Today is the first day of gaokou – the annual National College Entrance Examination which all high school students in China have to pass in order to get a place at any higher education institution. Gaokao is a major rite-of-passage and this year 9.3 million young Chinese will be sitting the exam. It is the biggest standardised examination in the world.
In the gaokou you are examined on everything you have ever studied since kindergarten – and the system works something like this: there are three mandatory subjects which all students have to pass, Chinese,mathematics and one foreign language – usually English, but you can choose Russian, Japanese or French. Then there are six standard subjects of which you choose two, three or four depending on what you wish to study at college or university. These six divide into three science subjects namely Physics, Chemistry and Biology; and three humanities subjects which are History, Geography and Political Science. Obviously there are also examinations for Music, Dance, Drama, Art and Sports – all of these also expect the student to pass an audition or try-out, or the submission of a portfolio of work in addition to the examination. Twelve years of study examined in 2-3 days.
The points awarded for each exam are totalled together to give a student their individual gaokao score which governs which universities and colleges will be open to them.
The universities and colleges have fixed admission quotas for each province and numbers and quality vary widely across China, a system which many complain about. For example Hunan Province has fewer colleges per capita than Beijing Municipality, and therefore sets a higher points target for its students. This means that if a bright student from Hunan wishes to go to the prestigious Tsinghua University they will have to achieve a far higher points score than a student who sits the gaokao in Beijing who also wishes to go to the same university. There are stories in the press of families relocating specifically to give their child a points advantage when it comes to this absolutely crucial exam. Social and economic status have no bearing on the gaokao and so many extremely poor students can and do use this opportunity to rise out of poverty and into a desirable career.
The Chinese started selecting civil servants and students on merit, based on exam results, hundreds of years ago, they are part of China’s cultural pattern and the entire population takes these exams very seriously indeed. Exams of this sort have always existed here, though they were reformed in the late 1940s. However Mao abolished them in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution. After Mao’s death in 1976 Deng Xiaoping re-instated them, and the current system of gaokao began in 1977.
In the west we are often led to believe that in China learning is primarily by rote, and that our system is more ‘intellectual’ or ‘creative’ and therefore superior in the long term – however having had a look at a few of the recent essay topics for mandatory subjects I think we may be kidding ourselves. Here are a few that you can consider – how would you have done writing about any of these? You have to produce 800 characters on each, poetry is not permitted and you should not include any personal information.
‘Time will not erode memory’
‘What is light reading?’
‘Why chase mice when there are fish to eat?’
The birth of Grimm’s Fairy Tales’
‘Looking at the stars with your feet on the ground’
To give the students the best possible examination conditions, all building or road work is suspended in the vicinity of the test centres, traffic cops are deployed to divert vehicles from the area, and big signs go up asking drivers not to use their car horns. The whole country goes into exam mode.
Makes the Matric exams I took in SA back in the 1960s look like a stroll in the park.