Chinese Students Share Their Secrets

Matt Writes Secrets School Pressure

As products of a notoriously demanding education system, students in China are recognized for their strong work ethic and academic achievement but are also defined by them.  The popular Western perception, created in no small part by the rote learning model and English-language coverage of the annual make-or-break gaokao that plays to a morbid curiosity, is that Chinese students are rigidly and singularly focused on education at the expense of their individuality and personality.   Those in and familiar with Chinese society know a little better, but the idea of losing identity to a cultural system is not completely misplaced, as illustrated by Zhang Huan’s (张洹 / 張洹) Family Tree.

Matthew Manning, an American educator and writer currently living in Suzhou, China did a fun activity with his freshman and sophomore university students that reveals them to be very human with the same hopes, anxieties, regrets, and random thoughts you’d expect from college students in the United States.  The inspiration came from an observation:

“In my experience at least, Chinese students seem to be wearing masks in the classroom. They play this role of trying to be quiet and hardworking students, but it’s easy to see that it isn’t the whole picture. The problem is that Chinese students are often unwilling, so it’s hard to get to see what’s going on with them.”

Having fostered and open and comfortable classroom setting, Manning felt he could approach his students to encourage them to share beneath the surface.  Using a method popularized by the anonymous confessional art project/website PostSecret, Manning asked his students to write and illustrate their secrets and told them they could be as private as they want.

His students were intrigued by the idea.  Although some students were initially worried about revealing something private, they felt assured that the number of participants, about 200, virtually guaranteed their anonymity.   With their permission, Manning shared the secrets with their classmates and online.

Some revealed rage:

Matt Writes Secret Hate Father

Others showed raging hormones:
Matt Writes Secrets Miss Boys
As you can see from the sample above and the full set on his blog, the secrets are very open and cover a wide range of emotions and sometimes funny.  Whether because the confessions are from college students or because of Manning’s selection, they generally feel less dark than the typical Post Secret which in a way make them seem more honest.
Although this was an assignment for class, Manning believes it to be a memorable and impactful one for his students, some of who because of cultural rules or circumstance cannot express themselves or confide in someone.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among Chinese youth, and the Chinese Ministry of Education recognizes the pressures students feel and their negative impact.   Its latest reform initiative includes a category to seek improve “Psychological and Physical Health indicated by Physical Fitness, Healthy Living Habits, Artistic and Aesthetic Taste, Emotional Health and Self-regulation, and Interpersonal Communication (social skills)”.  Hopefully, these educational reforms, reforms in other areas such as mental health, and broader social changes can help improve the lives of China’s youth by reducing and teaching them how to deal with pressure and by encouraging more self-expression.  In the meantime, individual initiatives like Manning’s should be encouraged.
Images courtesy of Matthew Manning