Mass destruction of textbooks, suicide…The tragicomic Chinese College Entrance Examination

June 9, 2011Jing Gao6 Comments, , , , , ,

The National College Entrance Examination in China, or commonly known as Gao Kao, is a series of tests adopted by almost all Chinese higher education institutions as one of the very few major criteria for enrollment at the undergraduate level. It is usually taken by students in their last year of high school, although there has been no age restriction since 2001. The tests for various subjects, including the compulsory three (Chinese, Mathematics, English), are arranged on 7th, 8th and 9th of June nationwide each year.

As the sum of the subject marks received by students determines if they can be accepted by their dream schools and if they can go to college at all, regardless of their previous academic performances in high school, the College Entrance Examination is deemed a rite of passage and a life-and-death turning point.

A Gao-Kao-themed parody film poster that reads "Epic disaster blockbuster," "Each stroke (of pen) is a human life," "Is the Heaven being tough, or are people's minds coming to naught?"

On June 5, 110 shuttle buses sent over 8,700 graduating senior students in two batches from the countryside in the town of Maotanchang to the city of Liu'an, Anhui Province to take the College Entrance Exams (gao kao)two days later.

Liang Shi, 44, failed the gao kao in 1983 and did not go to college. He flunked the next five annual exams. In 1995 when his life got onto the right track, he registered with the examination again. His dream school is the Department of Mathematics at Sichuan University. However, his maths marks have got worse in recent years.  This year, he took the exam together with his 18-year-old son. He said, “I am constantly adding firewood to heat up a kettle of water that has not boiled for long.”

Liang Shi is praying to the Buddha for a better mark by burning incense.

Chinese parents who, like Tiger Mom, have high hopes for their children, would wait outside examination sites all day, rain or shine. They chitchat with fellow parents or stick to their knittings to kill time.

Once the three-day gao kao made up of up to five subject tests is over, students have various ways to celebrate the end of their nightmare and give vent to their pent-up emotions.

Students hold high their teacher on the afternoon of the final test day and shout, "Teacher, we love you!" (By He Ben)

Class 8 of No. 2 Middle School in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province has sold altogether 722 kg (800 lbs) of textbooks and reference books to the local paper recycling station and earned 830 yuan ($120). (Photo via @Ilenp)

Students at No. 5 Middle School in Xiangfan, Hubei province tore their textbooks and reference books into pieces and threw them into the air from the school building and cheered the end of the exam.

Video on Youku

However, not all stories during and after the examination have a happy ending.

On June 7, the first day of the college entrance examination, a senior student jumped off the sixth floor of a dormitory building at a high school in Longhui county, Hunan province and died. According to Sina microbloggers, he was 15 minutes later for the test for Chinese and prohibited by the proctoring teacher from entering the test room.

On June 8, the sound system at a test center in Baoying, Jiangsu province broke down, which caused all English test takers to get nil out of 20 points of the listening section. On June 9, many test-taking students and parents went on a demonstration near the city’s Asia Square and held banners that read “Heartbroken,” “Dream shattered.” Quite a number of of the students shed tears.

If you think families are fully emancipated from the National College Entrance Examination and have quality time together after June 9, you are wrong. As the popular saying goes, June is the test for (graduating high school) students. July is the test for parents.

Corruption festers in Chinese education sector as it does anywhere else in the country. Therefore, one’s well-oiled family connection and generosity with bribe can surely make up for one’s mediocre and even terrible marks. After the test results are made available via the electronic system at the end of June, parents of students who are disappointed by their scores begin to look through their contact books for anyone who is remotely related to or a friend of a person in charge at a university, or ideally, a power broker such as a government official/employee. They put such a person on speed dial and call him or her several times a day in the following month, sucking up to the person and trying to convince the person how badly they want their kids to be accepted by their dream school and how “grateful” they would be if the dream comes true. Of course, whether pulling strings will work depends not only on the cash parents have plunked down in front of the power broker, but on his real influence and power.

But the exam has been gradually losing some of its luster since 2008. The number of students signing up for the exam, that of those who do show up at exam sites on the exam day, and that of those who do enroll have seen decline three years in a row.

Apart from the baby bust since 1990, studying abroad is also a huge factor in the waning popularity of the gao kao.

Almost twice as many Chinese go abroad to study as in 2008. Graduating high school students have played the biggest role in that increase. China has for the first time overtaken India as the biggest exporter of students, according to Beijing Evening News.

The outbound trend is the result of the growing wealth of the burgeoning Chinese middle class who want the best for their children and distrust rote memorization that discourages independent thinking and creativity.

Even those who do choose to or have no choice but to stay in China for higher education have now begun to criticize the gao kao or Chinese educational system at large.

@作业本 :Don’t be downcast after the exam. Do not mind it. It makes no difference if you go to university or not if it is a Chinese university. “God’s fair-haired children?” Bullshit. To this day, you cannot learn a useful thing at university, as nothing there is useful. It is more meaningful to stay home and read for four years or work for four years than to go to university for four years. Chinese universities nowadays are no longer like what they used to be before 2000. Even professors began to plagiarize for their publication.

Zhu Shiqing, president of the South University of Science and Technology of China, the first “autonomous Chinese university” independent of the official degree-granting system and an educational reformer, proudly declared that all of SUST’s first class of 45 students and their parents have said no to the college entrance exam. He was quoted by CRI as saying that gao kao remains the “only relatively fair way of student selection,” but education should come in various ways, and SUST wants to choose one of the alternative methods.

“The biggest problem in the education sector is, colleges do not value the quality of their education. Students muddle along for the diploma. Education has been twisted,” Zhu said.





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6 comments to “Mass destruction of textbooks, suicide…The tragicomic Chinese College Entrance Examination”

  1. Earthworm | June 16, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    Why are all those kids in the video wearing the same clothes? It looks like a Where's Wally convention.

    • Nighteyes | June 19, 2011 | Permalink Reply

      School uniforms. All students below college level have to wear school uniforms in China.

  2. Boo | July 22, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    It would be a curse to be born Chinese.

  3. [...] Moments after logging on to see the gao kao results (Jing: aka National College Entrance Examination), Sophie and her mom, Dai Pu, celebrate her marks, which should be enough to get her into prestigious Tsinghua University. (Read about the tragicomic Chinese college entrance exam) [...]

  4. John | May 28, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    I was talking with a Chinese colleague of mine the other day, about our high school days. I told her some stories of memorable teachers and lessons from my days in high school. I asked her what experiences she most remembered. She told me, “I try not to think about school. The day we finish school, we try to forget the entire experience.”

    The Chinese model is that of subversion. Whether it be government, law enforcement, employment, or education. Constantly Chinese have told me that, in school, they answer the 4 W’s. What, where, when, who. There is no why.

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