Chines students done with gaokao
Photo Credit: VCG

Sweat and Sacrifice: Five Stories of Gaokao

Hopes, fears, and reminisces from takers of China’s high-stakes college entrance exams

The results of gaokao, China’s most grueling national college entrance examination, began to be released in certain provinces on Wednesday. On June 7 and 8, nearly 10.8 million students across the country took part in the life-changing examination, making it the largest gaokao in Chinese history. TWOC has invited five current, former, and upcoming test-takers to speak about their gaokao experiences, their hopes for the future, and how the gaokao changed their lives.

Liang Qian, 17, Jiangxi province
A high school junior who will take the gaokao in 2022

The gaokao results will come out soon. I am so nervous and scared. But I don’t know what I, as an incoming senior, have to be nervous about. The test-takers’ anxiety is contagious. I feel as though I’ve just been wasting time for the last two years and learned nothing. I used to play around and join all sorts of cultural activities. This year, I need to give up all the activities not relevant to my studies, and I hope that I will spare no effort to study so as to be admitted to my dream university. But when I remember that senior-year students only have a few days of winter vacation, and study each evening until 10:30, I feel an overwhelming anxiety. Although I know this is how everyone spends their senior year, I’m still reluctant to do it. I don’t know how they adjusted.

Yang Rui, 19, Anhui province
A high school senior who took the gaokao in 2021

In my last year of high school, it felt like everything was playing at double-speed. I had no time to worry about other things. It wasn’t until I finished the exam that I realized gaokao wasn’t as spectacular as I had imagined. It was just peaceful, quiet. Now, everything seems strange. On social media, my classmates don’t share their travel photos and thoughts as before. After the exam, our QQ chat group became silent. I have no idea where they went and what they are doing. Before the gaokao, we didn’t shout from the rooftops or tear up our textbooks to release pressure, like students from some other schools were shown doing online. Everything was just ordinary. We attended school until June 5, two days before the exam started, when we began to review at home. I felt nervous then. But [after I arrived at the exam site], the exam just happened naturally.

After the exam, I am no longer afraid of getting sick. I can go to sleep whenever I want and for as long as I want. But one thing that troubles me a lot is that my body clock still wakes me up at 6:30 every morning. These days, I get more time for leisure, yet I’m starting to miss the days when I was striving toward the exam. I miss cramming with exercises, memorizing and reciting articles, and being invited to the teachers’ office to talk. Now, as the day approaches for the results to come out, I’m beginning to worry about my scores. If I don’t get a good result, what will I do? I feel anxious and afraid of disappointing everyone’s expectations. I wonder if things will get easier when I go to university? Our teacher always said: “Everything will be easier once you go to university.”

Update on June 23: I got my scores today! I was quite surprised when I saw it, it was totally beyond my expectations. I feel so lucky. The score gives me a lot of choices for university. I want to be enrolled in the best university I qualify for, and then choose my major.

Wang Yi, 24, Hebei province
A teacher who failed the gaokao in 2015 and retook the exam

Don’t worry; life is also difficult in university. I failed my [first] gaokao, so I only qualified for a junior college. Actually, my family members were not surprised about the results since they didn’t think I studied hard enough for the exam. But everything changed the day the results came out. I suddenly felt I couldn’t spend all my time goofing off anymore. Why was it that others could get into good universities, while I couldn’t? So I stayed in high school for an extra year to prepare to retake the exam. Here, I want to express my gratitude to my parents, who supported me the entire way and never gave up on me.

Going through senior year again was far more dull than I thought it’d be. I attended a well-known local school that specially enrolls students retaking the gaokao. Ten students were jammed into each dorm room. They turned the lights out every night at 11, and we weren’t allowed to talk or read books after that. If you wanted to read, you had to do so with a flashlight under your covers. The teachers took away our mobile phones and we could only call our families using an IC card that the school provided at the beginning of the semester. You had just seven to eight minutes to talk every week because there were other students waiting. It was different from my previous school. Here, we were just continuously having class and doing exercises every day. The classmates didn’t talk to each other, as they only had one reason for being at this school: taking the exam.

I can’t remember any feelings from that period of my life, only that it was filled with darkness and exhaustion. I always skipped my lunch break in order to study more in the classroom. Sadly, despite my relentless efforts, and earning nearly 100 points more than the previous year’s exam, I still only qualified for a junior college. I can’t remember how miserable I was when I saw the score. I felt useless. Whatever I tried was all in vain. But the point is: don’t lose hope, no matter what happens. I went to that college, prepared for the bachelor program [a provincial test for vocational college graduates to enter an undergraduate institution] during my second year, and eventually made it. My university classmates don’t know that I retook the gaokao and I don’t like to talk about it. Maybe I am still afraid that others will mock me. Yet, only I know what that experience meant to me. That experience gives me hope and coverage to tackle new challenges. I always wonder, if I hadn’t taken an extra year of studies and entered the workforce after failing the gaokao, what would my life be like now?

Wu Sheng, 27, Anhui province
A taxi driver who failed the gaokao

[My life] is not bad, just a bit harder. My family had moved from the village to the county seat to support my studies. I did well in middle school, but in high school I began to fall behind others. The high school I went to didn’t produce many students who could pass the gaokao. At that time, I was a poor student and had little interest in studying. Therefore, no one was surprised when they heard that I had failed. Now, I work as a taxi driver in my hometown. I get to be close to home and I don’t need to pay rent. If I’d gone to work in the provincial capital, Hefei, I’d have to rent a house and live by myself and I wouldn’t be able to save any money. In my hometown, where the average income is 3,000  to 4,000 yuan per month, I can earn more than 10,000 yuan during peak seasons like the Spring Festival. It’s just more tiring. I have to stay in the car from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. I even eat in the car. If there are no passengers, I just drive around the county, and this makes me realize what a truly small place this is. Yet there’s also a lot of freedom to drive. I can start working when I feel like it and stop when I don’t. There’s no one else managing me.

It would be a lie to say that I don’t regret my gaokao performance. I always fantasize that if I had worked much harder and entered a good university, things would be totally different. But sometimes when I watch short videos on Douyin of white collar workers in first-tier cities crowded onto a bus, I think that their lives are also quite hard. They have no freedom and are unhappy. That said, when I have kids, I will still ask them to study hard to get into a good university and broaden their horizons. After all, in such a competitive society, one day people like me will be weeded out. A good university may be a good way out. I can already see my entire life stretched out before me: get married, have children, and support my family. But then again, it’s hard to be sure: Who’s to say I won’t want to leave my hometown in the next few years and try my luck out there?

Li Guozhen, 25, Anhui province
A film director who attended and shot a documentary on Maotanchang High School, known for its rigorous test-prep curriculum

I took the gaokao in 2014. My score barely qualified me for a “second-tier university,” which I thought wasn’t bad but didn’t please my parents, so I decided to spend an extra year in Maotanchang. It’s funny, but the reason why I chose that school was because of the documentary A Bite of China (《舌尖上的中国》). One of the episodes showed the beautiful scenery in Maotanchang, so I thought, how wonderful would it be if I could study on a mountain! I was accompanied by my mother, who rented an apartment nearby and took care of me. The school charged tuition according to your gaokao scores, so I paid around 4,000 yuan [the rate for students who scored 1 to 40 points below the “first-tier university” cutoff]. Usually, I went to school before 6:50 in the morning and read until 8:00 a.m., when classes began. We had half an hour for lunch and were forced to have an hour-long after-lunch break in our classroom. Teachers were stricter here than my previous school. They supervised us to make sure we finished all our tasks every day. That is hardly feasible in ordinary schools.

At Maotanchang, scores are everything. Teachers will hint that you are a loser when they speak to you so that you push yourself to work harder and harder. Physical punishment also exists. I remember I once fell from around 1,000th to 3,000th in my academic ranking [out of more than 10,000 students]. My teacher made me stand in the doorway during class for almost a month. This encouraged me to work harder and later I rose to 100th in the ranking. That year had a great impact on me. I think the atmosphere at school made me what I am today. It constantly asked me to exceed what I thought I was capable of. When I retook the gaokao, I scored over 200 points higher than the previous year and was admitted to Shanghai University. Actually the first time around, the gaokao didn’t mean much to me as my goal was just to get married and have children, but Maotanchang encouraged me to work harder so I could venture outside my small village. It also improved my relationship with my mother. Once, I fell so sharply in the rankings that my teacher suspended me from class for a whole day. I felt so humiliated. But when I returned home, my mom didn’t blame me, and instead took me shopping. I got to rest that day and later, my ranking stayed around 100th.

In 2017, I made the documentary One Day at Maotanchang (《毛坦厂的一天》). I pretended to be a student in order to shoot on campus and filmed my everyday life. Every frame reflects my most vivid memories from those days—for example, my mother delivering my meals to the school gate. She cooked for me every day. The food in the documentary were my favorite meals from that time. That fuse box on campus was where I wrote down my dreams for university with a marker. I thought perhaps I might never come here again, so I wanted to give myself some closure. It is just a record of my personal memories, and I didn’t do much promotion for it.

For those who didn’t get the results they wanted this time around, I want to say: Educational resources are inherently unequal. It is not your fault. Just don’t give up and keep fighting.

All image from VCG


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