Less than a month after the conclusion of China’s hypercompetitive annual university entrance examination (“gaokao”), a satirical meme about an imaginary university has been banned on Weibo. The meme and its censorship reveal larger truths about the fair allocation of educational resources and the overall state of academic competition in China today.
Competition for university admission is fiercer than ever, with this year’s gaokao cohort numbering 12.9 million aspiring students. Test-takers from some populous provinces are required to earn extremely high scores on the exam in order to gain admittance to China’s top universities. From this harsh reality arose a meme about an imaginary institution of higher learning known as Shanhe University (山河大学, Shānhé Dàxué, or “University of Hills and Streams”), ostensibly accepting underserved students from the four heavily populated provinces of Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, and Hebei. The original online joke read as follows:
If the 3.43 million candidates from the four provinces of Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, and Hebei paid 1,000 yuan each, they could raise a total of over three billion yuan to build a comprehensive university at the exact junction of those four provinces. With that location, and a student body drawn from all four provinces, the goal would be to catch up with and overtake Tsinghua and Peking Universities within one year. [Chinese]
(“The exact junction of those four provinces” is part of the joke—no such location exists.)
Before long, the joke took on a life of its own, with netizens adding creative touches such as fake university websites, admissions brochures, logos, badges, mottos, student I.D. booklets, and the like. There were also utopian descriptions of the imaginary campus, and mentions of the university president—none other than the acclaimed Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu. Soon, the hashtag #Shanhe University (#山河大学#) had become a trending topic on social media platforms such as Douyin and Weibo. Other imaginary utopian universities followed: Northeastern United University (东北联合大学, Dōngběi Liánhé Dàxué) would absorb students from the northeastern provinces, while Yangtze River Delta University (长三角大学, Chángsānjiǎo Dàxué) would accept students from the Yangtze Delta region, including Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Jiangxi.
Despite its popularity, the hashtag #Shanhe University (#山河大学#) was being censored on Weibo by July 2. The screenshot below shows that content related to the once-trending topic is unable to be displayed:
Some online commentators pointed out the serious issues underlying the amusing meme—namely, glaring regional inequalities and limited educational resources. “While netizens are amusing themselves with this bit of entertainment,” wrote one essayist, “we cannot ignore the real problems that lurk behind this [imaginary] proposal. The four provinces of Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, and Hebei are all confronting a severe shortage of educational resources and intense competition among university entrance exam-takers.” The essay went on to say that resolving these problems would require a concerted effort on the part of the government and various sectors of society. Another article made this observation: “While ‘Shanhe University’ may seem a playful meme, it reveals a strong appetite for access to higher education among all students in those four provinces.”
CDT editors have archived and translated some comments drawn from Weibo and Zhihu about the origins, importance, and censorship of the “Shanhe University” meme:
eric eric：Just as I was reading the trending topics, the hashtag disappeared. Aren’t students in those four provinces even allowed to dream?
神奇鸭嘴兽：Experts will say that we need miners and farmers—someone’s got to do it.
炩煊：Is there an organization behind this university? If so, I could be a teaching assistant. I have a master’s degree in engineering, and I’m from Hebei. Many years ago, I actually experienced this: I did better on the entrance exam than others, but because of where my household registration was based, I didn’t get into a good university. I couldn’t even come close to being accepted at a good university. Even now, years later, the memory of it still rankles.
Blueming：“The nation shattered, hills and streams remain.” [A line from “Spring Prospect,” a poem by Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu; the translation here is by Burton Watson.]
九乡河做题家：When I took the university entrance exam two decades ago, there were existing regional inequalities. At the time, I thought that would change in the future. I certainly didn’t expect things to be the same 20 years later. I wonder if those same inequalities will still exist 20 years from now.
挺好的-一定会更好：If people had fewer kids, there’d be more [educational] resources to go around.
疯姜大莉：I’m a bit disappointed. As a former exam-taker from Shandong, I know how much competition there is to access higher education from these four provinces. It’s my dream that someday soon, everyone will enjoy a level playing field.
睡过无痕dot布鲁斯：Sichuan Province wants to apply to join, too!
哈瓦洛hawalo：I recommend that the criminal masterminds [sarcastic “doge” emoji] of this scheme be arrested and punished, and that this sort of “collective school-establishing behavior” be resolutely banned. [Chinese]