A girl from Shanghai named Tang Meijie — featured in the New York Times Magazine article “Re-Education” — soon became the focus of major media in China following her admission into Harvard College in December, 2004. The press talked her up as every Chinese parentâ€™s dream child. Headlines such as â€œWhat Does Her Success Tell usâ€ (Shanghai Studentsâ€™ Post) and â€œMeijie Knocked at the Door of Harvard. Do You Want to Copy?â€ (The Morning News Express) marveled at this winner of 76 prizes at the â€œcity levelâ€ in China. Journalists were clamoring to profile her, and publishers hoped to turn a good profit from writing up her life story. Even private corporations took notice. A director of Goldman Sachsâ€™s China division invited her to the board of the private school he had just founded.
Why does entering Harvard make a girl so astoundingly famous in China?
Being admitted into an elite American school is definitely a piece of good news for Meijie. The vast press coverage of her can show how Chinese value education and how well-known Harvard is in China. Since few students in China can go to Harvard, she is really exceptional as the only one student in China admitted by Harvard during “early action”.
To Chinese, being in an elite school means far more than a degree. It means unlimited possibility for fame, power, wealth, respect and beyond. China has more than one thousand years’ history of such an elite scholarship, particularly in choosing officials through exams. Being an official in China always equals to being privileged in a society where people do not have equal rights. Officials enjoy free housing, travel, transportation, health care, and the right to make rules that serve their own interests. But only a few top examiners can be chosen to be officials, and only a few can go to Harvard. So, people are pressed to be the best–otherwise, you are worthless.
For too long, more than 2,000 years, most Chinese have lived an oppressed and exploited life. People always do not feel safe and are hence in dire need of safety. The long term suppressive rule seems to have demoralized the majority of Chinese people. They learn to cherish the only channel — the exam — to achieve a desirable life.
The individual is not valued just because they are alive. Under suppressive rule, people’s sense of equality has been destroyed. Everyone wants to be the few privileged, and to be superior to others.
Another serious problem that can be seen from this â€œHarvard girl carnivalâ€ is the lack of independent critical thinking among Chinese. Why are so many people so interested in becoming the only one who can be admitted. Most of them are playing a definite losing game. Why not change the rules for the game? Why not let most of our kids get a high quality education? If most of our kids pursue what they are interested in and good at, our society can be a very productive and happy one. We should stop superficially judging people by their educational brand.
At a society level, providing enough and, more importantly, equal opportunities for people to succeed is more pressing. It is a huge waste of human resources when more than 99% of students cannot get into prestigious schools abroad and are judged as failures. Everyone has his or her own talents and the society should provide opportunities for them to find their own place. A society in which the majority is not being taken care of is a failed society.
When the major Chinese media are finally in a frenzy about how to provide equal opportunity and diversified channels for many types of success — instead of the next “Harvard girl” — that will be a signal of a real big change in Chinese society.