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gaokao stress
About a third of the total score on the gaokao — the Chinese university entrance exam — comes from the composition segment, in which students are presented with a situation and asked to expound on it in about 800 characters. For some gaokao essays students are asked to write an essay that fits a set title; others give students more freedom in their choice of approach. The procedure is somewhat reminiscent of the Imperial era civil service exams. Poetry is usually prohibited. Students in regions that do not specify a topic of their own are given one of the two national essay topics. [Source:, June 7, 2010]

The statements on which test takers write the gaokao essays are called prompts. One essay prompt in 2019 asked students to write an article given the headline, “I Have a Date with 2035”, the name of a song by popular Chinese boy band TFBoys. The prompt suggests that by 2035, China will reach Xi Jinping’s goal of “basically realizing socialist modernization.” In a provincial test, students were provided with the title “New Era, New Youths — Growing Up with China’s Development”, which had a nationalistic theme similar to a prompt on the 2018 gaoako, “The People’s Republic, Let Me Take a Photo of You” [Source: Tianyu M. Fang, Sup China, June 7, 2019]

Essay prompts often reflect the Chinese government’s attitudes and one can draw parallels between the evolution of gaokao essay prompts and how the country itself has changed over the past decades. There were few efforts to to conceal the propaganda in the 2018 gaokao r essay. According to Quartz: “Of the nine essay questions asked across the nation — there are some regional variations — five were directly related to propaganda terms put forward by the Chinese president.” [Source: Lucy Best, Sup China, June 7, 2018]

In the mid 2010s, the prompts were more practical. “In 2014, the question asked students to think about what they would do if a family member kept calling while one was driving, making one feel unsafe. The 2015 gaokao essay prompt invited students to imagine a scene in which a college student reports her father’s illegal behavior to the police via Weibo to ensure his safety. Given a couple of keywords — including OBOR, high-speed rails, and mobile payment — gaokao test-takers in 2016 were asked to introduce China to foreigners.

History of Gaokao Essays

Tianyu M. Fang wrote in Sup China: “The first few gaokao exams in the late ’70s centered on issues with strong political undertones. The Beijing test of 1977 featured the topic, “My Fight in the Past Year” . Many test-takers that year were already adults — some in their 30s — who left their jobs to pursue their dreams of receiving a higher education. Beijing Daily published a response from Yan Yangsheng , a sanitary worker who wrote about deciding to return to school after the birth of his daughter. [Source: Tianyu M. Fang, Sup China, June 7, 2019]

“In 1978, candidates were asked to abridge a People’s Daily editorial, “The Problem of Speed is a Political Issue”, into 500 to 600 characters. The original editorial pointed out that it was pivotal for China to rapidly boost its economy. As China initiated economic liberalization, urbanization necessitated environmental protection. In 1979, the Chinese government set May 12 as “Arbor Day,” which has been observed ever since. In 1981, gaokao test-takers were asked to write a review of an article titled, “It is Easier to Destroy Than to Plant a Tree”. The gaokao of 1983 introduced a new form of essay prompt, featuring a cartoon captioned, “There is No Water Down Here; Try Somewhere Else”. The question expected candidates to address the issue of water overuse..

“In the 1985 gaokao, students were asked to write a letter to the editor of the party-owned publication Guang Ming Daily , soliciting media coverage of a local pollution issue. In the year after, the topic was “Tree, Forest, Climate”, on which the question elaborated: “A single tree cannot change the climate, only forests can,” prompting candidates to draw a parallel between the natural environment and human social behavior.

“In the 1990s, testing authorities began to encourage students to reflect on morality and philosophy based on real-life circumstances. In 1990, test-takers were asked to analyze an incident in which a student helped another student with schoolwork, resulting in the family of the latter to offer 200 yuan as gratitude. (Soft corruption? Hmm.) In 1997, students were given a news excerpt from the story of a student who carried a paralyzed friend to school every day for six years.

“Since the turn of the millennium, some provinces have begun to design their own tests instead of using the national test. Essay topics began to involve more current events and social issues. In the 2008 national test, test takers were asked to write about the earthquake in Sichuan, in which more than 60,000 people perished. The 2009 Beijing essay topic was “Invisible Wings”, the name of a viral song by Taiwanese singer Angela Chang . After China’s victory in the 2011 World Table Tennis Championship, the Beijing test of that year asked for an opinion piece on whether the Chinese team should show more mercy and give opportunities for other countries to win. Among many satirical responses online, one netizen wrote: “While I think China should give away a few of its medals, that would be against the Olympic spirit. Just as a fu’erdai (second-generation nouveau riche), I’d love to give some of my villas and sports cars to you, but that would not accord with the mechanism of a socialist market economy.”

“China restored the gaokao in 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, in an attempt to enable sent-down youths to return to universities. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of its restoration, the 2016 national test went a bit meta, asking for an essay regarding the exam itself: “My Views on Gaokao”. The Beijing test of 2013 focused on the digital age, asking candidates to imagine what Thomas Edison would think about smartphones. After a series of cases in which chengguan — China’s law enforcement agents — used violence to abuse street vendors in 2013, one satirical response went: “Edison envisioned a strong potential for smartphones in the Chinese market. With location-based service on their phones, street vendors can detect bad-tempered chengguan to avoid being harmed.”

Gaokao Essay Prompts in 2010

National (I): Why chase mice when there are fish to eat? A: cartoon showing one cat chasing a mouse while others eat fish has this as a caption.

National (II): A: What is light reading? B: It is reading for the purpose of relaxation, interest, and practicality. Unesco's selection of April 23 for world reading day arose out of a beautiful legend: April 23 is the date that famed Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes died, and it is also St. George's Day, celebrated in Catalonia. The legend goes that the knight George slew a dragon, rescued a princess, and was granted a gift in return: a book, representing knowledge and power. Every year on this day, Catalonian women will give a book to their husband or boyfriend, and the men will give a rose in return. Actually, the same day is the date of Shakespeare's birth and death, and is the birthday of authors such as William Faulkner, Maurice Druon, and Halldó Kiljan Laxness, so it is a fitting and proper choice for world reading day.” [Source:, June 7, 2010]

Beijing: Looking at the stars with your feet on the ground? Commenters see this one as asking for an evaluation of idealism versus practicality.

Shanghai: Danish fishermen? “Danes go fishing, they carry with them a ruler. When they catch a fish, they will measure it and toss it back if it is not long enough. They say, 'Isn't it better to let the little ones grow up?' More than two thousand years ago in our country, Mencius said, 'If fine nets do not enter the pools, there will be more fish and turtles than can be eaten.' And in fact this principle runs throughout many areas of our lives.”

Tianjin: The world I live in? “The world is like a painter's dazzling array of colors, the world is a melody dancing about on an instrument; the world advances through innovation and finds warmth through harmony; the world can exist in a marvelous virtual network, and the world is expressed in the real lives of ordinary people; the world may seem large, but it is really very small?.everyone has their own world, but everyone lives in the world. Sum up your experiences and understanding of 'The world I live in.'?

Gaokao Essay Prompts in the Provinces in 2010

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entering the test center
Jiangsu: Green Life? Green is vibrant, visually pleasing. Green is intertwined in life and ecology. Today, there is a new concept of green, one that is closely connected to the lives of every person.”

Guangdong: Neighbors? We are neighbors and rely on each other. You might be visible or invisible. It is impossible to avoid having neighbors, but you can make a choice.”

Zhejiang: As Roles Change? When fledglings grow up, they are said to feed their aging parents with food from their own mouths. This is known as 'reverse feeding' . Similar phenomena exist in human society. The cultural influence of the younger generation on its elders is known as 'reverse cultural feeding.' For thousands of years, under the orthodox traditional model of children receiving instruction from their parents, the undercurrent of reverse cultural feeding was not obvious. But in today's rapidly-changing society, young people have a reverse feeding ability unprecedented among earlier generations. Their scientific knowledge, values, lifestyles, aesthetics and interests, are exerting a growing influence on their elders, leading to constant changes in the roles of instructor and instructed.”

Shandong: Light and shadow? All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.' Leo Tolstoy.” (Other sources are reporting an alternate question about luxury purchases and a high-class lifestyle.)

Hubei: Fantasy? Sun Wukong somersault cloud and Nezha's Wind Fire Wheels are products of fantasy bearing humanity's dream to fly through the air. Who would have thought that the Fair of 10,000 Nations in Shanghai's Lujiazui district, described in the late-Qing fantasy novel New China, and the journey “From the Earth to the Moon? dreamt up by French science fiction novelist Jules Verne would become reality today? Fantasy arises from the human instinct to seek out knowledge and is an expression of humanity's uncommon imagination. Fantasy motivates reality, fantasy illuminates life, fantasy is the source of happiness??

Jiangxi: Recovering childhood? Why do we want to recover childhood? Because society it too utilitarian, children have too much pressure, and childhood ends too early. Society needs innocence and required a return to childhood.”

Liaoning: Happiness is ____ ____) “ (1) A poll on November 19, 2009 showed that 80 percent of Chinese respondents felt that happiness was connected to a house; more than 90 percent of Japanese respondents felt there was no connection. (2) A philosopher fell into the water, and after he was hauled ashore, the first thing he said was “Breathing is such a happy thing. Live is happiness. But why do so many people ruin themselves for “so-called happiness?” (3) “At its most superficial, happiness comes from desire and material objects, but these can never be satisfied in life.” (4) “Everyone pursues happiness, but in the pursuit of your own happiness, you must not harm others, or harm the country.”

Fujian: The birth of Grimm's Fairy Tales (The brothers Grimm felt that there was a connection between folk tales and human history, but after collecting many of them without finding that connection, they gave up. Later on, a friend chanced across the things they had compiled, and arranged with a publisher to have it published, becoming what we know as Grimm's Fairy Tales.”

Sichuan: Points and Life? A point can form a line, can form a plane, can form a body. Life is like a few unregulated points which can be connected into countless lines, which can then form different planes, which can then form different geometric objects.”

Anhui: Philosophical association? Take inspiration from the philosophy expressed by Ruan Yuan's “Poem on Wuxing? [not translated here]. Shaanxi: Success and the environment “(1) A tropical fish placed in a fishbowl will only grow three inches long; placed in a pond, it can grow quite large. (2) Wolves are so strong and powerful because they live in an outdoor environment. (3) A psychologist picked ten people and told them they had extraordinary talent. They then went on to find success. Later, the psychologist admitted that they were just ordinary people.

Hainan and Ningxia: Participation; Chongqing: Tough problems Hunan: Morning.

”Zero Point” Essays on the Gaokao

Composition prompts are circulated publicly after the exam. Yifu Dong wrote in New York Times, June 29, 2015] They typically inspire discussions of which ones would have been the hardest to write up. and, more entertainingly, what would be guaranteed to score a failing “zero-point” grade by deviating from a presumably “correct” response. [Source: Yifu Dong, New York Times, June 29, 2015]

“Here is one example of a composition prompt that has attracted a good deal of attention, in a version of the exam that was administered in the provinces of Hebei, Henan, Jiangxi, Shaanxi and Shanxi: “Because her father kept answering his mobile phone while driving on the highway and ignoring his family’s admonishments, Ms. Chen, a university student, in the interests of safety, reported her father to the police via Weibo. After the police confirmed it, they fined Mr. Chen and lectured him and posted Ms. Chen’s report on their official Weibo account. Ms. Chen’s action attracted many likes from commenters, but also some criticism. The news media then reported the story, prompting a broader discussion.

“How do you view this incident? Please write a letter to Ms. Chen, Mr. Chen or one of the other parties. Present your opinion and elaborate. You must consider the story and its meaning, choose an angle well, set up the theme and carry it through. Given this prompt, many Chinese students, hoping to second-guess what the exam-graders would consider a “correct” response, might decide to praise the daughter for upholding the law by calling the police, even at the expense of her father.

“One online commenter went further. Xie Mingbo, a teacher at New Oriental, an educational services company that coaches students for exams such as the gaokao, suggested that students faced with this prompt could argue that informing on one’s father represents a loftier order of filial piety. Mr. Xie quoted an ancient commentary on the teachings of the philosopher Mencius, on the error committed when “children intentionally follow adults in the wrong way and tolerate their mistakes because of the blood relationship.” Therefore, he wrote, the daughter’s report was actually “a sign of responsibility toward society and her father.”

“But a widely reposted zero-point composition took a radically different approach, questioning the presumption of the composition prompt that any students seeking higher education must be familiar with the trappings of urban, middle-class life — and therefore that a university education is not for the rural poor. My father is a peasant who has never left his hometown. For 365 days a year, he toils in the fields.…For me, highways only appear on TV, in newspapers and in books. I’ve never seen a highway in my life...The material in the prompt is so strange to me. I can’t even imagine such things happening in real life...If the material were about the countryside, such as raising crops or livestock, I could seriously write something about it because I’d at least be familiar with it.

Several other zero-point compositions berated the daughter for turning in her own father to the authorities, a common practice during the Maoist era. Said one: Sister, how dare you “place rightness above family” [a Chinese idiom] and become an informer? Don’t you know how hard your father has worked for you?

“Here’s another composition prompt, from the version of the exam given in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing: A little boy asked a bus driver to wait for his mother. After a minute, other passengers started complaining that the mother and son were wasting their time. When the mother finally boarded the bus, the passengers could see her legs were crippled. They fell silent. Dong Xiaoyu, the dean of journalism at Southwest University in Chongqing, analyzed this prompt on Chongqing Daily’s Weibo account. She recommended that students respond to the prompt by expressing an appreciation for tolerance, respect, virtue and calm. “The prompt focuses on real life and points to a clear direction,” Ms. Dong wrote. “It tells people to calm down, reflect upon themselves and society, and re-evaluate their lives and values.”

“Enter the zero-pointer, dismissing any such lofty reflections: “Time is money, my friend! Even online gamers want to speed things up, let alone those who are on their way to work! Rather than wasting other passengers’ time, the boy should simply have waited for the next bus, since some buses in Chongqing run as frequently as every five minutes, the zero-pointer wrote, adding: Virtue cannot hijack our judgment of right and wrong, and having tolerance and respect for the weak doesn’t mean that the weak are always right.

Teen Writes Entrance Exam Essay in Han Dynasty Prose

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last minute encouragement

Wang Yunfei, an 18-year-old student from Nantong, Jiangsu province, has won instant fame for an essay he wrote in this year's college entrance examination. His essay on the environment first stunned the examiners and then caught the attention of the entire nation, for it was written in the long-forgotten classical Chinese language that was used in the Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220). [Source: China Daily, February 7 2011]

Wu Xinjiang, a scholar of classical literature, was summoned to examine and rate Wang's paper. After spending a whole day reading and re-reading Wang's essay, Wu declared that it was a perfect piece of Han Dynasty writing, in grammar as well as style. Wu was also surprised to find that in the prose there were over 40 Chinese words he had never heard before. Wu later told the media that Wang's writing skills were good enough for a postgraduate student of classical literature. Despite a lack of original thought or deep insight, Wang's essay was widely circulated on the Internet over the past couple of weeks. It has also won him admission into the prestigious Southeast University in Nanjing as an undergraduate student of civil engineering, a subject he wished to pursue.

"My prose got 67 out of 70," he told China Daily over the phone. "Maybe I lost 3 points on account of my poor handwriting. I had to write the 800-wordprose in 90 minutes."He said his favorite subject is science. His highest scores in the college entrance exam were in physics and chemistry. "Classical Chinese is my hobby," said Wang, whose father is a truck driver and mother a farmer....Unlike many teens, who crave for fame, Wang is "upset" that his essay has become a talking point for the nation. He said the sudden fame has interrupted his peaceful life, as journalists from across the country are lining up to interview him."The interviews have taken up the time I wanted to spend reading," he said, adding, "I don't want to be famous."

Wang said he has never had a computer in his home. And unlike his peers who spend most of their spare time surfing the Internet, he devoted his leisure time reading classical books. At school, he was never considered a promising writer because his unusual style of writing didn't impress any of the teachers. But he always wanted to write a classical prose in the college entrance exam to "wow" the examiners, Wang said. "I thought if they fail me for that, I could always try again the next year," he said. Once he is done with his studies, Wang dreams of being an architect."Skyscrapers in all the big cities of China look a lot alike. I want to design something distinctive." However, he maintained he will always make time to pursue his hobby. "It's (classical Chinese) already a part of my life, and I love it," he said.

55-Year-Old Chinese Man Fails the Gaokao for the 26th Time

Liang Shi, a 55-year-old man from Sichuan dubbed the “King of gaokao” failed the gaokao for the 26th time in 2022. According to Nextshark; With a score of 428 points out of 750, he fell short of the 605-point minimum for admission to Sichuan University, one of China’s most prestigious universities. Liang, who switched from the science exam to art and human sciences this year to increase his chances of success, said he was disappointed that his score fell below his target. “I was expecting at least 200 points on my art and human sciences comprehension exam, but it was only 171,” Liang told the South China Morning Post. [Source: Michelle De Pacina, NextShark, June 29, 2022]

The 55-year-old owns a building materials company in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. He has been taking the gaokao irregularly since 1983. Liang had skipped the exam 14 times due to his work obligations and past policies that required exam takers to be unmarried and under the age of 25. The policy on marital status and age was abolished in 2001.

Despite Liang’s failures, he said he will not give up. In the meantime, he is planning to rest for half a month to a month to recover from his failure. “Last year, I spent about 10 hours a day studying despite interruptions from work or family matters,” Liang was quoted as saying. “I’ve already suspended my business because it’s difficult to run a business now due to the pandemic, so I’m hoping to spend the extra time on gaokao preparation for next year.”

Image Sources: China Smacks, Shanghaiist, China Daily, Wall Street Journal, Xinhua, Photobucket

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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