Six years ago, Mindy Zhang was living in a small town in Ningxia, leading what Thoreau might have called a life of quiet desperation.
“I didn’t have any friends back then,” she told me. She passed her lonely and long hours studying. “There was nothing to do,” she said. “For fun, I read books.” Books like a dog-eared English copy of Henry Kissinger’s “Years of Renewal”—”for relaxation,” she said.
But during this third year of high school, Mindy was doing the same things as anyone else her age. “Like millions of teenagers in China, my life was oriented around the gaokao.”
The National Higher Entrance Examination—gaokao, for short—is a two-day (three days in some provinces), all-out battle between nearly 10 million high school seniors. A great score opens the doors to China’s most elite colleges; low marks can doom a student to another year of studying to retake the test, or may cause them to give up their college dreams altogether.
In many Western countries, colleges look at a number of factors when considering which students to admit. Standardized tests do play a part, but so do overall grades, extra-curricular activities, athletic skills, application essays. Chinese universities consider only one thing: gaokao scores. Nothing else matters. And because the test is offered only once a year, in June, the pressure is already on.
The gaokao is a modern institution—it was redesigned in 1977—but its roots run much deeper. China has had tertiary education entrance exams since the early 20th century, and the Imperial Civil Service examination system goes back as far as the Sui Dynasty (581-618).
In Imperial times, the results of a single exam could make or break the fortunes of an entire family. Lu Xun, one of China’s most famous authors, wrote that his family fell into poverty and shame primarily because his grandfather was arrested (and very nearly executed) for helping people cheat on the Imperial exam.
The gaokao is less intimidating than the Imperial examinations—most students at least pass it and no one is executed if they’re caught cheating—but there is still tremendous social pressure.
Neither of Mindy Zhang’s parents attended college, although both of them always stressed the importance of a good education. Mr. Zhang, a history buff, scored decently on the gaokao but narrowly missed a spot in college. His scores just weren’t high enough.
Instead of going to school, he found a job working for a state-owned enterprise in Ningxia, met a young woman, and married. When he and his wife were still in their early 20s, they had their only child, Mindy.
“My parents raised me without a lot of resources,” Mindy said, “and my high school was pretty bad.” At the government-owned company where her parents worked, employees’ children all attended the same school.
Two of her cousins had already gotten into prestigious universities, and if she failed to do the same, it would reflect poorly on her parents. “I have two aunts who were very overbearing,” she said. If she didn’t at least equal her cousins’ performance, her parents would have been subject to gloating and snobbery at every family gathering for the rest of their lives.
“So I had to work hard,” she said, “for my parents. They never asked me for anything, but I felt like it was part of my responsibility to do well on the gaokao. I knew this would make them happy.”
This kind of story is not uncommon. In part because of the one-child policy, many students find the hopes of two generations—their parents and their grandparents—resting squarely on their adolescent shoulders.
The gaokao isn’t only a hurdle for high school students. Parents struggle with how best to support their children, making tremendous sacrifices—especially in the grueling year leading up to the exam.
Any scrap of extra income goes towards extracurricular classes. Saturdays and Sundays are full of additional lessons, and students sometimes have more classes on the weekend than they do during the week.
There are essays and guide books written every year about how parents can best peikao (陪考)—assist students studying for the test. Nearly all of them recommend that parents become a “fixer” for their children, taking care of their transportation, food and clothing so that students can focus completely on the task at hand.
One sacrifice that everyone makes is time. In the year leading up to the test, families live lives of shockingly Spartan discipline. Students go to class and study in their free time; parents give up their free time to make sure that their children can stay focused.
Mr. and Mrs. Zhang were very careful to ensure their daughter could focus. When Mindy got to high school, Mrs. Zhang quit her job; she wanted to stay at home and spend time helping her daughter.
“She cooked for me every day—every breakfast, every lunch and every dinner,” Mindy said, “I was well-fed, which was really important.”
If Mindy needed to print something from her computer, her mom would take care of it, so that Mindy could keep studying. If Mindy took a practice exam, her mom would get the answer key and grade it herself, so that Mindy could keep studying. “She helped me save lots of time,” Mindy remembered.
When the test rolls around in early June, the whole nation observes what feels like an odd sort of holiday.
People who normally drive to work take the bus instead, to ease the traffic students might face. Police officers and cab drivers shuttle students free of charge, and sirens are turned off. Drivers don’t honk their horns and construction workers stop working. For once, the streets are silent; students can concentrate.
With this kind of pressure, inevitably, comes the temptation to cheat. An education official inJiangyong,Hunan Province was sacked for using his connections to help his son cheat on the gaokao.
Computer experts claim to be able to hack Ministry of Education websites and change a bad grade to a good one—for a price. Wireless cameras embedded in rulers, miniscule earphones, and similar electronic cheating equipment can cost students and their families a lot, as much as 1,000 USD.
But students caught cheating have their scores reduced to zero. And it’s not just the students putting themselves at risk if they choose to cheat; those caught selling cheating equipment can be detained and arrested for interfering with the important exam.
Mindy didn’t cheat, of course, but she might have wished for a moment that she had. Despite all her preparation, the first morning of the test was a disaster.
“It was a painful experience,” she said, “it was horrible. I couldn’t fill in the blanks of a classic poem and lost five points. I felt terrible about it. There were six multiple choice questions about Chinese characters and tones with some very weird characters I didn’t know, so I just chose answers at random. I didn’t do well on the essay, either.”
Students get a short break between each test section, so after the Chinese section, Mindy and her classmates left school to have lunch. “My parents were waiting for me outside the school gate,” she said, “and when I saw them I felt really terrible about it. I refused to talk to them. I just ate lunch and then went to sleep.”
The Chinese section of the test is notoriously difficult to prepare for. Essay topics are confusing and strange. The 2010 essay question was merely a cartoon of two cats eating fish, while a third chased a mouse. “Such times we live in!” said one of the cats. “Why would you catch mice when we have fish?” And that was it. The prior year’s test included a similarly opaque question: three short stories about accidental discoveries, with no prompt or direction at all.
Luckily for Mindy Zhang, things went better on the other sections of the test.
“I felt great,” Mindy said. She was confident she’d aced both the Math and the English sections, and if she was right, that would be enough to get her into a good school. All that was left was the waiting.
“I waited 17 or 18 days,” she said, “doing nothing, just waiting, very anxiously waiting, for the scores to come out. Then on June 25th, a lady from the famous Peking University called me and asked if I wanted to come talk about what major I was going to choose.”
Her family was ecstatic. Her father, in fact, was so shocked that he asked Mindy’s mother to double-check that that was really her score before calling family and friends with the good news. Her mother took photos of her acceptance letter and mailed them to her grandparents, then framed the original and hung it on the wall.
“My parents didn’t expect me to be that smart,” she laughed. As it turned out, Mindy had been right about her performance; her Chinese score was low, but she had scored perfectly on both the Math and English sections.
That was good enough to make her the third-highest scoring student in Ningxia—not as high as she had hoped for, but still enough to make her one of the eight students from her province get into Peking University.
Five years later, Mindy reflected on her gaokao experience in a café on the Peking University campus, where she is now a graduate student in international relations. “I’m really, really lucky,” she said.
“My dad is happy because at his workplace, his coworkers say ‘you have such a great daughter, we envy you.’ I’m happy with myself.”
“I think I’m a good kid,” she said.
- Keep it down, I’ve got an exam tomorrow.
- This eraser has x-ray vision technology.