Memories of the Gaokao
The national college entrance exam of 2017, or gaokao for short, concluded in June, and students are on their way to university. Forty years ago, in 1977, China announced the official resumption of the gaokao system after an 11-year halt. Students numbering 5.7 million from rural areas, factories and troops took the exam. More than 150,000 students took the exam in Beijing, and 9,690 of them were enrolled in over 180 colleges and universities. China has ushered in a blooming period of science through resuming the gaokao system with reforms.
Chinese have always been exploring the gaokao’s influence and hold annual commemorations. A special exhibition is currently on show at the ground floor of Beijing Local Chronicles Museum to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the resumption of the gaokao. The reform course over the last 40 years is displayed through bulletin boards, videos and sand-table models. This exhibition showcases six major elements of the gaokao, namely registration, designing the exam, examination, marking, college applications and admissions. Some old photos show students registering for exams, candidates taking exams, teachers reviewing exam papers, college enrolment, opening ceremonies, and students taking a class and communicating with each other.
Resumption of the Gaokao
In August 1977, Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) held a symposium on science and education at the Great Hall of the People, marking the official resumption of the gaokao that had been halted for 10 years. Deng decided to resume the gaokao that year and put forward two requirements that only those with good behaviour and who got high scores on exams could be admitted.
Facilitated by Deng, the Ministry of Education convened a meeting on higher education in autumn of 1977 and formulated the Opinions on College Enrolment in 1977, later approved by the State Council on October 12, 1977. According to the document, refereeing was abolished, literacy testing resumed, and examinees who got a high enough score would be admitted to college.
Anyone eligible—worker, farmer, “sentdown” youth, ex-servicemen, cadres or fresh high school graduates were allowed to sit and take the national college entrance exam. For those with practical experience or who had special skills, age limit could be 30 with no constraint on marital status. High school examinees enrolled in college should account for 20 to 30 percent. All examinees must have high school-level literacy or an equivalent level of education.
The exam was based on voluntary registration. The setting of exam papers was independent made by each province. Colleges and universities would enrol candidates according to their overall competency and scores. The exam was scheduled in the winter and students would enter college the next spring. The resumption of the gaokao soon became national news and was extensively covered by Xinhua News Agency, the People’s
Daily and the Central People's Broadcasting Station from October 21. The whole country soon emerged in cheer.
December 10, 1977 witnessed the only winter national college entrance exam in the history of the People's Republic of China. For those who had taken the exam, that winter was as warm and bright as spring. Examinees were of a wide age range and from different walks of life—some married, others fresh out of high school, and others at a young age. Regardless of their occupations, they all appreciated this chance and were eager to take the exam. Some of them were husband and wife, father and son, uncle and nephew, brother and sister, teacher and student.
Forty years have passed, and many examinees have now become leading figures in science, technology and culture. At the entrance of the exhibition hall, a documentary video about the gaokao is played, in which a number of people who had taken the exam of 1977 tell their own stories. Ru Zhengang, recipient of the First Class National Science and Technology Progress Award and director of Wheat Research Centre, Henan Institute of Science and Technology, took the gaokao in spring of 1978 after graduating from high school. He enrolled in Baiquan Agricultural College (now Henan Institute of Science and Technology) to study agriculture. When recalling his examination experience, Ru was overwhelmed with past memories.
Features of Gaokao in Beijing
Over the last 40 years, Beijing was constantly improving and reforming its gaokao system that it made adjustments to candidate's qualification, relaxed its age restriction, practised its pilot autonomous college enrolment and issued new rules allowing children of migrant workers to take the gaokao in the city.
Students in Beijing were separated into science and liberal arts classes in high schools. Beijing has adopted the “3+2 Examination System” and the “3+X Examination System.” “3” refers to three compulsory subjects, including Chinese, Mathematics and English. “2” refers to selecting two subjects either from Politics, History or Geography for arts students, or from Biology, Chemistry or Physics for science students. “X” means that students can choose, according to their own interests, one or two subjects from either the arts (Politics, History and Geography), or sciences (Biology, Physics and Chemistry).
According to China's reform of the gaokao, Beijing established several separate entrance exams for outstanding art troupes, sports teams and single-sport players. It also promoted trial standardised exams, conducted abilityoriented tests to evaluate overall competence, and carried out reforms like adding foreign language listening tests and independent exam questions. Beijing began to set the gaokao exam papers independently since 2002 and has formed its own characteristics, namely comprehensiveness, integration and inclusiveness.
An exhibition of old admission cards for gaokao exams, dog-eared college application forms, piles of reviewed exam papers and poster boards displaying development and reform of the gaokao system depicts a common memory shared by hundreds of millions of gaokao candidates over the last 40 years.
A Topic of Universal Concern
An essay is required in the gaokao exam and is often a topic of universal concern. At the exhibition, topics of Beijing's past gaokao exams are on display, with changes are told over the years.
The 1977 gaokao essay topic for Beijing students was “My Past Year of Combat,” and the 1981 exam asked students to write an essay discussing “Destroying Trees Is Easier than Planting.” The gaokao essay topics become increasingly diverse and provide guidance for teaching high school Chinese. In 1985, students were asked to write a letter to a newspaper office after reading a short article. In 1988, the topic for the essay was “Habit,” and students could write in any style except poetry. This requirement for essays later became mainstream. In 1997, the composition was comprised of two parts: a newsletter and essay. The given title of the 2010 gaokao essay was “Looking up at the star-filled sky, standing on solid ground.” In 2011, the essay was on ping-pong gold medals, and the topic of 2012 gaokao essay was about platelayers in mountain areas. In spite of the diversification of gaokao essay topics, it is no longer a battle simply fought by Chinese students or their parents. Every year, the essay prompts in the gaokao exam would soon become a hot topic and lead to comments and criticism.
The glory of resuming the gaokao never dimmed over time. Becoming more fair, positive and scientific, the gaokao plays an increasing role in promoting social stability and progress. Forty years later, the gaokao has become a common memory and experience for generations of Chinese.