Why you should care

The Chinese educational system has drawn much praise for its achievements, but it has an underside as well. Going against it isn’t easy.

Yang Chengxing looks like your average 23-year-old Chinese guy, but he could easily pass for a teenager with his short, scrawny frame and cherubic face. When Yang talks about his passion for innovation, he exudes a sense of urgency, flailing his arms around in animated excitement.

“This is my life, so I will write the rules!” he said when I first met him more than a year ago in China’s central megacity of Chongqing. He’s in his own world, and his energy is infectious.

At 17, Yang inadvertently became the first student in China to publicly boycott the National Entrance Exam, or gaokao, and became an unlikely symbol of China’s education woes, a beacon of hope for students across the country.

“The gaokao system turns students into robots, and I refuse to be a robot.”

“The modern Chinese education system is designed to stifle creativity,” Yang explained as he talked about his journey. From birth to high school graduation in China, every exam, 12-plus hours of coursework and homework each day, every memorized formula and vocabulary word is aimed at preparing students for acing gaokao — the sole determinant of university entry.

Although widely loathed by educators, students and officials alike, most Chinese agree the gaokao is a great equalizer that gives all students, as long as they study hard enough, a fair chance to go to college. It’s the direct descendant of China’s Imperial Examination system, which ushered the educated into official positions for more than a millennium. That’s a lot of precedent to overcome.

Korea adopted a similar system and today faces pushback over the same issues: examination hell, conformity at the expense of creativity, and even depression leading to suicide among students.

So when Yang challenged the system at his high school in Chongqing — telling his teachers and then taking his campaign to Sina Weibo, China’s hugely popular microblogging site, he made national headlines. Local filmmakers followed him around for a year to document Yang’s journey from aspiring teen inventor to college dropout. Footage of Yang from 2010 shows a pasty, soft-spoken teen with a lisp ready to take on the world.

“The gaokao system turns students into robots, and I refuse to be a robot,” Yang said in the documentary. Turns out he’d rather make one than be one.

After his story was publicized, students from across the country took similar actions in protest. In 2011, 45 students in the southern city of Shenzhen boycotted the gaokao and were admitted to the South University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen. As part of the school’s efforts to reform admissions requirements, students are allowed to apply without a gaokao score, but the Ministry of Education still prevents such students from receiving an official diploma, which could hurt prospects for finding a job.

“What Yang has done is like a breath of fresh air for the education community,” said professor Pu Yongjian, director of the Research Development Center at Chongqing University. “We know there needs to be reform.”

When I met up with Yang recently, he was wearing the same baggy tracksuit he had on in the documentary. He walked with a speedy shuffle, zooming from point A to B like the Road Runner from Looney Toons.

Yang wrote letters to 50 universities explaining his passion for robotics, hunger to learn about battery technology and desire to change the world through entrepreneurship. While he got sympathetic responses, it was no go without a test score.

I know if this business fails, I can just pick myself back up again and learn from my mistakes.

Yang’s story finally inspired the headmaster of Chongqing Technical College, which prepares students for factory work and doesn’t require the test, to offer Yang a scholarship and an office space to work on his projects while taking classes part time. But Yang was bored, dropped out and focused on raising funds for his Xinlang Science and Technology Co.

“That was a turning point for me. I knew had I to take a leap of faith and follow my dreams or all my hard work would have gone to waste,” Yang said at a coffee shop near the apartment he shared with two roommates in central Chongqing this summer.

He managed to raise $30,000 capital from private investors and government seed funding for young entrepreneurs, relying on his fame to garner attention, and started making his patented self-watering flowerpot. At the Chongqing Trade Fair earlier this year, I found his 200-square-foot stall tucked away in corner at the back of the gardening section. He was demonstrating the flowerpot to potential buyers who looked unimpressed. Each pot had a 5-inch piece of string dangling from the bottom into a bowl of water. Yang had sold more than 1,000, at $3 each, in the first year. But hopes to turn a profit by the year end don’t look so great.

“It’s not easy doing business without guanxi [useful connections] and time is running out,” said Yang, sounding desperate. Chinese rely on personal connections to open marketing channels, among other things. He didn’t respond to suggestions that the pot’s plain look might be hurting sales.

With a lack of guanxi and few resources at hand, Yang has since begun manufacturing a large fish tank that waters a bonsai tree growing on top of the tank. He aims to sell the luxury item to high-end clients such as a businesses looking for a statement-piece in their reception areas. Yang hopes the tank, priced at about $1,000, will be a hit, based on its unique design.

“I know if this business fails, I can just pick myself back up again and learn from my mistakes,” said Yang, almost as if to give himself a boost of confidence. “This is not the end for me, and I hope I can serve as an inspiration to students across the country to pursue their dreams no matter what others think of them.”

While Yang might have blown fresh air into the debate about Chinese education, he also illustrates one of the proven lessons of entrepreneurship: It’s often more about failure than success, and requires nothing if not perseverance.

Chi-Chi Zhang is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs in China and a freelance writer.

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