Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Broken Fact: Fu Ping's Choice of Undergraduate Major

The Original Story:
Fu Ping has repeatedly stated that her dream was to be an astronaut but she ended up majoring in Chinese literature because she didn't have the choice. In Bend, not Break, she wrote on Pages 231-232:
I quickly became known as "the girl who never turns off her lights." How could I possibly sleep? My mind was hyperstimulated by everything I was learning: math, physics, chemistry, literature, history, geology, geography. I felt like a sponge trying to soak up the entire ocean.
Although I had been asked to fill out a form listing my preferences, I had no choice of where or what I would study. Ultimately, the government would make the assignment.
I was not accepted to an aerospace engineering program, even though all my life I had dreamed of being an astronaut. When the acceptance letter came in the fall of 1977, it said that I had been assigned to study literature at Suzhou University.
As if that wasn't enough, she repeated herself on Page 249:
I had wanted to major in aerospace engineering, but the government had decided that I would study literature. 
The Debunking:
One of the mainstays in China's college entrance exam is that it is separated into two distinct categories: science and technology (理工科) and liberal arts (文科). Students have to choose and commit to one of the two months if not years before the exam. In 1977 and 1978, there are a few common subjects such as politics, Chinese, math for both categories although their difficulty level differed slightly between the categories. Then there are subjects only for each category: physics and chemistry for science and technology; history and geography for liberal arts.

Given the precious time before the exam, nobody would be foolish enough to study both physics/chemistry and history/geography (while forgetting to study fraction in math).

Aerospace engineering is obviously a major in the science and technology category, while Chinese literature a liberal arts one. There was and is no possibility whatsoever that government would assign a student from the science and technology category into a major in liberal arts. That does not happen. When Fu Ping chose to take up exams in liberal arts, she had already abandoned her dream to be an astronaut on her own.

Furthermore, although the government did have much leeway in assigning majors not necessarily according to students' expressed preference, it typically did that to fill in unpopular or unknown majors. In 1977 and 1978, most students didn't know many majors. They only knew the few famous ones such as math, physics, chemistry in science and Chinese literature, history, etc. in liberal arts. These majors were therefore hyper-popular and would not have needed forced assignments. For Fu Ping to be accepted as a Chinese literature major, chances were that it was her own choice to begin with.

1 comment:


    Here is a copy of the 1978 Gaokao (college entrance exam) registration of Liu Baisheng, one of Ping Fu's Suzhou University classmates. It clearly shows that the Wenke (liberal arts) exam is the one he took to get accepted into the Chinese Literature program.

    The image comes from Liu Baisheng's blog:

    "I had wanted to major in aerospace engineering, but the government had decided that I would study literature." What a joke!