An old story throws light on the plight of millions of Chinese graduate

Beijing Letter: A 1919 short story Kong Yiji is the most talked about literary work in China as frustrated graduates identify bitterly with the title character

Described by Mao Zedong as “a great revolutionary” and “the saint of China”, Lu Xun was one of his country’s most popular and celebrated 20th century writers. But last month censors started scrubbing references to one of his most famous stories from social media posts amid a furious debate about the prospects facing China’s current generation of young graduates.

One of the first Chinese writers to use the vernacular as a literary language, Lu’s stories are known for the insight they offer into China’s social and political ills in the early 20th century. His characters became emblematic for elements of the national character, including the preoccupation with “face” and what Lu saw as too great a willingness to accept suffering.

Generations of schoolchildren read Lu’s stories, some learning them by heart, but by the late 1990s he was out of fashion in China’s new market economy. Now his 1919 short story Kong Yiji is the most talked about literary work in China as frustrated graduates identify bitterly with the title character.

Kong would drink in a bar called the Prosperity Tavern wearing a long academic gown that became ever dirtier and more tattered, presenting himself as a scholarly gentleman.


“From gossip I heard that Kong Yiji had studied the classics but had never passed the official examination. With no way of making a living, he grew poorer and poorer, until he was practically reduced to beggary. Happily, he was a good calligrapher, and could get enough copying work to support himself. Unfortunately he had failings: he liked drinking and was lazy. So after a few days he would invariably disappear, taking books, papers, brushes and inkstone with him. After this had happened several times, nobody wanted to employ him as a copyist again. Then there was no alternative for him but to take to occasional pilfering,” Lu writes.

Earlier this year young Chinese graduates started joking online that their multiple degrees had left them overqualified and unemployable so they were left with nothing but the equivalent of Kong Yiji’s long, tattered, academic gown.

“Education is not only a stepping stone, but also a high platform that I can’t get off, and it’s also a gown that Kong Yiji can’t take off,” one young man commented in Shanghai’s Youth Daily.

This year will see more than 11.6 million people graduating from Chinese universities, up more than 800,000 on 2022, entering a job market where almost one in five young people are unemployed. In Beijing last year the number of graduate students was for the first time greater than the number of undergraduates, as more young people stay longer at university in the hope that more qualifications will give them better prospects.

A manga cartoon appeared portraying Kong Yiji as a contemporary engineering graduate struggling to get by as he regales companions in language too arcane for them to understand. It was all a bit of wry humour until the Communist Youth League and the state broadcaster CCTV waded in with editorials denouncing the graduates who compared themselves to Kong Yiji as too choosy to take whatever job was available.

“The value of academic qualifications can only be reflected when you fully explore your potential in creative practice activities. The reason why Kong Yiji was in the predicament of life was not because he had read, but because he could not let go of the scholar’s shelf and was unwilling to change his situation by labour. A long gown is a garment, but also a shackle in the heart,” CCTV said.

“A momentary difficulty is not equal to a lifetime of failure … The era of Kong Yiji is gone forever, and contemporary aspiring young people will never be trapped in long gowns.”

The commentary evoked a contemptuous reaction online and a video mocking it was viewed millions of times before the censors removed it. The video showed a young woman working in a delivery service musing that having a degree should not shackle her mind.

“Chalking up Kong Yiji’s tragic fate to his personal failings without even considering social factors and using this to throw implicit criticism at today’s educated youth is not just ignorant and superficial, but malevolent,” one online commenter complained.

After a busy few days for the censors, the debate about Kong Yiji subsided but neither online censorship nor stern commentaries in state media will make the problems facing millions of new graduates go away.