Students taking China's hypercompetitive college entrance
exam, according to a popular saying, resemble an army of 10,000 rushing across
a narrow log. So what happens to those who fall off?
Each year, more than 9 million Chinese students endure the gaokao, as the exam is known. A grueling two or three days'
experience -- it varies by region -- the test covers Chinese, mathematics, a
foreign language, chemistry, physics, geography, and history, among other
subjects. The test results, which range from the 200s to the 600s (scores of
over 700 sometimes make
headlines), comprise almost the entirety of a student's college application
portfolio. While some of the multiple-choice questions would be familiar to U.S. teenagers sweating over Advanced
Placement exams, gaokao essay prompts are sometimes so
bizarre that even Chinese state media challenged
its mostly adult readers to answer some of the more notorious essay prompts,
such as this one: "It flies upward, and a voice asks if it is tired. It says, 'No.'"
Because Chinese parents often expect their children to
become family breadwinners, the pressure to perform is intense. Faced with the
gaokao's high stakes and frustrating unpredictability, tens of thousands of
test takers choose to sit through the ordeal again, when their scores fall
short of their -- or their parents' -- expectations. Having already graduated
from high school, some of these re-takers hunker down at home for a year to
study. Others attend cram schools like Maotanchang High School, which lies
tucked away in a small town in the mountains of central China's Anhui province
and specializes in the dark art of military-style test prep. With an annual
enrollment of more than 10,000 students, the school, known as Maozhong, has
earned the dubious honor of being called
"China's Largest Gaokao Factory" in Chinese state media.
A Sept. 18 article
in China Youth Daily, a Beijing-based
newspaper, offered an inside look at the topsy-turvy economic and social life
of this exam-obsessed town. The piece, which incited a debate on the benefits
and drawbacks of the gaokao system, immediately became popular on Chinese
social media: One thread discussing the
article on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, has gathered more than 20,000
retweets and more than 5,800 comments.
The China Youth Daily
article claims that Maotanchang, a speck of a town with only 5,000 registered
residents, becomes home to more than 50,000 people when school is in session;
classes are so crowded that teachers must use loudspeakers to address the
hordes of students. The article describes schedules that run from 6:10 a.m. to
10:50 p.m., with students' waking hours consumed by endless lectures and repetitive
practice exams that abate only for two 30-minute meal breaks and one hour of downtime.
(Some teachers have suggested a scheduled bathroom time for "easier
management.") According to the article, one year in Maozhong's cram program can
reportedly cost up to $8,000, roughly three
times the average annual disposable income in Anhui.
The article depicts a local economy so tightly bound to the
cram school that townspeople have refrained from opening up the karaoke parlors
and Internet cafes otherwise ubiquitous in China. Instead, enterprising locals
rent out their rooms or dwellings for about $1,300 to $3,300 annually -- exorbitant for a Chinese town of
that size -- to parents who
accompany their children for the academic year.
report became a trending topic, people claiming to be alumni of the school took
to the web to share personal accounts of this "gaokao holy
tweeted on Sina Weibo, "I remember a classmate of ours sneaking online [instead
of studying]; he was sent back to his hometown in a police car with sirens
blazing." (His comment couldn't be confirmed, though investigations by Chinese media tell
similar stories of local governments putting their towns' resources --
including the police force -- behind Maozhong's brand of paramilitary
wrote, "You only see the high passage rate, but you don't see how much we have
given up to go to university. You scratch the surface, but you don't see how
much scolding and physical punishment there is from teachers or how many
students commit suicide under pressure." Another user, however, had warmer
memories: "Before going there, many thought they'd go crazy. But after leaving,
many start to miss the place."
The gaokao is not just difficult and sometimes arbitrary,
but also administered in a way that deliberately stacks the odds against
students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The score cutoff for admission to
elite universities is lower for
test-takers from rich cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where those same elite
universities are located. Favorable
quotas aid these students, who already have a leg up.
Millions of Chinese citizens have lived and worked for
decades in large cities, yet remain unable to obtain the elusive hukou, or household registration, that
would allow their children to take
full advantage of the superior education afforded urban locals. Mere
discussions of plans to open up the system to the "provincials" were met with fierce
resistance from Beijing and Shanghai locals, many of whom see such
privileges as their children's birthright.
Nonetheless, in a society with so many deeply entrenched
disparities, the gaokao still provides students with an opportunity for upward
mobility. Weibo user @CCDCG,
who claims to be a Ph.D. student from a rural area, wrote, "The gaokao is the fairest
competitive exam, relatively speaking. With an 80 percent passage rate,
Maozhong is really quite impressive. Getting a higher education is the only way
up for many, especially kids from rural areas. Nowadays, education resources are
highly concentrated [in cities], and I hope more underdogs can succeed in the
system." Another user agreed: "These 'gaokao factories' are likely to emerge in
poor areas. People from these places want to change their fate, but they have
no other path."
Getting into university is only the first rung on China's slippery
social-mobility ladder. As China's GDP growth slows from an annual
rate of over 9 percent over the last decade to about 7.5
percent a year, recent college graduates, especially those without the
right connections or parental support, find themselves in a brutal
job market. In China's hypercompetitive society, even a sterling gaokao
performance -- hard as that is to achieve -- no longer seems to be enough. As @eltonzhg wrote, "These
poor 'raw materials' undergo hellish molding and rigorous selection, [but] they
don't even know that goods like them are overstocked on the market."