Losing at the Starting Line & the Nine Nine Six Culture

Wang Xiuying · Losing at the Starting Line: Nine Nine Six Culture · LRB 18 November 2021

Children start taking extra classes when they’re still at primary school. Chinese (language and literature), maths and English are the cornerstones: they are compulsory subjects in the gaokao, the College Entrance Exam, which students take in their final year of school and is the sole criterion for university admission (you can do another language, but hardly anyone does). The Olympic Mathematics Class is popular with primary school pupils who show an early interest in the sciences. In a big city like Shanghai or Beijing, one-to-one maths tutoring for young children can cost 500 RMB per hour (the average wage in big cities is around 50 RMB per hour). As well as academic tutoring, singing, dancing, piano, violin, swimming and badminton classes are also hugely popular. A private piano lesson taught by a conservatoire professor can cost 2500 RMB per hour. Middle-class parents often joke (not without bitterness) that their child is shredding money before their eyes.

She is a typical Gen Zer: can’t stick a job for more than a year (‘too boring, salary no good’) and has absolutely no desire for a family (‘taking care of myself is hard enough’). Women who do want a family have to prepare long before the wedding. In big cities, the downpayment on a decent apartment would empty six bank accounts (the couple plus all four parents). Occasionally viral clips circulate of random street interviews. The interviewer asks a passerby: ‘You’re about to divorce. Do you choose the house or the children?’ Most men choose the house because houses are too expensive to buy again. You can always find another wife and have another child if you have the house. Most women choose the children.