About 13 million high school graduates across China are nervously awaiting a test result that will determine the rest of their lives.
The gaokao – a combination of the words “college” and “examination”– is considered one of the most important events in the life of any Chinese student. The exam consists of three mandatory subjects: Mandarin, English, and math, with optional subjects including physics, history, and politics. Depending on the topic, participants spend between one and two and a half hours completing essay, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank type questions.
They spent 12 years preparing for the exam that would determine their careers and futures.
However, recent increases in unemployment — especially among young people — and China’s slowing economy have raised the stakes even higher for young Chinese in the 21st century.
The gaokao is actually a relatively new concept – only introduced in 1952 – but the test has long been a part of Chinese society.
“A good scholar can become an officer. He who excels in study can follow an official career,” the quote of the famous scholar Confucius, collected from 479 BC, sums up the situation of most of his time – whether you are in business, agriculture, or business services , the only way to access power through government officialdom.
Old talk shows
Since the days of feudalism, the selection of talent regardless of social class has been a defining feature of China with many inspired to become experts in fields such as military strategy, philosophy, and literature.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, during the Han dynasty, the process took the form of a “talk show” and was the peak of cultural exchange at that time. Scholars and academics, regardless of their wealth or social status, make comments on the world’s political and social spectrum on the first day of each lunar calendar month.
Hosts and guests who make impactful comments get attention and praise from the public. Later they became government consultants and even political figures.
Although the process was organized locally – standardization in such a wide area was almost impossible at the time – Chinese citizens knew that they could gain status and popularity through their talents.
It was the Sui dynasty, founded in 581, that officially marked the birth of standardized testing.
With more scholars emerging from every corner of ancient China, Emperor Yang Jian began to think of a way he could bring these talents to serve his administration.
Finally, under imperial orders, the Sui government started the Imperial Examination System (IES) – the largest and most influential examination of ancient times and a process that continues to influence students and academics even today. Through various examinations, the IES connects culture, society, economy, and politics into a unified system – all to serve the emperor.
For scholars, IES provides an opportunity for a decent job regardless of wealth, status, or family connections. For the Chinese at that time, there was no better job opportunity than serving the emperor, so many students wanted to score as high as possible in the exam so that they could be selected as civil servants.
All this may seem reminiscent of the British system of competitive examinations for the civil service, but as Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern-day China, said: “Almost all the examination systems of today are copied from British system. Further, the British examination system was originally learned from China. Sun received a Western-style education in Hawaii and Hong Kong.
Conflict brings change
Like most examination systems, IES also has flaws.
Until the fall of the Qing dynasty in China in the early years of the 20th century, the IES was adapted to select scholars useful to the government. The tests were very difficult but mainly focused on language and politics. Science and critical thinking skills are neglected with the best students able to memorize facts and literature. Similar criticisms are also observed among Chinese students even today.
After more than 1,300 years, the last imperial examination took place in 1904.
This is the end of an era, but also the beginning of the modernization of the examination system.
The Republic of China, which succeeded the Qing Dynasty, brought with it new ideas and concepts from the Western world, including the importance of science, military and industrial innovation, and cultural exchange.
Many prominent political figures such as Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang advised the importation of Western ideas into Chinese education – “Learn Chinese as Substance, Learn Western for Application.”
Led by scholars like Cai Yuanpei – who realized the problems and limitations of IES after studying in Japan, Germany, and France – a reform of the education system began.
Colleges are allowed to develop the subjects and questions of the examination on their own, and students can participate in several tests for different colleges, at the time of their choosing. The flexibility encourages more people to take college exams and ensures that the most exceptional students get university places. Qian Zhongshu, for example, a Chinese writer and literary scholar, was accepted into one of the country’s best universities after an outstanding performance in writing and literature. His math score is only 15/100.
Shortly after the Civil War and the founding of the Republic of China, the communist government established the gaokao with a set date each year.
The idea is to find China’s brightest stars – the young people who have the talent and skills to help rebuild the country after WWII and the civil war.
After the disruption and chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the gaokao was reinstated in 1977. That year, nearly six million students took the exam, and 270,000 were accepted to university.
Many of the participants became social elites who ended up contributing their skills to China and even the world, including former Premier Li Keqiang and world-renowned film director Zhang Yimou.
Since then, the number of gaokao participants has increased every year, with a record 13 million high school students entering the academic “battlefield” in 2023.
Throughout thousands of years of evolution, China’s standardized testing has inspired many but also created fierce competition.
The pressure to do this “once in a lifetime opportunity” begins to form in the minds of students as early as elementary school with some parents resorting to expensive tuition to help their children get the best grades.
As China has become richer, some families have made the absolute choice – sending their children to foreign boarding schools or emigrating – but for most families, the gaokao is, always, and always will be, the only path to success.
With reporting by Zidong Zhang in Doha.