The Long Read: Chinese children must endure years of stress and impossible expectations preparing for their final school exam. The students who do best can look forward to glittering careers and even good marriage prospects. But for the less successful, the system is brutal
For two days in early June every year, China comes to a standstill as high school students who are about to graduate take their college entrance exams. Literally the higher examination, the gaokao is a national event on a par with a public holiday, but much less fun. Construction work is halted near examination halls, so as not to disturb the students, and traffic is diverted. Ambulances are on call outsidein case of nervous collapses, and police cars patrol to keep the streets quiet. Radio talkshow hosts discuss the format and questions in painstaking detail, and when the results come out, the top scorers are feted nationally. A high or low mark determines life opportunities and earning potential. That score is the most important number of any Chinese childs life, the culmination of years of schooling, memorisation and constant stress.
On 8 June, the final afternoon of this years gaokao, parents of exam takers at one school in Beijing were packed tight around the school gate, jostling to get to the front of the crowd where a white metal barrier held them back. Special security guards handed out water bottles and cheap paper fans, while another manned a first aid stand under a large parasol. Cars were parked all the way around the bend of the road leading to the gate, simmering in the summer heat. Theyre all here to pick up their kids, a city police officer patiently explained to a driver struggling to find a space. A red banner above the barrier declared the school a National unified gaokao examination point. At the first sign of movement inside, the parents pushed in closer, craning their necks to spot their children emerging.
Shortly after 5pm, a student named Yuan Qi walked out clutching a clear pencil case and wearing a dazed expression. Around him, hundreds of exam-takers celebrated the end of their ordeal. Some clutched bouquets of flowers given to them by their parents; others posed awkwardly for photographs. Yuan Qis father, an administrator in the Peoples Liberation Army, was dressed in shorts and a polo neck. He had been at the front of the crowd, holding his phone up high to record the moment. But when his son came out, he greeted him silently and led him away from the hubbub to where his mother was waiting. She took his pencil case to stop him fidgeting with it. Hard? another parent asked Yuan Qi as they passed. Depends which subject, he replied. His father beamed with pride.
Yuan Qi is 18, thin and wiry, with blue half-rim spectacles, close-cropped hair and budding wisps on his upper lip. A student at Beijing 101 school, one of the capitals most prestigious boarding schools, he is the nervous sort constantly fiddling with stationery or picking at his fingers. He has a habit of rushing to the end of his sentences, slurring his words when excited, as if frustrated that telepathy is not an option. Ever since he was a young boy, growing up in Hebei, the province surrounding Beijing, Yuan Qi has had a talent for maths, science and problem solving. He loves reading murder mysteries, especially Agatha Christie novels in Chinese translation, which is how he came up with his English name Hercule although his moustache is yet to live up to it.
The first time a teacher of his mentioned the gaokao, Yuan Qi was in primary school. Used as a distant incentive for working hard, the word kept cropping up in school and at the dinner table until it dawned on him just how high the stakes were. While college entrance is competitive in any country, in China the top universities can select as few as one in 50,000 students. Competition is intense for white-collar jobs, with a graduate unemployment rate of about 16%, and which college a student goes to has an immediate impact on career and even marriage prospects. That placement is decided by a single factor: their three-digit gaokao score.
With so much to gain or lose, cheating is a big problem. Spy cameras, radio devices and earpieces that transmit questions and receive answers have been found hidden in jewellery, spectacles, wallets, pens, rulers and underwear. Most examination rooms install CCTV cameras, and some use metal detectors. Last year, police busted a syndicate in Jiangxi province, where professional exam-takers were charging parents up to a million yuan (121,300) to pose as students. In Luoyang, a city in Henan province, examiners deployed a drone to hover above school buildings and scan for radio signals sent in or out. Fingerprint and iris-matching has been used to verify the identity of students. Exam papers are escorted to schools by security guards and monitored with GPS trackers, while the examiners who draft them are kept under close scrutiny in order to avoid leaks. This year, new regulations came into effect that could sentence cheats to up to seven years in prison.
Yuan Qi was quietly confident. In his mocks he was averaging in the 690s, out of a maximum of 750 good enough to get into the capitals elite universities. He had been cramming for 12 hours a day in the months leading up to the test, with extra classes at weekends. Since March, he had been operating on just six or seven hours sleep a night. Every possible step had been taken to maximise his chances of succeeding. The day before the first morning paper, his parents had rented a hotel room next to Tsinghua University middle school, where he would sit his papers, so that they could arrange his meals and attend to his every other need. By that point, Yuan Qi had spent so much time doing mock exams that he was totally inured to the real thing, which passed in a haze.
It went about usual, he told me as we walked back to his hotel, massaging his wrist. Nothing out of the ordinary. Now I just want to go home and play some games. Yuan Qis father was still recording videos of him, still grinning. The exam is very nerve-racking, and each time when I was standing outside, before it began, I was terrified. But when youre actually taking it its not so bad. Now that the struggle was over, there was nothing he could do but wait for the result.
The gaokao is emblematic of the Chinese educationsystem as a whole. In the west, it is often seen as monolithic and rote; in China as tough but fair. In Europe and America, there is the notion that Chinese schools produce automatons incapable of critical thought; in China, many seem to think that western classrooms are full of students standing on desks and ripping up textbooks, la Dead Poets Society. Yet, where the Chinese model used to be roundly criticised for rewarding rote learning, now the systems gruelling schedule and supposed high standards are increasingly admired overseas. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, has praised Shanghais school system with at times absurd hyperbole. (One column was fawningly titled The Shanghai Secret.) Last year, the BBC invited two Chinese teachers to take over a sixth-form class in the documentary Are Our Kids Tough Enough? (Spoiler: they werent, but nor were the teachers.)
In China there are no illusions about the system being perfect. The exam is widely criticised for putting impossible pressures on children. Dissatisfaction with the gaokao is one reason that, among wealthier segments of the population, large numbers of students are choosing to study abroad. But, ultimately, most people support it, or at least see no alternative. China has too many people, is a common refrain, used to excuse everything from urban traffic to rural poverty. Given the intense competition for finite higher education resources, the argument goes, there has to be some way to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to give hardworking students from poorer backgrounds a chance to rise to the top.
The tradition of a single exam that decides a young persons prospects is one that goes back to antiquity in China. The imperial examinations or keju, which tested applicants for government office, was introduced in the Han dynasty (206BC to AD220), and became the sole criterion for selection from the 7th century until its abolition in 1905. Aspiring bureaucrats sat a three-day exam locked inside a single cell, in which they also slept and ate. The eight-legged essay was the most important paper, an argument in eight sections that elaborated on a theme while quoting from classics such as Confucius and Mencius. All applicants were checked for hidden scrolls; writing quotes on underwear was a popular form of cheating until examiners cottoned on. The pass rate was 1%. Nervous collapses were routine. There is even a ghost-deity associated with exams in China: Zhong Kui, a scholar who killed himself when he was denied first place.
While not a direct descendant, the gaokao is generally considered a distant relation of the keju. First instituted in 1952 under the new Communist government, the gaokao was suspended during the cultural revolution. Most universities were closed, and remaining college places were assigned according to political background rather than academic ability. It was only in 1977, the year after Maos death, that the gaokao resumed in its modern form. The first sitting was open to generations who had been deprived of the chance to pursue higher education 5.7 million people enrolled, competing for just 220,000 university seats. Since 1978, it has been held every summer.
The gaokao is made up of four three-hour papers: Chinese, English, maths and a choice of either sciences (biology, chemistry, physics) or humanities (geography, history, politics). The questions are mostly multiple-choice or fill-in-the-gap, and are notoriously hard the maths paper has been compared to university-level maths in the UK. But for many students, the most intimidating element is the essay in the Chinese exam. Students are given an hour to write on one of two prompts, which are often infuriatingly elliptical. Prompts in 2015 included Do butterfly wings have colours? and Who do you admire the most? A biotechnology researcher, a welding engineering technician or a photographer?. This summer, Yuan Qis choice was between Old accent and Mysterious bookmark. (He picked old accent.)
It is no surprise that, for many students, the pressure heaped on them by parents, teachers and themselves, is overwhelming. It is possible to retake the exam one year later, but if a student continues to fail there is no safety net or alternative path to university. Suicides are a regular feature of every exam season; a 2014 study claimed that exam stress was a contributing factor in 93% of cases in which school students took their own lives. Last year, a middle school in Hebei province fenced off its upper-floor dormitory balconies with grates, after two students jumpedto their deaths in the months leading up to the gaokao. And the academic stress starts early in July a 10-year-old boy tried to kill himself in oncoming traffic after fighting with his mother about homework. But still the study mill grinds on.