Circumstance and Pomp

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t’s commencement week at ZheDa = ZJU = Zhejiang University. (Since the Chinese language doesn’t have letters, it can’t form “initials”, but it does have syllables, each corresponding to a character, so it can leave out all but a few key ones, leaving a shortened, but euphonious expression.) A little late by American standards. The start of the Spring semester is governed by the Lunar New Year, and consequently shifts back and forth, when reckoned a la Pope Gregory. Fitting, given the number of people in places of power who think of universities as quaint, at best, or tending toward lunatic.

But you would recognize the scene. In the field house of the Yuquan campus (the old, but still much used campus nicely situated just west of West Lake) some 10,000 graduates marched across the stage. All color-coded by school and degree level. The man at the podium changed with the colors. Only the guy center stage stayed and stayed, for all ten thousand, I presume — clearly some sort of custodian in academic robes. Like most other spectators and students I drifted in and out of the field house as “my group” came and went. Only later did I confirm that the focal point of the on-stage photo opportunity was the university president, a custodian in academic robes.

I think I am not guilty of chauvinism to suggest that everything, including the mortarboard, was patterned on western, indeed, American academic custom. Names and faces notwithstanding, there were few hints that this was taking place in China. Missing, I register only in retrospect, were any grand academic musical ouvertures. But why not some of the clang-and-bang of a Chinese Opera ensemble? Now that would be just the right local seasoning for this mock turtle soup.

Of course, the real observances occurred before and after the official. Several parties — read, convocations at a local restaurant — with increasingly bleary eyed “gan bei’s” led up to the day itself. Nonetheless everyone was sober enough to tromp in larger or smaller groups to sentimental spots (on whichever campus they regard as mater) for photos in black robes under a by now sweltering Hangzhou sun.

Not incidental to the occasion was a program aired on CCTV a few days ago, marking the thirtieth anniversary of the reinstatement of the university entrance exam system. Reinstatement after an interruption of several years during which the Cultural Revolution declared that the only appropriate credentials for university entrance were proletarian ones. The results of that excess exuberance were, by all accounts, not so good.

Yet is there not a grain of sense to be found there? Performance on a one-swat, homogenized exam, as currently in force, is not so hunky-dory. For those urban elite with excellent secondary training, it’s a hell of a lot of pressure. For those children so carelessly left behind in the educational slums of China’s backwaters, it’s a non-starter.

But the day belonged to those celebrating their successful entrance and exit from a system not of their devising. I didn’t begrudge them a heartfelt “congratulations.”

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