China's toughest exams can determine a teenager's futureby Alec Ash / June 8, 2013 / Leave a comment
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,…