The Gaokao Highway to Hell

Posted: February 3, 2013 in Education
Tags: ,

China’s Gaokao college entrance exam, which heavily tests rote memorization and decides the fate of China’s youth, is objectively awful. Students know this, teachers know this, the government knows this, my aunt Agatha knows this. Recently though I’ve gained a new appreciation for just how horrific it is.

For the past week I’ve been in my girlfriend’s Shandong hometown staying with her aunt, uncle and 17-year-old cousin Emily.

Emily is a puny 90 pounds with the horrible eyesight common among Chinese youth.  If given the chance, she’ll talk to you for hours about soap operas and schoolyard gossip.

Two-and-a-half years ago she and her family came to visit us in Nanjing. It was a kind of celebration for passing the end of middle school test and getting into the town’s best high school. Since that trip, Emily’s life has been hell.

This summer she’ll take the Gaokao. So each day she goes to school from 7:30 AM to 10:00 PM with a two hour lunch. She gets Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings off…usually.

Every night at 10:15, her mom waits anxiously at the front door. When Emily arrives on her electric bike, she leans on the horn in annoyance. Her mom bolts out the door to open the courtyard gate. No matter how fast she makes it out, Emily is irritated. She’s running on fumes already and vents at the routine setback of having to wait ten seconds to get in the house.

When she gets in the front door, her mom hustles her over to a warm footbath she’s prepared. Any precious second that’s wasted is a second Emily will lose from study or sleep. But once she sits down to her footbath, she has a few minutes to unwind. It’s the one window where I can talk to her. The topic, of course, is how miserable her day was.

After we chat for about five minutes, her mom hands her a textbook and I take my cue to head off to bed. This is just the beginning of Emily’s night.

The time that she goes to bed varies. On a rare good night, it’ll be a little after midnight. I once woke up to use the bathroom at 2:30 and found her passed out on a book. “I’m just taking a little rest,” she looked up and uttered pathetically, as if she needed to justify the catnap to me.

If she managed to get all her homework done, her mom will rouse her at 6:30 AM – at which point they’ll bargain over whether Emily can have a few more minutes of sleep. Emily never wins this negotiation. Once she’s up, she’ll do a little morning studying, make quick work of her breakfast and be out the door (This is what I’m told anyways. I’ve never actually been awake to see it myself).

Normally, the entire family treats me like a prince. They’ll bend over backwards to make sure I don’t lift a finger while I’m there. Meals are placed before me and trips are made across town to get any little thing they think I might want, no matter how strongly I object (I like to think this is just because I’m a guest, but realistically, I know my foreignness plays a role). All this princely treatment ends abruptly though when it conflicts with the schedule of the Queen.

After subtracting the commute, Emily has an hour-and-a-half at home for lunch. I’ve been told ever so politely (but in no uncertain terms) that I’m to be out of the house during this period. Emily doesn’t have time to be distracted by me. She’ll scarf down lunch in a matter of minutes and then go straight to bed for some precious afternoon Zs…unless of course she still has unfinished homework.

After several more hours of drilling and practice tests, she’ll come home and repeat. As I head to bed I tell her, “Don’t work too hard.” I’m the only one doling out such advice.

My girlfriend has persuaded Emily’s parents that the brain needs time to relax, and now they’re relatively easy on her. During her free Saturday afternoon, she’s allowed to watch soap operas and talk with me for a little while before being directed back to her study desk. Many of her classmates though have their faces stuffed in their books at every waking moment or have an outside tutor arranged during this time.

Teachers and parents are perfectly aware of how much stress this puts on the kids. They try to occasionally organize activities to relieve the pressure and allow some semblance of socializing. But these occasions are too little and too contrived. Recently they had a class dinner to celebrate the New Year, but it was more like being let out of the dungeon to have a nice dinner with the other captives. Yes, the students were happy to have it, but there wasn’t exactly a festive atmosphere. Everyone spent the evening complaining to one another.

Two years ago during the Spring Festival, after Emily’s first semester of high school, she was already feeling the heat. One night while everyone else was visiting a neighbor, she broke down and started sobbing on my shoulder. “There’s so much pressure,” she said. “Everyone wants so much from me. I don’t know if I can pass. If I don’t they’ll be so disappointed in me.”

Considering how high the suicide rate is for Emily’s demographic, I was glad to be the foreigner disconnected from her world that allowed her to uncork what she’d been bottling up.

When I think back to my high school life – the parties, proms, sports, pointless time-killing shenanigans – it kills me that Emily won’t have any of it. She’ll just have memories of soul-crushing routine.

But the lost memories, the stress, the bodily harm – it might be worth it if there were something worthwhile at the end of the tunnel; something truly enriching that sprouted from all that time and sacrifice.

Yesterday, while studying, Emily asked me when you should say “It’s my pleasure” and when you should simply say “My pleasure” in English conversation. It seemed like a pretty pointless question. There may be a very subtle situational difference, depending on who you ask, but in what scenario could that very narrow distinction possibly matter? Sure enough though, there was a “correct” answer to the multiple choice question.

I flipped through the textbook and found pages full of similar hair-splitting drivel that would in no way actually improve someone’s ability to communicate in English. I asked Emily what exactly they teach her in school all day. “We write many passages,” she said. “And then they tell us how we should write it better [for the essay portion of the Gaokao].”

“You know, it’s not like Mo Yan,” she continued. “He tells very interesting stories, but we can’t write anything like that. If I write what I want, I’ll fail.”

  1. Jay says:

    Well written.

    on a side note: it should be “doling out” from dole, not dull.

  2. Kelly M says:

    All this pressure and yet graduates are finding it harder and harder to find a well-paying job. At this rate, China’s younger generation will soon be suffering one soul-crushing experience after another…

  3. kungpao says:

    Its so bad there. I’m no teacher but even I occasionally get asked to help a friend’s relative with their homework. I am always in shock how stupid and inefficient their books are. Sometimes the questions are with the king’s english, other times its with american style. No subjective or creative thought processes at all.

  4. 马美丽 says:

    Today on BBC TV, Al Gore finished his interview with the words “My pleasure”. What was the “correct” answer? As a Brit, I would say “You’re welcome” on being thanked. So I’d be no help to the poor child. And do the Gaokao questions vary between Brit English and American English as Kunpao suggests? How confusing!

  5. King Tubby says:

    Putting aside any empathy for Emily’s predicament, there is the larger context. Aside from the fact that China presently supplies the rest of the world with its widgets, and yes, many have been dragged out of poverty, this is a social formation which exists outside calendrical time ie the axis of progress. Dynasties rise, fall and are replaced, but social attitudes resist change. 5,000 years of the same tape loop continuous resetting itself.

    Imperial themes (the big exam), values , emotions and ethics remain the same and unchallenged. Individuals act out their roles in the Middle universe in a totally rigid manner. Power is worshiped and/or grovelled to according to one’s social position. Families must produce male heirs by whatever means possible. Thinks of the rest. Face, guanxi, ostentatious display, deception as a cardinal social virtue, the absence of any organic civil society etc.

    A nasty sewer of values and attitudes ill-suited to the new raft of challenges confronting China today. One can mount an argument that people in Mali enjoy a higher index of happiness despite its recent troubles. As for China replacing the West as the new axis of economic power and cultural/values influence, forget it. Environmental factors will totally obliterate that ambition and in the very new future. And just as well, given that the West is experiencing its own difficulties at the moment.

    Finally and off topic. totally unlike its neighbors Japan, Korea and Vietnam, people in China pay very little attention to personal hygiene, or at least that is my impression, having worked in three of the four.

  6. Nate says:

    The ability to past a test is most definitely used as the wrong benchmark to afford young Chinese people opportunity. The stress and anxiety of such intensive study surely has detrimental effects. All the study around revolutionising education in the west surrounds creativity, flipped learning and social interaction. Searching for better education standards by standardising testing is proving not to be the answer… What’s the use in having an army of kids who aren’t allowed to solve problems, think critically or challenge pre-established ideas becuase of fear of failing?…

  7. Gay Chevara says:

    Well written stuff. The Gao Kao surely is hellish in every shape and form………

    I wrote about the Gao Kao Failers here:

    It will all end in tears………

    • sinostand says:

      Ah yes, the school I used to teach at had a 2+2 program for the Gaokao failers to go to England. None of them could do anything related to English…some couldn’t even say their ABCs. Another foreign teacher gave them their mid-term. None came close to passing and he actually caught about 1/2 of them cheating (and even then they still couldn’t pass) so he failed them. The administration took him aside and said that he couldn’t fail anyone. Essentially, their checks had cleared so he had to push them through. He quit in disgust and left in the middle of the semester. I always wondered what happened to those kids that actually managed to end up studying in England. I feel like failing them early on was actually a favor to them.

    • foarp says:

      Yeah, Nan Hang had a similar class at their Jiang Ning campus when I taught there back in 2003. Students would do anything to pass, and had clearly had used similar methods in the past – one wonders why they didn’t simply use these methods to get over the Gaokao.

    • Gay Chevara says:

      ‘Do anything’? Like what?

      The students I have met, the Gao Kao Failers, are just lazy self-entitled little shits.

    • FOARP says:

      Lie, cheat, offer sexual favours – you name it.

    • Gay Chevara says:

      Lying and cheating I have seen. I have never heard of sexual favours though.

  8. Guy says:

    I remember the same thing when I was teaching English to gaokao kids. They were asking me stuff like whether to say ‘a lit candle’ or ‘a lighted candle’. Basically totally unimportant stuff which they will forget in an instant once the exam is over.

  9. The Gaokao principle, in one or another form, has worked well for 2,000 of the past 2,200 years. Competition for resources of all kinds has always been brutal in China (though far less so today than ever in the country’s history). It’s part of the meritocratic side of Chinese elitism, and the country is all the better for it, though the individuals may not be. People who excel in the gaokao and Government entrance exams go on to become more powerful than all the so-called ‘princelings’ combined – as we see with Hu and Wen (both from modest families, both prodigies in school).

    • foarp says:

      Ahh, dry up and blow away Godfree. No, the Gaokao “principle” hasn’t been there for 2,000 years. Even by the broadest definition (i.e., including every iteration of the imperial exam and Gaokao), you’re talking about 600AD – present, which is about 600 years short. In reality, of course, there were long periods during this time when the imperial exam wasn’t applied and actually positions were simply sold to the highest bidder.

      As for Hu and Wen being “more powerful than all the so-called ‘princelings’ combined”, you’re going to have a hard time making the same argument for Xi Jinping, who is clearly a princeling, and who is equally clear now Chinese president.

  10. 游侠 says:

    When I was in high school I slept 8-10 hours a night. I didn’t have a choice: my pubescent body demanded it. On the weekends it wasn’t rare for me to sleep until noon even if I went to bed before midnight the night before. And I had the understanding that this was normal, and more importantly, crucial, for our development. If this is true, aren’t young Chinese students…well, boned? A lack of adequate rest messin’ up their bodies and minds and all that?
    And oh man…high school was all about video games, eating ridiculous amounts of food, and trying to get girlfriends. I’d hate to have had those memories denied from me.

  11. Edna says:

    The gaokaos already seem harsh enough when you read about them, but to hear the individual stories and how it affects high schoolers’ lives, it just seems inconceivable… Makes me all the more grateful my parents immigrated and I didn’t have to go through this (as I know my cousins, who are still there, did).

  12. […] and in his spare time blogs on the culture, politics and business of China at Sinostand. His post, The Gaokao Highway to Hell, reflects on his personal encounter with the gaokao and its vice-like grip. He has written for […]

  13. DM says:

    That bit you described about “It’s my pleasure” vs” my pleasure” really struck a cord with me. I recently returned from teaching English/studying Chinese in Taiwan for several years, and the same inane questions on entrance exams exist there, too. I have a MA and would teach college-level English writing, but when I glanced over some of my private student’s English tests, I was always flabbergasted by the questions. Many times I would think there was more than one correct answer, or the question itself was irrelevant to really knowing English. I’d share my Chinese exams with my students as well, and they felt the same way about many of the questions I had to answer. I really wish I knew who was responsible for teaching Asian schools test design, because they’re doing a piss poor job.

  14. “But the lost memories, the stress, the bodily harm – it might be worth it if there were something worthwhile at the end of the tunnel; something truly enriching that sprouted from all that time and sacrifice.”

    But we all know that the entire system is cocked up, right? This system doesn’t breed the smartest people on the planet, and for all their tortuous (appropriate) work, the new graduates are bound for a less than luxurious deskjob, making a menial salary in a big city like SH/BJ (even a lawyer in China makes very little, by whatever standards you measure).

    The tragedy of it all is not that ‘it’s hard work and a hard life for a youngster’ ( I don’t know about you buy my High School experience in Canada was pure absolute hell, and I got fantastic grades — I’ll never miss those days), but that the outcome doesn’t seem to justify any of this idiocy. As a great man once posted on these Chinawebs, the goal for most young people in China is to GTFO.

    On that note, 加油!

  15. KalanStar says:

    Child abuse ma?

    What’s at the end of the tunnel? Another tunnel. The Uni one. And at the end of that, 30% unemployment and the salary of a peasant. “Ow wow! You get 5k rmb a month to wechat and QQ at the office.” China is pointless…

    PS. I think you Gao Kao blaspemy has gotten you site blocked… “Empty Socket Error” where i am in Shanghai.

    • sinostand says:

      Working fine here in Beijing. Of all the things I’ve written, I’d be very surprised if it’s THIS that gets me blocked.

    • KalanStar says:

      Anyway, it was only for a couple hours and then back to normal. It was likely only in the neigbourhood/district I was in at the time too.

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