Mem­o­ries of the Gaokao

Beijing (English) - - APPRECIATION • EXHIBITIONS - Trans­lated by Huang Xing­pin Edited by Mark Zuiderveld Pho­tos by Xiu Yuchen

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.

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