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.
After the 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 land.” FORTHECITY 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 cramming.)
One user 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 hyper-competitive 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.”
Lu is a co-founder of FP’s Tea Leaf Nation.