Imagine if your educational future rode on your answer to questions like “Which city is more hazy: Beijing or Shanghai?” and “How many monsters does the novel Journey to the West depict?”

Oh, I know the first one. It’s Beijing, hands down. But hold on, it can’t be that simple. What about the other question, how many monsters does… wait what? Isn’t the whole story, one of China’s great classical literary works, about kicking monster butt all the way to India? Where do I even start counting?

Wait, wait, are these trick questions?

Students aspiring to China’s top universities recently found themselves baffled by these exact exam questions on independent admissions exams organized by the colleges. While the Gaokao, the notoriously difficult national college entrance exam, is still two months away, many universities in China began administering independent exams in 2003 to help make the admissions more comprehensive.

The above question, “Which city is more hazy: Beijing or Shanghai” was found on the entrance exam for Sun Yat-sen University, while Shanghai’s Fudan University favored the philosophical interrogation of monster nature.

Open questions on these independent exams prompt students to shirk more traditional, ‘correct’ responses, and to answer more creatively. But for many students, accustomed to the ‘right’ answer structure of these Chinese education system, the creativity and imagination these questions demand are perhaps more stressful than liberating.



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