A further entry in Justin O’Connor’s Shanghai Diary 2005 [context and introduction here]. This entry is dated June 28th, and in which we go to college. Text and images by Justin O’Connor.
Went to one of the University campuses. As you would expect in a city of 15 million there are quite a few universities in Shanghai. Tongji is one of those founded in the late 19th/early 20th century, like Jiaotong here near us. Tongji is in the north of the city, beyond the old Japanese concession. They both have the kind of classical and renaissance buildings you’d see in US universities built at the same time; and here and there a few art deco buildings, reflecting the new spirit of the 20s and 30s. Tongji specializes in engineering and architecture. Its campus has some very modern buildings dotted about – the most impressive I saw being some joint German institute concerned with civil engineering I think. What I liked about it was that is was a campus right in the middle of a densely packed city. We don’t really have these in the UK. I suppose Birmingham is near the centre, and a few others maybe … but to go from the dense urban space of the city into a tree-filled space without cars and (much) noise was a real shock. The campus is walled, and has gates on four sides. Students are expected to live here if they go to university – even people who live in the city need to have formally rented a room at least. The rooms sleep six, though there are some more expensive ones that sleep two. Showers and sinks are in a block outside, like a campsite. There are canteens, huge canteens, of course; but there are also shops selling more or less everything, from pens and paper to kebabs cooked on mini charcoal grills. In fact, it looks like the city in miniature. There had been a lot of investment – a refurbished library and some foreign academic apartments stood out. But the feeling is of hard work and over crowding. And of course there are no bars and hence no students throwing up in dorms or sticking their arses out of windows. Which was nice.
The whole university entrance system is nationalized – like France I suppose – but it reminded me of what I’d read about the civil service system in Ming and Qing times. A series of competitive exams, rising from local to provincial to national, allowed scholars to ascend the civil service ladder, in theory right into the imperial palace. This complex, competitive system provided the means of social mobility and wealth for the countless sons of gentry and merchants. Often it took two or three generations to build up the wealth and the contacts to set their son off on the examination path. If they achieved some rank they could be rewarded by a commendation which not only mentioned them but also the two or three generations preceding them. They were officially honoured posthumously.
Competition for the best universities is as fierce, and often with equal sacrifice. A poor peasant sends his son to a Shanghai university – this means someone exceptionally bright who has studied hard and to whom his parents have sacrificed long hours of work in shabby one or two roomed houses. The one child policy has meant the pressure on these kids to carry the burden of their family’s hopes is intense. It’s odd too that examination results come out over a few nights in late June. There is a TV programme, a bit like election night special, which has lots of experts talking about education, whilst underneath, like ticker tape, the results of a whole nation scroll across the bottom. No choice, you are assigned to the university based on exams.
I came after the exams, which meant a gentle out-of-term feel. Students were still there but the pressure was off for the time being. Until the results came out.
This impression of Shanghai is by Justin O’Connor. All Shanghai Diary entries.
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