Red and prepared: Chinese army’s branch in every university

Each year more than 6 million Chinese university students endure a month-long boot camp drill. RT explores what the country finds in making the future rocket scientists, architects and gourmet chefs march in the hot sun and what they learn from it.

On a Sunday morning, in the grayish haze of the south China dawn, I was woken into a terrifying realization that a squad of shouting youths surrounded my bed, bawling at the top of their lungs the first four Chinese numbers: “Yi! Er! San! Si!”.

This was not the agreement I had with the world as far as the beginning of the new day was concerned. Having collected my thoughts and focused my vision, I slowly gathered that the room was still exactly the way I’d closed my eyes on it the night before. The lazy breeze as usual fidgeted with the curtains by the wide open window and the heat was just as stifling as on all those countless summer mornings when the fan doesn’t help much. The digital clock read 6:02. But it seemed that the 1-2-3-4 accountants who apparently hid no further than the next room were trying to make a statement with their numerals.

I staggered to the window. Right under the apartment building where we, the foreign teachers of this southern Chinese university, live stood at attention a platoon of khaki-clad young boys and girls, counting to four in a thundering chorus over and over again, – and by “right under” I mean that the first row could literally touch the wall of the building with an outstretched hand.

­With a vague but bitter recognition the answer finally came to me – it was about time our university was supposed to have its yearly military training for the freshmen. A week before when I heard the news it had struck a “laowai” (foreigner) like me as some curious novelty, but I was surely not ready for how close to my life this military training would come.

It is an accepted practice for all universities in China without exception to give month-long military training to all first-year students. Usually it all happens in September at the very beginning of a school year – a sort of a welcome gesture for all the freshmen before they begin their classes. But for several years now our school has changed this rule, and now the freshmen get the taste of the army life after finishing their first year. As it turns out, such a shift has not befallen all Chinese universities and some still stick to the old September practice.

Photo by Tony Gao (Click to enlarge)

­It is a month-long ordeal running from the end of June till the end of July and if asked, the students relate to it as a highly-exhausting practice, during which they have to boot it from morning until the first stars, with a week at the end dedicated to classroom studies of the military art. All that is culminating in the final exam that has been known to cut off scholarships, making those who didn’t take the military training seriously re-sit the exam several times until they were allowed to continue their purely civil studies. Having completed their training, the students receive no ranks and are not considered members of the active army.

There’s a girl named Swimming, a student I will refer to by her peculiar English name. She and her friends agreed to answer my questions about their military training. At the singing competition where I caught her and her comrades, she was the only one not wearing the uniform because she danced the part of a soldier’s sweetheart – on other days she is wearing her uniform just like the others.

Here is what the military practice looks like at this particular university. Rumor has it that the particularities may vary from school to school.

Says Swimming: “The students train every day of the week, including weekends. We have to wake up at 5am and after breakfast be ready to march at 6. Following intensive marching practice, at about 7am the students have a recess and can go to dorms to catch up on their half-finished Z’s. Then at 7:50am it is back to the drill field till 10am, then lunch (from about noon) followed by the usual siesta, and then from 4pm it is marching, marching, marching all over again. At 6pm we break for 50 minutes and the evening training lasts till 9:30pm.”

Quite an intensive physical trial for your average student, isn’t it? The students revealed to me a rather culture-related secret: this whole thing is the hardest on the girls – and it is not the physical strain that tortures them most. Their distress is more in the aesthetic realm. According to Chinese standards of beauty, a girl should have white (in a perfect world, porcelain-like) skin, and the half-day long legwork under the bright sun makes their skin so tanned (a sure object of envy for Western beauties) that the whole year-long painstaking effort of hiding from the sun under the ever-present umbrellas goes down the drain. To imagine the predicament it is enough to mention the weather conditions in South China at this time of year: temperatures about 35ºC (95ºF) and up to 100 per cent humidity. There is a favorite joke among the students here that I utilized looking for somebody to interview: “How to spot a first-year student? Look for those with the darkest skin and you won’t be mistaken.”

The students have to buy their own uniforms, along with flasks and those low stools they carry around wherever they go. The latter are used during the scarce rest breaks, when listening to the tactical lectures under the open sky, while watching movies on the playground and most likely as supports in shooting exercises.

Photo by Tony Gao (Click to enlarge)

Students have to wash their uniforms almost every day after hours of soaking them with sweat under the relentless sun, and they say it is not unknown to don still-wet uniforms in the mornings. But this is how the character is forged. I asked Swimming and her friends what they would do with the uniforms after the military semester is over and they replied that they’d wash them and put them away, never to be worn again.

But the training is not all about marching. Military practice involves much more than that.

Swimming continues: “The students undergo training in martial arts, – boys and girls separately with different programs. Girls take the so-called Qin Di Quan – something like general kung-fu, and the boys go for Qin Gong Shu – kung-fu with sticks. In some schools students get to learn to handle rifles and shoot (not in this school though).”

Photo by Tony Gao (Click to enlarge)

Of course, life with all training and no fun would make Wang a dull boy, and thus the students and soldiers have various social activities.

They watch movies together – the football field is then turned into a huge open-air movie theater where students sit on their obligatory low plastic stools in front of the screen transforming the playground into a kind of a sea of khaki, with sparks of cell phones scattered around it.

There is also a concert/singing competition held somewhere in mid-training with all classes performing on stage; the judges are the hot shots from the university and the army.

­Says Swimming: “The climax of the whole training process is the final parade, when all the classes march across the playground, showing their poise and elegance of gestures, with special performance of kung-fu tricks and mock fights. They also select the best girl- and boy-student (a sort of the military training king and queen) who are of course chosen beforehand. But instead of the tiara and the chance to sit on the throne, they are awarded with the equivocal prize of doing extra drills before the parade, because being the best requires showing their marching skills before the whole school in total perfection.”

Thus is the way the future-educated of society are getting to know the life of the army – a much respected social institution in China. The teachers are actual soldiers and officers from the active army.

I asked around and the general attitude of the students towards their army instructors is as to older friends, even though they make the students do things the latter would not dream of doing at their own will. One of the exercises is standing at attention for prolonged periods of time – at first 20 minutes and then gradually up to 45 minutes – in full uniform and under the omnipresent sun. The soldiers pay surprise visits to the dorms of their charges and check the order of the rooms, how the beds are made (blankets are supposed to resemble smooth tofu), etc. The students cannot argue with their instructors and must at all times stop whatever they are doing and greet an officer who is passing by (be it at lunch, in the dorm or in the library). And the students are severely punished for using cell-phones while in training (up to confiscating the said phone – even till the end of the day in the most severe cases).

But when it is time to bid farewell to the soldier-instructors the whole campus (well, truth be told, only its freshmen part) gather around their buses and trucks, with tears on the cheeks of girls, boys, and even soldiers, with cries of eternal friendship and brisk hugs. That would be the best description of what the relationship is like between the students and their instructors. They say a similar sentiment is seen when soldiers leave their active duty. Now that’s an enviable spirit of attachment and true brotherhood within a military organization.

So what is this all about – that military practice for university students? Surely very little of the military art can be learned during a month’s study. But again, the idea is not to make soldiers out of them. It very much reminds me of the long-forgotten Military Chairs in Soviet universities. Then what could the benefits of such learning be? Brisk, intensive and never repeated.

Here’s how I see it – outsider that I am – having lived for only a decade in China.

On a larger scale if – God forbid – anything happens in military or emergency terms (wild fires, earthquakes, terrorist attacks), millions of civilians with university degrees would be at least pre-prepared for action and better organized. On a hypothetical level, it is very good for any country to have its citizens prepared – as opposed to non-organized, albeit ardent, motley crowds.

Another positive side to such training is the patriotic upbringing of the country’s best minds, and again, no country in its right mind should say no its citizens being loyal adherents to the motherland. Apart from the “normal” reaction of curiosity towards whatever they are doing over there in China – could this be an example for other countries?

It also creates the feeling of camaraderie among the students that – despite the seeming needlessness of such practice as viewed by the students themselves – brings them together like no other classroom cram session can do. They overcome hardships shoulder to shoulder, and only those who have been through similar predicaments can understand the idea. Then of course goes an unquestionable advantage of becoming physically stronger and brushing up on those time-management techniques that keep eluding students throughout the world.

To understand the range of this training it is enough to have a look at the ever-growing number of students enrolling in Chinese universities every year. According to the data available on the internet, as of 2009 there were over 2,300 universities in China, and the number of people entering them that year was about 6.3 million people. That is approximately how many young people with a basic awareness of the military trade pop up in the country every year. The number is pretty impressive. The first perfunctory impression may be that China is an army-centered, belligerent country where everyone is under the pressure of the military machine. But on the level of the day-to-day life of every Tom, Dick and Harry – or rather Wang, Zhang and Li – this sentiment is, of course, not true. But the potency of this whole mass of hypothetical troops is astonishing to say the least.

­Tony Gao for RT

Leave a comment