Starting today, 9 million high school students all around China will be sitting the annual Chinese College Entrance Exam, known in Mandarin as the gaokao.
In the weeks before the exam, a typical classroom in China can resemble a hospital ward as students put themselves on IV drips. Parents rent out hotel rooms (called “gaokao rooms” 高考房) for their children near testing centers for preparation and breaks between exams; taxicabs in many places will offer free rides to students on the day of the exam to make sure they make their date with destiny. In other cities, even death and capitalism kowtow to the gaokao, as funeral processions are rerouted away from testing centers (Changsha) and McDonald’s offer free breakfast to any test-taker with ID on the days of the exam (Shenzhen). In Beijing this week, bars and drivers in areas near test centers have been ordered to quiet down to avoid disturbing the test-takers. Everything that can be done to ease the upcoming trials for gaokao students, is being done.
The gaokao, quite simply, can define the course of a student’s life. Ma Yingyi, an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University, writes poignantly about the gaokao‘s place in a student’s life in “Gaokao, a rite of passage, not an endpoint”.
“Our generation called it ‘Dark July,’ to symbolize the insurmountable stress, endless anxiety and non-stop work that enveloped our lives in darkness. Supposedly, when we completed the test and earned good enough scores for college admission, dark July would be over and there would be a bright future ahead.”
Ma says that success stories like her own (she went on to go to a university of her choice and received a full scholarship to graduate studies in the US) are few. But there are enough to reinforce the ethos surrounding the gaokao, which is about “opportunity, social mobility, and making one’s dream come true.” If this sounds like the American Dream, you’re not far off. Gaokao rewards hard work in an education system with a historical record of meritocracy, and is still a relatively fair mechanism for selecting talent. The idea is that a farmer’s son in Gansu has the same shot at Peking or Tsinghua (the Harvard and MIT of China) as a businessman’s daughter in Shanghai. In China as in the US, a first-class education is still considered the first step to a lucrative job and a better life.
With such high rewards comes high stakes as well. High school graduates must wait a whole year if they want to retake the gaokao, unlike the SATs which can be taken several times a year. These students are known as fudusheng (“复读生”, literally meaning “students who re-study”), and the costs, monetarily and psychologically, can be severe. The gaokao is quite literally the most important test that a student can ever take, a milestone in life akin to marriage, the first child, and buying a house.
“Although the endless preparations, exercises and cram classes before Gaokao are lamentable, they ironically give students’ lives motivation and meaning.” Yet at the same time, Ma points out, the gaokao is so definitive of an exam that afterwards, students lose drive and interest.
To critics in China and abroad, this disconnect between pre-gaokao and post-gaokao is symptomatic of the crisis in the Chinese education system. Students who cram for the standardized test are rarely capable of facing the learning environment in college, where they are expected to be more independent, take initiatives and engage in critical analysis.
Though more Chinese are starting to recognize that the gaokao is not the ultimate yardstick for success, and more students are beginning to seek a different kind of education abroad, the gaokao remains the only way for most Chinese high-schoolers to gain access to higher education. In a place as diverse as China, where going to university and obtaining a college degree is essential for social and geographic mobility, gaokao is the great equalizer. For an example that reflects this sentiment, a high school in Zhejiang province recently tried to motivate its students with the slogan “Without gaokao, how do you compete with the second generation rich?” As the gaokao begins for Chinese students all over the country over the next two days, we wish test-takers the best of luck, and to remember that there is life after the gaokao.