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Nov 23, 2016

Success doesn’t always bring happiness: A Peking University professor said that 40.4 percent of first-year students at the prestigious university feel life is meaningless, and 30.4 percent hate studying, news portal Sina reported on Monday.

Professor Xu Kaiwen, the deputy head of the mental health education and counseling center at Peking University — China’s highest-ranked university — made the remarks at an education summit in Beijing earlier this month, and referred to the phenomenon as “Empty Heart Disease,” or “kongxin bing” in Chinese. 

Xu described the symptoms of “Empty Heart Disease” as: feelings of depression, loneliness, and indifference; a sense of not knowing what life is for, despite outstanding achievements; maintaining good relationships but feeling that they are based on social obligation; and even suicidal thoughts. 

The news and transcript of Xu’s speech quickly spread through the media and through students’ online social networks. 

On bdwm.net, the most popular online discussion forum for Peking University students, it’s easy to find students’ posts discussing their mental health struggles, and responding to Xu’s comments. In one post titled “Empty Heart Disease,” an anonymous student wrote, “I’m a member of the 30 percent, and possibly even more severe […] in fact, I’ve thought about ending my life more than once.”

But other students caution that a little existential uncertainty isn’t necessarily a sign of depression. Qu Tienan, a 19-year-old freshman studying philosophy at Peking University, told Sixth Tone that he felt he had encountered “Empty Heart Disease” as an ordinary part of the human experience. 

“I would question the meaning of life, and the purpose of what we have done, but I don’t think it’s such a serious thing because everyone has doubt in their lives,” Qu said. “It’s natural.”

Others say that the pressure cooker of China’s education system can exacerbate psychological stress. Intensive preparation for the gaokao, the notorious national college entrance examinations, can start as early as middle school, and competition to get into top schools like Peking University is fierce. For some students, that can mean they run out of steam once they get there. Forced to take stock, they realize the momentum that pushed them forward is missing.

“Lots of students have this hallowed dream of studying at Peking University, so they put a lot of time and hard work into getting here. But after they pass the exam and come here, they lose interest in continuing to study,” said Ji Runyidan, a 22-year-old postgraduate law student at Peking. “They were studying with the goal of getting into Peking University rather than wanting to come to Peking University to study.”

Xu’s comments aren’t the first to put the discontent of students at China’s top universities into the spotlight. Earlier this month, an article by a Fudan University student attracted more than 100,000 views for its frank perspective. The student, writing under a pen name, said she had spent her whole adolescence studying, only to realize at university that without strong relationships, emotional intelligence, and knowledge extending beyond academic curricula, her high gaokao score meant nothing on its own.

Ji, too, says that many assume students at prestigious institutions should be pleased with their achievements, while in fact the pressure only intensifies at university. 

Where many Peking University students were the best and brightest at their high schools, at college they’re surrounded by intimidating peers. Some are saddled with loans, and others feel like imposters in the elite environment.

But Ji and other students have also questioned the way that Peking University collects research on the mental health of its new students. Ji mentioned that some questions in a survey for freshmen were biased towards negative choices. One asked students to describe their current mood, but the only available choices were “so-so,” “unhappy,” “very unhappy,” and “extremely unhappy.”

“There was no choice of ‘very happy,’” Ji recalled.

Professor Xu did not respond to Sixth Tone’s interview request. Staff at Peking University’s mental health education and counseling center declined to comment.

(Header image: A students enjoys the snowy scenery at Peking University in Beijing, Feb. 8, 2014. IC)