n China, security guards are typically young and lack a decent education. But not at Peking University, where most of the 500 or so guards on campus are said to hold university degrees.
The phrase “Peking University security guard” trended on Chinese social media this summer following news reports on the unusually high level of educational attainment among campus guards. Over the past 20 years, many have moved on to study full time after working on campus, and at least 12 have obtained master’s degrees.
In a statement, Peking University said security guards who work on campus are eligible for self-study courses and continuing adult education that balances their work with their studies.
Starting at the Bottom
Twenty-nine-year-old Jiang Bin joined Peking University’s security guard contingent in 2011. Born in a village in western China, Jiang had enrolled at a private university in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, after graduating from senior high school.
But the university was not accredited by China’s Ministry of Education, and Jiang was already considering quitting the program when he chanced on a story about a Peking University security guard who had enrolled in a degree in Chinese literature there, and had achieved fame after publishing a book about the experience.
Jiang decided in 2010 that he would follow suit. “If it meant the chance to attend Peking University and go to lectures by professors, I would have taken any job – including cleaning the toilets,” he told NewsChina.
Peking University’s security guards have their time divided into morning, afternoon and night shifts. Jiang said the university was understaffed, and he had to work regular overtime shifts with a tiny allowance. On occasion, he would work around the clock.
He contemplated quitting. It was far from the life he had imagined, and there was no time to study. But after several weeks he found himself working alternating shifts, standing beside one of Peking University’s entrance gates for two hours, and then working two hours sitting in a reception area registering incoming visitors. He stole that time to hit the books, and devoured any reading material he could get his hands on.
While passing through the school gate one day, a senior professor greeted him with a comment acknowledging his hard work. Jiang was taken aback when he later discovered the man was the head of the university.
Jiang performed well and was soon offered a promotion to team leader, but was unsure whether to take the job. For one, the new responsibility would mean more duties, and accordingly, less study time. Then an elderly cleaner gave him some advice: security guards assigned to faculties had more free time, as they tended to work inside.
Jiang managed to get a post at the university’s law school. Already interested in the subject, he seized the opportunity to listen to lectures by famed legal scholars during his breaks. He worked from 5pm until midnight each day, registering guests, taking deliveries and doing an array of other tasks. He spent his days attending lectures and reading books on the law.
One day, a graduate student recommended Jiang enroll formally. A law professor advised him to take self-study courses to obtain a degree. In September 2013, he became an “on-the-job student” at the law school, allowing him to work and pursue a degree simultaneously.
Taking the Initiative
Some years ago, Zhang Juncheng had a bruising encounter with a group of English-speaking tourists that would change the course of his life. Working as a security guard at Peking University, Zhang was forced to intervene when the group tried to enter the campus without registering. Unable to speak English, he tried to explain in Chinese, but they didn’t understand. They eventually walked away, with one giving him a ‘thumbs down’ gesture.
It was a humiliating experience for Zhang, who decided he must learn English in order to avoid similar encounters in the future, and to communicate with foreigners in a more dignified manner.
Two days after his experience with the foreign tourists, Zhang purchased two junior high school English textbooks. In his school days, he had scored only 7 out of 100 points in the English component of his senior high school entrance exam. Twenty years later he would start anew – first, by trying to learn and recite out loud every grammar rule in his new textbooks.
One night while he was reading aloud in one of the classrooms, Cao Yan, an English professor at the university, passed by and stuck her head in. “You are very hard working, but your learning method is no good,” she said to Zhang.
Professor Cao called Zhang into her office a few days later to give him two English class permits. Zhang remembers fondly how she registered him for four English courses, including basic English reading, listening comprehension and elementary New Concept English.“If you want to learn fast and efficiently, you should not learn by yourself,” she explained.
After gaining permission from Wang Guiming, Zhang began shuttling between classrooms and Peking University’s west gate, where he was stationed. Sharing a room with five other colleagues, he would read aloud while the others were chatting or watching films. After 10pm, when the lights went off, he continued reading in bed using a flashlight. After a while, he successfully applied to use a meeting room until 11pm each night.
Wang Guiming, head of security at the university, said his staff were often embarrassed when foreigners asked for directions. After discovering a number of guards had taken the initiative to learn the language by themselves, he asked the university to support their education.
Wang proudly told reporters that over the years, his team has tried to improve the educational environment of the security staff by adjusting their work shifts. In addition, the university worker’s union organizes regular classes, reserving 20 places each year for guards.
In 1995, Zhang enrolled in Peking University’s junior college program, majoring in law. He told NewsChina one of the great challenges was the tuition fees – even with the class permits given to him by Professor Cao, Zhang would have had to fork out tuition fees of more than 5,000 yuan (US$600 at the time) per year, around twice his annual salary.
Professor Cao asked the other teachers to waive his tuition fees, telling Zhang: “You are willing to learn and I would like to help you out.” He was moved to tears. He never imagined a rural boy like himself would be fortunate enough to receive the support of a renowned professor.
Even so, it wasn’t easy. Zhang now had even less time to sleep. For the three years he spent at law school he often slept as little as three hours a day to balance his commitments. “Once you form a habit, it becomes natural,” he said.
Wang Qian graduated from Shanxi University with a major in Chinese in 2004. He worked as a teacher, and later a businessman, before moving to Beijing in 2014. After visiting Peking University several times, he took a fancy to the beautiful campus and quiet life inside, and when a security guard in the university’s history department resigned, Wang scooped up the post.
“Peking University is a sacred place for many people, but when you get close you find simplicity is its main trait,” he said. Many of the acclaimed and learned professors he encounters are modest, sincere and keep a low profile. Wang chats with them often, and they even give him new books to read. He spends most of his time reading history and philosophy. He criticizes the guards who don’t do the same, as well as those who use foul language.
Wang earns a salary of 2,400 yuan (US$350) each month, and receives no bonus, overtime payments, nor social insurance. Security guards at Peking University can only eat at certain dining halls and are banned from the library. According to a survey conducted by students from 19 departments at Peking University in 2015, no security staff who have worked for fewer than two years are offered social insurance, and the attrition rate is high. Wang said in his short time at the university he’d seen at least 50 colleagues resign.
Wang now has plans to sit the postgraduate entrance exam. But his parents, who are unconvinced, have put pressure on him to get married rather than continue his education. “I like to read, and the more I read, the more ignorant I realized I was. They have their way of living and I have my own pursuits,” he said.
Meanwhile, Zhang Juncheng graduated from Peking University in 1998, and came to realize that his university certificate only represented one kind of learning experience. In 2015, he established a vocational school in the city of Changzhi in Shanxi Province.
After finishing their higher education, other security staff have gone on to start their own businesses and become teachers, and even poets.
“Knowledge changes your destiny, and actions speak louder than diplomas if you want to achieve your goals,” Zhang said.