From 'fruitful monotony,' greatness springs forth

Wang Yong
A young woman from Hunan Province is one of the highest scorers on this year's college entrance exams. Does her success come despite, or because of, her austere upbringing?
Wang Yong

One bright young woman made headlines yesterday, not only for acing China's national college entrance exams, but for doing so despite long periods of parental absence.

Zhong Fangrong, a high school student from a village in Leiyang City, Hunan Province, told media yesterday that she's decided to enroll in Peking University to study archaeology, after weighing its offer against one from Tsinghua University. The two prestigious universities had both sent recruiting representatives to Zhong’s hometown, each hoping to attract the talented young scholar.

There's been no shortage of similar stories over the past few years about students from poor rural families who, through diligent effort, succeeded in the national college entrance exams.

What distinguishes Zhong from many others is that she's a "left behind" child. Since she was less than one year old, her parents have been largely absent from her daily life. For economic reasons, they migrated to the country’s coastal regions where work opportunities were more promising. They entrusted Zhong to her grandparents and a local boarding school. They returned home to visit their daughter only three or four times during her seven years of study at the school. Her father told reporters yesterday that he was sorry for being away from his daughter for so long, but that he was always confident in her spirit of self-discipline, even without daily parental care or companionship.

Zhong said she didn’t expect such a high score, which ranked fourth in Hunan Province among students slated for liberal arts study. Her father also said he was “extremely excited” at the result, apparently sharing his daughter’s amazement. But one of Zhong’s teachers told reporters that she had always studied well at school, and had a calm, focused disposition.

Asked how a life without everyday parental pampering or presence has affected her, she replied: “If there’s any influence, it’s that I have learnt to do things on my own.”

Zhong's grandparents, now in their 70s, were not much of academic mentors. Ever after she began life at the boarding school, she usually returned home once every two weeks, where she could have a chance to communicate with her faraway parents. At school, students learnt to properly focus on study.

Such were the girl’s many years of a monotonous life, resulting partly from her parents’ migration and partly from her school’s stern policy against distraction.

How would I have fared if I had been left behind by my parents since I was a toddler? Would I have failed school tests now and then? Would I have played truant? Would I have harbored complaints, if not hatred, for my parents? I’m not sure.

The girl’s singular spirit of self-discipline echoes what the philosopher Bertrand Russell says about education. In the book “The Conquest of Happiness,” Russell says: “The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood … A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil.” 

Russell does not mention monotony for monotony’s sake. He explains: “I do not mean that monotony has merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony.”

The girl may not have had many amusements, but she had what Russell calls a “fruitful monotony” from which the true joy of a simple and self-supporting life springs slowly.

If everyone contents themselves with a simple, self-sufficient life, which often requires an acceptance or appreciation of monotony, collectively we will do our society more good instead of asking too much from it.

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