Gaokao: Fu­ture and Fate

gune’s ar­rival sends many young Chi­nese peo­ple and their par­ents into a tail­spin as the de­ci­sive na­tional col­lege en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion, pop­u­larly known as gaokao, ap­proaches. Af­ter many years of ed­u­ca­tional devel­op­ment, how­ever, to­day’s stu­dents are findi

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Zhang Xue Pho­to­graphs by Feng Jin

A Youth­ful, Bru­tal Arena

This year’s gaokao drew 9.4 mil­lion test-tak­ers. As al­ways, most of their par­ents waited right out­side the exam sites, with cell­phones ready to take pho­tos as soon as the kids walked out.

A few other ways to get ad­mit­ted to col­lege have emerged, such as rec­om­men­da­tions, en­roll­ment prior to the exam or study­ing abroad. But for the ma­jor­ity of Chi­nese stu­dents, the gaokao re­mains their best shot at get­ting into a good school, and most work ex­tremely hard in the hope of achiev­ing their dreams.

Heng­shui, about 300 kilo­me­ters from Beijing, is a lit­tle-known medium-sized city in He­bei Prov­ince. It first caught at­ten­tion be­cause of its po­si­tion at the bot­tom of the prov­ince’s cities in terms of GDP. Not so to­day. Over the last few years, Heng­shui High School has be­come a gaokao pow­er­house. In 2016, its stu­dents re­ceived the top four scores in the prov­ince and 139 grad­u­ates were ac­cepted to Ts­inghua and Pek­ing uni­ver­si­ties—two of the most pres­ti­gious in­sti­tutes of higher learn­ing in China. That was more than half of all the stu­dents in the prov­ince to be ad­mit­ted to the two uni­ver­si­ties that year. Not sur­pris­ingly, it is pop­u­larly re­ferred to as a “gaokao fac­tory.”

And the term “fac­tory” is war­ranted. Stu­dents’ sched­ules are de­fined to the minute: Rise at 5:30 a.m., run with a book in hand. Then morn­ing self-study, break­fast, and 13 classes with a lunch some­where in be­tween. Af­ter school they jog to the din­ing hall for din­ner, and then con­tinue study­ing un­til the lights go off at 10:10 p.m.

Zhi Chaoyang, 27, is a graduate of Heng­shui High School. His days there re­main fresh in his mem­ory. “It was a rule that every­one had to go to bed when the lights went off in the dorm,” he re­calls. “A teacher pa­trolled ev­ery hour af­ter­wards. If you even turned over, you could have a talk in the teacher’s of­fice.”

Zhi ad­mits that his high-school days were bor­ing. “My teenage years were filled with noth­ing but classes, study­ing and end­less tests. The Satur­day tests and the score post­ings made every­one ner­vous all the time.” Three years of painstak­ing ef­forts re­sulted in his ad­mit­tance to Ji­nan Univer­sity, and now Zhi is a se­nior an­a­lyst at Ernst & Young, one of the top four accounting firms in the world.

“My ster­ile high-school days made it hard for me to as­sim­i­late with the rest of the class dur­ing my early days at col­lege,” he re­counts. “They laughed at me be­cause I knew noth­ing about Harry Pot­ter or Star Wars. For quite a while, I stayed pretty quiet. Even now, I would make the same choice again if pre­sented with the op­por­tu­nity. De­spite a lot of prob­lems with the gaokao, I be­lieve it’s a rel­a­tively fair bat­tle­field. It was the only av­enue for me to shake off poverty and be­come who I am. But I wouldn’t wish it on my kids. I want them to have more op­tions.”

Study­ing Abroad

When every­one else was fid­get­ing anx­iously as they waited for the gaokao re­sults, Li Yao, a se­nior from Dongzhi­men High School in Beijing, was as cool as a cu­cum­ber. Four months ear­lier, he had al­ready re­ceived an of­fer to en­roll in the De­part­ment of An­thro­pol­ogy at Mcgill Univer­sity in Mon­treal, Canada. He didn’t even have to at­tend school in the sec­ond se­mes­ter and stayed home to re­search cour­ses for Mcgill. How­ever, Li es­caped the fierce com­pe­ti­tion of the gaokao by start­ing the race much ear­lier.

Li’s fi­nal exam started the day he en­tered high school. “An­thro­pol­ogy was al­ready my pas­sion,” he says. “It was my dream to study the sub­ject at a univer­sity to es­tab­lish a ca­reer.” Be­cause of his pas­sion for a soft science at such an early age, some­one sug­gested he study abroad, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing his im­pres­sive scores in English.

An English per­for­mance ex­am­i­na­tion is re­quired for ad­mit­tance to schools abroad. Dur­ing a sum­mer camp at a for­eign school, Li worked hard study­ing for the IELTS (In­ter­na­tional English Lan­guage Test­ing Sys­tem) and ended up scor­ing far above the re­quire­ment for most for­eign uni­ver­si­ties with 7.5 points, which was greatly in­spir­ing.

Dur­ing his fi­nal year of high school, Li pre­pared for the gaokao like his class­mates and prepped on week­ends for the SATS while study­ing ma­te­ri­als re­quired to ap­ply to in­sti­tutes of higher learn­ing in North Amer­ica.

“I even­tu­ally chose to study in Canada be­cause of a trip there dur­ing pri­mary school,” Li re­counts. “It was my first visit to Canada with my fam­ily, and I was deeply im­pressed.” He chose Mcgill for its re­puted teach­ers in the field, with hopes that they could broaden his vi­sion and steer his fu­ture.

The com­par­a­tively af­ford­able tu­ition was an­other con­sid­er­a­tion. “I’m so lucky that my par­ents could af­ford all the ex­penses.” For many fam­i­lies in China, an an­nual rate of about 300,000 yuan is far too much. But Li Yao is not an out­lier. Re­cent statis­tics show that in 2017, 60,638 can­di­dates reg­is­tered for the gaokao in Beijing, 584 less than in 2016. To­tal reg­is­tra­tion has de­clined for 11 con­sec­u­tive years.

For­eign uni­ver­si­ties have taken no­tice of the trend. So many Chi­nese par­ents are eye­ing for­eign schools that many have es­tab­lished of­fices in China. Streams of in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions and ed­u­ca­tion fairs have sold out in big cities as in­creas­ing num­bers of younger stu­dents seek un­der­grad­u­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties over­seas.

In some Chi­nese me­trop­o­lises, high schools now of­fer in­ter­na­tional classes in col­lab­o­ra­tion with North Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions that fea­ture the ex­act sys­tem set­tings of high schools on the con­ti­nent. Chi­nese col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are also launch­ing such pro­grams. Some par­ents sim­ply send their kids di­rectly to high school abroad.

The gaokao and the at­trac­tive mar­ket for study­ing abroad can peace­fully co­ex­ist. To­day, the once de­fin­i­tive gaokao has a new fla­vor in the new era. At an ed­u­ca­tional cross­roads, the younger gen­er­a­tion in China are en­joy­ing greater op­tions for their fu­tures.

June 7, 2017: On the first morn­ing of the gaokao, par­ents are wait­ing right out­side an exam site with their cell­phones ready to take pho­tos as soon as the kids walk out.

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