Gaokao: 40-Year-old Turn­ing Point

In De­cem­ber 1977, China's pass­port to higher ed­u­ca­tion reemerged af­ter an ab­sence of 11 years, at which time 5.7 mil­lion peo­ple rang­ing from teenagers to young adults took the exam across the na­tion. Com­ing from al­most all cor­ners of the coun­try—schools,

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Zhang Xue

Turn­ing Point

Chen Yongjun will never for­get the date of Oc­to­ber 21, 1977. Be­fore leav­ing work to go home that day, then 22-year-old Chen got the news from China Na­tional Ra­dio (CNR) that the gaokao— the na­tional en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion to col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties— would re­turn. “It was a busy, noisy time in the fac­tory when we heard the news,” he re­calls. “I couldn’t hear the whole piece, but I caught the phrase ‘re­sum­ing the gaokao.’”

The next day, Chen rushed to the read­ing room as soon as he ar­rived at the fac­tory to look for the pre­vi­ous day’s Peo­ple’s Daily, where he found the full text of the gaokao re­sump­tion no­tice.

He was one of many high-school grad­u­ates who de­voted con­sid­er­able time to var­i­ous cam­paigns out­side aca­demic stud­ies dur­ing the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion” pe­riod (1966-1976). “I didn’t ex­pect to pass the exam be­cause I hadn’t learned much in school,” ad­mits Chen. “But the past didn’t re­ally mat­ter be­cause the exam could still change my fate.” He de­cided to reg­is­ter, along­side a few other fel­low work­ers.

With a month un­til the exam, Chen hunted for study ma­te­ri­als and worked hard, late at night af­ter work and dur­ing any day­light time he could find.

“Dur­ing the decade-long ‘cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion,’ none of us got a solid ed­u­ca­tional foun­da­tion,” says Chen. “I am ex­tremely grate­ful to my pri­mary school teach­ers, who had helped me up in the first step to­wards the exam." As well as study­ing hard, he at­tributes his suc­cess to good habits like read­ing books and news­pa­pers. “When I was a child, I found Po­lit­i­cal Econ­omy of the Soviet Union on my fa­ther’s bookshelf, and I liked it so much that I took it with me to work.” The book might have played a role in Chen’s choice to study eco­nom­ics af­ter grad­u­a­tion from col­lege.

That year, 270,000 young men re­ceived ad­mis­sion let­ters from col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties af­ter fierce, fair com­pe­ti­tion.

In 1978, Chen bid farewell to his co-work­ers and headed to An­hui In­sti­tute of Finance and Eco­nom­ics in Bengbu, An­hui Prov­ince. In an un­prece­dented move, can­di­dates pass­ing the exam in 1977 and 1978 started the se­mes­ter simul- taneously. He was part of the “non-tra­di­tional” group com­posed of mostly older stu­dents who had de­layed col­lege due to the chaotic “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion.”

“There were two gen­er­a­tions in my class,” grins Chen. “The youngest was 16 and the old­est 32.” Even with five years of ex­pe­ri­ence in a rail­way power plant un­der his belt, he wasn’t even close to be­ing the old­est in the class.

The cam­pus buzzed af­ter so many years of si­lence. Joy filled the air as peo­ple read books and re­cited po­etry. Early each morn­ing, stu­dents could be seen on play­grounds and in front of din­ing halls recit­ing English words and ex­pres­sions or read­ing text­books aloud.

“We were lucky to have a num­ber of pro­fes­sors who had stud­ied at world-fa­mous uni­ver­si­ties such as Har­vard, Cam­bridge and Ox­ford. Their tal­ents had been wasted dur­ing the ‘cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion’ and they were ex­cited to be back,” re­calls Chen. “Our class was so lively.”

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree, Chen Yongjun con­tin­ued study­ing for a PH.D. and even­tu­ally be­came a pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics. To­day, he is an in­ter­na­tion­ally-renowned eco­nom­ics scholar and teaches at the Busi­ness School of Ren­min Univer­sity of China. His days are fre­quently packed: A few days ago, he re­turned home in Beijing at 5:00 a.m. from a Belt and Road sem­i­nar for lo­cal en­trepreneurs in Shen­zhen, Guang­dong Prov­ince, but be­fore tak­ing a rest, he ap­peared at an aca­demic sa­lon at the School of Management of Ren­min Univer­sity of China at noon. Af­ter that, he rushed to a lec­ture for EMBA stu­dents at the univer­sity in the evening.

A month ago, Pro­fes­sor Chen re­turned to his old power plant to at­tend a re­union of for­mer em­ploy­ees, most of whom have since re­tired. Af­ter see­ing fa­mil­iar faces again af­ter such a long ab­sence, every­one ap­peared emo­tional and waxed nos­tal­gic about the good old days. “The gaokao helped me make a beau­ti­ful turn at the cross­road of my life,” Chen ad­mits. “For me, ev­ery step I took at var­i­ous times was cru­cial. My five-year ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing in the power plant gave me the chance to learn about the grass-roots class in China. It en­sured that I stayed grounded dur­ing my aca­demic re­search.”

A Life Marked by the Era

“Such sto­ries were like drops of wa­ter in the sea dur­ing that era,” Chen Yongjun sighs, con­tem­plat­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween his per­sonal life and ca­reer. “In­di­vid­ual des­tinies are of­ten de­ter­mined by the back­drop of the times. Drops of wa­ter don’t shine ex­cept at the top of the sea, rid­ing the waves.”

In 1976, China was plagued by a se­vere lack of pro­fes­sional per­son­nel af­ter the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion.” In May 1977, Deng Xiaop­ing, who hadn’t yet of­fi­cially re­sumed his post, noted that “the key to mod­ern­iza­tion is ad­vanc­ing science and tech­nol­ogy, which re­quires ed­u­ca­tion. Empty talk won’t make it hap­pen. We must seize knowl­edge; we must have tal­ented per­son­nel.”

In July of the same year, Deng Xiaop­ing re­sumed his chair as China’s head of ed­u­ca­tion, science and tech­nol­ogy. On Au­gust 4, he pro­posed a sym­po­sium and in­vited fa­mous sci­en­tists and ed­u­ca­tion ex­perts from across China to for­mu­late an ac­tion plan. Over­whelm­ingly, at­ten­dees com­plained in­or­di­nately about the sys­tem of ad­mit­ting stu­dents to col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.

At that time, Chi­nese in­sti­tutes of higher learn­ing only ad­mit­ted stu­dents who were rec­om­mended by the masses and ap­proved by author­i­ties. Dur­ing the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion,” ed­u­ca­tion in pri­mary and mid­dle schools be­came frac­tured, with qual­ity vary­ing widely. The rec­om­men­da­tion sys­tem en­abled wide­spread abuse, leav­ing count­less out­stand­ing minds with­out ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion and a pol­luted pool of col­lege stu­dents.

At a sem­i­nar at­tended by heavy­weights of ed­u­ca­tion and sci­en­tists from around the coun­try, Pro­fes­sor Zha Quanx­ing from Wuhan Univer­sity cut straight to the rea­sons caus­ing the chaos in higher

ed­u­ca­tion, and re­quested the re­sump­tion of the na­tional ad­mis­sion sys­tem and fair ex­am­i­na­tions that would re­cruit the best tal­ent.

Af­ter sev­eral rounds of dis­cus­sions, on Oc­to­ber 12, 1977, the State Coun­cil of China rat­i­fied the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion’s Opin­ions on the Re­cruit­ment of Col­leges and Uni­ver­si­ties in 1977, which stip­u­lated that work­ers, farm­ers and ed­u­cated youths who worked in the coun­try­side and moun­tain­ous ar­eas, veter­ans and that year’s high-school grad­u­ates were all el­i­gi­ble to take the en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion if they met ba­sic ed­u­ca­tional re­quire­ments. Qual­i­fied can­di­dates could vol­un­tar­ily reg­is­ter for the uni­fied exam.

That U-turn was mir­rored in mil­lions of lives. Many of those who passed the re­sumed col­lege en­trance ex­ams in 1977 and 1978 are now lead­ers in sec­tors such as pol­i­tics, com­merce, aca­demics, and cul­ture. Stand­outs in­clud­ing Li Ke­qiang, China’s premier of the State Coun­cil, who was ad­mit­ted to the De­part­ment of Law at Pek­ing Univer­sity in 1978, Wang Yi, China’s for­eign min­is­ter and an alum­nus of Beijing In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies Univer­sity, and pro­lific film di­rec­tor Zhang Yi­mou, who was ad­mit­ted to the De­part­ment of Pho­tog­ra­phy at Beijing Film Acad­emy in 1978.

Those who passed the exam in 1977 and 1978 hardly had a choice in be­com­ing trend­set­ters. Af­ter en­dur­ing tur­bu­lent lives, they re­turned to col­leges with in­flex­i­ble will and big long-term goals. Their work and life ex­pe­ri­ences gave them a far-reach­ing vi­sion and the grit to en­dure hard­ships. Those peo­ple came of age as in­dus­tries through­out the coun­try were struck by a tal­ent cri­sis, so the gen­er­a­tion was sad­dled with a his­toric mis­sion to drive China’s rapid devel­op­ment af­ter the im­ple­men­ta­tion of re­form and open­ing-up poli­cies.

1977: There were 195 exam sites across Beijing, avail­able for all can­di­dates who were el­i­gi­ble for the stan­dards of the gaokao. All ex­am­i­nees had to strictly fol­low the rules of the ex­am­i­na­tion, re­main­ing solemn and quiet in the exam room. by Gao Mingyi

On the morn­ing of Au­gust 4, 1977, Deng Xiaop­ing presided over a sem­i­nar on science, tech­nol­ogy and ed­u­ca­tion in the Great Hall of the Peo­ple, where he made the de­ci­sion to re­sume the gaokao sys­tem af­ter an 11-year pause. Xin­hua

Fe­bru­ary 1978: A group of fresh­men, who were en­rolled in 1977, have a class at Ts­inghua Univer­sity. They were the first group of stu­dents to pass the en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion and be ad­mit­ted by in­sti­tutes of higher learn­ing af­ter the coun­try re­sumed its gaokao sys­tem. Xin­hua

Spring of 1978: Pek­ing Univer­sity wel­comes the first group of fresh­men af­ter China's re­sump­tion of the gaokao.

In­vig­i­la­tors ex­plain the do's and don'ts. by Gao Mingyi

Brain­storm­ing an­swers af­ter the exam. by Li Miao

March 29, 1981: Stu­dents at Pek­ing Univer­sity in­vited vol­ley­ball play­ers from the Chi­nese men and women's teams, which had won honor for China, to a joint cel­e­bra­tion on cam­pus. On March 20, 1981, the Men's Vol­ley­ball Team rep­re­sent­ing China en­tered the Vol­ley­ball World Cup af­ter beat­ing South Korea 3:2 in the re­gional pre­lim­i­nary con­test in Hong Kong. Xin­hua

Teach­ers wait out­side the exam rooms to an­swer ques­tions from their stu­dents. The sub­jects for the col­lege en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion that year in­cluded Chi­nese, pol­i­tics, math­e­mat­ics, physics, and chem­istry. by Gao Mingyi

A sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ments class. In 1978, the Univer­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy of China es­tab­lished a spe­cial class for 21 gifted young­sters aged 11-15. Xin­hua

Med­i­cal aid is avail­able in case of emer­gency. by Gao Mingyi

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