By far the most leisurely group of people I’ve ever seen in my life are college seniors in China.

This may be surprising to some people who have in their minds images of Chinese high school students getting up at 5 a.m. to attend special before-school help sessions, followed by 8-to-5 school hours, followed by more tutoring sessions, a quick bite of supper, and then cramming until midnight or later.

High School Vs. College

Yes, the pre-高考 Gāokǎo life of high schoolers is incredibly grueling. But, once they complete that infamous test that more or less determines the course of their lives, many of these students settle down in college life and, for the most part, either sit on their laurels or weep over their failure. As the hero in《我当阴阳先生的那几年》said, “这个考试基本上能决定你以后的命运是吃肉还是喝粥”。 “This test can pretty much determine if your life’s fate is to eat meat or to drink gruel.”

Don’t get me wrong: Some college students are unbelievably hard-working. I’ve met many of them. Also, don’t think that just because they’re not busy, they’re care-free. Sometimes it’s precisely the opposite. A common phrase among college seniros is: 毕业等于失业. “Graduation means unemployment.” The continuing explosion in the number of college graduates means they’re next to worthless on the job market, and most of them haven’t been equipped to deal with it.

Regardless of the anxiety level, most college students are like their American counterparts: content to slide by, meeting the minimum requirements for graduation. Since in some schools, breathing and paying tuition seem to be the main standards, many seniors have little to do.

The idea is that they should spend that year, not attending classes, but rather working on their senior thesis. So, for you 高考 Gāokǎo-loving China-watchers who know nothing of Chinese college, let me introduce a new friend to you: Meet the 论文 lùnwén, the bachelor-degree equivalent of a dissertation.

The 论文 Lùnwén Done Well

I was actually quite happy with the way my school handled this assignment: We continued with class as usual, and the 论文 lùnwén was an assignment on top of everything else. I guess they knew that, as foreigners who were forking over cold hard cash every semester for school, we might just walk away if we felt they were holidng our diplomas ransom in exchange for a year of tuition payments. In spite of my cynical attempt at humor, I think there’s at least 50% truth here.

So to daily classes we continued to go as we researched and wrote our 论文 lùnwén. They were to be a brief 5,000 characters (mine was 9 pages), and we could choose topics pertaining to Chinese grammar. Under my Chinese name 尹海生, I wrote 《浅析比较句的分类、使用及常见偏误》 “Comparative Sentences: Types, Uses and Common Mistakes,” which did turn out to be a both useful and manageable topic.

Had it been in my native language, I could have rattled the thing off in less than a week. Which, by the way, is why many seniors have so much free time: Most of them do just that. For me, since it wasn’t in my native language, it took a tremendous amount of time and effort. I’m also glad to say that I was in a class that was, except for a couple of notable exceptions, famously hard-working.

Citing Unintelligible Sources

The hardest part was finding good sources that were understandable. I had already sat through a semester of Chinese grammar in Chinese. My classmates and I spent those days, not improving our grammar, but scratching our heads, trying to figure out what in the world the book was talking about. It’s a bit fuzzy now, but I think this was our textbook. On my list of textbooks I was most eager to trash, this was #5.

There’s a reason understandable resources are so hard to find, and it was best expressed in a conversation I overheard in a coffee shop in northern China. The Chinese girl said to some Americans she was sitting with:

“I like reading English books, because when I read an English book, I feel like the author worked hard to make it easy to understand. When I read a Chinese book, I feel like the author worked hard to make it difficult to understand.”

There are deep historical and cultural reasons that make spoken Chinese and formal written Chinese almost like two separate languages, but the bottom line in this millenia-old ideological battle over clarity was: I needed one really good source. Immediately.

Found It!

This wonderful book saved my bacon. Big time. If you are doing formal Chinese study and need a grammar resource, buy this book. Hold onto it. Cherish it. You don’t have to kiss it. But if you have to write a 论文 lùnwén on Chinese grammar, you just might.

I of course had to consult a few other sources, but I spent 75% of my time on Beijing Language and Culture University Press’s wonderfully clear and useful “A Practical Chinese Grammar for Foreigners.”

A big plus of course is that this book is bilingual: The same content is included in both Chinese and English. An even bigger plus is that it’s focused on examples rather than unintelligible 废话 fèihuà (“superfluous words”) that don’t shine much light on anything but the author’s expansive vocabulary and unparalleled capacity for run-on sentences with no apparent main verbs.

End in Sight

At the beginning of the process, I was assigned a 辅导老师 fǔdǎo lǎoshī to guide me through. I was happy to discover they’d given me one of the best teachers, 杨加印. I turned in several revisions, and her comments were always clear and practical. No 废话 fèihuà here!

When our papers were complete, we were told the date and time of our 答辩 dábiàn – our “defense.” A word which, with one small tonal difference, would mean our “feces.” Yes folks, the tones DO matter. One small slip can turn into unintended commentary on the quality of your work.

For the 答辩 dábiàn, we each gave a public presentation before our peers and teachers, and answered their questions about the content.

I passed.

And so did the guy who didn’t seem to know what his paper was about. But he didn’t get as many smiles as I did.

Featured Image: Angel Wilcott, 2011