Fragile Elite
The Dilemmas of China's Top University Students
Susanne Bregnbæk



A few months into my fieldwork in China,1 a student at Beijing University committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a tall university building. Almost every young Chinese person dreams of gaining a place at Beijing University or Tsinghua University. These are China’s highest-ranked universities, and are regarded as being in a league of their own. Yet student suicide rates at these universities are rumored to be higher than those at other universities.2

Beijing University reported the suicide as an “accident.” Yet, despite the official silence, students talked about the incident and speculated about the causes. Some people blamed the cutthroat competitiveness of the educational system for the frequent incidents of suicide. Others saw the suicide of elite students as highlighting the flaws of the pampered generation of little emperors and empresses who have been spoiled within the family and are now unable to cope with the vicissitudes of real life. “How could she do this to her parents?” many people wondered. According to one rumor, this girl had left a suicide note for her parents apologizing that she could not live up to their expectations. One story had it that she was about to graduate, but was being bypassed in job interviews because she lacked the kinds of connections that could open doors. Others felt that the real reason behind the suicide had to be a family conflict or a broken love affair. Some students quietly remarked that suicide was really the only way to escape from the pressure.

The suicide and the students’ responses to it indicate what is at stake for university students in Beijing and point to critical issues of intergenerational continuity and discontinuity in a nation undergoing radical transformation.

During the last twenty years China has changed from being a poor agricultural country to being a country with the world’s second-largest economy. When Deng Xiaoping initiated the period of “Reform and Opening Up,” it was assumed that massive investments in higher education and the creation of a qualified elite would guarantee China a place in the first world (Fong 2004). My ethnography explores the implications of the new globally competitive “knowledge economy”—a term coined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to designate the divide between “hands” (populations doing dirty and dangerous manual labor) and “heads” (populations specializing in knowledge and research). With China’s rise to power, this division was destabilized, and the Chinese government now strives to make China prosper not only as the factory of the world but also as an “innovative society.” The everyday lives of Chinese have changed utterly, especially in urban areas, and so too have the kinds of lives people aspire to lead, as well as what defines a life worth living.

These societal transformations have also profoundly changed the urban landscape. I vividly remember riding my bicycle to school when I was living in Beijing as a child during the mid-1980s. Having left the walled and gated diplomatic compound, I joined the mass of people dressed mostly in blue or gray Mao-style attire who crowded the wide bicycle lanes, following the slow pace of life. In the winter, engulfed in the chiming of bicycle bells, I would carefully zigzag my way between frozen gobs of spit. I passed a gray hutong (traditional courtyard) area and then followed a straight tree-lined road, under a canopy of naked branches. Sometimes my way was blocked by horse carriages, truckloads of vegetables, or bicycle vendors selling baked potatoes or tiny sugar-coated apples on long sticks. Chubby toddlers dressed in thick, colorful fabrics stuck out in the grayness of the urban scenery. Parents would often poke their children to make them notice the foreign child passing by, and students would sometimes follow me in their eagerness to practice a few English phrases. I would pass a small park in which groups of old men carrying birdcages gathered to exercise their birds, and occasionally little old women with small bound feet would pass by, each walking cautiously and supported by a cane.

During my fieldwork in Beijing in 2005 and 2007, I sometimes walked this same stretch, and I was always struck by the uncanny experience of familiarity and strangeness. The familiar road lined with trees was still there. Advertisements and kitsch caught my eye, along with the busy vendors insistently trying to attract customers. Chinese as well as foreign people drank coffee and cocktails at the sidewalk cafés, and beggars (people from the countryside or elderly people in dilapidated Mao suits) roamed the street. Their ghostly presence seemed to be an indication that time was out of joint. Taxis and cars noisily made their way forward as shoppers jumped in and out of them, heading in different directions. A multi-story shopping mall, Pacific Century Place, overlooked the space of the old park, in which public exercise machines had been placed in the shade of the trees.

In 2012, when I last returned for fieldwork, yet another transformation had taken place as the trendy shopping mall and restaurant area called the Village had replaced the old hutong area, making even the 1990s bars on the other side of the street look somewhat outdated. Walking in this area, as I passed the shops of famous international brands and restaurants from all over the world, I often felt that I was in a polished world of bling-bling consumption, populated mostly by people who looked as if they had jumped out of the music videos that are shown on huge TV screens. The scenario seemed so utterly removed from the Beijing I used to know. And yet the familiar street was still there and I sometimes looked up at the same greenness of the willows while drinking coffee or jotting down notes at a café nearby.

The colorfully dressed toddlers that I remember from my own childhood in Beijing are now young people in their twenties. They belong to what is popularly termed the post-eighties generation (ba ling hou) and have been brought up in accordance with the one-child policy and its related educational ideals. These policies have aimed to create a generation3 of well-educated young people who can pave the way for China’s transition to a knowledge economy. What young people in China today share is a common destiny of being predominantly “only” children who have grown up with a promise of social mobility but at the same time face seemingly endless competition vis-à-vis their peers.

In Beijing people from apparently all strata of society, and young people in particular, speak of the pressure (yali) of their everyday lives, articulated as a necessity to forge onward in order not to be left behind. I was talking about this problem with Wu Jiao, a student of electrical engineering, as we sat beside the window at a café located on the second floor of a high-rise building with a view of Beijing’s elevated train. We watched as crowds of people energetically made their way forward, and he remarked, “We are on a train that is going fast, leaving the past, speeding towards the future, but nobody seems to stop and reflect on where the train is going.”

Oedipus in China

My focus in this book is on the “oedipal project” (Brown 1959; Fortes 1981; Jackson 2006:217). This can be understood as the universal existential need to establish some degree of separation from the will of parents and, by extension, the will of the state. In Confucianism the metaphor of the state or nation as a family is crucial. Confucius believed that the child should be subordinate to the parent, the younger brother to the older brother, the wife to the husband, and the subject to the sovereign, who is regarded as the father of the nation. With the leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao since 2002 a form of state Confucianism has been reinvented as a way to justify a need for hierarchies and obedience under the rubric of a “harmonious society.” While this shift in policy or re-invocation of an older cultural model should be taken into account, I argue that the relationship between state and family has wider implications. Kinship terminology and the connections between the domus4 and the polis are crucial to how we imagine relationships with the powers that be. While cultural anthropology conventionally emphasizes cultural particularities, I argue that it is important for anthropology to also address universal phenomena. As Ghassan Hage has noted, the family evokes images of both maternal care and patriarchal control, an ambiguity that is carried over into images of the state (Hage 1996a:472–477). In other words, I expand the oedipal theme to encompass both the parent/child bond and the more explicitly political relationship to the Chinese state, which is in fact often imagined and portrayed as a parental figure exercising care and control (guan).

During the first period of fieldwork in 2005, my family and I stayed in a newly built and partly empty twenty-six-story apartment building in the Haidian District in northwest Beijing, which was right next to a primary school. Every morning we would wake up at seven o’clock to the sound of loud classical music coming from the school compound, where the students had gathered for their morning exercise. On Fridays the session was completed with a ceremonial raising of the Chinese flag and the playing of the national anthem. This concrete image that we watched from a bird’s-eye view stood out as a clear indication of how education mediates the relationship between the state and children, making children in a sense not only their parents’ children but also “children of the state.” In his work on the invention of childhood, Philippe Ariès describes the process whereby children are separated from their parents, spend long days in school, and are subjected to the discipline of the state.

With the invention of schooling came our modern sense of the long childhood. Children would begin to be schooled for adulthood; it was no longer something you automatically picked up. “It inflicted on him the birch, the prison cell—in a word, the punishments usually reserved for convicts from the lowest strata of society. But this severity was the expression of a very different feeling from the old indifference: an obsessive love was to dominate society from the eighteenth century on. It is easy to see why this invasion of the public’s sensibility by childhood should have resulted in the now better-known phenomena of Malthusianism or birth control” (Ariès [1960] 1996:397).

Philippe Ariès described the invention of childhood as related to changing patterns of family life in Europe; his insights seem to be relevant for the introduction of formal schooling in China at the turn of the century, although there are vital differences. A new understanding of the child emerged in Europe during the seventeenth century, and this new attentiveness to children was part of a story of modernity, whereby the child also became an object of discipline (Ariès [1960] 1996:397). According to Teresa Kuan, even though the idea of childhood became highly politicized in the post-Mao era, the discovery of childhood as a means for governing a nation happened a long time ago in Chinese history, at least as early as the consolidation of the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 229). Educational institutions were established throughout the empire, as Confucian thinkers believed that moral education would serve as a more effective deterrent to crime than the strict laws and punishments of the Qin government (Kuan 2008:6). Canonical texts were identified and officially endorsed. One such text, The Book of Rites, which had originated in early antiquity, would serve as an authoritative source for educational theory and practice for the next two thousand years (Bai 2005:16, cited in Kuan 2008).5

It could be argued that in modern times in no other country has the connection between “obsessive love” and the disciplining of children through formal schooling been so pronounced. Whereas many countries view birth control as a means to accelerate modernization, China is the only country in the world that has made use of strict birth quotas (Fong 2004:3). Mao Zedong’s plea to the population to have many children was replaced by Deng Xiaoping’s new approach to shaping the body politic.6 The parallel instigation of the one-child policy and the reopening of higher education created an environment in which drastic limitations placed on people’s fertility went hand in hand with a renewed focus on educating the body politic. The result was the new educated person in China, who would both represent and create the progress of the nation.

Foucault’s concept of governmentality can shed light on the Chinese notion of guan, meaning “to discipline, control, and administer” (Foucault 1977). The term refers to governing a state, but can also be applied to the education and disciplining of children. Children and young people in China are expected to be able to guan themselves. An inability to discipline oneself—guan bu zhu ta ziji—is thought to have catastrophic consequences, since doing well in school and, in particular, passing college entrance exams entail a great amount of discipline (Fong 2004:116). These exams provide a pivotal moment in young people’s lives, which, as people often say, will determine a person’s success in life. Foucault saw prisons and schools as analogous institutions, created to subject all individuals to the discipline of the state. Consider the following quote from Fong: “‘Think of yourself as having entered a jail,’ Xun Lu’s father advised her when she enrolled at a college prep high school. ‘From now on, you must focus entirely on your studies. Like a prisoner, you will not have any freedom to do things you enjoy. Your only hope is the trial, the college entrance exam, which will determine whether the rest of your life is joy or suffering’” (Fong 2004:115).

Significantly, however, the Chinese notion of guan also means “to care for, to take care of,” as in ta guan wo (“he cares for me”) or ta bu guan wo (“he does not care about/for me, he ignores me”). Thus guan is not only a form of discipline, but also a form of love and care. This form of care and control has a certain resemblance to the “obsessive love” that Philippe Ariès identified with the social invention of childhood. My focus here is on how young people struggle in various ways to experience themselves as autonomous people and try to come to terms with or distance themselves from the will of their parents, in particular their mothers and the parental state, sometimes uncannily termed a “stepmother.”


1. The fieldwork for this book was carried out in 2005 and 2007 as well as during a brief period in the summer of 2012. Through the help of an anonymous student, I put up a poster at the intranet of both Tsinghua University and Beijing University (Beida) asking students to take part in my research project on the lives of Chinese students and I received an overwhelming number of e-mails from students who were willing to meet with me and share their life stories and personal experiences. I also took part in some classes and spent time with them inside and outside of the campuses.

2. Official Chinese statistics on this matter are not available, but according to Paul Mooney, she was one of seventeen college students in Beijing who committed suicide during the first seven months of that year (Mooney 2005:1).

3. The sociologist Karl Mannheim was the first to address the problem of categorizing generations in his famous essay “The Problem of Generations” ([1927] 1952). Since people are constantly being born and dying, when does one generation end and a new one begin? He systematized the idea of historical generations, or the generation as a cohort, thus shifting the focus from biological age to the “location” of age within history: people born in the same period of time share common experiences, potentials, and “destinies.” Within cohorts, “generation units” represent subcategories who “work up the material of their common experiences in different specific ways.” The study of historical change therefore shows how change occurs unevenly, since “differences and conflicts are found both within generations and between them” (Mannheim [1927] 1952:304).

4. For Aristotle the movement to the public sphere (polis) also went through the family sphere (domus). Politik ([1946] 1997:76–77)1.2.125124-b39.

5. It discussed the different stages of childhood, and what adults can expect of children and begin to teach them. In the first year, a baby should be taught to use his or her right hand, in the third year a child should be taught how to reply appropriately to adults, in the sixth year a child should be taught numerals and the names of the points on the compass, and so on (Bai 2005:16, cited in Kuan 2008).

6. As Greenhalgh has pointed out, the Communist Party needed to redefine birth control as a Marxist activity. It therefore adapted several strategies in this regard, including noting the importance of “planning” to socialism, and labeling the desire for many or male children as feudal and an activity disavowing Malthus, whom Marx had criticized as being “capitalist” (Greenhalgh 2003). Under Chinese socialism, the idea is that having too many people does not necessarily lead to Malthusian misery, as the productive forces of society develop and are fairly distributed. Rather, the issue is redefined as the relationship between population quantity and population quality. In order to improve the quality of the population, its quantity must be controlled first. In this way the rationale of the one-child policy is that having an abundance of children makes it impossible to devote unlimited attention to each of them.