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studying for the gaokao
The “gaokao” is China’s grueling, ultra-competitive, unified, national university entrance exam. Somewhat similar to the American SAT, except that it lasts more than twice as long, the nine-hour test is offered just once a year and is the sole determinant for admission to virtually all Chinese colleges and universities. An age restriction on gaokao was scrapped in 2001 and anyone with a high school diploma can now take the exam. Similar tests with similar importance are given in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere in Asia.

The gaokao (pronounced gow kow) roughly translated means “the high test. Taken at the end of high school, the gaokao is given across the country over two or three days, depending on the province, in the second week of July (usually the 7th and 8th. the test has also been held the second week of June). Roughly modeled after China’s old imperial civil service exam, it emphasizes math and science but also measure knowledge of written Chinese, English and Marxist thought. The English section requires students to write a composition in Chinese. All students who wish to enter college are required to take it and almost all of the last year of high school is devoted to preparation for it. The text covers six different subjects. During senior year all high school students need to declare whether they are on the humanities track or the science track, in accordance with the two specialties tested by the test. Humanities students are tested in history and political science. Science students are tested in physics and chemistry. All students are also required to take examinations in Chinese, mathematics, and English regardless of their future majors. This specialization has been blamed for limiting intellectual pursuit.[Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001 and updated]

High school students have traditionally selected both the universities they want to attend and the major they want based in the gaokao. Typically they attempt to gain admission to a particular university and need a specific score to get in. The score they need depends on the major they select. Students often have little knowledge about their majors when they select them. There are cutoff scores for top-tier universities and second-tier ones. The cutoff marks can vary by an applicant’s place of residence and ethnicity. Once the students get their scores, they submit to education officials a list of universities, ranking them in order of choice. Administrators at the universities then look at the students’ scores and decide whether to admit them for the coming September. [New York Times]

In 2022, a record 11.93 million Chinese students took the gaokao, marking the fourth year that more than 10 million students took it, according to China’s Ministry of Education. In 2018 around 9.75 million students took the test. More than 10 million Chinese students took it in 2010, about twice as many as in 2002. Nine and a half million students took it in 2010, the drop off due to demographic changes resulting from the one-child policy. A report by Xinhua, the state news agency, said that of the 9.15 million students who took the gaokao in 2012 , about 75 percent would be admitted to universities in mainland China. In the 1970s, only 3 percent of those who took it were accepted at universities. In the 1980s, about one in ten passed. In the early 1990s about a forth passed it.

In a society where many people see connections as crucial to getting ahead, the entrance exam is defended as meritocratic, giving everybody a chance of attending university. Radio talkshow hosts discuss the format and questions on the test in painstaking detail. When the results come out, the top scorers are feted like Olympic gold medalists. Explaining why the gaokao remains central to the college admissions process, the journalist Wang Hao told The New Yorker , “My parents’ generation, which went through the Cultural Revolution, will tell you that the test is the only way to keep it fair...Otherwise, all of the good schools would be filled entirely by people with connections.”

Good Websites and Sources: School Life in Beijing ; School Life Video YouTube ; Precious Children PBS Show Center on Chinese Education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College ; China Today on Chinese Schools ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Education Wikipedia ; China Education and Research Network (Chinese Government Site) ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC)

Importance of the Gaokao

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studying for the gaokao

The gaokao is a national obsession that remains as much a part of Chinese life as dumplings and chopsticks. Mei Fong wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the gaogao is “a test so important that construction work is stopped, traffic diverted and parents take work leave to coddle or bully their kids through the ordeal. (Some parents have even been known to put their daughters on birth control pills so they won't be distracted with menstrual cramps during the test.)One Chinese saying compares the exam to a stampede of a thousand soldiers and 10 horses across a single log bridge. [Source: Mei Fong, Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2012]

The gaokao is a key to social mobility in China and a defining moment in the lives of those who take it. Success and failure on the test can mean the difference between prosperity and a life of drudgery. It also determines the direction in life an individual will take: company management, government bureaucracy, or a profession such as medicine. Success or failure can not only shape the lives of those who take it can also shape the lives of their families, who may depend on their future earnings.

Every year tensions are very high around test time. Students can barely look when the results are posted. Many think there is too much emphasis on this exam. Critics complain that the gao kao illustrates the flaws in an education system that stresses memorization over independent thinking and creativity. Educators also say that rural students are at a disadvantage and that the quality of higher education has been sacrificed for quantity. Even the government realizes there are problemz. One former Vice President told the New York Times, “Students are buried in an endless flood of homework and sit for one mock exam after another, leaving them with heads swimming and eyes blurred, arriving at university exhausted with little desire to use their minds or experience new ideas."

Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of the Peking University High School, wrote in The Diplomat, “June 7 and 8 are the two days that China’s senior three students (twelfth graders) have lived the first 18 years of their lives for, and whatever anxiety, neurosis, and insanity that has simmered beneath the surface among students, parents, and teachers this past year will now reach its climax.” [Source: Jiang Xueqin The Diplomat. June 3, 2011]

Evan Osnos wrote on The New Yorker blog on the day of the gaokao: “While the students took their exams, parents were streaming into the vermillion gates... of the Confucius Temple and the Lama Temple in burn incense and pray for good scores. (One friend told me today about a fellow mother who is so crazed that she has been visiting Catholic churches as well, just for good measure.) The city itself even got into the spirit, ordering drivers to avoid honking, which might disturb students, and, in some places, closing down Internet cafes in the days before, to encourage studying...Chinese papers this week have been full of news of foiled cheaters, including the crime rings in Fujian province that were selling a product line that included “wireless earphones, signal emitters, scanner-imbedded pens and watches.”

High school students are often told they can not take the university entrance exam until they have paid off all their school fees and debts. Some times poor rural families fork over a large portion of their annual income and still fall short. The situation got some attention in 2004 when one bright promising student committed suicide by leaping in front of a train after being told by his teacher in front of his classmates three days before the exam that he could not take the exam because his family owed $800 in fees.

Among middle class parents the thinking goes: if a child does well on his college entrance exam he can attend university in China otherwise it will be necessary to send them abroad.

History of the Gaokao

National examinations to select students for higher education (and positions of leadership) were an important part of China's culture, and, traditionally, entrance to a higher education institution was considered prestigious. Alec Ash wrote in The Guardian:“The tradition of a single exam that decides a young person’s prospects is one that goes back to antiquity in China. The imperial examinations or keju, which tested applicants for government office, was introduced in the Han dynasty (206BC to AD220), and became the sole criterion for selection from the 7th century until its abolition in 1905. Aspiring bureaucrats sat a three-day exam locked inside a single cell, in which they also slept and ate. The “eight-legged essay” was the most important paper, an argument in eight sections that elaborated on a theme while quoting from classics such as Confucius and Mencius. All applicants were checked for hidden scrolls; writing quotes on underwear was a popular form of cheating until examiners cottoned on. The pass rate was 1 percent. Nervous collapses were routine. There is even a ghost-deity associated with exams in China: Zhong Kui, a scholar who killed himself when he was denied first place. [Source: Alec Ash, The Guardian, October 12, 2016]

While not a direct descendant, the gaokao is generally considered a distant relation of the keju. It was first instituted in 1952 under the new Communist government. It was abandoned during the Cultural revolution when schools were closed and students attacked their teachers and professors. The National College Entrance Exam was reinstated in 1977 under Deng Xiaoping. In 1977 only 230,000 students passed out of 5.7 million that took it. The National College Entrance Exam is credited with helping China advance after the Cultural Revolution and providing a backbone for today’s rapid growth. But at the same time many think the emphasis on the exam burdens students unnecessarily and stifles creativity, leadership and the ability to adapt to changing market places.

Although the examination system for admission to colleges and universities has undergone many changes since the Cultural Revolution, it remains the basis for recruiting academically able students. When higher education institutions were reopened in early 1970s, candidates for entrance examinations had to be senior-middle-school graduates or the equivalent, generally below twenty-six years of age. Work experience requirements were eliminated, but workers and staff members needed permission from their enterprises to take the examinations. [Source: Library of Congress]

Each provincial-level unit was assigned a quota of students to be admitted to key universities, a second quota of students for regular universities within that administrative division, and a third quota of students from other provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities who would be admitted to institutions operated at the provincial level. Provincial-level administrative units selected students with outstanding records to take the examinations. Additionally, preselection examinations were organized by the provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities for potential students (from three to five times the number of places allotted). These candidates were actively encouraged to take the examination to ensure that a sufficient number of good applicants would be available. Cadres with at least two years of work experience were recruited for selected departments in a small number of universities on an experimental basis. Preferential admission treatment (in spite of lower test scores) was given to minority candidates, students from disadvantaged areas, and those who agreed in advance to work in less developed regions after graduation.

In December 1977, when uniform national examinations were reinstated, 5.7 million students took the examinations, although university placement was available for only the 278,000 applicants with the highest scores. In July 1984, about 1.6 million candidates (30,000 fewer than in 1983) took the entrance examinations for the 430,000 places in China's more than 900 colleges and universities. Of the 1.6 million examinees, more than 1 million took the test for placement in science and engineering colleges; 415,000 for places in liberal arts colleges; 88,000 for placement in foreign language institutions; and 15,000 for placement in sports universities and schools. More than 100,000 of the candidates were from national minority groups. A year later, there were approximately 1.8 million students taking the three day college entrance examination to compete for 560,000 places. Liberal arts candidates were tested on politics, Chinese, mathematics, foreign languages, history, and geography. Science and engineering candidates were tested on politics, Chinese, mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Entrance examinations also were given in 1985 for professional and technical schools, which sought to enroll 550,000 new students.

Other innovations in enrollment practices, included allowing colleges and universities to admit students with good academic records but relatively low entrance-examination scores. Some colleges were allowed to try an experimental student recommendation system—fixed at 2 percent of the total enrollment for regular colleges and 5 percent for teachers' colleges—instead of the traditional entrance examination. A minimum national examination score was established for admission to specific departments at specially designated colleges and universities, and the minimum score for admission to other universities was set by provincial level authorities. Key universities established separate classes for minorities. When several applicants attained the minimum test score, the school had the option of making a selection, a policy that gave university faculty and administrators a certain amount of discretion but still protected admission according to academic ability.

In addition to the written examination, university applicants had to pass a physical examination and a political screening. Less than 2 percent of the students who passed the written test were eliminated for reasons of poor health. The number disqualified for political reasons was known, but publicly the party maintained that the number was very small and that it sought to ensure that only the most able students actually entered colleges and universities.

By 1985 the State Education Commission established unified questions and time and evaluation criteria for the test and authorized provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities to administer the test, grade the papers in a uniform manner, and determine the minimum points required for admission. The various schools were to enroll students according to the results. At that time adult students needed to have the educational equivalent of senior-middle- school graduates, and those applying for release or partial release from work to study were to be under forty years of age. Staff members and workers were to apply to study job-related subjects with review by and approval of their respective work units. If employers paid for the college courses, the workers had to take entrance examinations. In 1985 colleges enrolled 33,000 employees from various enterprises and companies, approximately 6 percent of the total college enrollment.

Getting Around the Gaokao

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Many universities do set aside a few slots for students admitted on the basis of special merit, thus allowing leeway for students who do not take the gaokao or have low scores. Admission in those cases can be based on factors like musical talent, foreign language skills or athletic prowess, as in the United States. Ethnic minority students sometimes get an advantage. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times June 30, 2012]

Of course, children of senior Communist Party members, government leaders and prominent businesspeople have their own back channels to admission, a phenomenon that exists, too, in the West, though perhaps not to the same degree. There has also been a growing trend of students in China applying to universities outside the mainland. Many Chinese parents — including the party’s top leaders — not only value a foreign degree over one from a Chinese university, but also want their children to avoid the stress of taking the gaokao. An Education Ministry report last year said the number of high school students from top cities leaving the mainland to pursue higher education overseas grew at 20 percent each year from 2008 to 2011.

“Gao Haicheng, a junior in Kunming, said he planned to apply to universities abroad rather than ones in China. Though avoiding the gaokao is not his main aim, Mr. Gao said the exam “is a big problem in China’s education system.” “In China, they only use marks to explain something,” he added, referring to the emphasis on the gaokao score.

Some universities have their own recruitment examinations, which take place about three months before official national college entrance exams.

Studying and Preparing for the Gaokao

Students usually spend around three months cramming from dawn until the wee hours of the morning for the university exam. Sometimes parents spend a large portion of their salary on brain tonics like Gingko Study Power and air-conditioned hotel rooms for the last few days before the test so their children can focus on studying in a distraction-free environment.

Describing one student, Alec Ash wrote in The Guardian:“Yuan Qi was quietly confident. He had been cramming for 12 hours a day in the months leading up to the test, with extra classes at weekends. Since March, he had been operating on just six or seven hours sleep a night. Every possible step had been taken to maximise his chances of succeeding. The day before the first morning paper, his parents had rented a hotel room next to Tsinghua University middle school, where he would sit his papers, so that they could arrange his meals and attend to his every other need. [Source: Alec Ash, The Guardian, October 12, 2016]

On another student, Sharon Lafraniere wrote in New York Times, “For the past year, Liu Qichao has focused on one thing, and only one thing: the gao kao...Fourteen to 16 hours a day, he studied for the college entrance examination. He took one day off every three weeks...He was still carrying his textbook from room to room last Sunday morning before leaving for the exam site, still reviewing materials during the lunch break, still hard at work Sunday night, preparing for Part 2 of the exam that Monday. I want to study until the last minute, he said. I really hope to be successful.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 13, 2009]

Families go through great lengths to maximize their children’s chances. “In Sichuan Province in southwestern China, students studied in a hospital, hooked up to oxygen containers, in hopes of improving their concentration. Some girls take contraceptives so they will not get their periods during the exam.” Some well-off parents dangle the promise of fabulous rewards for offspring whose scores get them into a top-ranked university: parties, 100,000 renminbi in cash, or about $14,600, or better. My father even promised me, if I get into a college like Nankai University in Tianjin, “I’ll give you a prize, an Audi,” said Chen Qiong, a 17-year-old girl taking the exam in Beijing.”

There are tough, regimented schools that resemble military academies that specialize in preparing students for the gaokao. Despite the annual school fee of 38,500 renminbi (about $5,640) — well above the average annual income for a Chinese family — they have no problem getting enough students. At some schools one forth of the seniors are restudy students. Classes continue for three weeks straight, barely interrupted by a one-day break. If a student’s cell phone rings in class, the teacher smashes it. Some students continue studying days after most of their classmates left for home and have bruised wrists from pressing the edges of metal desk, piled with stacks of textbooks.

Seeking Good Luck for the Gaokao with Purple Buttocks

According to Sup China: Different regions in China have their own traditions for bringing good luck, or avoiding bad results on exams. Cooking certain meals the night before, or saying certain things on the day, are all important final superstitious touches to the months of preparations and hard work. A favorite breakfast among test-takers on the day of test is a bread stick next to two eggs, symbolizing a 100 percent score. In northern China, one way to wish students good luck has become popular across the country in recent years, and especially in 2022 is “z dìng néng xíng!” (translation “You can do it,” literally “purple” (z ), “buttocks” (dìng), and “can do it” (néng xíng). [Source: Andrew Methven, SupChina, June 10, 2022]

“In recent years, this way to wish people good luck has taken on a more colorful twist to bring hopeful students that extra bit of luck in gaokao halls across China: 1) If you wear purple underpants, you’ll definitely do well! (Chuānzhuó z sè nèikù jiù yīdìng néng xíng! 2) While others joke that they want to be the Marvel character Thanos of the gaokao: Thanos’s gaokao results are bound to be amazing because his buttocks are naturally purple! (Miè bà k oshì chéngjī kěndìng hěn h o, tā tiānshēng z dìng!)

In northeastern dialect, the character for buttocks (dìng) is also a metaphor for hard work, and evokes an image of farmers grafting away in the fields, but is used to describe contemporary work or study pressures in China, such as in the phrase “juē dìng, meaning” (“to work really hard.”)Entrepreneurial clothing companies in China have jumped on this opportunity with specially designed gaokao purple underpants, with sales hitting their peak around this time, while one company has even registered the phrase itself as a brand name in China.

Extreme Measures Taken During the Gaokao Exam-Taking Season

In June 2012, Beh Lih Yi wrote in AFP, “More than 9 million students sat China's notoriously tough college entrance exams, with "high-flyer" rooms, nannies and even intravenous drips among the tools being employed for success. With just 6.85 million university spots on offer this year, competition for the top institutions is intense, and attempts to cheat are rife — 1,500 people have been arrested on suspicion of selling transmitters and hard-to-detect ear pieces. [Source: Beh Lih Yi, AFP, June 6, 2012]

Parents and students this year are also resorting to some outlandish but legal methods to ensure nothing goes wrong in the make-or-break two-day exam.Students have reportedly been given pre-exam injections and intravenous drips designed to boost energy levels, while girls have resorted to hormone injections and birth control pills to delay menstruation. "There are situations where girls take pills to delay their periods until after the exams," a gynaecologist at Beijing's Chaoyang Hospital, who declined to give his name, told AFP.

“Some of the more affluent parents have rented houses close to the 7,300 exam venues across the country, while so-called "high-flyer rooms" are being offered in the northern port city of Tianjin, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper. The special hotel rooms — which cost up to 800 yuan ($126) more than an ordinary room — are billed as having previously been rented out to someone who scored high points in the exams. Rooms with lucky numbers such as six — which symbolises success in Chinese culture, or eight — which represents wealth — are also favourites. "Every year the house rental market heats up ahead of gaokao," Jin Guangze, a teacher from the Beijing Experimental High School told the China Daily.

“The exam has also given rise to a new and lucrative industry — the gaokao baomu — or "exam nannies" — who are tasked to look after students during the exam period. "The nannies are well-qualified with at least a college-level degree," said Jennifer Liu, marketing manager at Coleclub — an agency that provides household help and has offered the service since 2009. "They are there to help the students — cook meals, wash clothes, tutor the students and offer support for their mental well-being," she told AFP. Liu declined to disclose how much it cost to hire a nanny, but media reports say the service costs an average 4,000 yuan over a 10-day period.

“Meanwhile, China's state television CCTV has repeatedly broadcast advice to help students prepare for the exams and has warned against cheating, airing a confession of a remorseful suspect caught for aiding students to cheat. The nation's public security ministry said in a statement Monday that police had busted over 100 gangs suspected of selling cheating equipment, rounding up 1,500 people with the seizure of some 60,000 devices such as ear pieces. Exam authorities said they would use wireless signal jammers and frequency detectors to prevent cheating, as well as fingerprint scanners to verify exam-takers' identity.

Scene Outside the the Gaokao Center

The tests are taken so seriously that the authorities stop traffic to ensure candidates arrive in time and order residents not to shout or use car horns lest it distract the students. Construction work is halted near examination halls Ambulances are on call outside in case of nervous collapses, and police cars patrol to keep the streets quiet. According to the New York Times: “Outside the exam sites, parents keep vigil for hours, as anxious as husbands waiting for their wives to give birth. A tardy arrival is disastrous. One student who arrived four minutes late in 2007 was turned away, even though she and her mother knelt before the exam proctor, begging for leniency.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, June 13, 2009; Alec Ash, The Guardian, October 12, 2016]

Eric Mu wrote in, “The morning before the exam started, I walked through a crowd of students’ parents. They were anxious and gazing expectantly at their children, praying that they would ace the test. My dad was there too. He brought me a can of Red Bull. “Son, don’t be nervous.” My dad passed me the can. How can I not be nervous seeing you wimpy like that? I was thinking, gulping down the liquid. “Your teacher said you are good. He said you have no problem.” My teacher? My teacher doesn’t care about me at all. All he cares about is statistics. “We can try again next year if you fail.” But next year. How many next years I am going to have? But I just said bye to my dad, throwing the tin can as far as I could, and strode into the exam room, ready to take my destiny by the throat, or, be taken by my throat. [Source: Eric Mu, September 2, 2011]

Alec Ash wrote in The Guardian: On the final afternoon of the 2016 gaokao, parents of exam takers at one school in Beijing were packed tight around the school gate, jostling to get to the front of the crowd where a white metal barrier held them back. Special security guards handed out water bottles and cheap paper fans, while another manned a first aid stand under a large parasol. Cars were parked all the way around the bend of the road leading to the gate, simmering in the summer heat. “They’re all here to pick up their kids,” a city police officer patiently explained to a driver struggling to find a space. A red banner above the barrier declared the school a “National unified gaokao examination point”. At the first sign of movement inside, the parents pushed in closer, craning their necks to spot their children emerging. [Source: Alec Ash, The Guardian, October 12, 2016]

“Shortly after 5pm, a student named Yuan Qi walked out clutching a clear pencil case and wearing a dazed expression. Around him, hundreds of exam-takers celebrated the end of their ordeal. Some clutched bouquets of flowers given to them by their parents; others posed awkwardly for photographs. Yuan Qi’s father, an administrator in the People’s Liberation Army, was dressed in shorts and a polo neck. He had been at the front of the crowd, holding his phone up high to record the moment. But when his son came out, he greeted him silently and led him away from the hubbub to where his mother was waiting. She took his pencil case to stop him fidgeting with it. “Hard?” another parent asked Yuan Qi as they passed. “Depends which subject,” he replied. His father beamed with pride.

Taking the Gaokao

Alec Ash wrote in The Guardian:“The gaokao is made up of four three-hour papers: Chinese, English, maths and a choice of either sciences (biology, chemistry, physics) or humanities (geography, history, politics). The questions are mostly multiple-choice or fill-in-the blanks. The maths paper has been compared to university-level maths in the UK. But for many students, the most intimidating element is the essay in the Chinese exam. Students are given an hour to write on one of two prompts, which are often infuriatingly elliptical. Prompts in 2015 included “Do butterfly wings have colours?” and “Who do you admire the most? A biotechnology researcher, a welding engineering technician or a photographer?”. In 2016 the choice was between “Old accent” and “Mysterious bookmark”. (He picked old accent.) [Source: Alec Ash, The Guardian, October 12, 2016]

Eric Mu wrote in ”The three days of examinations proceeded without incident, except occasionally the kid in front of me snuck a look or two at my exam sheet and the teachers there pretended not to see it at all, or they were too involved in their chat. But how can I let my three years of hard work be stolen by this sneaky bastard? I stared back at him with my hard, venomous eyes, covering my sheet up. The thief turned his head back. After the test students had collect the answers from the district education bureau and,with the help of their teachers, estimate their scores.” [Source: Eric Mu, September 2, 2011]

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last minute studying

When the exam was over “I walked out of the room feeling like an abandoned condom, used and hollow. Exhausted too. All I wanted to do was to catch up on all the sleep that I had missed over the past three years. It was not only because I was so sleepy, I wanted to sleep away the horrible three years, to forget them like a bad dream. When I woke up again, I hoped that I would find myself a fresh person with a new life.” A month later, I got the admission letter from a university, my family was exhilarated. But I was only relieved to have my burden removed, if only temporarily.

Finding Out the Results to the Gaokao

Describing the tension around the time the gaokao scores are announced, Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Millions of high school graduates across China have been furiously dialing telephone hot lines or gathering with family members around the home computer in recent days in a nail-biter of a ritual not unlike that of waiting for a winning lottery number. The number, in this case, is the gaokao score. When the result came out , it happened to be my 18th birthday,” said Yang Taoyuan, who lives with his parents in Kunming, capital of the southwest province of Yunnan. “We had a family get-together on that day, and everybody was there when we called over to a hot line to find out about my scores.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times June 30, 2012]

Alec Ash wrote in The Guardian:“Yuan Qi sat at a corner window on the second floor of McDonald’s, slurping a McCafé red tea before picking apart the empty cup. It was two weeks after he had sat the exam, and the results would be posted online in a few minutes. Yuan Qi was so nervous that he couldn’t bear to be at home. He asked his father to text him, and repaired to McDonald’s instead...The results were released at noon. Most students checked them online, although they could also ring a hotline, or go to their school to check a printout posted on a bulletin board. Later, a full breakdown of their score would be mailed to each student, but for now it was a single mark for each exam and the all-important total, plus their ranking among other students in their province. [Source: Alec Ash, The Guardian, October 12, 2016]

“Noon came and passed. I tried to distract him with smalltalk, but he was fiddling uncontrollably. Why hadn’t his dad texted yet? At 12:41, his phone buzzed. “What is the score that you’re hoping for?”“Just tell me, alright? ......” Yuan Qi fired back. “Don’t keep me on tenterhooks ............!!!” “Yuan Qi was visibly straining not to be rude as he replied. “Can you just send it, OK? Nothing’s wrong, but if you keep not telling me then it will be!!!”

“A minute passed in agonising silence. Then it came, with no gloss. “664, ranked 1,020 in Beijing.” It was significantly lower than Yuan Qi, or his parents, had expected. Still a high mark, an achievement: 1,020th out of 61,222 examinees in Beijing. But only the top 500 had a real shot at getting into Beida, where the cutoff point was generally taken to be 680. Yuan Qi’s mock results were in the 690s but this mark, in his words, was “ordinary”. Not even in the top thousand....His peers were posting their scores in messaging app groups for each of his classes. I didn’t know what to say, and as a journalist I have never felt more intrusive as I watched a young man’s hopes crumble before my eyes.

After students receive their gaokao scores they submit their choices to universities expect to hear results within a couple weeks. Mr. Yang, the graduate in Kunming, said by telephone that he had put down the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology as his top choice. But he said if he had done better than his score of 517, out of a possible 750, he might have put down the Civil Aviation University of China in Tianjin. “I did the best in my class, so I’m pretty happy with the result,” he said. “So are my parents and most of my friends. But it’s not high enough to get me into the school I’m longing to attend.”

“Even with the full breakdown, Yuan Qi never knew exactly why he had underperformed. It was just one of those bad exam days. A few weeks after results day, he was accepted into Beijing Aviation and Space Flight University, known as Beihang for short. It is a good college, specialising in aeronautics, but with an excellent reputation for maths – not the best of the best, but the best Yuan Qi could have got into. He would go on to start college that September.

Generation Z Less Concerned About the Gaokao

A 2018 survey of students taking the gaokao that year — the first born in the 21st century, members of Generation Z — appeared to reject the popular view that gaokao could make or break their futures. According to the South China Morning Post: “Half of the 20,000 gaokao candidates who took part in the survey conducted by Chinese web portal and social media company Sina Corp said they believed that the exam would not be their only opportunity to take hold of their future. Just half believed getting a high score on gaokao would be important in deciding how the rest of their lives would go. That result is a distinct departure from a China Youth Daily survey’s finding in 2017 that more than 80 per cent of examination sitters, mostly born in the 1980s and some in the 1990s and 1970s, thought the exam would play a significant role in determining their future. [Source: South China Morning Post, June 6, 2018]

Sina’s survey also determined that one in four students planned to explore other avenues to their ultimate goals, including seeking degrees abroad or taking part in tests for art majors. While the sample size is too small to conclude that gaokao’s ability to inspire awe and reverence among today’s students is declining, it is not hard to find young adults who are unimpressed by the exam’s reputation as a life-changing event.

“One such person is Yu Fei. The Beijing 17-year-old decided to skip gaokao this year to focus on getting a high score on the English proficiency test offered by the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). “I know what my interest is and I know how to realise it,” Yu said. “I don’t think gaokao means that much to me.” Yu said she hoped a high score on an IELTS exam would help her get into a university in Australia to study tourism. IELTS is accepted by most Australian, British, Canadian and New Zealand academic institutions, and by thousands of US academic institutions.

“Xiao Huan was quoted by Sina as saying that she did not need to sit for gaokao because she had already received an offer of admission from a US university. The girl’s classmates were also going down other paths, including sitting for independent university admission tests and taking tests for students with specific talents, according to Sina. The youngest students in Sina’s survey showed “high individuality” in expressing their aims for their higher-education career, according to the web portal company.

More than 61 per cent said they alone would pick their major, without relying on their parents’ advice. Fourteen per cent of parents who took part in the survey, or about 6,200 people, said they would support their child’s decision regarding his or her preferred course of study.

“One in four students said affection for an idol would influence their choice of major or university. For instance, one Beijing parent said her son decided to apply to Xiamen University because Yi Zhongtian, a Chinese cultural television show presenter and professor that he liked, had taught in the school’s Chinese department, according to Sina. “Idols motivate students for higher targets, which is plausible,” the parent was quoted as saying.

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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