In June, like every other year, throughout all of China the famous Gao Kao (高考) was held.
As you may already know, it is an annual national exam that allows young high school students to be able to enroll in universities.
I don’t want to bore you too much with the data, numbers or methods used to come up with the final grade.
What I do wish to speak to you about is how this test directly influences the life of young students looking to pass it, and how this indirectly affects the life of all other Chinese.
This is because a test of this demographic breadth and organization is light years from what we’re used to in the West.
A brief history of the Gao Kao
The Gao Kao, whose full name is 普通高等学校招生全国统一考试 (pu tong gao deng xue xiao zhao sheng quan guo tong yi kao shi), is an exam held every year that serves to establish to which university a student may enroll in and begin to attend.
It is an exam that was instituted in 1952, close to the birth of the nation (1949), so as to control university enrollment on a national level.
In 1966 it was officially cancelled by the Cultural Revolution but was restored in 1977, and since then it has been held every year.
This exam is necessary since in a country as large as China there are few better universities, plenty of OK universities and tons of not so great ones.
Obviously every student aspires to go to one of the better schools since they offer more options for the future.
If university enrollment was open to all, there would be problems handling it since all students would likely apply to the two or three highest-level schools, leaving the rest with few members.
Such a solution would be unthinkable, thereby necessitating the organization of this type of test to better sort out enrollment.
It functions quite simply, but there are small differences between regions in China.
For example in some regions you can choose the universities you want to be considered for (usually between four to six) after getting your test grades, while in other parts of the country the choice of university is made before passing the test.
The length of the test varies by region, but is usually held over two or three days.
The administration of this test is very simple, but first I need to explain a small premise.
In Europe, the choice of a certain type of high school doesn’t usually affect applying to this or that university: a young person that attended for example an artistic high school could easily enroll in schools for math or law.
In China the situation is slightly different. By high school the student is obliged to choose which field to pursue, science or the humanities.
The Gao Kao test material will therefore be based on the previous choices and will be different both in type and difficulty depending on the choice of one of the two fields.
Three subjects are obligatory for all: Chinese, Mathematics and foreign language (usually English).
The rest are based on the field (scientific or humanistic) to which you belong.
The test scores in each subject allows for classification on the national level and assignment to the previously chosen universities.
Since this test is viewed as an opportunity to have a good job and better future, there are additional points for ethnic minorities (China has a total of 56 ethnic groups). In this way they seek to increase the chances for enrollment to those who aren’t of the main Han ethnicity.
How does this test affect the lives of young people?
This test has an enormous influence on the lives of students and their families. In the past we’ve already spoken about the importance of choosing a life path for a young Chinese person.
Well, the Gao Kao is one of the most important milestones on this path along with marriage and getting a job.
Since childhood, especially the older generations, have systematically prepared for this important event.
There’s sort of a “brainwashing” on the part of parents and grandparents to prepare a Chinese youth so as to take this exam seriously and diligently with the knowledge that his or her work future will depend upon its outcome.
Preparation for this test starts earlier then you can believe. A young couple that is expecting will first find a house in an area with good nursery schools.
This is because only after having attended a good nursery school can the child then attend a good elementary school. And usually by attending a good elementary school, a child will have the right training for attending a good middle school.
The same goes for high schools and universities.
This is why Chinese schools (usually primary schools) only accept students that live in the area where the school is found.
It then follows that to attend a school located in the Jing An neighborhood of Shanghai, a child will have to live in a home in that district.
Theoretically the best schools have the best teachers, and better teachers result in better preparation for the students.
All this has the Gao Kao and the student’s future as their objective.
So the stress doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of the young students, but also their parents, who well before having a child had to move and look for the best school and the best home that their finances would allow.
Especially in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where real estate prices have shot to the stars in recent years, the race for a home is one of the major concerns for young couples and Chinese new parents.
All this has to do with the “planning” (of which I spoke in the previously linked article).
You’ll hardly find any parents or new parents that don’t have their child’s education close to their heart.
Obviously the students too have their share of stress.
To be accepted into a prestigious nursery or elementary school, for example, parents and child have to pass a sort of interview with the future teachers.
They must evaluate if it’s worth admitting a certain child to their school and also the type of contribution the parents can give to the school.
Two parents with good jobs and good social position will have the chance to see their child admitted into the school of their choice.
The kids too have to demonstrate being worthy of admission. For this reason, while still little, children are encouraged by their parents to take courses of varying types.
It is normal to meet six or seven year old kids who have more to do than their parents who work. Besides school they have to pursue piano lessons or calligraphy, have to take lessons to better their English or math.
Returning home in the evening they also have to study for the next day.
All this is done because it is thought (especially among the older ones of the family) that this step is the only way to achieve a good career and a peaceful life.
The high population and resulting competition are valid reasons for thinking this way despite the fact that many successful men are not graduates, and it’s just as true that the majority of people have similar abilities and opportunities.
For this reason they are obligated to choose a more traditional path with the knowledge that they have to do better than others who are on the same path.
The “mad and most desperate” study continues until the last year of high school.
This is a key year since the normal teaching program practically ends in the second year of high school. The third and last years are exclusively dedicated to preparing for the Gao Kao.
Each day there are make-up classes, practice tests, deepening of this or that subject, etc.
Not everyone manages to hold up under this enormous volume of study and not all pass the Gao Kao on the first try. Those who don’t pass the first time will remain in sort of a limbo until they do.
This might take a lot of time considering that this is a test that takes place once a year.
For those that pass it though, there’s the prospect of really relaxing years at university, especially after what they went through to get ready for the test.
How does this exam influence the life of others?
Up until now I’ve spoken to you about the aspects regarding students and their parents, and have always said that for youths this is an important milestone in their lives.
But how does this all influence the lives of the community and life within large cities like Shanghai or Beijing?
Let’s start with the immediate relations that are closest to the students, namely the parents.
After that I will enlarge that circle to include the reactions of cities and the entire country.
We’ve already said that parents must do a lot of work in preparing their child.
A home near a good school, dedication and force of will to encourage their child during their scholastic years, being there for them in trying or uncomfortable times.
As a very important test and being emotionally involved, it is quite normal for parents to accompany their child on the day of the exam to the place where it is held.
Many parents take vacation days off of work so as to be able to be there physically on the day of the exam. And the company will almost never deny them these days off.
Accompanying the child to the school where the exam is held they remain there all day long waiting for it to end, from morning to evening for all days of the exam.
They prepare banners and posters of encouragement, spend the day talking about the test and children with other parents, staying outside the gates all day long so that as soon as the test is finished their children can see them as soon as they come out.
It’s a way for them to feel their presence and support in a time of great stress and emotional fatigue.
Besides parents and relatives, we daily encounter other people close to us in an indirect way, such as neighbors, acquaintances or friends.
Let me tell you a curious story that happened to my father at the end of the 70’s.
He lived together with his parents in a condominium in Shanghai, and on the floor above there was a family who lived there who made a racket day and night, so much so that it attracted complaints from the rest of the building.
Lots of times they went to complain but to no avail since these were very uncivil people (the Chinese and the 70’s/80’s, a deadly mix).
The time came to begin preparing for the exam, so he decided to go ask the neighbors to make less noise since he needed to concentrate to study for the Gao Kao.
These people, as soon as they heard of the upcoming test, stopped making noise that very day.
This example is to give an idea of the importance this exam has within a community.
Enlarging the circle we can give other examples.
As you well know, the Chinese like to use their horns when driving.
During the days of the test and near the places where it is held, there are signs set up at intersections that prohibit their use in the hopes of diminishing the speed and noise so as to not disturb the students during their exam.
And everyone that passes through that area, whether in a car or other means, actually respect those instructions.
On a national level, on Weibo (the Chinese twitter) or the Baidu homepage, there appear phrases or images of encouragement to students, sometimes written by common people, other times written by celebrities.
Are there alternative routes?
The majority of the Chinese population follows the way of the Gao Kao. In recent years however other alternative roads are becoming popular.
These paths are pursued mainly by families of certain economic means and consist mainly of sending their child to study abroad during their last year of high school.
The basic thought is very simple. The best Chinese universities that you can shoot for through the Gao Kao are far inferior to the best universities on a worldwide level.
The Chinese scholastic system prepares students very well to pass particularly difficult and complex exams. So why stress your child so much to then not be able to get into the best universities in the world?
Rather isn’t it better to have the same (or less) amount of stress but also have the chance to get into more important and prestigious universities?
This is where the parent begins thinking about the possibility of sending their child abroad, so that they can pass the admission tests for better universities than they could find in China.
At times both parents, or just one will move along with the child to live abroad for the length of the scholastic course.
For us Westerners it might seem like science fiction; plus this is a possible alternative only for those who have the financial means to face such an expense.
Yet the Chinese are a pragmatic people, and if it’s worth a shot, then they’ll likely undertake a certain path.
More than a gamble, it’s likely that they’ll view it as an investment in the future of their children. At its root, it’s just making a long term plan then working to accomplish it.
In a country with an enormous population such as China there’s really too much competition, necessitating the need to over-stress one’s children.
Every Chinese person would rather not have their child spend their childhood and adolescence in books, and knows quite well that it is a flawed system.
No one however has the courage to prove it at the risk of their child’s future.