In approximately three days’ time, construction all across China will shudder to a halt as square dancers, honking drivers and vendors disappear off the streets. No, this isn’t the apocalypse: it’s the entire nation holding its breath, as it does every year in June, when 10 million students across 31 provinces sit the National College Entrance Exam, better known as the 高考 (gāokăo, higher exam).
On June 2, the Ministry of Education released guidelines urging local authorities to prepare for emergencies like torrential rains, floods, earthquakes and disease outbreaks that could take place during the gaokao period. If nothing else, this underscores the extreme high stakes of the exam that is by and large the only criterion for admission to the top universities and colleges of the nation. The 2016 edition of the gaokao will take place starting at 9am on Monday, June 7, and last for nine hours across two or three days, depending on province.
There has been enough debate, including on The World of Chinese, on whether such a system is as fair as it looks or is a net positive for students’ mental health. That said, income disparities, corruption fears and an matriculating class the size of Sweden’s population together create a general consensus that the gaokao, while certainly flawed, is as fair a system as it gets. A literally life-changing test unsurprisingly leads to high feelings and nerves, and it’s not just the students and families that are feeling the pressure. Typing in “gaokao” on Baidu’s search engine takes you to a countdown clock giving the exact time, down to the second, when urban-dwellers around China have to make the following yearly sacrifices for the nation’s bright young things.
Mind your volume
Each year, cities across China pass noise ordinances prohibiting disturbance within a certain distance of testing sites, with some going so far as to issue bans across the entire city in order so students can focus and get enough rest during the crucial testing period. Though mostly focused around the days of the actual gaokao exam, these prohibitions can start from the last week of May and make a comeback before the Senior High School Entrance Examination, or 中考 (zhōngkǎo, middle exam), which is usually held two weeks after the gaokao.
China’s famously efficient, all-hours construction industry has been getting curtailed since the start of the month. Beijing’s municipal police, or 城管 (chéngguăn), have been inspecting construction sites in the evening to make sure no sounds of clanging and trucks backing can interrupt the study or sleep of the students staying nearby, while also shutting down night markets and outdoor barbeques. Cities like Guangzhou, Yantai, and Foshan have (respectively) issued blanket bans on construction at all hours, sale promotions and square dancing within 500 meters of testing sites. KTVs, clubs, dance studios and community are also being asked to lower volume and shorten their hours in some areas of the country. In the city of Baoji, Shaanxi, violators could see fines of 10,000-20,000 RMB. Citizens can report violations to China’s environmental protection hotline at 12369.
Drivers are prohibited from honking their horns on designated routes near testing centers in places like Tianjin and Fuzhou, Fujian. However, there is nothing to support the claim that airplanes are being rerouted to mitigate noise concerns, though Chinese media are reporting that this happens during exams in South Korea.
A sign prohibiting horn-honking during the gaokao period [TWOC]
Of course, noise complaints are not unique to the gaokao period. Citizens basking in blissful tranquility wish there could be noise ordinances for every other day too, as these comments online show:
Shìjìe dùnshí ānjìng le xŭduō, gāokăo zhēnhăo, rúguŏ píngshí yĕnéng zhèyàng zhùyì zàoyīn, shēnghuó jìu gèng mĕihăo le. Nĭ nàlĭ yīnwéi gāokăo yŏu shénme găibìan ne?
Suddenly the world is much quieter, the gaokao is the best. If we can be aware of reducing noise the rest of the time, life will be even better. What has your community changed because of the gaokao?
Píngshí zàoyīn jìu búshì wūrăn le? Jīazhăng zìfā dŭlù wéirénqíang de, wèile nĭ jīa wá shàng dàxué, qúanshì rénmín dōuyŏu yìwù ràngxíng?
So noisiness during the rest of the year isn’t pollution? Parents who post themselves [online] blocking roads and forming human barricades, is it the whole city’s duty give you right of way so your kiddies can go to university?
Travel for test-takers vs. everyone else
The city of Yichang, Hubei, has made certain streets and parking spots off-limits to freight trucks and other bulky or noisy vehicles, with some areas closed to all traffic except those belonging to test-takers and families. Some of its testing locations have their own shuttle buses. In Dalian and Xi’an, test-takers get to ride certain routes on public transit for free during the testing period, while Tianjin, Zhengzhou and Yulin, Shaanxi offer free rides on select taxis.
For those who aren’t a test-taker or family member of someone taking the test, this may not be the best time of year to plan your vacation to a Chinese city. Apart from the limited street food and restricted noise-making, hotel rooms close to testing centers, which are usually public schools, have gotten snapped up across the country by test-takers and families, including those who live in the same city and just want to avoid traffic or put travel time toward studying or sleeping. According to the Qingdao Morning Post, one parent booked rooms in four hotels at once in order to get dibs on the best rooms before he could confirm the testing site assigned to his daughter.
Advertised under names like “gaokao room” (高考房, gāokăofáng), “top scorer room” (状元房, zhuàngyuánfáng) or “golden pass list room” (金榜题名房, jīnbăng tímíng fáng), hotel rooms during gaokao period can be rented out at two or three times the normal rate plus a deposit of up to 1,000 renminbi, paid months in advance . Clever marketing aside, parents have told Qingdao Morning Post reporters that there really is a hierarchy of desirability for rooms that have windows, less noise and the right orientation. For the pickiest parents, anything from the lighting in the room, color of the wall and the way the room smells could be worth paying extra.
Reporters in the city of Changsha found that a single room in an ordinary, family-run inn that normally goes for 98 rmb has been booked for 228 rmb during the gaokao period, while a suite in a three-star Zhengzhou hotel, which has been converted entirely into “gaokao rooms,” went for 999 rmb. Restaurateurs near these hotels and gaokao sites have also gotten in the secret by offering “nutritious meals” for test-takers. But it’s not all unfettered capitalism, as the government of Changsha is reminding test-takers to report extreme room prices by calling 12358, the price-monitoring hotline of the National Development and Reform Commission. Reporters in the city of Sanya also note that some hotels and restaurants do price reductions, as opposed to gouging, for test-takers.
Tempers still boil over each year in spite of all these precautions. A housing complex in Chongqing gave us what seems to be this year’s first gaokao-related tabloid drama this week when parents called the police over the installation of air-conditioning units during the afternoon nap hours, which escalated into a shouting match and water dumped on a worker from an upstairs window before police could arrive. In 2014, Chinese rocker 汪峰 (Wang Feng) got pilloried online for holding a 2-hour concert on the same day as the English listening exam in Suzhou.
Are these worthwhile sacrifices, or would having the whole country treat you like glass just make you more nervous if you were the test-taker? Whatever your opinions, you can at least enjoy the peace and quiet in the meantime, and mind that you keep it down if you don’t want irate parents on your case.
Cover image from China Daily.