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Embracing life beyond academia

Youth are moving away from traditional academic pursuits, favoring unconventional paths over exam obsession, sparking societal reflection on the value of education, Gui Qian reports.

By Gui Qian | China Daily | Updated: 2024-03-20 06:37
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Li Zhenyu [Photo provided to China Daily]

Li Zhenyu feels as though he has been trapped by the postgraduate entrance exam. Over the past six years, he has attempted to pass consecutive exams, all of which ended in failure. When the results of the latest postgraduate entrance exam were released on Feb 26, and he had failed for the sixth time, surprisingly, Li felt a sense of relief and ease, as if he had seen it coming.

For the 27-year-old, this moment marked a turning point — a farewell to a life of exam preparation, and a shift in focus toward pursuing what he truly desires.

Li studied animation and film production at the Shenyang Institute of Engineering in Northeast China's Liaoning province. This major emphasizes practical experience, hands-on skills, and artistic talent, with less emphasis on academic qualifications. As graduation approached in 2018, only two out of approximately 30 of Li's classmates chose to take the postgraduate entrance exam, and Li was one of them.

During his time at school, Li directed several short films and won awards at various youth film festivals. His teachers believed he had potential and was suited for further academic pursuits. They felt it would be detrimental if Li went straight into the workforce, as he would likely end up doing wedding photography or working in media operations.

Li himself was deeply attached to campus life. "It was a time of pure creativity. I could fully devote myself to my work without worrying about making a living, and I could receive all kinds of support from teachers and classmates to complete my film projects," Li said. "How wonderful it would be if I could continue this as a postgraduate!"

With these expectations in mind, Li decided to take the postgraduate entrance exam. For him, the English and political theory exams posed challenges, leading to his first failure. He registered again the following year. Despite his efforts, he failed again. Obsessed with the idea of becoming a postgraduate, he kept retaking the exam and preparing for it, to the extent that it eventually became a daily routine and habit.

While preparing for the exams over the past six years, Li tried different jobs to support himself. He was surprised to find that almost all of his young colleagues were also taking various exams, whether it was the postgraduate entrance exam, the civil service recruitment exam, or other certificate examinations.

"It seemed that if you didn't take some kind of exam, you would become an outlier, disconnected from society, and lacking common ground with your peers," Li said. "But in fact, I only dreamed of life after passing the exam and never really thought over what my life would be like after finishing my postgraduate studies, or if I could even enter one."

After his fifth failure, Li wrote in a social media post, "Since the start of my preparation, it seems like everything I do is contingent upon my success in the exams. Consequently, with each subsequent failure, I believed that I was not qualified to accomplish anything I had previously envisioned. More than the fear of not passing the exam, I detested this aspect of myself." He even tagged this post with "life of failure" at the end.

A year later, he finally relinquished his obsession with becoming a postgraduate and resolved to look ahead. He views his "life of failure" with no disdain or irony, but rather as a source of motivation. After so many letdowns, he is no longer afraid of failing. He is courageous enough to bypass the intermediary of formal education and pursue his passion — making films.

During the past months, Li has produced several 1 to 2-minute short films and submitted them to various film festivals. He is also filming a feature-length documentary that he has long wanted to make, focusing on a group of young people who consider themselves inadequate at work. He mentioned that he was one of those people, avoiding work and getting trapped in a life dilemma. However, now he understands that it was the mindset that trapped him.

It took Li six years to realize that the postgraduate entrance exam is not the sole choice in life. In fact, more and more young people are making the same decision — they choose not to get caught up in the race for academic qualifications.

According to data released by the Ministry of Education, after eight consecutive years of increase, the number of applicants for the 2024 postgraduate entrance exam dropped for the first time to 4.38 million, a decrease of 7.6 percent compared with last year. The phrase "Is pursuing higher education no longer attractive?" has also become a trending topic on Sina Weibo, amassing over 47 million views.

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