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 re-tweets 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.