New students at most North American colleges experience a week or so of semi-organized social activities, campus tours, department gatherings, and drunken debauchery, mostly in the name of making friends and getting acclimatized to new surroundings. Chinese freshmen at this non-military state university, however, enjoy several weeks of something that appears to be a cross between military boot camp and mass communist indoctrination.
Every afternoon over ten thousand boys and girls flood onto the half dozen large sports pitches on our campus dressed in cadet fatigues, wearing standard issue canvas and rubber shoes, bright red neckties, and cloth caps bearing the People’s Liberation Army emblematic roundel with a red star surrounding the characters ‘八一’. The characters, ba yi, mean ‘eight one’, and refer to August first (8/1), 1927, the day of the PLA’s founding.
Once on the sports pitch, the students are arranged into companies of 60 (5×12 women) or 75 (5×15 men) to do exercises and practice formations. They march up and down the running tracks, led by megaphone-brandishing superiors, trying to keep in line and in sync. Often they will stop to receive instructions and to perform repeat-after-me chants. Occasionally the companies will link up with each other to form battalions and perform larger maneuvers on the center field.
At dusk, after sitting on the ground through half an hour of speeches about military life and defending the nation, they are all dismissed for dinner.
Once the sun has set, they return to courtyards and plazas around campus where they learn and practice chants and songs. When I say chants and songs, I do not mean fluffy North American faculty songs/chants (think: “We’re loud, we’re proud/We make up half the crowd/Bigger is better/Arts kicks ass!”), but ones with Mao-era military bravado that contain lyrics such as 比铁还硬比钢还强! (“Harder than iron, stronger than steel!”). Their cries carry over the air, strong and in unison, as we make our way back from the dining hall in the dark.
After witnessing several of days of these exercises, I decided to see what Chinese students think of the whole thing. I asked a few older students what they thought about their military orientation during their first year. A second year girl recalls the ten plus days being tough and tiring, but a good opportunity to get to know the people in her company. A third year boy keeps his camouflage uniform as a memento: “It makes me recall the long hours of drilling and practice we went though as a group. I feel it was an accomplishment and a necessary rite of passage to enter university”. I looked online for other comments on chat boards and blog sites. According to one Chinese blogger, the purpose of the military exercises is to “train our bodies and our willpower, experience military life, and attain self-discipline”. Another blogger says the experience allowed him to “appreciate the hardships faced by soldiers, feel the comradeship felt in military life, and understand the heavy responsibility of defending the country”.
A third blogger recalled a piece of advice given by one of the instructors: “当兵后悔二年，不当兵会后悔一辈子!” (“Serve in the army and you’ll regret it for two years, don’t serve in the army and you’ll regret it your entire life!”).
Needless to say, the university does not let us international students get involved. We would interrupt, step out of line, joke, disturb the order.
This, I am tempted to say, is one of those places where individuality and creativity are tactfully smothered. As planned, this is also where discipline, submission, and conformity blossom.