Ups and Downs of the Gaokao

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Li Xia

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...

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