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NOT SO PRETTY

Jinan University is more than a century old. The first to admit foreign students, today it has the maximum number of them in China across its three campuses in Guangdong. Then why is it advertising itself through its pretty students?

This trend started last year. A strikingly pretty student of Renmin University in Beijing, put up her graduation pictures on her personal web page. These weren’t staid pictures of her standing with her degree. She was prancing around the campus in her black robe, throwing her graduation hat into the air, curled up around a giant cello on the lawns…one picture hinted that she’d worn little under her robe. These pictures were uploaded on the university’s homepage, and the next day, the site crashed, leaving bona fide applicants high and dry. The 77-year-old university is ranked among the top three for humanities.

This year, Jinan University decided to go the same way. On its official website is a row of pretty girls in shorts holding placards that read: “I’m waiting for you at Jinan University.’’ Last year, the official People’s Daily published listings of the “top ten universities with the most beautiful girls’’, describing one of them as “beautiful-girl-intensive’’. Jinan did not feature in the list.

This is the time of the year when those who’ve given their gaokao (national pre-university exam) start applying to universities. Considering the millions who graduate, one would think the universities would be more worried about whom to reject. Instead, some of them are going all out to woo students in unusual ways. The Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics has on its official website pictures of its canteen staff smiling broadly, offering plates of different kinds of food, including local specialities such as spicy crawfish and hot pot. One picture shows them holding up small placards that say — what else but — “I’m waiting for you at NUAA.” Maybe they have a point. Recently the IIT Madras spokesman blamed the food served in his institute for the preference given to other IITs by JEE toppers.

White magic

But what takes the cake is Tsinghua, universally acknowledged as China’s best university. Its campus is so vast that this diarist spent an hour just trying to locate its historic main entrance with its old stone buildings. Located on the site of a royal garden, Tsinghua is reputed to be among the most beautiful universities in the world. A few years back, it was enticing applicants by offering scholarships and the promise of internships abroad to gaokao toppers.

This year, its admissions office has uploaded on its official microblog a series of “before” and “after” photographs put up by its female students on their personal web pages. The first student to do so was an aerospace student. The photographs show the girls to have been transformed from ugly ducklings to swans. The implications for Tsinghua apart, what’s more disturbing is that all but one of them show themselves as having been dark when they were freshers, and fair now. The one who breaks this trend is not much better: she has posted pictures of herself as fair, but fat and spectacled then, and slim and sans glasses now. This series has prompted derision online, with netizens coming up with the slogan: “Off to Tsinghua to become ‘white, rich and beautiful’’’ — supposedly the desirable qualities in a prospective bride today, with the corresponding ones for grooms being “tall, rich and handsome”.

Tsinghua’s admissions office defended itself, saying: “After an unforgettable experience at Tsinghua, changes in one’s appearance and attitude are not all that shocking....”

Before liberation, only the elite went to university. Mao made “the masses’’ elect those they thought most worthy of the privilege. China’s certainly come a long way since.