Gaokao: China's Most Formidable Exam

The Gaokao takes place in early June and is the national college entrance exam of China. The Gaokao, spanning two days and covering Chinese, English, and math; is do or die, your score is what determines your admission into college which determines your career.


The Gaokao is extremely vital to one's career and as such is the only opportunity for many to escape poverty. Since the stakes are so high, many committ suicide due to the stress put on them by teachers, parents, and themselves. There are however, ways students take care of themselves during the exam season.

Some parents hire a "Gaokao nanny", a student who had passed the Gaokao in a previous year with flying colors. There job is to stay with the students beforee the test, offering companionship, advice, and helping them tackle test prep. They even stay up with them for all-nighters and get paid $45 for doing this.

Many students are also sent to Gaokao bootcamps where they prepare for the stressful test. In order to ensure that the students put all of their enrgy into studying, all forms of entertainment are banned so that sutdents have no choice but to study. But these bootcamps can cost around $8000, so using the time to study may be a good idea.

Unfortunately, many people resort to cheating on the Gaokao due to the high stakes. In fact, so many people attempt to cheat on these tests that some testing sites have metal detectors at the doors to prevent smart phones, ear pieces, and other devices from being smuggled into the examination.

Because of the stress from tests, and especially the gaokao, much of China's younger generation commit suicide. To help students look forward to getting good grades on tests instead of dreading them, some schools have utilized a "grade bank" in which a student who may have not done so hot on a previous exam can "borrow" points from the bank. That is of course, provided that they repay their debts with scores from future exams. This is meant to alleviate some of the stress that students feel to constantly perform above par.

Problems With the System

There have been controversy around this as debate and disagreement seem to follow the gaokao everywhere in the world. Many people dissaprove of the grade bank because they believe that'll make studdents lazy, and their fears may not be unfounded, however, it's too early in the game to fully be certain of negative or positive impacts of the grade bank. Many scholars also dissaprove of the gaokao, arguing that it only produces automatons that can memorize facts and figures but not much else. That it stomps on the creativity of China's younger generations. Others criticize the gaokao for putting too much pressure on the students. And even more people argue that the gaokao gives an unfair advantage to students from rich families as those students can afford more tutoring and lessons outside of school. This means that the gaokao is not meritocratic which is an issue for society. Not only that, but because the gaokao is so intense, many students are unmotivated to learn in college and teachers are also unmotivated to teach. This is an issue because the point of going to college is to learn and most students learning under the Chinese system aren't learning much in college. Despite the fierce protests and criticisms, the gaokao hasn't really changed from the time that it was established(1977 was when the modern gaokao took form).

The fact is, whenever the government tries to improve the gaokao, there's always pushback. For example, when the government announced that they would set quotas for students in poorer regions of China, mobs of middle-class parents flooded the streets in protest because they believed that those quotas would take away opportunities from their children. Either way, most changes aren't made because of crippling protests or because the alternatives would just give a bigger advantage to the rich.

Connections to the Past

The Gaokao was first adminstered under Communist rule in 1952 and then suspended while Maozhedong was in power only for the gaokkao to resume once again in 1977 and become the modern phenomenon it is today.

In fact, the tradition of having a single exam determine your fate goes back to Confucian times when the Civil Service Exam was taken by aspiring government workers. The Civil Service Exam was the national exam taken by graduates that wanted a government job when China was Confucianist. This meant that anyone who wanted to have an occupation that wasn't manual labor had to take this test. Confucius emphasized the importance of education and used the Civil Service Exam to create a meritocracy where those fit to rule would rule and those more fit to serve would serve. The Civil Service Exam was a test that tested applicants on their understanding of Confucian classics and their literacy.

The Civil Service Exam, like the gaokao, was the only criteria to getting the job that one wanted, provided you got a high enough score. In fact, there're many parallels to be drawn between the two; both have many participants attempt to cheat, both have very low success rates, and many crumble from the stress of taking this test.

This just proves that the gaokao, started under communist reign, is heavily influenced by the Civil Service Exams of Confucianism. In fact, the similarities between the two are astounding. Although Confucianism was founded long ago in the past, its legacy still lives on in The People's Republic of China.

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