Faith and Testing in Beijing

BEIJING—On June 7, I visited Beijing’s Temple of Confucius. Generations of scholars have paid their respects to the ancient temple, which houses slates bearing the names of those who passed the Imperial Examinations. As I walked around, silently begging for better rote memorization abilities, I caught sight of a middle-aged woman audibly crying and praying in front of a large statue of Confucius, which had been adorned with red prayer tablets by students hoping for supernatural academic assistance.

June 7 also happened to be the start of the annual two-day long National Higher Education Entrance Examination or, as it is more colloquially called, the Gao Kao. According to an article in The Global Times, praying at the temple of China’s most famous scholar continues to be a popular Gao Kao preparation method. So I decided to interview several of my Chinese teachers—themselves recent college or graduate school graduates—about their Gao Kao experiences.

The exam is given once a year, and an individual’s Gao Kao score remains the sole factor for admission to the majority of Chinese institutions of higher education. According to estimates from 2009, only three out of five students achieve a score high enough to attend college.

Though daunting, the Gao Kao has practical advantages. It guarantees that each applicant possesses a baseline standard of knowledge. It provides a quantitative measure for the college admissions process, sidestepping the difficult process of assessing the relative merits of extracurriculars and recommendation letters. Indeed, people I spoke with expressed a strong belief that a more holistic admissions process would not work with China’s astonishing glut of applicants.

But people I interviewed also mentioned the test’s disadvantages. They were quick to stress the particular form of anxiety caused by having your entire academic career and intellectual ability reduced to a single score.

Yet, most surprising to me was their strong belief in the fairness of the Gao Kao despite its reductive nature. With emphasis on catching cheaters (this year, Xinhua reported that 62 people were detained for suspected cheating before the test even began), admissions standards that vary by province, and the controversial addition of extra points for ethnic minorities, the government strives to provide an equal opportunity testing environment. But within provinces, disparities in income and access to educational resources affect students’ performance. Given the simplicity of the admissions process, there are fewer opportunities to examine or offset these factors than there are in a more holistic system.

Several experts have been critical of how the process has given way to dramatic stratification within the Chinese higher education system. Graduates from a few select universities enjoy a high status in China, but the job market has become increasingly dire for those who did not attend such schools. Indeed, the downside to the impressive pervasiveness of higher education in China is the devaluation of higher degrees from universities that are less selective. A study conducted last November found that the average college graduate makes only 300 more yuan per month than the average migrant worker.

In this high stakes climate, Chinese and American media alike have cast light on the extreme measures some parents take to ensure their only child’s acceptance into a top university. Memorably, last year there were reports of parents providing their children with oxygen masks in the hopes of improving their concentration.

Indeed, given the very real importance of the Gao Kao on the life of the average Chinese student, a mother resorting to faith or superstition is comprehensible. And while the government has announced plans to reform Gao Kao—in some cases by allowing students to retake certain sections—the pressure on children and parents remains immense.

Ryan M. Rossner ’13, an associate editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Winthrop House.

Tags