A couple of weeks ago, the scores for the Gaokao, China’s annual college entrance exam, were released. Zhang Xifeng, a graduating senior from Hebei province, scored 674 points, which was enough to gain access to almost any top-tier college in China.
However, when his score was leaked on the Internet, some netizens greeted him not with congratulations, but sneers. That’s not because he cheated, but because of his newly-attained infamy after appearing on TV.
On May 30th, Zhang appeared on the first episode of Super Speakers – Youth Edition, a TV program in which students under the age of twenty deliver a short speech about themselves.
In his ten-minute speech, Zhang reminisced about his childhood in rural Hebei and his teenage years in the town of Hengshui. He recalled the poverty of his hometown, his culture shock upon first encountering urban life, and his fear of living a banal life in the future.
Zhang also thanked the Gaokao system, which, in his opinion, enabled “poor kids” like him to “go explore the wider world” and “make our families proud.” As seen in the video of his speech, his passionate delivery brought some of his audience to tears.
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But when the video circulated on the internet, netizens reacted with fury, with most people focusing on one line:
“Even though I’m just a ‘dirty pig’ from nowhere, I have the ambition to leave my poor village, and feast on the cabbages grown in the city.”
In China, the idiom “A pig devouring a cabbage” refers to a man who is dating a woman he does not deserve. The “pig” refers to the man, while the “cabbage” refers to the woman.
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Netizens reacted to Zhang’s speech with disgust. One commenter wrote: “This child may need to see a psychologist before studying.”
Another wrote: “Every girl in every college, remember this dirty pig’s face. Don’t get devoured like a cabbage.”
Other netizens challenged the values in Zhang’s speech and delivery. Two bloggers pointed out that Zhang despises everyone with an average job, thereby perpetuating elitist values.
Another blogger, hearing Zhang glorifying Gaokao’s system, observed that Zhang’s real passion was nestled in the prospect of education. However, when he credited Gaokao’s system for his bright future, he was encouraging Neijuan (内卷, involution), the culture of overwork and toxic competition that has permeated through China’s workspaces today.
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Some netizens even began to question the authenticity of Zhang’s speech. After the final part of the Gaokao, Zhang was spotted being picked up by someone holding a sign with a quote of his speech, before taking a ride on a three-wheeler, and being dropped off in front of an expensive car driven by his father.
One blogger pointed out their suspicions about whether Zhang was as poor as he described in his speech. Another Weibo user accused Zhang of concocting an exaggerated personal narrative “just for the show.”
However controversial his speech might have been, some netizens seem ready to forgive Zhang. As this blogger noted, “No need to blame Zhang, he’s only a kid.”
“But there are kids from poor villages who’ve never left their hometown, and who’ll never have their voice heard,” the blogger added, “they’re the ones we should truly care for.”
Cover image: screenshot from YouTube
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