Subtle Ways

smog5I still love this piece from a former student of my journalism class at Tsinghua University who went by the name Patrick.

Bear with it, it’s a strange little essay but it lasts. I see something new these many years later. At the time (this was 1999) Patrick’s writing was considered too “influencing” as one Tsinghua official put it. The piece was ripped off our bulletin board and I had to shut down our student publication.

It wasn’t much to shut down anyway, just telling our class– okay, that’s it. No more paper guys. Thanks. We only got one issue out and this was by far the star feature. I wonder if this would raise any eyebrows today? I wonder where Patrick is today?



One Student’s Musings on The Mood among students at Beijing University

By Patrick


CHE GUEVARA, from April 12 to May 14, 7:15 pm, Beijing People’s Theatre, 20 RMB—A big, red poster on the door greets me first before I enter the room. My friend, a junior Chinese Language major, is still sleeping at 10:00 am on what is both National Youth’s Day and Beida’s Day. Beside the pillow is an open book: The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

“Wake up, it’s 12 o’clock, it’s me! Did you finish the survey?” I cried.

“Whiiiich?” He manages to open one eye, “Oops! Let me think…yeah… there they are, on the computer. Don’t let those CDs fall.”

“Thanks. By the way, how many took it? What are they? When?”

“The eve of May 1, brought it to my fellows in the drama society—hope they were sober then—around 30 pigs, all from different walks of life on campus. Piece of advice: don’t think too much of a survey here.”

“I knew it. Homework, not paid. Lunch together?”

“Don’t like showing around. You may go to Triangle Field, ads and gossips there. The anniversary ceremony is over. In the afternoon there is a lecture on the WTO by Li Yining (Head of the school of business). Evening will be show or something. You know Gong Li (famous actress) is to study here? If I gave her a test on Chinese…”

“Why don’t you go out and see?”

“Kitsch, you know, it’s all an unbearable sack of kitsch!”


Weiming Hu, or the Unfamed Lake, is synonymous with the famous Peking University. It is marked with newly renovated benches and lights, pilgrims of all ages with cameras. Only the water is quite and still. The lake is beautiful, but I have an obscure sense of disinclination. Why?

I appreciate the name: unfamed. However, when two years ago Bill Clinton gave a speech here, several students won fame by asking challenging, tough questions; when one year ago the Chinese embassy was bombed, hundreds of students won fame by demonstrating before the US embassy.

Did they win fame for things or did they do things for fame? After all, the beauty of the lake belongs to the quite and still water!


At 5:00 pm, I decide to end my humble experience in Beijing University. A paradox stretches out before me: how can I describe both the apathetic and showy campus? What the hell conclusion can I draw from the doomed survey? Did I choose the wrong date?

By the south gate, eight students catch my attention. They all ride bicycles, looking dusty and tired.

“Um…comrades, may I ask where you have been?” My last piece of curiosity prompts me.

“You should ask where we are from.” One short guy says. The other seven laugh.

“You’re not Beijing University students?” I’m puzzled.

“Beijing University? Never heard of it. We’re the allied troops of eight imperialistic countries: Britain, America, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, Italy, Austria. You know us?” They laugh even louder.

“A hundred years ago?”


“You’re gonna plunder and set fire here, huh? No way unless you ride over my body!” I laugh too. “So where on earth did you go by bicycle?”

“We went to Tanggu Fort. It’s the place where the allies had landed. Then we rode eleven hours straight, following the old way up here. So far, you’re the first Boxer we’ve encountered. Which department are you in?”

“Sorry, I’m not of Beijing University. Are you of the history department?”

“Sorry, the physics.”


Riding back on Tsinghua campus, I sense something different. It is the trees. I find in Tsinghua the trees are often grouped of the same height and kind, and are kept in good order. In Beijing University there seems to be no law among the trees, yet as a whole they look harmonic.

Beijing University students are complex individuals, neither demonstrating activists nor social apathetics focusing on their own dimensions. I should have known earlier that idolization often leads to reductionism.

In a bigger picture: the ideology of a central-powered China is different from that of a democratic America. For the latter, I might believe that a certain event will happen when a critical mass is reached, which was why I am inclined to survey and statistics. In Beijing University, as in China, a bunch of enlightened elites, or an abrupt tonic, is more decisive than the grass roots.

No putting up posters and no organizing public rallies does not equal no interests in or concerns about China’s progress as well as her humiliation. There are subtle ways by which actions can be developed and voiced, individually or collectively, without attracting negative admonition.