We learned some startling facts this week about higher education in china, facts that frame so many issues and incentives in the public Higher Education system.
Fact one: there is only one route into the visual arts - mastery of traditional drawing and painting. This is the result of the national testing process which offers essentially three tests to determine if and where you go to college. One test for humanities, one test for sciences, and then a bevy of hyper specialized tests for the arts (visual art, opera/theatre, music, ect.). This doesn’t mean everyone takes all the tests, it means you have to pick the test you will take (or it will have been chosen for you at a very early age) and that is the test you must pass to go to the university. This dramatically shapes what the arts are and in what ways students excel. For instance the illustration styles created for all the video game mockups were phenomenal the characters and environments were very visually rich. On the flip side, the innovation in interaction and experience was less vibrant because its not rewarded in any way up until that point. The intense and narrow focus on these college entry tests shapes and pressures everything up until that point. You see Chinese parents sitting in the hallways watching their 6 year olds perform in English classes, drawing classes, and so on, under a constant watchful eye. Consider then what leaving for university means - you are now free, you have accomplished all that has ever been asked, and as one of the “few” who gained entry to the university, you are all but guaranteed a good paying job. Basically university males are crazy hooked on video games and are not really incentivized to dive deep into the new knowledge. Many do, but many do not. Now, objectively, there are many ways that the US system is similar. There is a lot of pressure to perfect your array of accolades to get into the right school, but we incentivize broadness of experience and knowledge. We also have a lot of problems with those who go off to college and fuck around, but again, since we pay for the education, there are many additional pressures to continue to perform at your peak levels. Also note that with the increased gutting of arts education, the bulk of art classes in k-12 are nothing but drawing, perhaps with some other occasional experimentation, and many times these classes are flush with athletes looking for easy courses and those with behavioral issues who can’t pay attention in regular classes. This isn’t the case at all schools of course, but I suspect it is still quite common. Many of my own skills came from my father teaching me drafting on paper and on the computer, books about drawing techniques and one very good art teacher in Junior High who encouraged all the possible exploration he could muster in our very impoverished school. At any rate, I can’t claim that I got the sort of big picture arts training I so dearly wish our students entered the university with.
Fact two: there is a lack of the sort of broad education and future experimentation in undergraduate studies because the government will pull the plug on programs who do not meet certain quotas of students being placed in jobs before they graduate. This frames the entire education as a series of bullet points targeted at specific industry channels as opposed to having students delve into their passions and how to begin to shape innovations in those areas. It seems that many graduate students have some of these bigger picture goals, but by and large, the factory model of producing workers for the jobs that exist now is a heavy focus. It meant for example that in the aftereffects class you followed a teacher step by step to complete an exercise, and then if you ask those students to move beyond those same steps, they have to nearly start from the beginning vie online tutorials and forums. Again, this is not to say there aren’t similar institutions here in the US, but it is evidence of an education system just a few steps behind our increasingly decentralized methods. I have to wonder which if any of the programs I have taught in would have continued to exist if put under the same pressures? The professors asked what were our students trained for, and we said “life and the ability to carve out their own spaces and careers” as the average student in the US will have 12 different careers before they retire. In China that sort of mobility doesn’t really exist yet, so perhaps our model is less useful? It was clear the professors wanted to innovate and teach more dynamically, but there just are no rewards for it, and they are poorly paid to boot. Nearly all of them have side businesses to double their incomes and allow them to be able to live off campus. Many times the graduate students are the cheap labor for the companies (again, this is a familiar pattern, especially in the sciences in the US).
At the end, it makes me very very thankful to have so much flexibility in what I teach, how I teach it, and the dynamic environs to do it in. I too would look to other places for a graduate experience where a vibrant sense of experimentation was allowed and encouraged. The sad part is that the Chinese students who can afford to apply elsewhere are all focused on the same top 10 school in the field and are not taking advantage of the rich diversity of schools beyond that. So when they (all 10,000 of them) are turned down by MIT (5 slots available each year) then they give up on going to the US.
BTW, if you are one of those people who deal with admissions, know that there are great services in china that will write your personal statement, write your cover letter, write your (fake) letters of reference, and send it all out for you… Then again if you have been doing this for awhile this info should not be a surprise, and it isn’t too hard to tell which letters are being auto-generated.
(Yeah I know I skipped #8…im still writing it.)
As the final part of my trip abroad, I visited Tokyo Japan. It is interesting to consider Tokyo vs. Beijing on many levels. The Dean of BUPT remarked that we would find Japan very similar but after having spent time there I cannot disagree more. I do not want to get too far into it here as it will become out of scope, but at a very base level, there is a sense of control, order and attention to detail in Japan that just did not exist in China. I do not pretend to know which is better in some idealized sense, I can only say that I had a deep respect for the way everyone in Japan was hyper self-aware and how every object and building also received deep respect. It would not surprise me to find out that China once had such sensibility, but they way they are embracing the change of westernization has crushed such traditions. Perhaps in 20 years when China has settled in to its new reality they too will find a way to combine tradition and modernity. In the meantime, I think americans could learn quite alot from the Japanese as well in terms of a knowing materiality and sense of how to treat others.
As to the famed electronics past of Japan, it is largely a thing of the past - we didnt see anything that stuck out that we could not get elsewhere. Globalization has indeed spread quite widely and leveled the prices of nearly all consumer goods whether we were in Japan or China. I found many beautifully designed items and tools that I did want to get, but again it was because of the clean practicality of the objects and the materials. Video game parlors still exist and are quite active in both China and Japan, with the Pochiko games in Japan providing hours of mindless gambling for the office drone. The din that pours out of these establishments was overwhelming every time the door opened as we walked by on the street and I could not imagine going inside for an extended period without ear protection. Each game has been turned up so you can hear the japanese girls on the screen scream in delight as you get more and more points, not to mention the clamor of the stainless steel balls pouring down the machines innards, clinking off pins and bumpers.
In Tokyo, absolutely everyone has a smartphone, and they have home internet resulting in no real free wifi spots outside of hotels. Many stores and food shops advertise the presence of wifi, but you mush log on to an account you already have via your phone or home internet provider.
I think the 1990’s Chris Coleman is disappointed that Tokyo wasn’t the sort of imagined neo-future captured in so many anime movies and cultural tropes, but at the same time, There were many ways that the Japanese have slid into the 21st century (ecologically, technologically, stability, control, logic, signage, politeness) that I deeply admire. There are issues such as creeping materialism, hyper sexualization of women, and a cultural rigidness that I personally find troubling as well - I suppose in the end, we all have lessons to learn and lessons to share.
To anyone who might come across this, I wanted to add some disclaimers and clarifications. I am by no means using these posts as an archeological survey or expect them to reveal anything than a reflection of my sometimes naive observations.they are recordings of a moment in time, of a civilization as seen by the eyes and mind of another civilization. Many times I expect the observations are revealing ,much more about my own cultural norms and relationships to technology and media. I am spending each day reflecting on the assumptions I have been taught about how we live and interact with each other and technology, I hope others might do the same.
Last night I was introduced to the Chinese equivalent of Hulu+Netflix and I love it. It is exciting to see a model where equal weight is given to US shows, Korean shows, Chinese movies, Japanese anime and so forth, all divided by country. The interface is almost overwhelming because of the options, but once you start doing a bit of filtering, you can find plenty of great options. Some of the newer movies require a paid membership (VIP) and the same with a few brand new TV episodes. Beyond the VIP there doesn’t really seem to be a business model yet as there are no ads to be found. I watched a new US movie last night, perfect quality, hd streaming w/o issue - and this is key as anything streaming from the US (assuming you have a VPN tunnel) is shitty and choppy even at the lowest quality. Several of our students joked that china is one big intranet, and I think in many ways that’s accurate - qq covers all of your messaging needs, they have a Chinese Facebook that is really only for image sharing,
A Chinese YouTube and Chinese Hulu and all of it works well and is really quick…in China. There are certain key media managers grabbing TV shows and movies and music and gifs from outside and adding them to the intranet and it keeps the streams fresh. All universities are public, and they have a very fast network connecting them all, one benefit of which is a fileshare where any school can grab the latest adobe suite and cracked versions of Maya. As a media consumer, it’s a dream - there is no conceivable reason to pay for music, software, movies, or TV. As a media maker it is a nightmare. And this is a key issue - there is little incentive for innovation and original creation. TV is filled with state owned media (boring…) and then the movie theatre is giant blockbuster films (where you can still make money for a week or two before ppl cam it). As I become more and more embedded, I’m finding less and less reason to turn on my VPN (basically just for FB and twitter checkins) and just relent to the comforting notion of a safe, fast domestic Internet. It’s harder and harder to convey the notion that they are missing something by staying behind the firewall, and that’s the genius of it.
(My students in Wuhan…)
I thought I would take some time to note some initial thoughts about the University level technology education system here. Some of these are from observation and some from student comments. In many regards, they are where we were just 10-15 years ago with the one way communication of the expert in the front of the room. The labs are all set up with the students facing computer screens and conversation with the group is problematic. We had to cram everyone to the front of the room to establish a different dynamic. For my courses I taught a couple of techniques for using the Microsoft Kinect as a motion capture device and then as a 3D scanner. I was assured that all the students knew AfterEffects and Maya, but I watched as each student started their project by looking at online tutorials for how to do basic modeling, rendering and animating. We had to talk about how to dump out the movies and what codecs were. It was explained to me (and I saw at least one class in action) that taking a course in afterEffects involved the teacher telling the students step by step what to do, and then grading the students of achieving the same perfect resulting pre structured work. Perhaps it is based on the traditional painting model, where you have to repeat and repeat and repeat for years, and then you might understand and expand, but until then, just do the same thing as everyone else. The actual result tho is that few of the students actually understood how to accomplish their own ideas without starting from the ground up via tutorials. To their credit, they did get results, some better than others, and all in a very tight timeline. I cannot imagine the massive amount of on-the-job training that must occur when these students are hired to a company. We had a great discussion about the overall structure of the education system with the immense pressure occurring from elementary school to high school graduation and the big test that determines if you go to college or not. After students are in college, they can basically walk into any job with their major title on it. This means little emphasis on success in college, little reason to stand out. The result is that for many people, there isn’t much pride in what you are doing. I don’t mean that in a bad, way, just that for most, the economic drivers of tipping, raises, company pride, etc. just are not there. The big focus is finding a mate, making the perfect one child, and being able to provide for them. It does seem to leave many openings for those with an entrepreneurial spirit and there is no doubt that the new generations are aiming for much greater things than their parents.
Today we are riding one of the new high speed trains from Wuhan to Beijing, with a cruising speed of 310km/h or about 192mph. Its quite nice and largely indistinguishable from the one I rode this fall from Newcastle to London. The new train station in Wuhan was also a marvelous piece of architecture, and I doubt we will be disappointed at the Beijing station either. It should be noted that this train is the fast upper class train, with its own stations and tracks - not to be confused with the rail system used by those with less means.
The station in Wuhan was clearly built to handle 3-4 times as many people, and so I was impressed at the future proofing in that regard. Security was super lax, and nothing like the very tight security we dealt with at the Beijing airport, even though we were flying domestically. There was only one security lane open in Wuhan, with a luggage x-ray machine where everyone had to send every bag. We dropped everything on the belt, then walked thru a metal detector gate that was turned off. While picking up our bags, we noticed the x-ray screen was facing us, and the man “watching” it was actually just reading a book. Then, despite being loaded up with bags, we each had to be “wanded” which consisted of running the wand up and down the front of the torso once and then a three point pat - left pocket, right pocket, chest. My sense is that if I was wearing a bomb jacket made out of sticks of metal dynamite I might have been in trouble, but otherwise…? At the Gate they glanced at our tickets and didn’t/couldn’t use the new ticket machines as per the designed workflow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sure security needed to be better - after all, this was the upper class train station.
I will say that a huge counter to this is the brand new Wuhan subway system, which uses re-usable RFID tokens and pre-paid refillable cards, avoiding paper waste systems. The guidance/way-finding system is one of the best I’ve ever seen - for instance while on the train, the station maps are digital/dynamic so you can easily see exactly where the train is and where it is stopping next. All messages are in Chinese and English (as is most of the major signage here), reminding me how lucky I have to have english as a first language and the effect of having such dominant civilization “ancestry.”
To stay on topic, there are so many signs of 21st century technological engagement here, and in a “medium city” of 10 million people like Wuhan, the population, especially those under 40, are largely living the same lives as their western peers. The great firewall is a farce for them; they are watching whatever they want, listening to whatever they want, reading whatever they want. What the firewall does accomplish isnt cultural, only historical - perhaps you could search for news about the anniversary of Teinemin Square, but if you don’t know what it is, then you don’t know to search for it. No one sells cds or dvds of music and movies anymore as everyone can just download it all for free from the internet (one might even argue they are more ”free” online than we are…). We have enjoyed small things, like a musical taste that is about 18 months behind us and revolves around the movies they see. Also the movie titles have been translated wonderfully - “the Fast and the Furious” came out as “Speed and Intensity!” which of course works just as well, but it took several minutes to puzzle out what was being referenced. Chinese TV has drastically improved aesthetically since our last visit, with motion graphics and overall equipment being upgraded to current day standards (our Guide Rodger suggested they had basically modeled all the news to look like CNN). They also import several shows from Korea, especially for kids(from what we have seen, the Koreans are giving the Japanese a run for their money in the “insane children’s characters” department much in the way that they have now surpassed them in Horror movie). I suppose when you know the citizens are digesting western media products, you cannot to expect to have any sway if your productions look like they are 20 years old.
Continuing on my look at technology in China, probably the most heartening development is the use of electric scooters. It should be said that Chinese electricity is not known for being all that clean but regardless, when 30% of the population is getting around via scooter and half of those have shifted to electric scooters, the levels of street level sound and air pollution is reduced in some significant ways. I look forward to see how this trend I’ve seen in Wuhan plays out in Beijing. When we visited 7 years ago Beijing was awash in bicycles, with probably 70% of people getting around this way. There were scooters, but they were a sprinkling in amongst the pedal power. I also hold out hope that a sort of cheap electric scooter revolution could spread across Europe and the US as well.
On another note, the horn has become an entire language unto itself here in Wuhan and beyond. Because there is still a sort of willful disregard for lanes and signs and stoplights (despite it all being carefully laid out for the most part) the ebb and flow or cars, people, and scooters is still really more like a river than a marching band. Where this becomes interesting is on the highways. I assume that because on the city streets the horn is a signal for presence and exclamation, and gentle reminder, when we are driving at 70mph down a nearly empty highway, the driver beeps his horn 3-5 times leading up to and while passing a car, even if they are solidly in another lane. I suppose it is a sort of lack of trust that another vehicle won’t just come over at any moment - again even on the highway, lanes are taken as a bit of a recommendation. There seems to be a lot of signage dedicated to what the distance between cars should be, about what a shoulder is used for, and so on. The road conditions in the cities is pretty rough, but today we are traveling to the great 3 Gorges Dam, probably one of the modern wonders of the world, and the toll highway is really well maintained and designed.
One last note, something that caught my eye was the large swaths of vacant spaces sprinkled across the city of Wuhan. It seems the government is deciding what sections are just too old to continue to exist and they force everyone to leave the buildings and tear everything down. All the small rubble remains, a sort of thick coating of bricks, plaster, and concrete. Most notable is the fact that then some workers are hired to gather the still usable bricks from the site, and slowly build a wall right against the street side of the lot, presumably blocking the view of the painful hole in the neighborhood with the remains of the missing homes.
Google is like a sick donkey here, sometimes never loading, always slow. The shocker (for me as a heavy googler) is that Bing, even the english version is super hot fast here. Google 0, Microsoft 1.
China #3 - CompuTown Information Plaza
This collection of images is from Computown in Wuhan China, a 7 story electronics hub. The first floor is spacious and airy, with all known (and several unknown) computer companies having a small display area - almost a trade show model. The computers on this level have a decent probability of being real, but you will pay regular pricing - there arent really any deals to be had. The following floors show new cell phones and electronics like PMP and cameras, then sketchy and perhaps used computers, then sketchy cell phones and other electronics, then new parts for DIY computer building, then a floor of repairs and used parts, and last a floor of spare parts and phones and misc things. All the repair shops had small heat presses for dropping in new CPUs and popping out old ones. We watched ppl doing repairs on nexus tablets while on, just tweaking things on the backside with a reacharound while they watched the front. old screens were stacked like so many books, along with laptops in various states of disarray. Buying a computer on the used/rebuilt floor might be a decent idea just because you know where to get it fixed - the stand has likely been around for many years. All the floors had no windows, only the humming of the fluorescent tubes overhead. Kids run around, making me wonder what it would be like to spend much of your young life surrounded by a flux of repair and reclamation, very little fresh air, and as one got to the top of the building, it was at least 25 degrees warmer than the bottom.