Construction activity grinds to a halt. The roads are heavily barricaded. Silence has befallen the city, reminiscent of the calm before the storm. The eerie silence is then broken by loudspeakers announcing the big day across cities and provinces in China. Parents and students swarm like bees, marching their way towards the school buses. Police presence is visible across the length of the road as one bus after another transports students and teachers to the test centre.
It’s Gaokao time! A national event in China, it is witnessed in the first week of June every year by millions of students and their parents, signaling a watershed moment in every Chinese student’s life.
The National Higher Education Entrance Examination, commonly known as Gaokao (高考, “Higher Education Exam”), is an academic examination held annually in the People’s Republic of China (except Hong Kong and Macau). The Gaokao acts as the sole prerequisite for entrance into almost any higher education institution at the undergraduate level and is taken at the end of the Senior Secondary School (Grade 10-12) over two days.
The test includes compulsory subjects like Chinese, mathematics, and English. In addition, students are required to choose from either the social science stream (history, politics, and geography) or the natural science stream (physics, chemistry, and biology). The exam format comprises grueling multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and essay questions.
The essay question prompts are sometimes tangential in nature. Consider these examples:
1. Students taking the Gaokao in Hunan province in 2013 were given the essay prompt: “It flies upward, and a voice asks if it is tired. It says ‘No’”.
2. The 2013 Hubei Gaokao asked students to write a composition on the subtle philosophy of the round and square!
Gaokao – evolution and its contribution to China’s growth story
The genesis of the Gaokao can be found in the ancient keju Imperial Exam or Civil Exam introduced in the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), where the central government tested applicants for government office and selected talented individuals from among the commoners. While not a direct descendant, the Gaokao is generally considered a continuation of the keju model.
Introduced in 1952 under the new communist government, the Gaokao was suspended during the 10-year chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when youth were “sent down” to villages and asked to learn from farmers and factory workers instead of studying from books. It was only in 1977, the year after Mao Zedong’s death, that the Gaokao was resumed by Deng Xiaoping, the architect of Chinese reform. Deprived of the chance to pursue higher education, people thronged to register for the exam and in all, 5.7 million people enrolled, competing for just 220,000 university seats.
The reintroduction of the exam coincided with the bold economic reforms being undertaken in China in the late 1970s and early 1980s. From 1977 to 2016, 120 million Chinese were enrolled in universities, which became the most important driving force behind the rising economic growth of China. It was and still remains a decisive marker in determining who finds a well-paid job and a successful career.
One of the biggest positives attested to Gaokao is the level-playing field it offers to students who come from poor rural backgrounds. Since the test is on a national scale, even the remotest of rural schools invest significantly in providing a sound foundation in the subjects of the Gaokao, thereby providing rural students a shot at a good university education and overcoming poverty.
Inside the Gaokao test prep schools or Gaokao military camps
Preparation for what is one of the world’s toughest exams requires special focus and training and some schools in China have risen to the occasion, transforming themselves into military-like setups, churning out successful Gaokao takers year after year. Take the example of the Gaokao test prep factory schools Maotanchang in Anhui province and Bashu in Chongqing. Their test preparation strategies are superior to schools in most other countries. Handling around 10,000 test takers each year, their school’s survival and fame solely depend on the number of students they are able to successfully launch in top universities like Peking and Tsinghua, the crème de la crème of China.
Students must wake up at 6am. Classes begin at 6.30am and go on till 11pm at night on most days. Students in these schools are given just enough time to eat and nap for a while in class amidst a tall pile of books beside their table. The remaining time is devoted to taking tests, learning by rote, and a teacher teaching maths, science, or English to 150 students in each class using a microphone. This routine goes on for all seven days of the week. Every month, the school arranges for a mock Gaokao test and 12 such tests are taken in the run-up to the final examination. All forms of entertainment (television, internet and game parlours, karaoke bars, and so on) and sport activities are banned within campus premises and outside. Girls and boys are disallowed from getting involved romantically, and girls are ordered to refrain from applying make-up or wearing high heels.
Some of the parents hunt for overpriced and often small rented accommodation near these schools, leaving the cosy confines of their homes. The family will stay put for the duration of the year, till the final Gaokao exam is over. Most of the times, it is the mother who decides to leave her job, stay at home, and prepare hot meals for her child, while the father is away working in another province. This is as tense a period for the parents as it is for the student taking the exam, as the parents pin all their hopes on their only child.
For the teachers in these two schools and many others, hopes of staying in the job the following year depend largely on their ability to churn out high Gaokao scorers and transform average students to top achievers. In Maotanchang, base salaries for teachers are two to three times as high as China’s normal public-school salaries. Additionally, the principal announces that for each student who gets into a first-tier university, the six-member teacher teams (a head teacher and five subject teachers) get to share a $500 reward. Teachers whose classes finish last at the end of the year can expect to be fired and no bonus is awarded to the whole group if they fail to reach the yearly quota of the number of students to be sent to the best universities.
To hang on to their jobs and earn handsome bonuses, teachers at Maotanchang put in 17-hour days monitoring classes of 100-170 students. The teachers also act as mentors and friends, and have to keep a check on the student’s class performance along with their mental health performance. They routinely monitor classroom behaviour by checking cameras in control rooms and identifying mischievous, distracted, or depressed students according to their facial expressions and actions. The student is then shown the video recording and asked to modify their behaviour and focus on studies alone.
Teacher-mentors routinely visit students’ homes to check for distracting material in their rooms and also help arrange funds for those students who cannot afford to pay the fees. In the face of much pressure on students (often exerted by teachers and parents), the additional responsibility of the teacher is to assure that the student is not driven to commit suicide or fall critically ill before the exams.
Gaokao experiences: a mixed bag of emotions
The experience of taking the Gaokao varies across regions and social backgrounds. For Mei Jiachang, a talented maths student and son of a poor farmer who grows rice in Sichuan countryside, the Gaokao presents the only surefire way of escaping poverty and entering a college.
Wu Jun, the head of campus security at Maotanchang school, where his son studies, ruefully admits that their family has failed to produce a graduate. He too has fervently pinned his hopes on his son to break the jinx. When the Gaokao result was declared, Wu Jun broke down as a heavy burden was lifted off his chest.
For people like my friends Tony from Shandong province and Wu Jing, Gaokao was a way to escape their boring lives and “explore” Shanghai. Both of them chose the subject they least associated with, international relations, only because they got a seat in a Shanghai university. Depressed about her career prospects now, Wu Jing told me she would now like to study international law abroad. Tony meanwhile has graduated and switched to a marketing job in Shanghai.
For Jia Qi, currently a PhD student of politics in East China Normal University (ECNU) in Shanghai, his Gaokao experience has been good because he was able to get into the undergraduate university of his choice. While for my friend Edward from Tianjin, the Gaokao was a “mentally and emotionally draining experience”.
Gaokao reforms and debates
While used as the main criterion to decide students’ professional fate, the Gaokao has consistently been criticised as an exam that relies heavily on rote learning and which saps creativity in the education sphere. From the primary school onwards, pressure over taking the Gaokao starts building up and leads to enormous psychological strain on students, especially in their final year of high school. And with a school system geared solely towards the Gaokao, primary, middle, and high school years are spent memorising subject material for the mammoth test, thereby prompting a student’s mother to sarcastically say that “the Gaokao race really begins at birth”, and another parent to call Gaokao similar to “a battlefield without the smoke of the gunpowder”.
Critics also point out that the system favours students from large cities and well-off families, even though it is designed to act as a level-playing field for all Chinese students. For example, a student from Anhui Province had a one in 7,826 chance of getting into Peking University, while a student from Beijing had a one in 190 odds, or 0.5 per cent. Student suicide rates have also been on the rise. An education think tank in China studied 393 cases of suicide and attempted suicide among youth aged between eight years and 17 years and found that family conflict was the major trigger in 33 per cent of the cases and study pressure in 26 per cent, followed by conflicts with teachers at 16 per cent.
Beijing is now pushing reforms to reduce student workloads, expand the curriculum beyond the core courses, and allow universities to consider factors other than Gaokao scores, and address difficulties faced by rural students hoping to enrol in top universities. Minister of Education Chen Baosheng announced at China’s Nineteenth Party Congress that China hopes to build a “comprehensive new national college entrance examination system by 2020”. In this regard, a pilot project was launched in Shanghai and Zhejiang provinces that allows students to take sections of the Gaokao multiple times from the second year of high school onwards, instead of the previous system’s one-time, two-day exam at the end of third year. The government is facing resistance from parents who fear that easing the pressure could hurt their children’s exam results, further strengthening China’s “prisoner’s dilemma”, according to Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon.
Nearly nine and a half million Chinese high school students took the 2017 Gaokao examination that marked the culmination of the 12 years of cut-throat competition, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, extreme pressure, and sleepless nights that students in China undergo to cross over to the next stage of their academic life: the university. While the moneyed class is opting out of the system in favour of Western education abroad, the Gaokao exam still remains the best bet at giving poor, rural students a common platform to access the best universities in China. Thus, the Gaokao system will continue to decide the fate of millions of youth who will join the expanding workforce in China in the near future.
For a better understanding of the Gaokao, here are two documentary series:
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