The Chinese faith in learning

Updated: 2011-07-21 10:41

By Binod Singh (

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Last Friday, while I was coming out of the central library at Peking University, I saw a Chinese mother taking a snap of her twin sons at its gate, and also at the same time warning them: "Listen to me carefully, if one of you could get admission into this, my life will be really meaningful." The twins looked quite serious, and the usual smile on their face was missing, as if they knew how difficult it is to get into the place where they are standing today.

The accent of her Mandarin told me that this was not a local family, and the mother and her duo had traveled quite a long way to visit the Peking University campus, which is located in the vicinity of Summer Palace in the capital city. I watched this family for a while, until they moved on, toward the lake side of the campus and the twins were getting excited to see it. This family was just one of a thousand families to visit the campus over the day.

If you are a tourist in Beijing and you thought only Forbidden City and the Great Wall were the most attractive tourist places in the capital city, then you are mistaken. The latest additions are the two great centers of learning in China, Peking (Beida for short) and Tsinghua (pronounced Chinghua) universities.

The two campuses have become a must-visit for young kids accompanied by their guardians visiting the capital from different parts of China. Most travel agents in China have already included these two campuses in their regular itinerary. Although it may cause some inconveniences for the residents of the university, the university administration has taken all precautions to avoid any untoward incidents. Last week Peking University announced it would put a maximum limit of 5,000 visitors each day.

But I am puzzled about why thousands of people each day throng the campuses of the two universities and make it look like nursery school in the city. Was it because of Weiming Lake (literally means lake without a name) at the center of Peking University or the scenic beauty of Tsinghua University campus, which houses Chinese-style gardens? Because, back home in my country, it is only religious places, temples and shrines, that deserve or inspire this kind of pilgrimage. No single Indian university attracts as many visitors on a daily basis as Beida and Tsinghua do today.

When asked this question, my Chinese colleague replied that the pilgrimage to the two universities is motivated by their historical role in the struggle for new China, especially during the "May Fourth Movement" in the 1920s. Peking University (also called Harvard of China) was one of the main bases for Chinese patriots to unite the country and fight against Japanese aggression. Chairman Mao Zedong worked in the central library of the university before becoming the paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party. So did Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi, Cai Yuanpei and many other great revolutionary leaders of that time.

Tsinghua University is also the topmost in the country with historical roots. It has just celebrated its 100th anniversary and proudly boasts having the current president and previous premier of the country among its alumni. It houses many centers of excellence for conducting science & technology research in China, and is referred to as the MIT of the East. The admission process to all the universities in China is based on the system called gaokao,the national college entrance examination, an all-China national-level exam taken after high school. Then the two universities will choose the top scorers and admit them for a four-year undergraduate course. Only a lucky thousand can realize their dream each year. So, many believe that it is easier to get into Harvard or MIT than Beida.

Then later, I came across a slogan in Chinese, "Xuexi shi yizhong xinyang" (Learning is a kind of belief) on most of the public billboards around Peking University. Here was the inspiring slogan for many Chinese kids and even food for thought for adults. I was especially impressed to see the next slogan read, "Kejiao xingguo" (Rejuvenating the country with science and education). Since China is a country of slogans, I expected mainly some political slogans on the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China. But wait, here is the change coming to China.

Then I walked over 50 meters south to a building that is supposed to house one of the largest bookstores in China. Here in a multi-story state-of-the-art building, I could see hundreds of people reading in Chinese and foreign languages. To me it seemed most of them come from lower middle-class families and may not be able to afford to buy all those books, especially ones with foreign copyrights. On average, books in China are cheaper, except the ones published in English. But again I was amazed to see the number of kids in this book shop. Perhaps they have come to spend their weekend here and play some creative games.

Nowadays, wherever you go in China, you find parents concerned about the learning of their kids. They are hiring private tutors to train their single kid, not only in foreign languages but also in sports, arts and creativity. Some of the kids have as many as seven tutors a week if their parents can afford it. That means for each subject you hire a separate tutor. It is no wonder that Shanghai students won top place in the latest competition of 65 countries in math, science and reading. Living in China, I can imagine the future of this country and its children. As of now, the goal set by the Communist Party is to become an innovative country by 2020.

The author is of Indian origin and teaches at the School of Asian and African Studies of Beijing Foreign Studies University. He can be reached at The views expressed here are solely personal and do not represent in any way the view of or any section of China Daily newspaper.