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Zhang Xuefeng's pep talk to anxious undergraduates who wish to move up
Straight talk from China's leading tutor on choosing universities, graduate schools and majors.
The People’s Republic of China is unitary with no fedearlist system but its universities, all state-run in the socliast country, do NOT admit students fairly across provinces. All universities overwhelming favor local candidates in admission - that is to say, discriminate against candidates from outside the universities’ provinces or municipalities.
For example, in 2022, Tsinghua University and Peking University admit 550 students from 54,00 candidates from Beijing, but only 424 from the central province of Henan, where there are a whopping 1.2 million candidates.
Numbers do not lie: if you grow up in the wrong province, your chance of getting into China’s indisputably top two universities is at least 25 times more difficult.
In the application process, a key step is to fill in one’s target school, because admissions overwhelmingly rely on a candidate’s one-time written test administered by the state.
For college applications, that’s the annual National Higher Education Entrance Examination ("Gaokao"). For the vast majority of students in China, it serves as the only determinant for admission into undergraduate programs at Chinese universities. The candidate with the lowest score who is admitted by a university sets the university’s acceptance cut-off point of that year. And candidates fill in their target university and major after getting their scores.
For graduate school applications, the writtest test is taken AFTER candidates fill in their target school. If the scores they later achieve meet the threshold ascertained after the test, they will be admitted; otherwise, they may be reassigned to other schools willing to accept their scores.
It is not hard to see that the fill-in phases of both Gaokao and the graduate school application exams can be very confusing and challenging. For Gaokao, the cut-off score can only be known after the admission process, so the students have to refer to the cut-off score of the previous years to extrapolate if their scores attained this year would be enough for entering their target university and major.
For graduate school applicants, the fill-in phase would be even more of a gamble since one hasn’t even taken the test before filling in, while their score attained would determine which program they may enroll in.
Since the expansion of higher education enrollment in China at the beginning of the 21st century, college students are no longer considered the so-called "pride of the world (天之骄子)," especially for those who enter non-prestigious universities. They do not have access to the career opportunities and resources available at top universities. They are not the focus of public attention, and their competitiveness in the job market is relatively low as the best Chinese companies commonly exclude those outside prestigious universities.
With the economic growth momentum slowing down, they face even more significant employment pressure and higher levels of anxiety. For the non-elite high school students or undergraduates, going to which major at which more prestigious college or graduate school could well be the best - if not the last - hope to climbe the ladder.
And that’s where Zhang Xuefeng comes into rescue. The northeast-born, Henan-educated, plain-spoken, and non-elite tutor dispenses astute counsel pertaining to Gaokao and graduate school applications: which university, major, and program should you fill in?
Zhang recently engendered fervent debates in over the journalism major in Chinese universities - and by extension, the journalism career in China.
Zhang said during a live broadcast what was perceived as an open disparagement of the journalism education and profession in China "If a child insists on majoring in journalism, I will knock him out!"
Zhang’s remarks echo the pragmatic concern of his core target followers, an anxious middle class caught in the middle of the rat race of modern Chinese educational tests who desperately try to secure a margin in the fill-in and pragmatic test preparation strategies, as well as the apparently growing though muted suspicion towards journalism as a profession in China.
“If you come from a well-off background, you have more choices, and there's no right or wrong (for your fill-in choices). But for most families, conditions are not that favorable, so you should choose a major that suits you and can secure your future livelihood,” replied Zhang to Professor Zhang Xiaoqiang from Chongqing University's School of Journalism and Communication, who advised against “being misled” and argued that journalism is a versatile field and China’s mainstream media is still an industry with employment opportunities.
This is not the first time that Zhang Xuefeng’s bluntness caught public eye. Today, we are sharing one example of his straight-forward, down-to-earth, and sometimes vulgar expressions and comments that resonate with the excessively competitive Chinese society and won him loads of followers - seven million alone on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.
The following is a pep talk by Zhang at the Jilin University of Finance and Economics to hopefuls for a graduate school education. Shot on smartphone, the video recording circulated for years in Chinese social media and sheds light on the colorful Zhang, his experience-based view of Chinese edcuation, and the pressure facing China’s non-elite undergraduates. (To be fair, they already do much better than the many more who haven’t made it into universities.)
You will definitely succeed in getting into graduate school! Even though I have no knowledge of your academic background or whether you have ever failed any courses in your undergraduate studies, let me tell you: you will definitely make it! Do you know why? Because you will come to realize that studying is one of the simplest things you will encounter in your entire life. There is indeed nothing easier than studying. Some of you may argue, “I find studying quite difficult.” Here, apart from earning money, let me give you a few examples of the challenges you might face when you enter the workforce.
For instance, even if someone looks foolish, you have to say he looks handsome because he is your boss's child; you have to tolerate an irritating colleague because you need that job, just like some of you currently have to endure annoying roommates. Furthermore, for some female students here, in your future business endeavors, you will often find yourself having to dine with nauseous middle-aged men, unwillingly. And for male classmates pursuing business careers, imagine your clients insisting that you must drink a glass of alcohol, or they won't cut the deal. You have no choice but to drink even though you cannot drink anymore. Which one do you think is more challenging? Clearly, studying is much simpler, isn't it? That's why I say you will definitely succeed in getting into graduate school. People often ask me, "Do you think I can make it?" Don't ask me, I'm not a fortune teller. If I say you can make it, then you can, why would I still be here? I would have started a fortune-telling business long ago. The opportunity lies in your hands, not in my words.
When I studied management in university, our professor often talked to us about "financial independence," which, as the professor said, entrepreneurs always hope to achieve. Do you know what “financial independence” really means? At that time, some of my classmates said that financial independence means having a lot of money and being able to do whatever you want. Our professor said they were wrong. Actually, it means having so much money that you can choose not to do things you don't want to do. — you have the right to say "no."
Do you have this right? If you do, when you are forced to drink a glass of hard liquor for business, you could say no. Actually, I can relate to this. Do you think I want to stand here and give lectures — the microphone doesn't work well, and I have to strain my voice. I don't want to give lectures either, but I have no choice. The pay is so attractive. See? I don't have financial independence yet. Do you still think studying is difficult? No, it is too easy.
Let me tell you, it's not easy to make a living in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. Think twice before you decide to venture there. I’ve been living in Beijing for over a decade, and some of the fans who have followed me for a long time probably know that I bought an apartment in Beijing a long time ago. However, to be honest with you all, I have never felt like Beijing is my home.
My apartment is located outside the fifth ring road, in the northwest of Beijing, near a road called Houchangcun Road. Now, what kind of road is it? Well, you would be extremely grateful if any of you ever get the opportunity to work on Houchangcun Road in the future. Because on that street, you will find the headquarters of some prominent companies such as NetEase, Baidu, Sina, Sohu, and Tencent, which are just 10-15 minutes drive to my place. As a result, the housing prices in my neighborhood have skyrocketed, reaching an astonishing 75,000 to 80,000 yuan per square meter. However, where is this expensive apartment located? Let me put it this way. From my place, taking a taxi to Beijing West Station costs around 140 yuan, to Beijing South Station 180 yuan, to Beijing Capital International Airport 220 yuan, and to Beijing Daxing Airport, a staggering 450 yuan.
Every time I return to Beijing, my thought isn't, "I'm coming home." Instead, it's, "How am I going to get home?" Public transportation isn't available after 11 p.m., so I have no other choice but to rely on taxis, making me a premium member of DiDi Chuxing (a Chinese vehicle for hire company headquartered in Beijing with over 550 million users and tens of millions of drivers.). I spend around four to five thousand yuan per month on DiDi alone, since a round trip to Beijing Daxing Airport costs over a thousand yuan. There's simply no alternative.
When you visit Beijing in the future, don't go to places like the Summer Palace. Those are not the real Beijing. Let me recommend two places for you. The first one is called Bawangfen (八王坟). Bawangfen is not in the outskirts of Beijing, but in the city center, just one subway stop away from the most bustling area of Beijing, Guomao (China World Trade Center). After you leave the subway station, there is a Bawangfen bus station, take bus number 830, which starts from Bawangfen and bounds for Yanjiao(燕郊). You can experience what it feels like to have “a thousand people” on a single bus, what it feels like to have your feet off the ground without falling, and what it feels like to not have to squeeze onto a bus because you'll be squeezed onto it.
The second place I recommend is Tiantongyuan (天通苑). Have you heard of it? It is said to be the largest community in Asia. Well, it is actually the largest community in the world. Do you know Tiantongyuan is home to four million people? There are even three subway stations in the community: the Tiantongyuan South, Tiantongyuan, and Tiantongyuan North stations. Try catching the first subway train at 5 a.m. from Tiantongyuan North and see whether you can get on or not. That's the real Beijing, you know? You need to understand that Beijing is not easy to get by in, and it's not suitable for everyone. It's suitable for people like me.
What kind of person am I? First and foremost, my fellow students, you must be extremely resilient. If you can't handle hardships, Beijing is not the place for you. I am the kind of person who can endure significant challenges. When I first arrived in Beijing, I slept in basements, offices, kitchens, living rooms, and even corridors. Even to date, I am still quite occupied, and I can share with you if you are interested: giving lectures, writing books, reading books, rushing somewhere, etc. Some people say, “Well, that's acceptable, as long as I receive the rewards I deserve.” Ah, you got it right. Hard work pays off.
Second, you must have dreams. Beijing is not the place for those without dreams. For example, you want to become the most outstanding graduate from our class; you want those girls who turn down you to deeply regret their choices. If you have such aspirations, Beijing is a must for you. Only in Beijing can your ambitions be realized. Actually, it was precisely why I ventured into Beijing back in the day.
When I was in college, I had a girlfriend from a province in the southern part of China. One day, her father called me on the phone and asked, "Are you Zhang Xuefeng?" I replied affirmatively and greeted him respectfully. However, he immediately dismissed my pleasantries and said, "Don't give me that. Let me tell you, Zhang, you're just a poor guy from Northeast China. Do you think you're worthy of our daughter? Even if you two were together, would our family approve? Let me make it clear, even if she agrees, I will definitely tear you two apart. You’d better think carefully" With that, he abruptly hung up the phone. It was at that moment I made a decision: "Damn it, I'm going to venture into Beijing." Since then, whenever I faced some difficult and helpless moments, whenever I desperately wanted to leave Beijing, I would take out my wallet and look at her father's photo therein, which provided me with a surge of determination and strength.
I'm not joking. Some students may ask, "Mr. Zhang, why do you push yourself so hard? Why are you so tough on yourself? Life could be simple and ordinary, right?" Well, every year there are students saying this, mostly female. They chat with me online and say, "Mr. Zhang, my desires are simple. I just want to find a man who loves me forever, have a cute baby, and raise an adorable dog. I think that is great." Hey, if you have such thoughts, do you think it's necessary for you to strive for universities in first-tier cities? Honestly, it's not necessary. Instead, you can aim for a university/college in your own Province. Take Jilin Province for example. Jilin University of Finance and Economics is not bad. If you work hard and aim to pursue a graduate degree at Jilin University, it is definitely not without hope, right? After graduating from Jilin University, you can find a job in Changchun (the capital of Jilin Province) without much difficulty. The monthly salary may not be too high, but as a Jilin University graduate student, earning around 10,000 to 15,000 RMB per month is quite common.
Then you find a partner who earns 10,000 to 15,000 RMB per month. Someone might ask, "Why would my partner only earn 10,000 to 15,000 RMB?” Well, birds of a feather flock together. You attract someone who is similar to yourself. Think about it, if you earn 3,000 RMB per month, how can you make someone who earns 30,000 RMB per month like you? Last time in Baoding, someone actually answered this question, and it almost drove me crazy, you know? I said, "How can you make someone who earns 30,000 RMB per month like you when you earn 3,000 RMB per month?" I was getting all worked up, and then a girl stood up and said, "Because I'm flirty." Later, upon careful consideration, I realized she had a point, but I couldn't just say she was right, could I? If you encounter an ordinary teacher, you're doomed, right? But if you encounter someone like me, do you know what I would say? I would say, "You said it's because you're flirty, right? Believe it or not, women become no more comparable when a man becomes flirty." If you don't believe me, let me introduce someone to you. I recently met someone who I believe is the most flirty man in the world. You've probably heard of him, Guo Lele (a Chinese internet celebrity who gained popularity through exaggerated performances but later got banned on the internet). If you haven't heard of him, listen to a song called "My Little Cutie" and feel it. You know what? When Guo Lele sang that song, he was singing it in front of me. I was almost frightened to death. He wanted to become famous through live streaming, but he shouldn't have done it that way. You see, he's going against the wind. Why would the rich and beautiful women want to be with him?
You find a partner, and the two of you can earn around 25,000 to 30,000 RMB per month in Changchun. But you can't expect to buy a house right after graduating from graduate school, can you? So, save money for a few years and seek some financial assistance from your parents, the down payment is not a problem either. Wouldn't that be an acceptable life? Remember, both of you come from a village or a small town, and through your hard work, you've established yourselves in the provincial capital. Isn't that progress? But why did I push myself so hard? Why did I make myself so exhausted? Don't you think it's time to ease up a bit? Because I have an “illness.” I have a severe “illness” of poverty. Since I was young, my family has been extremely poor, so poor that it's beyond imagination. There were times when our family struggled financially, so poor that we couldn't even afford the bare essentials. And not only was I poor, but I also constantly faced setbacks.
During the time I was in a relationship, my girlfriend's father called me, disagreed with our relationship, three times, and the most severe one was the third time. By that time, I had already started working. During the Lunar New Year, I sent my girlfriend to her family's home because I didn't want her to feel lonely, right? And I couldn't leave her there alone, so I accompanied her to their house. I took her to their doorstep, but her mother didn't even invite me inside for a glass of water. They told me to leave quickly. Later, even my mom couldn't bear it anymore. She called me and said, "Son, when you look for a partner in the future, don't mention that you have a family, otherwise it might hinder your opportunities. You could have found a really good partner, don't let us hold you back." I told her, "Mom, if someone accepts me, they must accept our family as well."
To be honest, my fellow students, do you think I haven't pondered over these questions? Why aren't my parents wealthy? Why am I not born with a silver spoon? Why do I have to work so hard? But as time went on, I realized that having my parents give me life is already a blessing. So why did I choose to take on such a demanding path? It's because I don't want my future generations to experience poverty again. I don't want their dreams to be shattered when they aspire to study abroad but I cannot afford it. Moreover, I don't want them to face discrimination in their relationships due to my unfavorable conditions. I don't want them to go through such hardships. However, I'm not telling you all of this to convince you that my choices are the right ones. I want to emphasize one thing: whether a person lives a good life or not, only they themselves truly know. Is the life of the person you envy exactly as you imagine it to be? Not necessarily.
Let me give you an example of myself. During reunions with my elementary, middle, high school, and even university classmates, I am the one they all envy. Why? Because I earn a lot. Currently, I have three companies. One of them is about to go public, and the potential gains could reach several hundreds million yuan. In two years' time, you might not see me giving lectures anymore because by then, I might have achieved financial independence. Moreover, the current valuation of the second company is between 500 million and 800 million yuan. The third company is also doing well. I earn hundreds of thousands from writing books each year and millions from giving lectures. It seems like I make quite a lot, doesn't it? But do you know the price I have paid for all this? It is that I haven't been able to spend enough time getting together with my family for over a decade. Can those things be bought back with money? They cannot.
Some people say, "Why go through all this trouble when you can just settle down with a spouse and children to live an average but happy life?" But is it really that simple? Not necessarily.Today, we have more female students among us. If you are already in your third year of university, especially for the female students, when you go home for the Chinese New Year, your parents might have a deep conversation with you. Because you are about to graduate. Your parents might say something like, "You are our closest companion, so we don't want you to struggle too much outside. If things get too difficult, why not come back home? We can help you find a job in the local bank, right? If that doesn't work out, you can consider taking the civil service exam. It would be nice, wouldn't it? We and our relatives will be by your side to take care of you. Isn't that a good option?" Your parents might have such a conversation with you, you know? But let me tell you, if you listen to them, you will face an embarrassing situation. Because in your small county town, it will be challenging for you to find a partner who matches your expectations. Why is that? Because you have studied in a provincial capital city, where you have already experienced what outstanding men are like. You have a clear idea of the kind of man you want to spend the rest of your life together. But you will find that the one you like is not in your small county town , and for those who like you, you don't feel satisfied. Will you compromise or continue to wait? If you choose to wait, as time goes on, you might have less and less choices.
Then your mother may have another conversation with you, "Let me tell you, it doesn't matter who a woman marries in her lifetime. Look at your father and me. We argue every day, but we still have made it through? Do you understand?” Then you listen to her and marry someone you may not even like that much. We could keep the grievances to ourselves. But you know what's even more troubling? When you send your child to school, you will find out that your child will study in the same primary school, middle school, and high school that you did. What's worse, you will find out that your child’s head teacher is someone you know: your middle school classmate. You know exactly what kind of person he or she is, and he or she is not capable of being a teacher at all. And now your child has to be with him, do you think your child will be likely to have a prosperous future? Anyway, if you're interested, go back home and take a look. Most of your elementary school and middle school classmates are probably still stuck there. That's usually how it goes.
I went to high school at that time, but do you know what those who couldn't get into high school are doing now? They are working as doctors at our county hospital. When we gathered for the New Year and had drinks, do you know what they said to me? They said, "If your parents ever fall ill, come to the county hospital and find me." Find you? That's no different from seeking death! Tell me, what can you do? I know exactly what kind of people you are. I don't know how you managed to work at the county hospital, but you should be aware that medical resources differ between big cities and small cities. It's something you all should consider.
Sometimes, when I give lectures at universities, do you know what I feel when I look at all of you? The first feeling is envy. believe me, I genuinely envy you. Being young is such a wonderful thing. You have the flexibility to switch majors if you don't like what you're studying. You can even change universities if you think the one you're in is just average. You have the freedom to pursue what you want. You're like a blank slate. But can I do the same? I'm old now, and the education industry is the only path I could continue to do for the rest of my life. I can't do anything else. The second feeling I have is I think all of you are idiots. Because you frequently waste a significant amount of time on things that have no real bearing on your future. Right now, in university, you're at a stage where it's easiest to become complacent. Do you know why? It's because you lack comparison. In high school, you had grades to compare yourself with others. But now, you may feel that grades are not that important, and there are people who constantly feed you with speeches like, "It doesn't matter if your grades aren't good. Those who excel academically now may not necessarily succeed in the future." You lack comparison. For example, in your dormitory, do you compare yourself with your dorm mates? In the same major, you may think “I am average, and so is he”. For female students, “I can't afford expensive bags, and neither can she”, right?
However, do you really think you're all the same? No, the differences among you are not manifested in college. After ten years of graduating from your undergraduate program, each and every one of you will have taken different paths. Some of you will have achieved success, while others may not. Now, my fellow students, while you're still lying in your dorm beds, take a moment to imagine the way you will present yourselves at your ten-year college reunion. Will you be looking down on others or be looked down upon? This is especially pertinent for male students. Think about it: that girl you once pursued who didn't reciprocate your feelings, how will she view you ten years later? Will she be thinking, "Why didn't I choose you?" or "Thank goodness I didn't choose you!" What I'm saying may not resonate with you now, but when you reach my age, you will have a completely different feeling.
I'm 35 years old this year, born in 1984. When you're my age, can you honestly say there won't be any ripples in your heart when you encounter your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend and the people who you crushed on him or her? You're a person with emotions. Won't you wonder what would have happened if you had been together with them? You will undoubtedly have many thoughts and contemplations especially when it comes to the ten-year reunion, with some people doing well and others not. You may think you're doing great in school now, but if you're not doing well later, won't you feel upset?