The horn outside the military barracks blew at 6 a.m. sharp, but Tao Qixi, 19, and many of her classmates from People's University had been up and in their green fatigues for an hour.
Tao, a finance major, had a simple breakfast of bread and porridge to fortify her for a long day of standing at attention in the sweltering August heat, singing "Unity Is Strength" and other military anthems, and marching and turning in formation.
In China, millions of young people like Tao must undergo short stints of military training — once in the first year of high school and again as college freshmen.
The goal isn't to make the students battle-ready, but to instill in them a sense of patriotism, collectivism and national defense. In the case of Tao, who drilled for 12 days, it seems to have worked.
"Before, I thought the military was a scary place," she said after returning to campus able to fold a bedsheet as neat and compact as a block of tofu. "Now I can understand how some people will protect our territory, and why they have strong emotions toward the motherland."
But not all the camps have gone smoothly this year. A massive brawl between high school students and military instructors left 40 students and two adults injured in Hunan province. Elsewhere, a boy collapsed and died during drills and a girl committed suicide after being upbraided by a military instructor. The incidents have prompted some students, parents and teachers to question whether the training is conducted properly, or is even necessary.
"The best thing they do is get the kids to run around and march," said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at People's University in Beijing. Though he doesn't favor abolishing the training, he thinks it's mostly irrelevant. "They don't even do shooting practices anymore," he said.
A 2007 Education Ministry description of the program said one goal of the program was to "temper [students'] willpower." Zhang noted that there had been previous instances of fighting at the camps, especially in the sessions for college freshmen. "The older the students are, the harder it is to manage them," he said.
Military training for students was introduced in 1955, but it was given greater emphasis after the army crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Students at universities that authorities regarded as hotbeds of counterrevolutionary protest, including Beijing's elite Peking University and Fudan University in Shanghai, were compelled to do a full year of the training before heading to campus.
The training initiative coincided with a larger patriotic education campaign launched by Deng Xiaoping, then the Communist Party chairman.
Training became compulsory for all high school and university students in 2001. But Chinese society and social values have radically changed since then, as reflected in the pushback from students and parents.
Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science at USC who specializes in China, believes there's a major disconnect between martial standards and the materialism of today's students.
"It's kind of perfunctory. It's something students have to do because they don't want to get bad marks in their field," he said.
Supporters counter that military training is exactly what's needed to toughen up today's teenagers. Because of China's one-child policy, many high-schoolers and college students grew up without siblings, and with attitudes that have led many Chinese to deride them as spoiled "little emperors."
The disconnect between military instructors and more urbane students raised on the latest fashions and Western television shows can end in tragedy when undisciplined instructors confront youngsters who can't or won't keep up. Recruits to the Chinese army are volunteers, typically 18 to 20 years old, many of them from rural areas and unemployed.
In August, Wang Jingwei, a high school freshman in northeastern Liaoning province, was unable to stand at attention to the satisfaction of her instructor. "The teacher used his finger to poke her chest, and proceeded to insult her, calling her selfish, ungrateful, and threatened to expel her," the girl's uncle told Chinese media.
After she was sent home, she committed suicide by jumping from her sixth-floor window. The local board of education said high school faculty members and the military instructors were not to blame.
The physical rigors can also challenge the growing number of Chinese teens who aren't physically fit. The state-run New China News Agency reported that in the two weeks of 2011 military training at Peking University, the class of nearly 3,500 students reported nearly 6,000 doctor's visits.
"You can't really play around. If you do it leisurely, it's not permitted," said Cang Yiru, 18, an Internet technology major at the Beijing Institute of Technology. Cang noted that many of her instructors were only a year older than she and had only a middle school education.
On Aug. 25, a high school freshman in Xian collapsed during training and was pronounced dead en route to the hospital. The next day in Wuhan, five high school freshmen fainted during the first 20 minutes of training in the sweltering heat.
Most prominently, a brawl between a group of ninth-graders in Hunan province and their military trainers resulted in injuries to 40 students, a high school teacher and a military instructor. The Beijing News reported that drill instructors who were drunk beat the students in revenge for being tackled in what was described as a playful altercation.
Students have contested the official report, which they say did not mention any drinking by the instructors.
Despite the controversies, the program has little chance of being disbanded. Yang Yujun, a Defense Ministry spokesman, reaffirmed its importance in a statement after the Hunan fight.
"We have noticed some recent accidents associated with military training, and the military authorities have taken appropriate measures to improve the level of management," he said.
"They can increase the military training," said USC professor Rosen. "But I don't think it's a wise thing for them to do.
"Students don't see themselves being a part of it in day-to-day life."