Cupid would never make the grade at Pingdingshan City’s Experimental Middle School in Henan province. @丁灏轩 recently started an uproar on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, when he claimed to be a student at the school (literally, a “high middle school,” usually having the equivalents of both junior high and high school in the U.S.) and complained that students there were being asked to sign a contract with unpalatable particulars. Among other things, students who sign the contract agree they will not “contradict” their teachers, chat in the classroom, or date. Penalties for infraction can include a warning, discipline, and even expulsion.
Not long ago, it was common for schools to meddle in even mature students’ personal lives. While an English teacher with the Peace Corps ten years ago, this author taught students at the university level who were forbidden to date. Before China’s “Reform and Opening” in 1989, Communist institutions insinuated themselves in every facet of a Chinese person’s life, with work unit approval required even for marriage.
But times they are a-changin’. One Weibo poll showed that 83% of netizens opposed the school’s actions, with only 7% voicing support. Some took a legalistic tack, cleverly arguing the contract was too vague, or that misconduct was impossible to prove, or that minors could not enter into binding contracts (all probably true–trust us). But most netizens simply felt that young people’s personal lives were meant to stay, well, personal. @落落芸烟 wrote that “Matters of the heart are not something you can keep in check with a piece of paper,” while @我是陈永林林 added, “Middle school students are inherently rebellious; with these kinds of tough rules, it may be counterproductive.”
Some looked back at their high school days wistfully. @绵羊绵羊咩咩咩viva wrote, “If [you] haven’t dated in middle school, then how can you say [you've really] attended middle school? When the feelings truly come, that contract is like a piece of waste paper, waste paper…” @卖火柴女孩的小火柴, seemingly less popular in his youth, lamented, “I regret that when I was in middle school I would go to the gym every Sunday afternoon instead of taking walks with girls. It’s too late; it’s not possible for me to return to that age and do it again.” The implication; go get ‘em, youngsters.
Pingdingshan’s efforts, however well-meaning, highlight a schism between what Chinese students are led to believe about the world, and how the world looks when they get out. Schools that forbid dating often do so because they claim it detracts from students’ studies, which require laser-like focus if they are to perform well on the dreaded High Exam, their one and only shot into the university of their dreams. Many netizens questioned this premise, with @大菠萝蔻 writing, “The reality of society proves that being a good student and doing well in life are not the same.” @肉多多娃斯基 turned the logic on its head, arguing, “Dating helps one to understand at an early age that if you don’t have money, you can’t buy gifts, you can’t watch movies together, you can’t go for romantic trips. If you want to have money you need to work, if you want to get a good job you need to study well, get into a good university … love has many advantages.”
Ah yes, the money. Despite the roseate picture schools may wish to paint, the reality of dating in modern China can be a nasty, avaricious business. Just one month ago, a poll showed most Chinese women required a man make twice the average national income to be considered “worthy” of a date. To @Mc陈俊杰, middle school is a chance for men to get an early start in this competition: “All those ‘leftover men’ [剩男] and ‘leftover women’ [剩女] [slang for older single men/women] out there today came into contact [with romance] too late. In university, will a wife fall out of the sky?” For @你未嫁我未娶2012, middle-school romance should be savored because it is “much purer than love in [the real world]. At least they aren’t thinking about ‘an apartment,’ ‘a car,’ ‘money for the child’s milk powder,’ ‘a little money to show affection.’ As long as they can take a meal ticket and spending money and arrange to see a few movies, that’s enough.” Another netizen, @列思伟Cwai, objected with a lack of self-awareness that may have disproved her point: “Our aims aren’t too high; it doesn’t matter if we get into a famous university, as long as we are guaranteed to be able to afford an apartment, drive our own car, raise a family with x children, occasionally travel internationally, and be able to safely enjoy old age that’s enough, I’ll definitely sign [the contract]!”
With romance such a headache on-campus or off, perhaps it’s best to focus on the positives behind the Pingdingshan school’s Draconian approach. One netizen, @心桥Loveq, saw the benefit clearly: “Great! You can be groomed from a young age to break contracts.”