Ups and Downs of the Gaokao
China’s national college entrance examination, the gaokao can be the turning point in any student’s life.
A total of 40 years has passed since the gaokao resumed in 1977 after a decade-long interruption.
Due to the anniversary, the gaokao has been a particularly hot topic this summer. The media are vying for interviews with takers of the 1977 exam. Most have become successful as writers, scientists, officials or businessmen. The exam-takers unanimously agree that their lives were changed, and that without it, they would be growing crops in the countryside or working as migrant workers in cities.
As the first students admitted into colleges and universities after the resumption of the gaokao in 1977, the group was lucky to realize their dream of pursuing higher education. During the decade in which the gaokao was suspended from 1966 to 1976, pursuing academics over political orthodoxy could be a risky proposition.
On July 24, 1966, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) issued the Notice on Reforming the Recruitment Methods of Higher Learning Institutions, effectively
ending the gaokao system that had been in place since 1952. According to the Notice, colleges and universities were required to abolish academic entrance exams and recruit students via recommendations and specific selection criteria. The Notice stressed that when recruiting students, higher learning institutions should prioritize a candidate’s political performance over academics and health. This measure resulted in the replacement of the comparatively objective college entrance exam system with human opinion. Alongside the abolition of the gaokao, a cultural catastrophe dawned. Both traditional and Western cultures were swept away as “residue” of feudalism, capitalism and revisionism. The interruption of the gaokao also changed the lives of the youngsters of the time. Most were dispatched to the countryside to learn from “poor and lower-middle- class peasants.”
In 1977, as news of the resumption of the gaokao broke via loudspeakers in villages, factories, mines and urban communities across China, Chinese youngsters who had been deprived of the dream of attending college saw a ray of hope cut through the clouds and illuminate a road to a brighter future. In the first few years after the resumption of the gaokao, college students were particularly thirsty for knowledge after a decade of cultural famine. They were also eager to change the fate of the nation that had endured a decade of economic stagnation and political turmoil.
Since the late 1970s, the gaokao has determined the future prospects of many individuals and their families. With an increasing influence on social mobility, the gaokao provides the opportunity for the lower classes to move up in status and social class. In this context, some high schools adopt military-style management and make students study for a dozen hours each day. Almost every city suspends construction projects on the eve of the gaokao to ensure that examinees sleep well, and some parents block roads near testing sites to prevent noise from passing vehicles from disturbing students during English listening portions of the exam.
In many parts of China, students tear their books into pieces after finishing the gaokao, a ritual with unknown origins. Excited students frantically shred their textbooks and supplementary teaching materials to vent the anguish they have suffered in preparation for the exam. For more than a decade of their youths, they study hard with an eye on this single exam. However, the ultimate goal isn’t to certify knowledge, but to earn a chance to change their fate. Like a performance art, the book-tearing ritual implies that students see knowledge as nothing more than a stepping stone to the upper class, considered useless after the goal is achieved.
Over the past four decades, many have reconsidered the gaokao system, and relevant educational departments have constantly reformed exam methods, such as a change from a nationally uniform exam to province-specific versions, a shift from national unified recruitment to school-based independent recruitment, and an alteration from seven subjects to 3+X subjects. In fact, the gaokao is not only important for every family with children, but also for the state at large. Every reform aims to provide more options and opportunities so that students need not compete so fiercely to be admitted to a college or university. Administrators hope to shift the country’s education focus from exam prep to all-round development.
Today, the gaokao is no longer the only avenue for students to improve their chances of success, thanks to the introduction of alternatives. Children from rich families can study abroad in countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States without ever taking the gaokao. However, most students from ordinary families aren’t as lucky: The gaokao remains their only available path to a brighter future. Meanwhile, the idea that “studying is useless” is becoming more accepted by some people in the lower classes. With this in mind, they prefer to capitalize on their earning power in their young age than waste so many years in school.
The initial intention of the gaokao was to provide everyone a fair opportunity to attend colleges and universities by studying hard, a principle which has been warped by reality. Motivations to seek education can never be completely divorced from desire for material gains, whether in China or Western countries, in the past or at present. An old Chinese saying goes “hidden in books are gold houses and beauties,” which directly points to the material benefits of reading. Guided by distorted values, some parents stress over which famous kindergarten, primary school, high school and university their children will attend even before birth. Learning should be a joyful process of gaining understanding of the world and enhancing one’s abilities. Once education is linked to material gains, studying becomes a torturous experience that deprives children of a happy childhood.
Over the past 40 years, the mainstream opinion of the gaokao has remained consistent: The exam can change destinies, transforming a physical laborer into a thinker, a high-school graduate into an intellectual and a grass-roots figure into a member of the elite. As the country celebrates the 40th anniversary of the resumption of the gaokao, many are hoping that the exam can inspire people from all walks of life to pursue knowledge, as well as respect humble laborers such as farmers and construction workers.
May 23, 2013: Students participate in a mock test at Maotanchang High School, dubbed a “gaokao factory,” in Liu'an City, Anhui Province. With an increasing influence on social mobility, the gaokao provides an opportunity for the lower classes to move...