A teenager’s suicide after being barred from a key high school exam for not tying back her hair underscores the intense pressure on millions of Chinese who began taking annual college entrance tests Wednesday.
Worries are rising about academic stress. There are 2.6 million places at China’s universities, but the competition is fierce — 9.5 million youths are taking the three-day exams that are widely viewed as crucial to career and financial success.
Although 16-year-old Wu Wenwen’s suicide occurred in January, during high school end-of-term tests, it is resonating during this week’s college exams.
According to her family and newspaper accounts, Wenwen drowned herself after she was stopped at the exam room door because her hair wasn’t tied back as her school required.
She returned in barrettes, but was told the exam had started and she was too late to take it. Wenwen phoned her mother in tears, and then disappeared. Her body was found that night in a nearby lake.
As in Japan and South Korea, schooling in China has become a nail-bitingly stressful ordeal for children and parents alike, one that experts say causes undue emotional distress.
“Pressure from study and exams is a top reason for psychological problems among Chinese youth,” said Jin Wuguan, director of the Youth Psychological Counseling Center at Shanghai’s Ruijin Hospital.
Parents even murdered
In China’s increasingly success-oriented cities, academic stress is seen as a rising cause of youth suicides and even murders of parents by children unhinged by overwhelming pressure to perform.
China doesn’t keep comprehensive statistics on student suicides, but Jin said health care professionals see the problem worsening, even among elementary students.
Most Chinese schools still lack counselors and teachers receive little training in spotting emotional distress, Jin said. Parents are little help, often piling on pressure while ignoring their children’s emotional development, he said.
“It’s a basic unwillingness or inability to recognize and deal with emotional problems,” Jin said.
Wang Yufeng, at Peking University’s Institute of Mental Health, estimates the rate of emotional disorders such as depression and paranoia among Chinese students under age 17 at up to 32 percent — a total of 30 million students.
Others say the figure may be as high as 50 percent. A survey last year by the government said nearly 58 percent of students felt highly stressed by academic pressures.
Chinese youth now enjoy greater material comfort and personal freedoms than their parents’ generation, but are more emotionally fragile, experts say.
Today's concerns: tests, work, relationships
Students educated before economic reforms began in the early 1980s were raised amid austerity and ideals of self-sacrifice. Under the job-assignment system prevailing until the early 1990s, graduates could expect the Communist Party to decide their futures.
Today’s Chinese teens are largely preoccupied with the same worries as their Western counterparts — exams, jobs and the opposite sex.
“Kids these days haven’t been through what we went through. Their hearts haven’t been toughened up and they’re distracted by all these other concerns,” Wenwen’s father, Wu Lijun, said in an interview.
Wu blames Wenwen’s school, the elite No. 7 Middle School in the eastern city of Wenzhou, for her suicide. He accuses the exam proctor of taking an overly harsh attitude and says school officials should have kept track of his daughter’s whereabouts.
Wu has sued the school and local education bureau over the death. A hearing was held in April, but no verdict has been announced.
School and bureau officials wouldn’t comment pending a ruling in the case. They refused to give their names because they weren’t authorized to speak to media.
Officials played down suicide
Wenwen’s case was front-page news in Wenzhou, sparking newspaper commentaries and heated discussion in online forums. But the coverage stopped after the lawsuit was filed — a likely sign that communist officials wanted to end talk about such a sensitive issue.
Students aren’t the only ones stressing over exams. Many parents take time off from work to help their children study, book them into hotels close to exam halls, and even petition to have traffic kept from near downtown schools to keep the area quiet during the tests.
Amid a budding debate over the wisdom of putting so much emphasis on the exams, counselors are reaching out through a medium most popular with teens: the Internet.
“This is such an important exam, it’s crucial to reduce anxiety to the lowest level possible,” Tsinghua University psychiatrist Li Yan said on the Web site “Emotional Navigation for Exam Takers,” hosted by the official People’s Daily newspaper.
“You need to lay down your burdens and just show them what you know,” Li said.