The story appears on

Page B5

May 31, 2011

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Going to school for the love of learning

A university degree in China is considered a ticket to success, meaning a good job and good pay. Love of learning or yearning for a particular field of knowledge is not always a driving factor.

But there are people who would happily do almost anything to get into college, soak up knowledge, do the homework and burn the midnight oil - without any hope or prospect of a degree. All because they're hungry for learning.

For some, it means spiritual enrichment, for others it's experience that will enrich their work, for still others it can lead to real physical benefits.

These are China's casual students, the auditors. No one knows how many there are (not many) but many endure privation just to sit in class.

Here are two of them:

Old philosopher

At an age when people are supposed to enjoy their blissful golden years with children and grandchildren around them, Li Wenchao has embarked on a demanding new life of learning at prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.

A poor man, 69-year-old Li said good-bye to his wife and two unemployed sons in Guizhou Province in southwestern China and went back to school. The former assistant railway engineer is taking nine courses, mostly in PhD programs, totaling 23 hours each week. His favorites are Greek and German philosophy where he tackles the big questions about the meaning of life.

Last November he was admitted as a casual or auditing student - no grades, no certificate of any kind. He lives in virtual penury but he's happy.

"What I insist on now is a life of soul and spirit," he says.

Wearing a faded shirt and shabby trousers, Li takes down every word of "his" professor in Greek philosophy.

"What comes after philosophy?" associate professor Song Jijie asks the 20-something students in his class. No regular student answers, but Li speaks up. "Democracy," Li says. "In a sense, the equal right of education."

Song isn't surprised. He says Li's perception and understanding of reality is much deeper than that of his regular students; and Li's thinking is more independent.

"What he lacks are professional theories and systematic training, so it is hard for him to follow our steps," Song says.

"Casual students have a strong thirst for knowledge and courage to study hard, so they are welcome to my class," he says.

Li says, "My life is enlightened by philosophy."

"Enlightenment makes me comprehend the universe, the world, nation, politics and history," he says.

Li, the son of farmers, has come a long way. His parents moved from one poor area to another that had a school for him.

He has always been keen on study. Li used to be an assistant engineer in Guiyang branch of Guizhou's railway bureau and was always taking part-time courses at night and on weekends.

In 2001, retired Li passed China's college entrance examination and was enrolled by Guizhou Normal University as a senior examinee. After earning a bachelor's degree in contemporary Chinese in 2005, he took postgraduate entrance examinations for the next five years. But he was denied admission to Shanghai Normal University due to a low English score of 22.

He doesn't think he can ever pass English, which is required for college enrollment in China. So Li went to Beijing and started life as a casual student at Tsinghua.

Li spends three to five yuan (46-77 US cents) for each meal in the students' canteen. Breakfast is only a corn-flour pancake, costing only 0.8 yuan. Milk and soft drinks are luxuries.

He rides a 50-yuan, second-hand bicycle to class every day from his shabby, 10-square-meter rented basement room. He shares it with two job hunters and pays 400 yuan a month for a bed.

Li now has more than 700 pages of detailed course notes, but he won't receive any degree or certificate. He's just an auditor.

That's fine. He doesn't envy retired people in rocking chairs.

"I am satisfied by study in which heart and soul can be purified," he says. After three years' study in Beijing, he hopes to study abroad.

"I have no time to lose at my age, so I have to seize every day," Li says.

Around half of the 30 students in his German philosophy course are casual students, says Li, and all study hard.

Loves lit

Another casual student is 28-year-old Yu Yunkai from a poor village in Yunnan Province. He went to Peking University to study literature four yeas ago and takes two hours of classes every day.

He has virtually no money. He works as a party time copy editor at a magazine and submits articles to periodicals to pay his expenses.

Although he only spends about 800 yuan a month, he cannot make ends meet, so his younger sister, a migrant worker at a garment factory in Zhejiang Province, occasionally lends him money. She only earns 2,000 yuan a month.

Yu has been writing poetry and essays since he was 15 and all were published in local newspapers. He believed in his talent and had high expectations, so he dropped out of his technical secondary school and went to Beijing.

Like Li, Yu does not expect any certificate, but he wants to become a full-time writer of literature.

"Everything I absorb here will benefit my future writing," he says, adding that contemporary Chinese literature must be improved.

Now Yu is writing a novel, narrating a young photographer's accidental meeting in a forest - it's a story about young people facing loss. It has been accepted by a publisher and it's expected to be off the presses at the end of this year.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend