This article also appeared in The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
Recently, an essay purportedly written by a sixth grader—an epitome of the “butterfly effect”—went viral on the Chinese Internet.
On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, user @土豆网 posted the photograph below at right. Within several days of its appearance, it had been retweeted over 4,800 times and attracted over 500 comments, with a number of other media outlets picking up on the essay and declaring it “hot.” Tea Leaf Nation translates in full:
“Time passes very quickly. It’s midterm season soon, I already began nervously preparing for the test, I must begin working harder, because if I don’t work hard and review well, then my grades will not go up, and I will be scolded by my parents, and if I get scolded by my parents then I will lose self-confidence, if I lose self-confidence then I will not finish my studies, if I do not finish my studies then I will not graduate [from university], if I can’t graduate from university then I will not find a good job, if I don’t find a good job then I won’t be able to make money, if I don’t make money then I can’t pay taxes, if I don’t pay taxes then it will be difficult for the country to pay salary to teachers, if teachers can’t get paid then they will not be dedicated to teaching, if they are not dedicated to teaching, then this will impact our nation’s future, if our nation’s future is impacted, then it will be difficult for China to advance and develop, and the Chinese people will degenerate into a barbaric race. If the Chinese people degenerate into a barbaric race, then the USA will begin to suspect that our nation has large-scale murderous weapons, if our nation has large-scale murderous weapons, then the USA will start a war with China and World War III will erupt, if WWIII erupts, both the strengths of both the USA and China will not be enough, if their strengths are not enough then they will use nuclear weapons, if they use nuclear weapons then they will destroy the environment, if the environment is destroyed then this will create a big hole in the atmosphere, if there is a big hole in the atmosphere then global warming will escalate and the glaciers at both poles will melt, if the glaciers melt then the global water level will rise, if the global water level rises then the entire human race will drown and die. Because it relates to the survival and security of the entire human race, therefore I must spend the remaining next few days on review in order to do well on the test, and thus prevent a tragedy from happening.”
The teacher commented at the end of the essay, “Haha I laughed out loud when I read this!”
This absurdly comical essay did not only make Chinese web users laugh. It also prompted many to reflect. One web user was quoted by People’s Daily as writing, “After I read this, I felt ashamed of myself. This elementary student’s mentality is something we should all learn from.” Another web user was said to comment, “I went back to my books [after reading this].”
Children rarely speak ironically; their off-hand comments often reveal ideologies or anxieties that pervade society at a sub-conscious level. This elementary school student, who worries aloud that his behaviour could affect the future of the human race, reflects a shift in Chinese consciousness: A growing sense of responsibility as a global citizen, an increasing interest in the world outside China, and the realization that China, as an influential nation, must contribute to world peace.
The student’s concern that China’s decisions “relate to the survival and security of the entire human race” is not as ridiculous as it first seems. According to data published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide; China’s future policies in environmental protection can, and will, influence the fate of the world’s environment. This essay expresses an awareness that with power comes responsibility—the responsibility to consider what negative “butterfly effects” China’s decisions may cause and what China must do to prevent them.
Chinese web users’ reactions to the essay also reveal a shift in Chinese consciousness. Why did this essay make so many Chinese people laugh, and what does this laughter signify? While a certain degree of irony can be expected in any corner of the Chinese Internet, much of the laughter appeared to signify acceptance and respect.
It was widely shared because many people accepted the message of the essay—social responsibility, self-consciousness as a member of the global community—and wished to share it with a larger audience. Weibo user @瓶木树萌 wrote, “The [Chinese] people’s renaissance depends on you!” @脸大不影响可爱 was impressed by the student’s precocity, writing, “An elementary student? He’s thinking further ahead than I am.”
Despite its hopefulness, the essay also touches upon a dark side of China’s education system. At no point does the student signify he is “nervously preparing for the test” because he finds his studies enjoyable or interesting. Most striking is the sheer amount of pressure the young writer places on himself. For him, ensconced in China’s hyper-competitive education system, the consequences of bad grades may seem to loom so large that the human race might as well be at stake. At least this young student appears to take that responsibility seriously—and now has thousands of Web users cheering him on.