The gaokao: still life's most important test?
Updated: 2012-11-23 09:10
By Zhu Beijing (China Daily)
Passing the gaokao demands serious study, but failing it is no longer regarded as guarantee of a bleak future. Provided to China Daily
University entrance exam has changed with the times
In a lecture at Zhengzhou University in July 2011, Bai Yansong, a well-known TV presenter, coined what is now often recited as a slogan to boost students' morale: "If there is no gaokao, how can you compete with the rich second generation?" (没有高考，你拼得过富二代吗？ méi yǒu gāo kǎo, nǐ pīn de guò fù èr dài ma?)
The saying reveals a crucial truth about the gaokao: to date, the exam remains the fairest way to give qualified candidates their best shot at higher education. But for 11 years it ceased to exist, suspended during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). Deng Xiaoping's proposal to resume the test in 1977 was a turning point in the fate of many young people of the era.
Chen Sihe, who took the 1977 gaokao and was admitted to Fudan University, is now an accomplished Chinese contemporary literature critic and the director of the university's department of Chinese language and literature. The 58-year-old man's voice fills with emotion when he speaks of the exam: "For me, the gaokao completely changed my fate."
At the time, Chen was a temporary librarian without a regular salary at a neighborhood library; he saw no hope of winning a place among the quota of permanent staff. When he heard the exciting news in the autumn of 1977 that the gaokao would resume, Chen immediately registered. In the following months he studied intensely to fill in the gaps in his education.
"I bought a self-learning book series for high school math physics and chemistry, and I taught myself algebra, plane geometry, solid geometry and trigonometry," Chen recalls.
That winter, more than 5.7 million people walked into the exam rooms, their ages ranging from 15 to the early 30s. However, the devastating damage wrought by the "cultural revolution" on the national economy had left the country with a shortage of blank paper on which to print the test. At the last moment, the Central Committee of the Communist Party decided to borrow the paper that had been reserved to print the Selected Works of Mao Zedong, volume 5.
Only one in every 30 test-takers passed that year, and Chen Sihe was among the lucky few. "By means of the gaokao, I successfully moved from the underclass to the intellectual circle," he says.
Wang Jiajie, who had the top score in the Shanghai gaokao in 2004, sees her success in a different light.
"It's more like a test of yourself. In preparing for the gaokao, I learned to work hard and be self-disciplined, which later benefited my college study."
After graduating from the School of Management at Peking University, Wang now works as an analyst at an investment bank in Beijing.
Not only does the significance of the gaokao vary among different generations, the exam has evolved to accommodate the characteristics of the different eras in which it has been set. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the gaokao essay topics over the past 30 years.
In the late 1970s, owing to the residual thinking of the "cultural revolution", the topics were tinged with heavy political messages. For example, the 1978 Beijing gaokao asked the examinees to abridge Speed is a Political Issue, notes of a speech by the then President Hua Guofeng at a meeting that called for society to learn from Daqing, a city in the Northeast regarded as a model of industrial development.
While politics defined the essays of the 1970s, the 1980s emphasized the development of a sense of social responsibility, with the Beijing gaokao calling for essays on topics like It is Hard to Plant Trees, but Easy To Destroy Them (毁树容易种树难 hǔi shù róng yi zāi shù nán) and Be the First to Concern Yourself with the Affairs of State and the Last to Rejoice in Personal Happiness (先天下之忧而忧，后天下之乐而乐。 xiān tiān xià zhī yōu ér yōu, hòu tiān xià zhī lè ér lè).
The essay topics in the 1990s yet again shifted focus from the nation to the individual, closely examining students' everyday lives. Typical topics included My Wealth, My Opinion on Extracurricular Reading and Perseverance - the Quality that I Should Pursue. The trend of highlighting individuality continued into the new century, with gradual reforms to the gaokao made to inspire more creative thinking.
Apart from reforming the exam questions, the Ministry of Education has also started to make plans to break the current practice of "one exam determining the whole life" (一考定终身 yì kǎo dìng zhōng shēn) by giving some top universities more autonomy in selecting students.
Simultaneously, failing the gaokao is no longer perceived as inevitably resulting in the candidate being consigned to a gloomy life of servitude.
Two famous gaokao "losers" are Jack Ma, CEO of the trading website Alibaba, and Yu Minhong, CEO of the New Oriental School, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and trains students for overseas English tests such as the TOEFL, IEITS, GMAT and GRE. Ma failed the gaokao twice, whereas Yu only scored 33 out of 100 in the English test the first time he took the exam.
Liu Jianqi, a graduate of Shanghai Tongji University, does not think the gaokao is the only avenue to success either. "If you fail the gaokao, you can still pursue undergraduate studies abroad. Nowadays, some parents even send their teenage kids abroad to attend middle and high school."
Qu Bowen, 25, a book editor from Hunan province, echoes Liu's views, but with a more critical eye.
"For urban kids, the gaokao may not be as decisive as before, given the diverse choices available. But for those from rural areas, success in the exam is still the only means for them to effect a change in their lives."
However, Qu adds that going to college no longer secures success in one's life, given that higher education in China has expanded from elite education (精英教育 jīng yīng jiào yù) to popular education (大众教育 dà zhòng jiào yù).
Since reducing barriers to admission in 1999, the number of students enrolled at universities in China has skyrocketed, jumping from 1.08 million in 1998 to 2.75 million in 2002, and has steadily increased since then. The college admission rate for those who took the gaokao this year was 75 percent.
This shift has driven ever-increasing numbers of new graduates to enter an already congested job market, creating a whole new pressure zone.
Courtesy of The World of Chinese, www.theworldofchinese.com
The World of Chinese
(China Daily 11/23/2012 page27)