been distorted by society. Students have said to me more than once, 'Teacher, after listening to what you've said I felt you made a very good argument, and I suddenly see the light, but once I leave the classroom, the pressure of reality is overwhelming, and I have no alternative but to accommodate to society.'

Powerlessness, a heavy sense of powerlessness. Perhaps to be Chinese you really need to live long and be patient? Perhaps one should be like Lu Xun, knowing that what you do is useless but sticking to it anyway; knowing that it isn't the result that matters, it's the effort...

However, what can change society is not empty words but real effort, effective resistance, practical resistance. Discursive resistance might create a sensation, but resistance in one's daily life of is quite, it may even seem trivial and banal. China has no lacks of discursive resistance, what it lacks is practice.

Xu Jilin is a professor of intellectual history at East China Normal University. Apart from his fame as a scholar of modern Chinese thought, he is also a much-published social and cultural critic. David Kelly, although primarily resident in Beijing, is a professor with the China Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney. We are grateful for this contribution to China Heritage Quarterly.


许纪霖,《反抗的话语,还是反抗的实践》, SOHO 小报, Issue 118, No.8 2010: 2-3, now defunct; and online, at:

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[1] These lines come from Mao Zedong's 1925 poem, 'Changsha—to the tune of Qinyuan Chun. The original reads: 指点江山,激扬文字,粪土当年万户候 . The English is taken from the official translation.

[2] Xu is referring to the following passing from Lu Xun:

Suppose there was an iron room with no windows or doors, a room it would be virtually impossible to break out of. And suppose you had some people inside that room who were sound asleep. Before long they would all suffocate. In other words, they would slip peacefully from a deep slumber into oblivion, spared the anguish of being conscious of their impending doom. Now let's say that you came along and stirred up a big racket that awakened some of the light sleepers. In that case, they would go to a certain death fully conscious of what was going to happen to them. Would you say that you had done those people a favor?

This translation is taken from Lu Xun, Diary of a Madman and other stories, translated by W. Lyell, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1990, p.27.