On Leaving China, and On Feeling Trapped Inside

Yesterday the New York Times published a brief essay by Liao Yiwu on his escape from China via the country’s Western border. Liao, whose experiences the Times has chronicled on several occasions, had this to say:

For a writer, especially one who aspires to bear witness to what is happening in China, freedom of speech and publication mean more than life itself. My good friend, the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, has paid a hefty price for his writings and political activism. I did not want to follow his path. I had no intention of going back to prison. I was also unwilling to be treated as a “symbol of freedom” by people outside the tall prison walls.

Only by escaping this colossal and invisible prison called China could I write and publish freely. I have the responsibility to let the world know about the real China hidden behind the illusion of an economic boom — a China indifferent to ordinary people’s simmering resentment.

It’s worth a read. I put it here because it reminded me of an essay, both similar and different, that I think is probably being read less in the states. It’s an essay about the experience of going through high school in China, written by Eric Mu for Danwei, an online English-language magazine about China. The Chinese high school system is one of intense competition, as students throughout the country spend years preparing for the “Gaokao,” a test which sorts students into the nation’s universities. Mu writes:

It was not only the students dealing with a lot of stress, but the teachers as well. A teacher’s salary was correlated by how many of the students that they were responsible for went to university. Even the school principal would be evaluated on such statistics. At my junior year, a girl committed suicide. Not a big surprise. There are always weak ones who just can’t make it. That is how natural selection works. The cause of the suicide was that the girl’s head teacher asked her to forgo the college entrance exam. Not that he hated her personally. He simply talked to all the students who were deemed hopeless and would only dilute the average results of the class. The girl refused. The teacher told the girl something that must have been very humiliating, and she drowned herself in the sea that afternoon.

Liao’s essay is more transparently political, and discusses topics – freedom of speech, the Chinese police state – that appear more frequently in Western coverage of China. Mu’s is more quotidian, but just as tragic. Not everyone escapes from China, and it may be the fact that very few want to. But reading the Mu piece gives you a sense of the daily hazards and anxieties faced by hundreds of millions of people in contemporary China.

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