In feudal China, taking the imperial examinations was the only way for ordinary people to join the palace and make their mark.
Cramming for the exam required years of extensive reading, along with sacrifice and stamina.
This gave rise to the enduring adage that urges students to have the determination of "tying one's hair on the house beam and jabbing one's thigh with a sharp awl to keep awake in the middle of night". It came from one story of a poor person making his mark in the Warring States period many centuries ago.
Many mainland parents continue to live by that adage as millions of high school graduates study day and night to prepare for the national university entrance exams, which usually are held in the second weekend of June.
A university degree signals a good job and a better life for their children, as well as prestige and honour for the families.
But their hearts will most likely skip a beat if they stop looking over their children's shoulders and start to take notice of the recent spate of state media reports on the dismal job prospects of university graduates this year.
According to the Ministry of Education, this year will see nearly 7 million graduates, a record high, and only a fraction of them have found jobs, a record low. In Beijing, home to many of the country's top universities including Tsinghua and Peking, only 28 per cent of graduates with bachelor and master's degrees had found a job by April.
Education officials have lamented that this year will be the worst for university graduates since 2008, when the global financial crisis hit.
The large pool of unemployed graduates has clearly got leaders worried about social stability and prompted them to launch a job-creation drive.
The State Council, led by Premier Li Keqiang , has been meeting in recent weeks to find ways to create jobs and mandate job creation for university graduates as one of the new key indicators to measure the performances of local officials.
Last week, President Xi Jinping used a trip to Tianjin to meet job-seeking graduates, acknowledge the difficulties of finding a job and promise to do a better job.
Indeed, this year's graduates are entering the most competitive job market in years, just as the mainland economy is slowing down, with the economic growth rate falling to a single digit after 30 years of double digits.
Ironically, China is not short of jobs as factories in the dynamic regions of the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta have long complained about a shortage of labour. But those tough, low-paying factory jobs are hardly what parents have in mind for children armed with university degrees. Most university graduates still target government offices, state-owned enterprises and multi-national companies in the major cities, but their intakes are shrinking. As a result, many parents might choose to keep their grown-up children at home rather than having them seek jobs in smaller cities or work for the private sector.
Broadly speaking, the dismal job prospects also reflect the gross imbalances of the mainland economy.
The consumption-based industries are generally known to absorb more graduates than other industries, but leaders have been slow in shifting the economic growth model from infrastructure investments and exports to the consumption-based economy.
As the economy has been slowing down over the past few years, the government has also been slow to boost the private sector, the largest employer, by giving private businessmen the same access to banking and resources as state-owned firms.
According to the State Council directives, the authorities will offer loans for graduates to set up businesses and ease residency restrictions on non-locals, among other measures.
But they are unlikely to help very much if leaders fail to make the economic transition to focus on consumption and private-sector development.
Meanwhile, more and more mainland parents will have to contend with the harsh reality that a job at the Starbucks store may be better than no job at all.Topics: China Education Unemployment