Inspirational or sexist? Chinese high schooler’s speech sparks debate about privilege and rural-urban inequality

Society & Culture

A teenage competitor in a reality show has sparked a debate about the urban-rural divide after he made comments that some found inspirational but that others thought were creepy.

pig cabbage
Zhang Xifeng

A Chinese teenager has grabbed national attention after delivering an impassioned speech on a reality show, in which he recalled his humble beginnings as an underprivileged rural student and told the story of how he worked his way to one of the most prestigious high schools in China. 

At one point during the speech, he called himself “a countryside pig determined to ruin cabbages in urban areas.” This description raised a number of eyebrows among internet users, who said the statement was disturbing, overly aggressive, and possibly sexist.

In a recent episode of Super Speaker (超级演说家), a competition show for aspiring motivational speakers, Zhāng Xīfēng 张锡峰, a 17-year-old high school senior from Hebei Province, made the controversial appearance (in Chinese) as a contestant. In addition to introducing his background, Zhang devoted a considerable chunk of his talk to defending Hengshui High School, which he described as a positive influence on his education, despite widespread criticism against its militarized teaching style and excessive emphasis on student performance.

“At Hengshui, we share common objectives and interests,” said Zhang, who is going to take the gaokao (​高考 gāokǎo), the nationwide college entrance examination, in about a week. “We put our lives on the line every day while studying. We are in a race against time. Every morning we wake up, the first thing we do is scream our goals at the top of our lungs.”

He went on to call out those who “unfairly criticized” the school, saying that all the seemingly outlandish traditions at Hengshui, such as marching while chanting motivational slogans, were not meaningless performances. “We are trying to change our destinies! We all come from modest families and we are expected to succeed! We are not gaokao machines!” he told the crowd while clenching his teeth.

However, Zhang noted that he had made peace with all the humiliation and embarrassment he had gone through, and he hoped that his classmates would achieve the same mentality one day. “I often jokingly tell them that even though I’m a rural pig, I’m determined to ruin urban cabbages” (乡下土猪进城拱白菜), he said.

Zhang’s speech struck a nerve: On Weibo, a clip of his 10-minute speech (in Chinese) has been viewed more than 9 million times, with many commenters questioning the real meaning behind the “rural pig” statement.

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There’s no doubt that Zhang was making a reference to the Chinese saying “A good cabbage got dug up by a pig” (好白菜被猪拱了), a sexist saying used to describe a romantic relationship where the woman is way out of her partner’s league. In the context of Zhang’s speech, the teenger seemed to be saying that he wanted to date attractive, urban women when he eventually succeeds. But it’s also possible that Zhang was talking about how much he aspired to transcend the economic circumstances of his birth and gain access to many opportunities that were once out of reach for him.

Critics leaned toward the first explanation. “My understanding is that he thinks women are resources that he can use. And metropolitan women, especially those who come from wealthy families, can provide him with high-quality resources. He wants to compete with urban men in a race to marry into money,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). Some said that they could foresee Zhang becoming a “phoenix man,” the type of guy who manages to escape poverty by attending good schools and often burdens his urban partner with a lot of family obligations after marriage.

Others came to Zhang’s defense, saying that while the reference might be poorly thought out, the teenager meant no harm and should be praised for his determination to improve his life and support his family. “It’s apparently a self-deprecating joke! Why are some people so sensitive about it,” a person said (in Chinese), while another one commented (in Chinese), “The backlash he faced shows that the urban-rural divide in China is so deeply rooted. Metropolitan people are unable to put themselves in their less-privileged peers’ shoes.”

Education in China is broadly framed as meritocratic: If one works and studies hard, one will get ahead in school and life. In this way, the country’s education system has historically been considered an equalizer, a mechanism by which underprivileged students in the countryside get on equal footing with their richer counterparts in urban areas. 

But this widespread belief has been increasingly called into question in recent years, as middle- to upper-class parents have taken the competition for good schools to a whole new level, where even pre-kindergarten kids have to sweat over after-school tutoring and extra-curricular activities. Lacking adequate resources, rural students from disadvantaged backgrounds also suffer from other disadvantages, like the possibility of having their identities stolen in the gaokao by students from wealthy and well-connected families.