Zhang Xinyang, registering for school with his parents.
Zhang Xinyang (张炘炀), a 16-year-old getting his PhD in pure mathematics at Beihang University (北京航空航天大学), earlier this year refused to defend his master’s thesis until his parents agreed to buy him his own apartment. Finally out of options, Zhang’s parents rented an apartment in Beijing, and lied to their son about buying it. He’s found out about the ruse, but his demands for an apartment haven’t wavered.
“When I graduate with a PhD, I won’t even have my own place to live in,” Zhang says. “Is there any use to graduating with a PhD? Is there any use?”
Surrounded regularly by adult classmates with established professional lives, Zhang has become obsessed with the idea of needing the holy trinity of a job, a Beijing hukou and his own house.
Without them, Zhang feels he has no right to talk about finding a girlfriend. Even though it might seem like the pubertal Zhang is a little premature in worrying about such status symbols, it is a state of affairs that most unmarried middle-class men in China now regularly obsess over. And songs like “No Car, No House”, which resembles a Chinese version of TLC’s “No Scrubs”, certainly don’t help.
Zhang doesn’t consider his request to be extreme. Since it’s his parents who constantly want him to stay in Beijing long-term, Zhang argues, it’s actually his parents putting the pressure on themselves to buy him a house. A neat little bit of syllogism there, looks like the boy does indeed study math!
Zhang has the distinction of being China’s youngest ever PhD student, a feat that topped his previous records as youngest ever Bacherlor’s and Master’s student.
Since childhood, Zhang has had no space allowed in his life for anything besides studying, with even classics like Journey to the West confiscated from him by his father.
His father, Zhang Huixiang (张会祥), a public servant in the Liaoning city of Panjin (盘锦), was part of the first class of post-Cultural Revolution college students in 1978. In 1990, Zhang senior was admitted to the first ever class of MBA students at the Renmin University School of Business in Beijing, a course which he had to forgo due to his lacking 15,000RMB in tuition fees.
Reckoning that no great things could be achieved in his own life, Zhang’s father decided to dedicate his life to raising his son for greatness. For the past ten years, neither of Zhang’s parents watched television while their son was studying, with Zhang senior focusing completely on his son, serving as a parent, motivator and educator.
All of which he wrote about in his book, giving it the sort of burning title that probably keeps parents up at night. Merely one in a genre of pedagogical child-rearing tomes, “Magical Studying” (神奇的学习) relates how Zhang was raised in explicit detail. In it, Zhang’s father revealed that he did his best to lessen all distractions for his son, so that he could focus only on his studies, which might more or less be the Chinese equivalent of parents who won’t let their kids read the Harry Potter (too much witchcraft!).
Leaving the Cocoon
When Zhang was two and a half years old, he learned 1000 Chinese characters in the space of three months, roughly the same amount of characters one needs to know for reading newspapers. By age 9, Xinyang was a senior in high school.
Zhang explained that his current unhappiness was caused by an obsession with electronics, and difficulty handling the overwhelming speed of his academic progress. It’s even affected his performance at school. Earlier this year, Zhang struggled to complete his master’s thesis while dealing with sleeplessness, marathon studying sessions, weight loss, a fear of failure, and thoughts of suicide.
After finally completing his master’s thesis, Zhang then told his parents he wanted his own apartment, otherwise he’d refuse to defend the thesis in front of faculty.
Though it seems quite obvious that Zhang might find it stifling in his home, and thus would be eager to leave his parents as soon as possible, his father sees it differently:
“He’s prematurely exposed to this thing, and it’s one of the child’s mistakes. It’s caused by society.”
Seriously, Tiger Dad? Is it really so difficult to understand that your son was quite reasonably flipping out over the idea of school finally ending, with school being the only thing he’s ever known?
Most non-prodigy students start losing their shit over the idea of school ending as a matter of course, simply because right now, the mind-blowing prospect of entering the job market resembles nothing so much as walking straight off a cliff, into a dark abyss. Leaving the warm vagina of academia isn’t easy for anyone, much less for a 16-year-old.
Cracking under pressure
In 2010, Peking University math whiz Liu Zhiyu gave up a full scholarship to study at MIT, in order to enter a monastery and become a monk instead.
For his part, Zhang is still soldiering forth:
I just want to be the king. Otherwise, then you don’t have a position from which you can speak. If I can’t make it, then I believe my father will be very disappointed. He first set a goal which may or may not be attainable, and then puts it on my shoulders. I don’t know if it’s imposing, but I believe that his dreams became my dreams too. It was you who originally wanted me to stay in Beijing, and you should work harder towards that end.
It’s somewhat indicative that even the best studier in China has it pretty rough. Since suicide is now the number-one killer of college students in Shanghai, it’s fair to to say that Zhang’s difficulty at school is rather common in China, to put it mildly.
It seems like a classic struggling-prodigy story to us. Parents feed a child with constant plaudits for his academic achievements while also being unbearably controlling, until it gets to the point when the parents are insufferable, suffocating, and totally beneath you intellectually.