Asia Life

The Gap Year Catches on in China

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Asia Life

The Gap Year Catches on in China

A growing number of Chinese students are ditching the books in favor of travel and life experience.

Li Shangcong is on the road – again. He and his “brother”, a worn-out yellow Merida bicycle, left Dalian last week and are heading northeast to Dandong. After taking a short break – sleeping in his small, cold tent and refilling his wallet with street performances – he will continue to cycle along the Chinese-North Korean border and then enter Russia via Huichun City in Jilin province by the end of June.

Last time he crossed the Chinese-Russian border, Li made headlines around China for his extraordinary rebellion: he threw in the towel on his gaokao, the national college entrance exam held on June 7 and June 8 every year.

The top student and vice-president of the student union at Henan Shangqiu High School, Li had a different ambition. Rather than grabbing a place at a top university, he opted to cycle through Siberia to the Cannes Film Festival – a mission that ended in failure when he was deported from Russia on an expired visa. 

One year later, he still has no plans for college. Instead, he has chosen to hit the road again. “I love studying, but I don’t want to delay what I should do at my current age,” Li said on Sina Weibo.

Apparently, Li has shed the belief that a degree from a top college is the only path to success. This belief remains deeply rooted in China’s older generation, many of whom were denied the chance to attend school in their teenage years after being sent to mountainous and rural areas for labor reeducation. Children today face a vastly different reality than their parents did when jobs were assigned by the state.

This Friday and Saturday, more than 9 million students, most of whom are the only child and sole hope for their families, will take the dreaded exam. Meanwhile, this year’s 7 million Chinese college graduates are facing the nation’s toughest job market ever. And those lucky enough to land employment are very likely to find that the payoff for their higher education amounts to less than migrant workers’ wages for manual labor.

Faced with these discouraging prospects, more students like Li, as well as their parents, are starting to doubt the worth of sacrificing youthful fun for stacks of papers and books. In 2011, the year before Li set off his first bicycle odyssey, a 15-year-old girl named Shi Zheying – encouraged by her father and inspired by Jack Kerouac – opted not to take the high-school entrance exam but to travel around China for 200 days instead. Her father’s comment that she should “travel 10,000 miles with daddy before reading 10,000 books” was applauded on Weibo. Shi was sent to study abroad afterwards.

The idea of a “gap year” has also caught on among twentysomethings who missed the chance during their teenage years. This trend has been motivated in part by Sun Dongchun’s 2008 book The Belated Gap Year. In the book, Sun tells the story of his 13-month gap year experience, which he undertook with 21,000 yuan after quitting his white collar job in Guangzhou in 2006.

“When I look back what I did during my teenage years, it’s sad that I have almost nothing significant to remember,” Vivienne Lu, a 26-year-old civil servant in Shanghai, told The Diplomat. But it’s never too late.

Inspired after reading Sun’s book, Lu plans to resign from her job – once seen as an “iron bowl” (a stable lifelong occupation) but which now faces bigger challenges amid the changing labor market. She plans to take a gap year from October, as a way to turn over a new leaf. 

“Better late than never,” she said.