Coming Home: The Problem of Haigui, Then and Now

By Austin Dean

The rhythms of social media are everywhere the same: a story goes viral, peaks, and fades away. A few weeks ago one of the biggest stories on Chinese social media was a comment made by Wang Sicong, the son of one of China’s wealthiest men, Wang Jianlin. When asked about what kind of person he hoped to find as a girlfriend, the younger Wang replied that he really only has thing in mind: she must be quite buxom.

Even though Wang Sicong quickly dismissed the comment as a joke, it did not take long for Chinese media to pounce. The next day, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, posted a less-than-cryptic message that complained, “There are certain celebrities that recklessly disseminate vulgar information … from the worship of money to sex and violence.” They seem to have had the younger Wang in mind. Soon thereafter the scandal had a name: “Buxomgate.” Several days later the elder Wang wrote off his son’s comments as a function of spending so much time living and studying outside China: “He went overseas to study at grade one and he has a Western-style of thinking,” said Wang. “Maybe after spending five or eight years in China, he will truly become Chinese.” Meaning, presumably, either less appreciative of women’s breast size, or less apt to comment publicly on his admiration of it.

The younger Wang is just one of many haigui, or sea turtles, the name for young Chinese students who have gone to college or graduate school abroad and are now back in China. There are more haigui now than perhaps ever before. However, although the term haigui is a new one, the phenomenon of Chinese students going abroad is not. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, different Chinese governments sent students to universities around the world. Then, as now, there were worries about how these students would reintegrate into Chinese society. Interestingly, worries about haigui came from not just from those who had not been abroad, but those who had. One haigui particularly concerned with the returnee student population in the 1920s was Ma Yinchu.

Ma is most famous for being the intellectual father of the One-Child Policy in China and the source of a great anecdote—perhaps apocryphal—from the 1950s. At the time, Ma had a working theory that if all Chinese households had electricity, the birthrate in China would go down because at night people would engage in certain activities like reading and not others like, well, procreation. After hearing this theory, Mao Zedong supposedly asked him two questions: “Ma Yinchu, do you have electricity?” He sure did. “Ma Yinchu,” Mao continued, “how many kids do you have?” Ma had six. So much for that theory.

But before all that, Ma himself was a haigui. He went to Yale and later got a PhD from Columbia. In the 1920s, he returned to China to serve as a professor of economics. At that time he addressed a group of students at Tsinghua University in Beijing about how to prepare for going abroad, what to do while abroad, and how to reintegrate to Chinese life once they returned.

Ma’s first piece of advice feels dated: Chinese students overseas had to keep up with written Chinese characters. If they returned home from abroad with sloppy handwriting, most people would look down on them and assume they weren’t that intelligent. Even more, elegant characters can mask and make up for an average composition. Today, in an era of smartphones and computers, the main worry is not writing Chinese characters poorly, but remembering how to write them at all.

His next point was really a complaint. Ma believed that the biggest weakness of Chinese students abroad was that all they did was focus on class work and read textbooks to death while not paying attention to issues and events outside of school. In particular, they did not stay up-to-date with current events in China. Such habits were so harmful, Ma thought, because the social, political, and economic conditions in China were changing so much. The way to avoid this pitfall was easy enough: Ma recommended that students abroad read newspapers.

Ma also sounded a lot like Wang Jianlin did several weeks ago when responding to “Buxomgate.” Ma complained that the biggest problem with returning students was their “Western ways,” or yangqi. The worst, Ma lamented, were haigui who always spoke English without regard for whether or not other Chinese people understood them. These “Western ways” also made them lose touch with Chinese customs and with the rhythms, contours, and complexities of Chinese social relationships, or renqing. In China, if the renqing between two people were not good, then it was impossible to get anything done. After spending so much time in foreign countries, the students forgot how China worked.

Towards the end of his speech, Ma moved on to exhortations. Chinese students abroad needed to maintain a spirit of sacrifice. All to often haigui returned home with demands about position and salary that were not realistic. The result was that no one wanted to hire them and the students did not use what they had learned. This was a shame, Ma said. The person Ma thought the students should emulate was Hu Shi, who unceasingly pressed on with reform of the Chinese language. Maintaining this spirit of sacrifice was no small issue because Ma thought that returning students had to be “leading talents,” or rencai. There were so many important things to accomplish in China and these students had to be a part of them.

Except for Ma’s first point about writing Chinese characters, and several references to 1920s society, it is remarkable how the much of his speech to the Tsinghua students feels timeless. If haigui adopting “Western ways” was a problem in the 1920s, it is even more of one today, at least according to Wang Jianlin. Although other stories, namely the environmental documentary by Chai Jing, soon replaced “Buxomgate” as the main topic on Chinese social media, worries about haigui remain, ever-ready to surface when the next scandalous incident involving a returned student occurs.

(For the text of the original speech see Ma Yinchu quanji, Volume II, 339-344.)

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