Ask any Chinese university students, what is the most difficult year of their school lives, 99.9% of them would answer “Grade 3 in Senior High School” (similar to 12th Grade in the US). Because the year is the final spurt for Gaokao, aka College Entrance Examination, the only way to get access to higher education for the majority. Students spend over 10 hours a day burying themselves in text books, memorizing formulas, historical events, political arguments, theories, solving math, physic, chemistry problems etc. The competition, the boredom, the mountains of exercise books and the mountain-like weight on the shoulders, just typing about the dark period sends shivers down my spine. However, here is a man called Wu Shanliu who repeats 8 TIMES the same final year of high school in order to get accepted by his ideal Tsinghua University. In 2014, he finally got the dream offer, but he’s a 32 years old man.
What makes him so persistent in pursuing a degree from Tsinghua University? What gives him the power to go through the unimaginable again and again?
Some say he has Tsinghua University complex, some say he’s obsessed with exams, some condemn him of wasting educational resources, and some even speculate that he repeat for the money award. Wu denies all of those accusations. He told Southern Weekend reporter that he had no other choices but to come back to high school since he couldn’t find a proper job upon his graduation of his first university. But later things got out of hand.
The First time Wu took the College Entrance Examination was in 2000. But Wu didn’t do well so he repeated Grade 3 immediately in 2001 and went to Beijing Jiaotong University, majoring in automation. Wu doesn’t want to talk much about his first university experience and simply refers it as a disaster – he failed CET4 test, National Computer Test, and eventually graduated without a diploma.
After graduation, Wu couldn’t find a job in Beijing, he returned to South China only to place himself between jobs several times.
Wu said he had even been working on a factory stream line, but only for a couple of days since he couldn’t take the hardship.
“None of those jobs are good for me, just like peasant workers. I couldn’t stand it, so I returned to high school to start over again.” Said Wu.
Wu Shanliu’s father Wu Jinxian was a deputy principal and taught Chinese in a local elementary school. He taught his son Chinese as well. 57 years old Wu Jinxian said he supported his son’s decision to fight for his ideal university.
(Wu Shanliu’s home in the village)
According to the residents in the village, the Wu father and son have a kind of literary man pride and they don’t communicate much with others. For instance, Wu Shanliu wouldn’t address elderly dearly like other kids, nor did he talk about himself much. They know even less about the 5 years when Wu Shanliu was studying in Beijing and later working.
Wu Shanliu seemed to have forgotten most of those 5 years and refused to talk about it in his several interviews with the reporter. He considered his campus life ordinary, unnoticeable. However he did remember one thing clearly: the overshadowing advantage in job landing by the graduates from Tsinghua or Beijing University.
In 2006, when Wu returned to repeat Grade 3 senior high for the 2nd time, his own classmate Liang Detao had already graduated from university and came back to teach in the same high school. The high school management worried that this might give pressure to Wu. It turned out that was a non-issue. Wu came back for solely for getting into Tsinghua University.
That year after Gaokao (College Entrance Examination), Wu got accepted by Beijing Normal University, which is one of the prestige universities in China. But Wu forewent the opportunity and signed up for Grade 3 senior high again in 2007.
Wu recalled the first 2 attempts for Tsinghua University not without regret.
“At that time I was stubborn, I was riding on the tiger’s back and too embarrassed to get down. Had I known that it would take me 8 years to get into Tsinghua, I would have taken the Beijing Normal University offer. Actually it would have been nice to attend Beijing Normal, became a teacher, easy job and lots of vacations.”
The next 6 years Wu fell into a tedious loop: studied, took exams, achieved scores good enough for any prestige universities but Tsinghua, repeated Grade 3 senior high again, studied…
Wu says he is not obsessive with Tsinghua University. After the Gaokao in 2011, he was approached by several elite universities inviting him to apply for their economic or financial majors, for his scores can easily get him accepted. He took great interest in economic and financial majors, thinking then he can become a stock broker making lots of money. So he made going to top universities’ economic major his Plan B, which in fact wasn’t any easier than his Plan A Tsinghua University.
“In 2011, many good universities gave me offers but not for economic majors. Tongji University accepted me for the right major, but I figured it wasn’t really a top university.”
Wu turned down all the offers and repeated final high school year again. But this time he aimed for Beijing University, just because Beijing U invited him to apply. Unfortunately in the 2012 Gaokao, he was a few points lower than Beijing U’s main campus, alternatively he got offered to Beijing U medical campus. Upon hearing the news, Wu lost all his cool and felt piercing pain in his hearts. However, only a few hours later he had already readjust himself and prepared for another year of high school. That year he was 30 years old.
Many people didn’t understand why he gave up the Beijing U offer. Wu explained the main reason being he was afraid of blood since he was little, the second reason being that he heard medical campus lack of Beijing U flair.
(Wu Shanliu’s senior high school put up billboards for the students who get accepted by Tsinghua and Beijing University)
One of Wu’s teacher Yin Sheng appreciated his persistence, “Nowadays many students get frustrated once they failed at the exam, some stay at home for months fearing to see others. Wu Shanliu at least has very good mentality.”
According to Yin Sheng, Wu is not the only one to make it a lifetime goal to enter his ideal university. School and parents are to blame as well. For example, Wu’s high school Pubei Senior High named 3 of their teaching building after the 3 best universities in China.
No matter how many times Wu emphasized that he didn’t have Tsinghua complex, his schoolmate told the reporter that Wu once said “Life is imperfect without Tsinghua”.
(August 27, 2014, 32 years old Wu Shanliu reported to Tsinghua University with the company of his dad.)
In 2014, Wu’s 8th attempt toward Tsinghua finally succeeded. He applied for the automation major and got accepted, the same major as his first university in 2001. However, Wu still thought the result wasn’t perfect. “The offer was quite risky. When Tsinghua called to inquire my interest, I said financial major, they said that was impossible with my scores; I asked about civil engineering, they replied 10% chance. So in the end I chose electrification and automation major, to which they said the chance of acceptance was 40-50%.”
Now that he was in, he said he still want to take economy as a second major. By the time Wu graduate from TsingHua U, he will be 36 years old.
About future, Wu said he didn’t think too much, he didn’t expect to make a splash, rather he would just hope for an easier job, be a good person. As for why he chose the same major as his first university, he said “It wasn’t because of huge interest in automation, just that everyone says this major is good, I followed the mainstream.”
Wu hopes to shed off the marginalized life of high school repeat and strive to enter mainstream life again. And to be mainstreamed, first task of all is to get an iPhone.
“I like all things beautiful, for example if you see a pretty girl on the street you will for sure like that as well. Compared to other mobiles, iPhone is like a piece of art, and a must-have for successful people. To me, having an iPhone is the same as making it to Tsinghua, it is a new breakthrough for me.”