China's gaokao exams: every question counts

China's toughest exams can determine a teenager's future

June 08, 2013
© Alec Ash
© Alec Ash

Beijing No. 5 Middle School is a few doors down from my flat in the hutongs, seperated by a public toilet and a mahjong parlour. From my rooftop I can see them play basketball on the outside sports court, and spy into the classrooms that line the south face of the wide, five-storey building, a Pringle tube tower of stairs tacked on one end. I watch students in their baggy blue and white overalls cram books, monkey around and wipe clean the plastic windows every day before school ends. They watch me do tai chi, and occasionally sum up the courage to heckle me in English. “Hello!” the boldest kid in class shouts, giggling. “How are you?”

Today, the entrance to the school is cordoned off and there is a city management police car outside. A sign next to the gate reads “Examination point—please no random noises.” Next to it is a no honking sign. All construction work in the area has been halted. From my roof, I can see students in every classroom, heads down with their papers, stone still.

It’s the second and final day of the university entrance Gaokao exams, known inside and out of China for their difficulty and the crazy pressure examinees face in the lead up to them. The results will determine which university a student can get into—and by extension, some would have it, their job prospects and entire future. But don’t worry, there’s only 9.1m other examinees to compete with for those good spots this year.

9am to 11.30am on the first day in Beijing is the language and culture exam. The 800-character essay question this year, already released online, was “If Thomas Edison was transported to the 21st century, what would he have thought of mobile phones?” From 3pm to 5pm is maths, including questions of a complexity which in Britain you would only expect at university. The morning of the second day is humanities or science, depending on the student’s choice. The humanities paper includes politics questions on the fundamentals of Mao Zedong's thought and Jiang Zemin’s "Three Represents" (the theory that serves as the Communist party's official ideology today). And on the final afternoon, foreign language—English for the vast majority.

Gong Mengqi hopes to get into Beijing Politics and Law University, but she chose to take the science paper not humanities, “so I didn’t need to memorise so much stuff.” Emphasis on rote memorisation is a familiar complaint in the Chinese education system, as is learning the exam rather than the subject. She also complains that the Gaokao’s multiple choice questions are meaningless, and that the knowledge isn’t useful when you get to university or beyond. Taking the Gaokao is “like falling ill,” Gong said. “You don’t want to, but when there’s no choice, you just have to suffer it.”

It’s an attitude familiar to anyone who’s taken A-levels. But a more pressing problem in the Gaokao is inequity. Students in Beijing and other big cities stand an advantage over more populated regions such as Shandong (the birthplace of Confucius, progenitor of the original Chinese imperial exams). They face a considerably lower bar of entry to top universities, not to mention being privileged with a better education to begin with, as the best teachers are invariably poached from small towns. For a student in a rural province, you have no hope of getting into Peking or Tsinghua University, China’s Oxbridge, unless you study 12 hours a day for five years.

The number of examinees has declined for four years running. 180,000 fewer students are sitting the Gaokao this year compared to last, and a whole 1.4m fewer than in 2008. Some students opt for vocational training instead, dubious that getting into university will guarantee a good job (graduate unemployment is 10 per cent). Those who can afford it study overseas. This downwards trend, along with inequity issues, has been widely reported in the Chinese press—Gaokao fever always makes the front page this time of year—and it isn’t only students who think the exam needs reforming.

But Gong Mengqi just has to endure until the end of today and it’s behind her. Three weeks later, results come in. The top mark is 750. In Beijing last year, 495 was enough to get into a good university, but you need well over 600 to get into the best ones. Gong isn’t aiming that high. She simply wants a decent degree and prospects of a job afterwards. It isn’t that much to ask, but in order to get it, every question counts.