There are few things more enticing than a woman in uniform—or, at least, that's what American culture seems to suggest. From the scintillating covers of men's magazines to the racy costumes sold at Ricky's, we as men are led to believe that women have donned nurse's uniforms and maid's outfits for non-professional callings since the dawn of time. However, there is one uniform in particular that doesn't get the attention it deserves—military fatigues. Something about a woman wielding heavy artillery, dodging bullets, and ducking from explosives just doesn't appeal to the male psyche in the same way. Maybe in our stubbornness we find it emasculating to see women doing “man's work,” or, simply, we can't stand to see women in dangerous, combative situations, unless they involve jello pudding or a jacuzzi.
A procession of female student-soldiers (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).
In China, however, military fatigues are less sexy than they are practical. At every Chinese university, first-year students are forced to participate in mandatory military training. Spanning from the end of August until mid-October of every student's freshmen year, students spend 8-10 hours a day marching, doing drills, and generally getting indoctrinated into the military culture. They miss about two months of academic classes as a result, meaning that I didn't start teaching this year's crop of first-year English majors until a month-and-a-half after teaching for all of my other classes had begun. When I first heard of this practice, I figured that there would be significant push-back on the part of the students. After all, forced military training at almost any college in America would not happen without a fight. But according to former students and friends that I've talked to about the training, most have incredibly fond memories. The fact that it forces community and gives students an experience to share together makes them feel more connected to their fellow first-years. Practically no one, they said, flatly refused to take part.
While military training does involve practicing hand-to-hand combat as well as the use of real rifles and guns (albeit, without bullets), most of the effort is placed on raising a nationalist ethos. The most important part of military training in China is to instill love for one's country, and the first step in that process is to create a community of young, dough-eyed first-years rallying around the cause to ensure the strength, longevity, and continued development of the Chinese state. Most of the drills are aimed at repeating and committing to memory snippets of nationalist propaganda, in addition to watching patriotic (read: historically-inaccurate) war movies. All of these efforts factor into the reason why the People's Liberation Army (PLA), despite being entirely volunteer-driven, is the largest standing army in the world.
Students practice military formations at the small track from sun-up to sun-down (photo courtesy of Crystal Chang).
The students' daily presence at SAU has left a deep impression—scores of military-clad teenagers chanting slogans and marching in unison in and around the athletic tracks. It's all a bit unnerving, but most of the vantage and fear often associated with the military is neutralized due to the age of the soldiers—most barely look old enough to start a fight, resembling, at best, actors in a period-piece or trick-or-treaters on Halloween. They still go about their daily lives in uniform, so it's not uncommon to see groups of them sitting on tiny stools at outdoor restaurants or carrying big thermoses of hot water back to their dorms. In some ways, there is a loss of innocence involved in the pace with which they've had to grow up. But when you see their fatigues hanging alongside the rest of their laundry from their balcony windows, you know that deep down, they are still just students.