By: Our Correspondent

As more and more Chinese students strive for a place at US universities, an aura of mystery and reverence is being woven around America’s top schools. Admiring media coverage, online urban legends, and a popular book by a now-exposed scam artist have painted a picture of US students as enduring grueling, austere lives, all for the pursuit of knowledge.

Since it first appeared in 2008, a Harvard Library photo purportedly showing students cramming away at 4 am has spread to every corner of the Chinese Internet. Self-proclaimed eyewitnesses have attested to the photo’s authenticity, claiming that an identical scene of packed study carrels and brain-wracking all-nighters can be found any night of the school year.

It is a picture that is considerably at odds with reality, since students in American universities, even the best ones, are hardly the grinds portrayed in the myths. Nonetheless, as China aspires to establish itself as a world-class power, the myth of not only Harvard but American education as a whole has become a powerful indictment of what many see as the failings of China’s own universities. So far, despite annual spending increases of 20 percent since 1999, the education system has endured continued frustration. Despite education spending that now tops US$100 billion annually, the country has developed no Harvard or Yale or Massachusetts Institute of Technology or other top-flight educational institution. Accordingly, students look overseas for what they believe is the only place they can attain a quality education.

Harvard is at the top of that list. This year, 40 Chinese students are attending Harvard College, according to the school’s alumni association. Another 288 are enrolled in master’s or PhD programs at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), and 254 Chinese attend Harvard’s professional schools. China has surpassed Canada this year as Harvard’s top source of international students, In October 2010, the writer Wu Baosheng described a recent trip to the US in the Shanghai newspaper Xinmin Wanbao. His first stop, of course, was Harvard. Wu described how, remembering the library story that he had once seen on a TV documentary , he woke up at 4 am for a stroll through campus.

“In the placid colors of the early morning sunlight, students stood by the banks of the lake, along the road, engrossed in their morning reading,” Wu recalled. “I walked into the Harvard University Library and could see that the lights were on in every reading room, and in every seat was a student looking over their books.”

Accounts such as these have been embellished by other purported visitors to the hallowed confines of Harvard Yard, who paint a picture of a nearly monastic community absorbed in its dedication to study.

“On campus, you see no fancy clothes, no makeup,” reported one Guangzhou newspaper in a profile of Harvard student life. “There is no idle wandering, only quick, determined footsteps.”

The Harvard name has long held a magical power in China. In 2000, the book Harvard Girl became a national bestseller, telling the story of Liu Yiting, whose journey from Sichuan province to Cambridge, Massachusetts inspired a generation of parents eager to see their children reach similar heights. Today, books with titles such as Harvard Family Instruction and Turn Your Home into Harvard continue to use the venerable university name to win the trust of advice-seeking parents.

In 2008, Allocutions on the Wall of the Harvard Library joined the ranks of Harvard-related bestsellers. The book of inspirational meditations centered around aphorisms that author Danny Feng claimed to have found posted throughout Harvard’s library.

“If at this moment you sleep, you will dream,” reads the first of the 20 motivational sayings. “If at this moment you study, you will make a dream come true.”

Within months, the mottoes had joined the library photo in the canon of China’s Harvard myth, with the two often posted together on online discussion forums. Feng’s book won praise from critics throughout the country, while his aphorisms were reprinted in popular magazines and even quoted in a Communist Party theoretical journal.

An often-copied 2010 article in Guangzhou’s Yangcheng Wanbao newspaper cites Chinese TV producer Xie Juan, who recalls meeting a young woman from Beijing studying abroad at Harvard.

“The number of books I read in one week here is what I would read in one year at Peking University,” the girl says.

But at the same time, the myth highlights deep and fundamental differences between the two countries’ approach to education.

Yangcheng Wanbao quotes Shing-Tung Yau, a Chinese-born mathematician who has taught at Harvard since 1987 and is well-known for his criticism of China’s educational system. Yau notes that Chinese education from elementary to high school is largely geared towards the all-important college entrance exam. Those fortunate enough to pass spend their university lives relatively stress-free, a welcome relief after almost nine years of cramming. By contrast, Yau describes the American model as gradually increasing in difficulty from primary school onwards, with the most rigorous period spent in university.

“The four years when [Chinese students] are relaxing are the same years when American students are the most diligent, the four golden years for building up life skills.”

As for the outcome, Yau does not mince words. “This is why America has always had the most high-tech talent in the world.”

Other critics go deeper in pinpointing the key difference between schooling in China and the US.

“The wisdom of American education is this: first let children come to understand, contemplate, and then arrive at knowledge,” says another expert identified only as “Professor Lu”, quoted in the Yangcheng article.

“By letting children come to their own understanding, American education develops one thing that Chinese education doesn’t – wisdom. American students have one thing that Chinese students don’t – creativity.”

But while the Harvard myth and the criticisms it implies have found a wide and eager audience in China, there are many who doubt its more extreme claims, some of which have been publicly debunked.

In December 2009, Chen Yinghong, a Shanghai schoolteacher, accused Danny Feng of fabricating his Allocutions. Chen had previously contacted Harvard’s library asking about the mottoes, only to be told that nothing of the sort had ever existed. Weeks later, Feng admitted that he had made up the mottoes, and his book soon ceased publication although the “allocutions” continue to enjoy a healthy existence as they are passed around social networks and blogs.

But skepticism also can be found within China’s internet community.

“Foreign university students may spend a lot of time studying, but there’s no question: they’re people, not machines!” wrote one netizen on the social networking site Douban. Others have jokingly asked whether the “4 am” in the photo’s caption refers to the time in America or in China.

But many of those who question these tall tales still say that the legends point to real issues that need to be addressed.

“Whether [the photo] is real or not, it’s a fact that Harvard’s students work harder than most Chinese students,” reads one recent comment on Sina.com. “It’s a fact that more talent comes out of Harvard than out of China’s universities. We need to make some changes!”

“Let’s not argue about real or fake, these words still have an important message,” one netizen said of Danny Feng’s Allocutions on the social networking site Douban. “If you go through life too comfortably, you’ll never get to live the life you always wanted.”

And as the Chinese media focuses its attention on domestic high achievers in the wake of June’s annual college entrance examination, it is clear that this message of academic struggle is being taken to heart. Ye Yingxian, one of the top ten scorers in Guangdong province, told the Southern Metropolis Daily that she traced her success back to her first year of high school, when she first came across the Harvard library photo while browsing the internet.

“From the first time I saw it, I could never get it out of my mind,” Ye recalled. “Maybe I will never be as hard-working as they are, but I can still be influenced by their spirit.”