A Chinese student’s many entrance exams
Each year, around the first weeks of June, throngs of worried Chinese parents wait for hours outside schools as their teenage children take the Gaokao (高考), a grueling three-day college entrance exam that’s similar to A-level exams and SATs in the West, except even more important.
When students emerge for a break from the exam, parents practically mob their kids, hugging them and then whisking them away to a hearty meal. During these three days, Gaokao is the entire country’s top priority; construction, for instance, is paused, and buses are free to students taking the exam.
Gaokao, which tests knowledge in Chinese, math, and foreign languages as well as other elective courses, determines where students will attend college, and by extension, their future job opportunities. University enrollment quotas often favor students from more developed provinces or cities, which tend to have better universities, by setting lower cut-off marks on the entrance exams than for students from poorer provinces. Thus, students from less wealthy provinces have to outperform their peers in Beijing and other large cities if they want to win a coveted spot at a top university.
Since the test is so crucial, students spend all three years of high school preparing for this exam. Students usually arrive at school before 7.30am and leave around 9pm. Some parents hire private tutors or send their children to after-school tutoring sessions. This past June, 10.5 million Chinese students took the Gaokao, but just more than half were accepted by universities. The other four million or so students will need to wait a year if they wish to retake the exam.
Chinese children officially start school at age 6, but some kids take classes for dance and music instruments as early as 2 years old. As recently as the 1990s, it was still popular for parents to teach kindergarteners Tang poetry and calligraphy, but nowadays, more and more parents prefer to send their children to learn more practical skills, such as speaking a foreign language.
In ancient China, schools were not open to everyone. The education system was divided into civil servant education (官学教育), organized by the government to train future government officials, and private education (私学教育), which enrolled students of both genders. Starting from the Han dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), civil servant education consisted of what’s called Sishu Wujing (四书五经), or four books and five classics, which includes four books of Confucianism and The Book of Poems, The Book of History, The Book of Rites, The Book of Changes and The Spring and Autumn Annals.
Beijing’s Guozijian Imperial College, located near Lama Temple in Dongcheng district, was regarded as the top school of civil servant education system until the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). As for private schools, Confucius was a model teacher, founding a large school that funneled students to the national exams. It’s said that he and his 72 top Confucians cultivated 3,000 students at the school’s peak.
Since the late Qing dynasty, Chinese education has continually evolved with political and economic changes. The current education system was gradually developed after 1949. Nowadays, Chinese children have nine years of compulsory education. Instead of studying the same subjects as Chinese intellectuals in earlier times – Qin Qi Shu Hua (琴棋书画), or music playing, go, writing, and painting – children now learn computer skills and foreign languages. By the time kids enter middle school, their schooldays already stretch as late as 7pm, and subjects include trigonometry and chemistry. Middle schoolers face an exam too, the Zhongkao (中考), which determines which high school they’ll attend.
As job competition in China has heated up dramatically in recent years, students are under even more pressure to excel academically, even at a very young age. Early this year, the government began adding Peking opera classes to elementary school curricula.