Life, According to Script

What will a life be like? Many people nowadays look to make something special of their lives, to live their dreams, realize their true purpose, or maybe just to live a little differently. The success of people who propagate lives free from a daily grind, such as Tim Ferriss with his “Four-Hour Workweek” attest to this. As a side effect, many assume that they won’t get married because it’s just too much of a hassle, a stick in the spokes of their wheel of life – and a guy like Ramit Sethi, who will “teach you to be rich” has a hard time convincing people that they’d better plan for their marriage, because chances are, they will tie the knot.

China has only just come from a truly planned economy to economic openness, but that with nearly full force. Companies come and go with little regard for their workforce, and employees are ready to switch jobs at the call of a higher wage. Underneath all that, however, is a longing for stable good lives, parents’ strong (but rather misguided) push towards the same, and a strong script for how a life has to proceed.

In school, you are pushed to study hard, get a good mark on the GaoKao (the university entrance examination), and forget about everything else. For those of higher status, the pressure may be starting even earlier, with only a good kindergarten leading into a good school, leading into a renowned university.

At university, there may be some further pressure to be more self-reliant – or at least, there are complaints that students weren’t so quite enough. They still aren’t really supposed to be, however: parents want to control their social life, teachers have to be shown respect and not be questioned.

All in all, however, entrance into a good university is seen as leading to good careers. And even at not-so-good universities, the pressure of the GaoKao is gone, and the college graduation certificate is rather certain thanks to China’s class grade system (i.e., automatic advancement, basically regardless of passing grades). Moreover, as students are well-aware, the university education is leaning heavily towards the theoretical, the learning of facts. Therefore, entering into working life will hinge on finding a company willing to teach you the ropes.

In regards to social life, the parents are likely going to tell their child to concentrate on studies and forget about it. Well, not totally: there is a considerable number of events and groups the students could and should participate in. Those who want to (or are made to want to) will also work towards Communist party membership. Having a boyfriend/girlfriend is rather frowned upon by many conservative parents, however, even while peers will see it as strange not to be in a relationship. At least where the thinking is still more conservative (and it widely is), there should not be any love affairs that go too far, however. Girls who … let’s just say, go to hotel rooms with their lovers… are frowned upon. (Not surprisingly, as virginity until marriage is considered a major asset, if not necessity.) College students have only been allowed to marry since the relevant law was amended a few years ago.

The pressure mounts to find work. Four-year college is typically more like three years, because the last year is spent with internships or even the start of one’s working life. Around that time, approaching 25 years of age, there is also a considerable shift in attitude regarding the women: the parents will still want to have the main say in their relationships and want them to be more than careful, but will want them to find a future partner – or increasingly start doing that for them.

For the men, the pressure is similar but different: they may be given some more time to get married, but only because it’s seen as a sine qua non to have a place of one’s own, a car, and preferably a stable job. Cars can be had comparatively cheap, but apartments in the cities are immensely expensive (and few people would want to live in the countryside) and outside of government employ, stable jobs are a thing of the Communist planned-economy past.

As a result, the proffered attitude has become that the women should look for a sufficiently rich man from a family with good connections. Sometimes, there are articles proclaiming a rather more realistic search for good men who will work hard and be faithful and conscientious. “Naked marriage” without ring and ceremony, or “even without car and apartment” (as the China Daily recently put it in an online poll), is hotly debated.

After marriage, pressure is for a child to follow soon. Mothers are then expected to focus on the child’s education – I have even had female students argue that their own education were so that they could find a better husband and raise their children better. Husbands at least tend to participate in household work – if they so do. Often enough, the parents will in fact both work, and the children will stay with their grandparents to be raised (and spoiled) by them. Teaching will go as before, for the children to learn that they need to grow into good adults who can and will take good care of their parents when they grow old…

To an American or European, it sounds right out of the 1950’s. Our dominant idea has become that you should yourself decide how you want to live. This makes it all the more noticeable how strong the “script” for life remains in China – even if this is quite the cartoon version I presented here.

The only difference to the earlier Euro-American model, however, seems to be that the house is supposed to come before marriage. In spite of the changes brought on by the Communist government’s drives towards modernization (not least, laws and campaigns for women’s equality, as well as the single-child policy), and even through these last decades of social and economic change, this traditional view of how a life should unfold continues to be strong – if it hasn’t just been made stronger, in many respects.

The result is a lot of pressure, but also a sense of stability – a stable course of life, at least. Whether it fits in with the rapid pace of change, however, is a different issue. When the parents switch from not wanting their children to even consider having a boy-/girlfriend to wanting them married within a few years, maturity may be lacking; when everybody aims for the best universities and the same stable jobs, most are going to be disappointed and many opportunities for entrepreneurship may be missed. Then again, knowing what you are expected to do can also free one from having to decide everything themselves, and Chinese still seem to be rather good at taking in stride whatever trouble or opportunity comes along.


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  1. Great to see you’re writing more…I’m enjoying reading your posts.

    China does operate on a certain rigid “script” for what life should be. I suppose most countries and cultures have a “script” in a sense — but with China, the pressure to conform is palpable. I think it is interesting that parents/authority figures swing precipitously from “dating is forbidden” to “you must marry soon and have babies”. This simply reflects conservative thinking in China (that relationships should lead to marriage, and marriage should be for procreation and continuing the family).

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