Busy library reflects China's new attitude

Opportunity: Where a few decades ago intellectuals were persecuted, young people now avidly pursue higher education.

August 09, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Every morning, long before the glass doors swing open at 9 a.m., a crowd of young men and women gathers outside this mammoth, colonnaded building in hope of getting a seat inside.

At 9 a.m., everyone dashes in with an intensity akin to the frenzy of determined shoppers at a red tag sale - a quiet mob rushing to find a place to read in the nearly silent vastness of the National Library of China.

The library, the nation's largest, stands as a monument to a young generation's hunger for opportunity and advancement. A generation after Mao Tse-tung mercilessly hounded intellectuals and closed universities in his war against class distinctions, these teen-agers and young adults, spending their summer vacation in the library, view education as their best entree to the country's emerging middle class.

Wu Yanyan, a junior studying finance at Beijing Technology and Business University, arrived at the library at 8 a.m. and stayed until 5 p.m., poring over books on finance.

"I'd like to go to Shanghai to find work in a bank, insurance company or securities firm," she said. "I want to be a white-collar employee, and in the long run, I want to be a boss for myself."

Liang Langbo, the son of farmers, arrived at 7:40 a.m. after an 80-minute bus ride from the city's northern suburbs. He hopes to enter the business world, where he can expect to make more in one month than his parents earn in a year of farming - about $500.

"After what I've learned in college, I can't go back to farming," said Liang, 20, who would stay in the library until 7 p.m.

Wu and Liang are among the thousands of young people using the facilities on any given day. The National Library, established inside a temple in 1909, has grown to become the fourth-largest in the world, commanding 1.5 million square feet of space holding more than 23 million books and other materials, 38 reading rooms and seating for more than 3,000 patrons.

By 10 a.m. every seat is taken. People sit in comfortable chairs at long tables and sip bottled water, soda or mugs of hot tea while reading books from the library's collection or materials they bring from home.

The library's holdings range from contemporary literature to ancient carvings made on animal bones, plus a small number of Western books touching on sensitive subjects such as the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

An average of 12,000 people a day enter the building, most of them university or high school students preparing for graduate or college entrance examinations, or young adults who have just entered the work force and are anxious to read about developments in their fields.

The students wear the international uniform of young people - jeans and black T-shirts - but represent the small fraction of young Chinese who either attend college or have a realistic hope of doing so.

Students who pass a national entrance exam to attend college face the additional hurdle of having to pay fees that can exceed $1,000 a year, more than many families earn in a year.

Students in the library say they will not squander their hard-won opportunity.

"Everyone, especially youngsters, should learn more and more to meet the demands of society," said Zhao Ziqiang, the 23-year-old son of former farmers in Heilongjiang province in remote northeast China, on the Russian border. "It should be my top priority now."

Zhao and others echo the government's exhortations about education's importance in improving society. But the students also endorse another, totally human motive now widely accepted in China - they want to make money.

Whatever the goal, the pursuit of higher education has almost become a social obligation, less than three decades after condemnation of the educated was government policy.

The transformation has been remarkable. In 1978, as Deng Xiaoping launched the modern era of Reform and Opening, there were roughly 860,000 students of higher education in China, according to official statistics. By 2000, the number reached 5.6 million, and the rate of growth continues to accelerate, a student boom that is straining the higher education system.

The crowd of young people packing the library is further evidence of a boom that has reversed Mao's efforts. During his Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1966, scholars were persecuted and the National Library was nearly deserted. Finding empty seats, back then, was easy.

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