The Three Snakes

Well, last week I wrote about my experience of Beijing’s “best” hospital. Since then I’ve been thinking about the difficulties that people face here. I mean, even the city folk (who earn an average wage up to 10 times higher than that of workers in the countryside) have it rough. And so, it reminded me of a topic that my Mandarin teacher covered in my final year of university. She called the topic “The three snakes of modern Chinese society”. They are comprised of the 白蛇 White Snake (Medical Bills), 黑蛇 Black Snake (Official Corruption), and 眼镜蛇 Cobra (lit. Glasses Snake, so called because of a marking on the back of the head) (Education).

The white snake represents the state of the medical industry here. Given the population, the number of doctors is extremely low. It can be days of fruitless queuing before you even register successfully to see a doctor, and when you finally do get to see one, bets are on that they’ll try to sell you costly procedures or medicine that a) you don’t need or b) there are cheaper versions of. They do this because their jobs are not particularly well paid, and they can get commission through selling medicines and examinations. Besides, given the demand for doctors, who is going to reprimand them for this? Thus, queuing up for days only to fork out a month’s wage for an incorrect diagnosis and wrongly prescribed medicine is, sadly, not entirely uncommon.

The black snake refers to a corrupt police force who demand bribes from some, accept bribes from others and don’t lift a finger to help those in need. I’m always a little sceptical about tarring police with the same brush, but there is certainly a brazen level of bribery and name dropping here that I’ve never seen elsewhere. I once met somebody who overstayed his visa, but was able to sort the problem out from within the country just by paying some local police about 12,000 Yuan (£1200). Also, if you know somebody high up in the police force or government, it can get you a long, long way. A perfect example of the kind of behaviour this causes would be the case of Li Qiming, the 22 year old son of a local government official, who drunkenly ran over 2 university students (one later died) and expected not to be charged because of who his father was. When he was apprehended by the police he said “Go ahead and sue me if you dare, my dad is Li Gang”. The phrase “My dad is Li Gang” (我爸是李刚) has since become a popular internet meme in China to jokingly mean “Do you know who I am?!”. If you want to read more on this, then click here for the Wikipedia article. This is just one example that made the news, but this attitude of legal immunity is standard amongst families of the powerful and wealthy.

The “Cobra/Glasses Snake” is used to represent education. The education system here is suffering from severe corruption. It is expected that every child will attend university, and so getting children off to the best footing in a highly competitive environment is something parents are willing to pay for, despite its illegality. Cases of parents paying schools thousands of U.S dollars to get their children into the best public kindergartens/high schools/universities are rife, with even seating positions and class monitor roles up for sale.

I personally think that the attitude parents hold towards education here is another factor of this unfortunate phenomenon; there is so much pressure on children to do well here. A lot of kids do their standard homework until around 9 each night, and if they want to get ahead, they have to do additional study until around midnight. This mentality is endorsed by parents, who will make them do extra tuition or take musical classes on the weekend. Just read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother for an idea of the education environment many Asian children grow up in.

In addition, the homework these kids are doing is largely about memorizing passages. I have done my compulsory teaching English stint, and seen to an extent how the education system here works. The system gears students to have a brilliant memory, to be able to recite and to be able to copy flawlessly. What it does not in any way promote is the capacity for individual thought or imagination.

So there you have it – the three snakes of modern Chinese society.

There is plenty of English language literature on the topics that “The Three Snakes” refer to, though there only seems to be mention of the terminology itself in Chinese articles. Below are some links if you care to delve deeper!

Income disparity (Chinese):

Three Snakes (Chinese):

Medical corruption:

Corruption in education:

Official/Police corruption:


About Greg

A simpleton from West Yorkshire, England living in Beijing. I try to document the oddities, frustrations and funnies that happen to me whilst out here. Hopefully you enjoy reading these little episodes as much as I enjoy writing them.
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