Join me, Talia Smith, as I travel to Shanghai China, investigating the different facets of life in China. Today I’m taking a closer look into how China’s high school system influences the personal lives of its students.”
“I don’t think any other language has a word for this.” Danqi Xie is talking about “zao lian” a popular Chinese saying that literally translates to “early love.” “The meaning is extremely negative…” Zao lian is essentially a term that people use to stop young high school students from dating. If there were an equivalent Mean girls quote to paraphrase it, it would be Coach Carr’s “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!”
Danqi attended school in China up until her high school senior graduation, she now attends New York University. She says there is a common understanding and rule in high schools across China that students aren’t allowed to date, and teachers aren’t afraid of enforcing it. “If a teacher catches you kissing or hugging you may first get a warning, or detention, or more homework, but usually, they call both of your parents.”
You can see modern examples at Shenmu High School located in the Northwest province of China. Shenmu’s cafeteria is now gender-segregated to avoid any chances of “zao lian.” This is a far cry from my former high school on the lower east side of New York where couples could be found making out in-between every period. What is the reasoning behind schools monitoring students dating lives? The major reasoning comes from two words, gāo kǎo.
The “gāo kǎo” is the Chinese college admission exam that just might be 20 times more difficult than the SAT exam. Most students in China spend their whole academic lives preparing for it. Parents line up outside of he school waiting while their children take the gāo kǎo. The gāo kǎo determines your future, if you’re from a rural area and otherwise cannot afford education, that one gāo kǎo score could be your ticket into a top school. Unlike American colleges and Ivy’s that seem largely ran on bureaucracy, networking, and extra curricular activates. Due to the high-stress nature of the test, schools and parents want little time taken away from their children’s studies. Ziao lian is seen as the ultimate distraction and obstacle in preparing for your future.
Although most high school students in China can’t be seen being affectionate at school or at home, that doesn’t stop it from happening. Danqi says most of the time students may date behind their parents and the schools back, usually by going out on the weekends. However, it does cause a lot of built up angst. “Most people once they get to college they may do a lot of crazy stuff. Not in high school…maybe secretly in high school. Chinese colleges are more liberal. High school is super hard because you have to pass the gāo kǎo but once you’re accepted into college, it’s easier to graduate college in China so you have more free time to date.”
Danqi notes the difference in teen-dating culture in China and other areas around the world, can be found in pop culture. She believes in comparison to China, American TV shows make their high school students seem very adult-like, the situations and plot lines are very mature for high school students:
“Sometimes when Chinese students go to study abroad in America their parents might tell them “don’t do drugs or have sex” because much of the perception of life in American schools is what we get from shows and movies like Gossip Girl and American Pie. When you watch Chinese movies that are set in high school- it’s never a romance. If it is romance, then it’s usually a tale against “zao lian.” The ending is always the girl gets pregnant and ends up dropping out and ruining her life. A Chinese drama about a high school love story will usually end tragic because of zao lian. If you compare Korean and Japanese dramas that take place in high schools, the plots are more focused on school than love life, whereas in America it’s focused on sex and school.” Danqi chuckles when noting the difference between Chinese dramas versus Korean and Japanese dramas “Whenever there is an adaptation of a Korean or Japanese drama that takes place in high school, if there is a love story involved, China remakes it into a college setting.”
The stigma associated with teenage relationships seems to be wading down a bit. Recently, the families of a teenage couple sued their high school for recording a video of them kissing and showing the footage, with their faces blurred out, to the student body as an example of “improper behavior.” Although they did not win, the case was able to cause conversation surrounding the stigma.