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LAST WORD: Education of the Heart
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Education of the Heart

By Mike Cormack

BT 201606 240 01 last wordTianjin University Gives Classes in Love

I was both bemused and, somehow, not surprised to read the story in the China Daily (April 7th) on Tianjin University teaching a course titled "Basic Theory and Experience of Love". Course leader Liu Xiaochun was quoted as saying, "Hopefully the lecture will give students a higher sense of responsibility toward dating". Areas to be covered include mistresses, domestic violence, divorce and abortion.

BT 201606 240 04 last word HLWhy bemused? It seems odd that university students need to be taught about matters of the heart. It's customary for Western students to begin dating while in high school: these relationships are, of course, not serious, but such puppy love enables young adults to develop some degree of competency when it comes to dating. By the time they get to university, administrators blithely avert their eyes: freshmen apartments are mixed, segregation by gender having faded out in the 1960s, and university residents are free to choose their cohabitants.

I taught in a Tier 3 city university when I first came to China, and the social and romantic behaviour of the students was one of the biggest contrasts. I taught freshman and sophomore students, and found it astonishing that they had had practically zero experience of dating. When I pressed them on why that was, they all had the same answer: their parents had forbidden it and they had been too busy studying. It was also a sign of the strong Chinese family bonds that there seemed no resentment about this. They accepted the rigours (the horror!) of the gaokao, and discarded any romantic aspirations until a time deemed right. I expected the students to be resentful, to have had secret loves and unrequited passions thwarted by implacable parents. (Perhaps they did, but just weren't letting on).

BT 201606 240 02 last word c03fd54abe66176af1b916But no: they were all studious and diligent. There was no mixing of the genders: boys and girls sat apart. Any time I mentioned love or anything that hinted at sex, they giggled childishly. And when I told them about my cousin, who had become pregnant at 14 and had a child when she was 15, they were utterly gobsmacked. The girls told me, that had it been them, their mothers would have dragged them by the hair to the abortion clinic.

Similarly, I was surprised that the university had no student union. Every Western university will have a building where clubs and societies can operate, with sports facilities, shops, cafes, and bars. This is the soul of the university, where friendships and love can blossom. Where, I innocently asked my colleagues, did the students socialize? "They study, and they spend time with their friends in their dormitory," they told me. I was incredulous.

For all that, love did blossom. Though the students shared dormitories in cohorts of six or eight, leaving no privacy whatsoever outside of the bathroom, there were a few liaisons. The university had a large sports pitch with a stand for spectators. If you went walking past it in the evening, you would stumble across boy-and-girl couples, spread out across the field, snatching just a little precious time together, as the sun set. I thought it was rather sweet.

BT 201606 240 03 last word c03fd54abe66176af1b916It's hard to say if any culture is better. The first awkward steps in dating can be painful, so is it better to get them out the way sooner, or to wait for a certain maturity? Can you even be mature without the ability to consort and communicate with the opposite sex? Certainly in the UK, where teen alcohol abuse is endemic, the urge to date isn't proof of maturity. In fact, it's usually the opposite, where nervy bravado and social insecurity lead to unfortunate, and perhaps risky, encounters. It's usually the least educated and the worst off who are sexually active at the earliest ages. By contrast, the Chinese romantic model seems almost fastidious, and suggestive of a population seeking to invest before spending.

It seemed curious to me, too, that Liu Xiaochun's course at Tianjin University would focus on such seemingly anodyne topics. Sex and relationships permeate Western media and advertising from top to bottom. No-one there could ever be unaware of divorce, abortion or mistresses; the ever-popular soap operas alone make sure of that. Does a course on these topics suggest a certain Chinese innocence? Or does our utter familiarity with them suggest a media so soaked in sexuality that we can barely even notice it? You only need look at how music videos have become a branch of soft porn to wonder if a more gentle approach might be better. While learning about the heart is important, we also have a head, and we also have a soul. The sooner we strike a better balance between the three, the better.


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