The Chinese idiom “struggling to get ahead and fearing to be left behind,” is a modern saying, and has only come into general use within the last three to four decades, following China’s shift towards capitalism. With the sudden opening up of the Chinese economy to the West, there was suddenly a multitude of new opportunities available to the Chinese people, specifically to make more money, and lead a better life. However, unlike in America where it has long been believed that anyone’s dreams could be achieved so long as they were willing to work hard, the same may is not true in China. The number of opportunities available in China are limited, partly due to the large population size, but also due to the limited level of development in China overall.

This idiom in Chinese: 争先恐后, zhēng xiān kǒng hòu

There is therefore an incredible amount of competition to secure the best opportunities, which leads to an incredible amount of stress and worry among the Chinese populace, especially the younger generation and the poorer segments of the population who do not have things handed to them on a silver platter by wealthy and well connected relatives. Below I list two examples of the pressures Chinese people often face in their daily lives.

Education in China

Education can be a very stressful affair in China. Chinese parents are keen to secure the best possible educational opportunities for their children, as those with the best education have a better chance to get the best jobs, and are also looked up to as being more cultured. Many Chinese also see higher education  institutions as a chance to build strong relationship networks, which is important to doing business in China. However, deficiencies in the Chinese education system make it very difficult for all Chinese to have access to these opportunities.

One example is the entrance examination, also known as the Gaokao (高考). On one hand there are a shortage of open slots at Chinese universities, and only the top scorers on the Gaokao have a reasonable chance to receive a university education. Together with the fact that it can be very difficult for would be students to apply again a year or two later,  along with  stagnant bureaucracies at many schools, the result is that many students may only have one shot to “make it.” Therefore throughout their young lives, Chinese students are increasingly pressured by their parents and their schools to study and absorb as much information as possible to try and ensure their own futures.

Marriage in China

Marriage is also incredibly important to the Chinese. The married man (or woman) is not only in a position to provide grandchildren for their parents (and continue the family line), but can also look forward to a more stable life, and the acceptance of their friends, family and society.  Unlike more relaxed ideas on marriage in Western society, the majority of young Chinese in their early to late 20’s are subjected to strong pressure to marry sooner rather than later. If a Chinese person, especially a woman, is unmarried at or over the age of 30, it is not only frowned upon, but can lead to negative pressure from family and friends.

Thus, young Chinese women are often in a rush to find a partner with suitable “conditions” (e.g. a car, a house, an acceptable salary, the right personality) before they reach the cutoff age of 30, after which most Chinese men will no longer be interested in them.  Young Chinese men face a different, yet equally frustrating struggle. While it is easier for men to marry after the age of 30, in many regions in China the man is often expected to provide a car or a house as part of the wedding agreement. Generally, Chinese men face greater financial pressure than woman in this regard, especially if they want to be able to woo the best girls. So, all young Chinese sooner or later will have to deal with the pressure and stress of finding that special someone  in a market where demand is often much greater than supply.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional thoughts or questions on the stress and pressures young Chinese people face in their everyday lives? Do you know any other useful Chinese idioms that are similar to the one above? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow the China Culture Corner to receive regular updates by email!