Professor Maureen O’Donnel
Writing for College L125
4 October, 2018
On Education and the “Emperors”
The anthology Patterns Across Cultures by Hirschberg and Hirschberg is a compilation of many stories from across the world pertaining to many different cultures. It should be no surprise that any one of these stories should resonate with one of its readers, perhaps based on subject matter or, through the aspects of the reader’s culture present in its work. In the case of myself, Taylor Clark’s “Plight of the Little Emperors” has spoken greatly to me. The story of the one-child generation of China and their complex upbringing has seen many parallels to my own upbringing. However, while similarities do exist, the extremes undergone by the Little Emperors, aided by many factors has shown that there are stark differences between them and me. Differences aside, I can say with clarity however, that the main cultural theme that links the Little Emperors and I is our shared, and sometimes extreme, value in education.
The xiao huangdi, or the Little Emperors, as the term translates were a generation of urban Chinese children born in the era following the enactment of the one-child policy in China. While the initial goal of the one-child policy was to try and contain China’s mushrooming population in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Clark in “Plight of the Little Emperors” on page 354 of Patterns Across Cultures argues that, “the greater purpose was to turn out a group of young elites who would enjoy the full and undivided resources of their whole family,” hence the name Little Emperors. These young children would be bred and rigidly educated to pass the national college entrance exam, called the gao kao, or “tall test” by the Chinese. The future of the Little Emperors would hinge on this exam, leading them to rigorously study for the majority of their childhood lives, all while being given the complete attention of their family. This has created extremely high expectations in the minds of the Little Emperors when entering the Chinese labor force, but the policy of bringing up an ultracompetitive generation of intellectuals in a still-developing country with few positions to meet up to the expectations of the Little Emperors has led to many falling into depression due to failing to meet these expectations, with 25% of university students in China having reported suicidal thoughts (Clark 356). In recent decades however, China has begun to address some of these issues, such as establishing a suicide-prevention hotline in 2003 (Clark 357) and even abandoning the one-child policy altogether in 2015.
After having read “Plight of the Little Emperors,” I have noticed there have been numerous connections to my life on the subject of education. Like the Little Emperors, I too have placed a great, sometimes unnecessarily high value on education. Throughout my academic career, I have always tried my best when trying to succeed in school. I had found that school came very easily during primary school, but when middle and high schools came around I began to show difficulty with particular subjects. What amplified the difficulties, especially in high school, was my absolute refusal to accept any type of failure and inability to quit when undergoing a task. This would mean that despite being placed into classes where I was almost completely overwhelmed, rather than settling and switching to a lower level class, I would stay in a difficult high level class simply because it was of a higher level than regents. This ultimately compacted in high school, where by senior year despite sharing classes with top five students in the school, grade wise I was only ever in the top 100. However, while I did undergo a lot of unnecessary difficulty in high school, the feelings of failure and depression that would accompany my own inadequacy was not nearly on the level of Little Emperors. Never once had I ever considered taking my own life on the grounds of receiving a bad grade. Another difference between the Little Emperors and I was the environments we were raised in. The Little Emperors were often born to urban poor and had to rigorously compete for extremely limited prospects of success. I on the other hand am from a middle class family in a nation where the prospects of success are far greater and far more numerous. Even if I were to fail at attaining one of the many successful positions American society offers, the cost of failure in America is far less than that of China. If the Little Emperors were to not do well enough on the “tall test,” they would be forever shut out of the middle and upper classes of China, where in America, social mobility is far easier and is not just limited to academic success.
In summation, the “Plight of the Little Emperors is a story that has resonated with me greatly and has connected deeply with my personal culture. I have seen that the Little Emperors show many traits that I can see within myself, such as a devout fervor for education, and a great discontentment for failure. While these traits are good in a healthy amount in one such as myself, the amplification of these traits in the Little Emperors, particularly the latter, has led to some less than desirable results. However, this great difference between the Little Emperors and I can be explained due to the rigorous and highly competitive nature of the Chinese educational sphere compared to that of my American educational experience, where the chances of success are far higher due to the greater amount of opportunities for social advancement. Unlike that of China, where the Little Emperors’ chances of social advancement hinges on a single test, and even with that, the amount of positions for whoever succeeds is far more limited than America due to the still developing nature of China’s economy. Despite our differences, the Little Emperors and I share a common goal that connects deeply our shared ideal of education, and the advancement through society that in helps provide. I shall follow in the example of the Little Emperors and focus myself further on studying and acquiring knowledge through education in order to advance myself to the absolute apex of society.