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: