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This Small Era

December 30, 2013

This is an era in which our lives are constantly bombarded with information.

In this era, people all seem content with the bustle and constraints in their lives; and yet, they also appear to be faintly troubled and worried about the future. People seem to be living, but they also seem not to be living.

In this era, "history," "tradition," and "culture”—all seem like hastily-packaged commodities waiting to be sold, things that are completely useless unless one can fix a reasonable commercial value to them, or unless one can establish a practical connection between them and a society that seeks instant success and immediate benefit. In this era, “incidents” are like rainbows that continuously reappear. Initially, they shock us, but soon afterward leave people numb and are quickly forgotten.

I think that if we were to ask people to recall the biggest news events in the country over the past year, two years, three years . . . or even 10 years, the result should be very interesting. The rage that one event engenders, such as the Wenzhou train collision,[1] or the case of little Yueyue,[2] is very quickly over taken by another event, and is then "rationally forgotten."

I often wonder how people in the future will write our history.  Exactly what events in this era have influenced us? Ideologies such as Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, or Deng Xiaoping Theory? Or economic systems such as Reform and Opening? How exactly will later generations evaluate our age? Will it be written that "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," as in The Tale of Two Cities? Looking back at the past, it appears that our history text books have never been good at providing us with rational, fair, or objective answers. Writings on history, especially those on contemporary history, are filled with subjective ideological interjections. In this age, if we are truthful with ourselves, what is it that really influences us?

Education: at present, there is no other system that is like the educational system, which is permeated with repressiveness, sadness, and compromise. Basic education is excessively mechanical, and schools are rife with abnormal competitive pressures. In order to grab top-tier higher educational resources, students engage in long periods and huge amounts of mechanical training, and atheist parents wait outside examination halls praying that their children will test into a good university. Universities have been fashioned into a paradise and a "vacation" after one has undergone 12 years of basic education.  But after this relaxation period comes the enormous pressure of finding employment. The lack of employment opportunities, insufficient career planning, and the failure of the university education system, quickly reduce this paradise into a purgatory for employment.

The problem is that no one knows what exactly these many years of education are supposed to be nurturing. Are they just to produce test-taking machines? While students are struggling on the brink of employment, has anyone ever thought that if we change the purpose and model of education, promote critical and creative thinking, and encourage freedom of thought, that maybe we can create even more job opportunities? Would this not also make society more stable? Would it maybe result in genuine national development and not just the shouting of slogans all day?

Interests: if we look back at the changes that have occurred in China over the past ten years, we may discover that the ideological slogans shouted so loudly by the last generation and the one before that have, in our generation, been thoroughly supplanted by commercial interests. In the course of pursuing economic interests while forgetting numerous historical incidents, we have used unscrupulous and unprincipled means countless times. Why is that? Why is it that everyone is sharpening their brains to become a “success story”? I believe this is because the social system today is flooded with an enormous sense of insecurity, and because our enormous population has resulted in huge competitive pressures in all professions.  So, to possess even more resources, whether they be economic, natural, or human resources, is a way for individuals or organizations to achieve security at great cost. Chinese people today seldom mention Marxism-Leninism, but they often talk about the economics commentator Lang Xianping or stocks. But what will we do when the day comes that benefits can no longer be the pillar for our sense of security?

Systems: the success of individuals within society today is to a large degree measured by the individual social status achieved. This is why our countrymen all know who Bill Gates, Barrack Obama, Steve Jobs, and other personalities are. Frankly, our definition of success is superficial: money and status. Behind this definition are all the systems that we created. We're accustomed to, and take joy in, living within these systems, because systems are the rationalization of social status. And this is why people living outside these systems are apprehensive about their status.

Looking back over the 20 plus years of my life, it has been a period when China was at peace and prosperous, and there was no exceptional incident at the national level that affected or controlled my life. It was quite fortunate that there was no civil war. One can say that the university entrance exam had a huge effect on my life. This event made me reflect with clarity on China's educational system, and understand and evaluate it. I began to realize how absurd it is to use a few numbers to determine a student's potential, talents, and what educational opportunities he deserves.

The non-stop building construction and environmental pollution also have a huge effect on me. To this day, the afternoon allergy coughs that I used to get following my morning runs have made me realize that commercial development was heading down a dangerous path without any self-awareness. Having contact with people from other countries made me realize that the problem of our state media’s self-emasculation is very serious, and that what I know is limited and potentially not objective.

I don't know what China will be like in the future—this question is just too big for me. I can only hope that our country’s political organs can be a bit less boastful and a bit more frank and honest. I can only hope that business groups can be a little less short-sighted and unscrupulous, and have more long-range thinking and principles. I can only hope that education in China can become more interesting, fair, and diversified, that it can encourage creativity and critical thinking, and show greater concern for the feelings of its participants.

Viewed from the future, the era that we live in must seem small against the torrent of history. I can only hope that this small era can have a small but positive significance.


Translator's Notes

[1] On October 23, 2011, two high-speed trains collided near Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, killing 40 and injuring 192. The authorities’ reaction—hastily ending the rescue mission and burying the dead and restricting media coverage—prompted public outrage.

[2] Wang Yue, a two-year-old girl, was run over by two vans in Foshan, Guangdong, on October 13, 2011. Security camera footage showed that after the accident at least 18 pedestrians and cyclists passed her without stopping. Finally, a woman pulled her onto the sidewalk. Yueyue died in the hospital eight days later.

Jiang Wuji

Jiang Wuji (蒋无忌) belongs to the post-1990 generation and is interested in human rights and Chinese law.