“China is kaleidoscopic. A new scene offers itself at every turn, delivering sights that are at times breathtaking, puzzling, and even incomprehensible.” So observes author Li Zhengliang, describing his decade in mainland China.
As Li charts a course from studying to teaching, and from bachelorhood to marriage, his cultural excursions map out urban change, pop culture, and university life, revealing the social reality behind the mainland’s economic ascent.
Chai-na, Wo Zai Zheyang de Zhongguo—the Chinese title of Li Zhengliang’s second book, China!—might be loosely rendered “Chai-na: The China I’m in.” It originated with an astute comment from a Beijing cabbie, who observed that for a time, you could find low buildings all over the city spray painted with the character chai (“tear down”). In his book, Li took the reconstruction of China’s urban infrastructure as the starting point for a discussion of the transformations of culture, society, and everyday life underway in the mainland, and crafted the pun “chai-na” to describe them.
A Taiwanese scholar in the mainland
Li focuses on culture because he believes that when Taiwanese look at mainland China, whether scrutinizing the original ideological split or the business opportunities of the last 20 years, they tend to do so from one of two perspectives: “the KMT’s view of China as a ‘global market,’ or the DPP’s of the ‘China threat.’” He argues that this tendency suppresses other viewpoints.
“Enmeshed in these two mainstream visions of mainland China, we are likely to overlook its inner reality, the minutiae that make up the lives of everyday people, the consumer relationships, the language differences…. I try to take a different tack, one that steers clear of these polarized visions of China,” explains Li.
Born in the late 60s, Li read opposition magazines in high school, participated in the student movements of the 80s, and served as a legislative assistant after graduating from university.
A man who has constantly challenged authoritarian structures, Li viewed mainland China as nothing more than a distant abstraction when he finished his law degree at National Taiwan University. But when he visited it for the first time following Taiwan’s 2000 presidential elections, he felt compelled to unravel its mysteries. Casting aside his long-held dream of pursuing a PhD in Germany, he instead went to the mainland to study.
In 2007, having shuttled through the knowledge labyrinth of Peking University’s philosophy graduate school, Li was hired by the communications department of Tianjin’s Nankai University. He began his teaching career earning a salary of just RMB3,000 per month, a figure that doubled when he was later promoted to associate professor.
A book built on time
Living in Beijing and possessed of both insight and a way with words, Li frequently published his thoughts in the Taiwanese media. When he published his first short book, Entering Urban China, in 2009, both he and the publisher were curious to see whether it would change Taiwanese readers’ perspective on the mainland.
Li’s impressions of cities, the university ecology, and pop culture make up the heart of his first book. In one instance, he writes about Taiwanese scholars who have lectured in the mainland and then mythologized Peking University students in the media. The myth describes students studying English on the shore of a campus lake every morning, and contrasts this with the lackadaisical attitude of Taiwanese university students.
Li counters that when looking at the differences between Taiwanese and mainland university students, you have to first look at their respective educational systems. The mainland’s university entrance exams are a brutal winnowing device. As a result, the students admitted to major universities tend to be the kind who devoted most of their young lives to test preparation. The media myth also fails to mention another motivation: many universities require students to pass an English assessment before graduation. Though mainland students are typically able to answer very difficult exam questions, few seem to have much passion for or interest in the pursuit of knowledge.
Another widely held belief is that Taiwanese cultural products are all so wildly popular in the mainland that even washed-up pop stars can make comebacks there. Li says this just isn’t the case.
Broadcasters in the mainland did begin airing the pop-idol-driven TV series Meteor Garden after it became a hit in Taiwan. But the mainland’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television quickly called a halt to the broadcasts, arguing that because the characters spent all their time pursuing love affairs rather than studying, the show was unrealistic and a bad influence on the young.
Li says that the reaction was related to the mainland’s expectation that cultural products possess elements that enhance the public’s cultural sophistication and its understanding of science. Cultural products are also supposed to morally enlightening. Mao Zedong once observed that young people “are like the sun at eight or nine o’clock.” Young people are therefore expected to be full of energy, and cultural products that portray them as gloomy, self-indulgent, or cynical are regarded as bad influences.
Medical and educational challenges
“The publisher didn’t lose money on the first book, so I was able to spew the rest of what I wanted to write about,” recalls Li, whose second effort was the 130,000-character China!
The book followed in the footsteps of the first, continuing its analysis of pop culture and of the Taiwanese and mainland publics’ views of one another. Li also included a firsthand account of his own everyday experiences eating, riding the bus, and getting medical care side by side with mainlanders.
When Li sought treatment for a fever at a hospital, his doctor examined his throat with an ordinary household flashlight, took X-rays, and ran blood tests. When his wife was pregnant, they attempted to have her examined at a hospital near their home. Knowing that the hospital accepted only five patients per day for prenatal-to-postnatal care, they arrived at 6 a.m. only to discover that the line was already quite long. The next time they went, they arrived at 4 a.m., but again to no avail. It wasn’t until a kindly doctor intervened on their behalf that they succeeded in getting in.
Li also describes seeking to enroll his son at an inexpensive public kindergarten. He found that space was limited and competition fierce here too. A friend then explained that he’d most likely have to fork over a RMB50,000 “donation” to get his son into the school.
“The Chinese kaleidoscope is made up of myriad fragments,” writes Li. “These fragments have been assembled from rapid and excessive marketization, official managerialism, and ideology, as well as the cooperation between the monied and the powerful, the unwritten rules, and the ethical crises to which these factors have given rise.”
Take getting into a school, for example. “There are so many unwritten rules for getting a child into kindergarten, and elementary and middle school. And each promotion to the next level of schooling involves extremely difficult exams. I’ve had friends whose fifth-grade children were already suffering educational anxiety disorders.” Not wishing his son to have an unhappy childhood, Li began thinking about bringing him back to Taiwan for his schooling.
The road less traveled
The second book deals with a number of unpalatable truths. That may be why Li’s university informed him that it would not be extending his employment shortly after the book was published last summer. That news, together with the difficulties associated with buying a home, getting children into schools, and obtaining medical care in the mainland, prompted him to return to Taiwan. But he then encountered a new problem: having the graduate degree he received in the mainland accepted in Taiwan.
The question of whether to recognize or acknowledge mainland academic credentials has been debated for the last decade. It is an issue of great concern to Taiwanese who have obtained formal degrees at the university level or above from mainland institutions—more than 14,000 between 1985 and 2007.
Former President Chen Shui-bian once said that the government would never accept such degrees during his tenure. His concern was that their acknowledgement would prompt too many Taiwanese to choose to study in the mainland, leaving Taiwan’s universities with too few students. When President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, the government began looking into the prospect of permitting mainland students to study in Taiwan. The legislature moved forward on the issue of mainland students in Taiwan in August 2010, approving amendments to three relevant laws once the Ministry of Education had sketched general guidelines on numbers of students, the schools involved, and the fields of study. The move raised hopes that the government might also take action on the recognition of mainland degrees.
But Li points out that the objective of the recent amendments is to open up Taiwan to mainland students, and the broad recognition it accords to the degrees of mainland students has no bearing on the acknowledgement of degrees obtained by Taiwanese students in the mainland. Instead, the MOE has ruled that all Taiwanese who obtained degrees in the mainland in the 1992–2010 period and wish their degrees to be recognized must pass an exam and a dissertation defense.
Li came back to Taiwan last September to take his degree exams. A specialist in cultural studies, he was nonetheless required to take an exam on either the history of Chinese philosophy or the history of Western philosophy, as well as one on logic, leaving him at a bit of a loss as to how to prepare.
A self-proclaimed “nerd,” he studied for his tests while also hard at work writing. His third book focuses on the young people born since the 80s and examines issues related to education, adolescence, and subcultures.
Li says that the three books offer a documentary record of a decade of his life, one that began with the thought that he couldn’t contemplate China from the comfort of his own home and ultimately set him on his own unique path. When Li went to China a decade ago, the mainland was in the midst of intensive social transformations. The decision provided him with a front-row seat for these historic changes. His books record his experiences in academia and elsewhere, offering a personal perspective on many facets of life in China’s political and economic system. Li’s decision to take the road less traveled by, has, as the poet Robert Frost wrote, “made all the difference.”