China’s gruelling exam culture under question

It is 2am on June 6, 2015. James Chen is lying awake in a hotel room in Chengdu, China. James usually goes to bed at 11pm but tonight he is too nervous to sleep. His parents tell him to relax and that everything will be okay, but the soothing words cannot fight his nerves. Tomorrow, James and 9.42 million other 18-year-olds will sit the exam they have been preparing for since kindergarten.

James Chen at Tongji University where he now studies. Photo: Madeleine Stephens

Chen sat the gaokao, China’s gruelling three-day college entrance exam, three years ago. During the gaoako the country’s billion-strong population slows; noise is limited around examination halls, temples and churches are filled with people praying for final year students and test-takers spend their final hours of study holed up in hotel rooms free from distractions. Cheaters can expect up to seven years jail time and parents line the street and cheer on their “heroes” when the exam is over. The students, and more importantly their parents, have been focused on this day and the three digit score they will receive since before they can remember. Fourteen hour school days and weekly exams are the norm as the huge population fights for a limited number of university places.

Chen aced his exam and earned a score of 658, cementing his place within the top 150 students from Sichuan Province. He says the gaokao is the fairest way for students to realise their dreams. “Especially for those who are poor, those who are born in rural areas. Their parents don’t have very good resources so they can use this way to fight for themselves,” Chen says. In China, the exam is seen as a great equaliser; a chance for the disadvantaged to change their life. China East Normal University curriculum and instruction associate professor Zhou Wenye says the main aim of the whole education system is “to know who the excellent talents are”.

However, the government is beginning to recognise the pitfalls in creating an exam-driven environment and is endeavouring to reform it. In 2014, the government announced new reforms would be trialled in Shanghai Municipality and Zhejiang Province and rolled out across the whole country in 2020. The State Council’s announcement of the reform said the exam affects the overall development of students and burdens students. To counter this, one of the goals of the reform is to “reverse the tendency of one-sided exam-orientated education”. But do the reforms do their job?

Chloe Shen at her high school. Photo: Madeleine Stephens

Chloe Shen is an 18-year-old student who wants to be a lawyer to help those in need and “fight the bad guys”. She sat the reformed exam this year in June. In the traditional gaokao, students studied maths, English and Chinese and chose either the liberal arts or science streams. Now students choose to study three out of six subjects: history, geography, politics, chemistry, biology or physics. Shen says the change can cause students additional stress because everyone is studying six separate subjects instead of four. However she does agree it gives students the chance to pick a range of subjects they are interested in. Chloe studied history, chemistry and geography: “I get some skills of doing chemistry experiments, I also know a little bit of history and I know something about other countries in geography,” she says. “It helps us to grow to be more knowledgeable.” The Chinese Ministry of Education reported 70 per cent of students had chosen to choose their own subjects instead of taking strictly science or liberal arts pathways under the new exam.

To alleviate exam pressure, the reforms allow students to take some exam courses at different times throughout the year. Students in Shanghai are eligible to test their knowledge in the Spring gaokao in April allowing them to redo the test in June if it doesn’t go as planned. Most of Shen’s classmates took the early exam to ensure they had two chances of achieving the high scores they needed.

Students used to get points added to their score for acing music, sporting and academic competitions. In 2018, the government reduced the bonus point system because people were taking advantage of it. Now you can no longer bump up your score with extra points for sporting achievements, academic trophies, being the top student in your province or if you have performed a good deed. However, bonus points for people from minority groups, the children of national martyrs and Chinese people who have returned to the country remain. Chen, who went to a wealthy school, says people used to abuse the point system. “A lot of students are forced by their parents to take lessons like piano or dancing or other musical instruments in order to get these extra scores,” he says.

Dr Zhou Wenye at East China Normal University. Photo: Madeleine Stephens

Zhou says the reforms allow for changes within the whole education curriculum. She says the teacher’s sole job was to prepare students for the gaokao but now they have more scope to explore project-based learning. However, she says there are still improvements to be made to ensure students develop their creativity and leave high school as well-rounded individuals. She says they need to implement more speaking and listening assessments and less rote learning to allow for critical thinking. Zhou translates something on her phone. The mechanical voice reads: “I’m very sad for this kind of phenomenon.” Zhou adds that the kids are being pushed by their parents and teachers. “They have little time to play and to do other things as they like,” she says.

Under the reformed system, Shen’s school days were still long. She would wake to the sound of her blaring alarm at 6am and race down to the dining hall to eat breakfast before morning exercise started. At 6:30am Chloe and her classmates would jog two laps of the playground as the sun began to rise over their boarding school. Next, she would sit down in class and pull out her textbooks for some morning reading. The bell would sound at 8am, signalling the beginning of classes for the day. There were five periods before lunch time and nine periods until the end of the day. And that’s not including three hours of study and further revision once she had been sent back to her dormitory at 10pm.

Academic testing is ingrained in Chinese culture. Gaokao-style tests have been used in China for more than a thousand years. The premise of these exams comes from Confucius teachings promoting meritocracy. The Keju, an exam to select civil service workers, was established in 608 and was only abolished in 1905. Even back then, officials went to great lengths to ensure the exam was fair. After people had completed the exam, a third party would write out the answers so no-one could be identified by their handwriting. The Keju was criticised as the moral character of applicants was not considered and the exam required people to rote learn classics and poetry instead of testing analytical skills.

A student studying hard. Photo: Madeleine Stephens

A thousand years on, the Keju’s sister exam, the gaokao, has been criticised for the same problems. The gaokao was established in 1952 as a way of determining who could enter university. The exam was suspended during the Cultural Revolution and reinstated in 1977. According to China Global Television Network, the number of test-takers increased until 2008 when a record 10.5 million people took the exam. Since then, enrolments have been declining. As China’s middle class grows and the country’s economic power increases, more students are studying overseas to bypass the examination. Within China, the education landscape is also changing with more alternative classroom options becoming available. Founder of tech giant Alibaba Group Jack Ma established his own private school. China Daily newspaper reported the school will allocate one teacher for every five students in response to China’s crowded classrooms and focus on creating global citizens.

Source: Statistica

Parents in China not only want their children to do well but need them to do well to ensure they can survive retirement. A combination of the controversial One Child Policy and a lack of social services for the elderly mean children must earn enough to support their parents in their twilight years. With so much competition for university places and jobs, parents need their children to secure a place at a top university. Shen remembers the morning she took the gaokao exam and laughs. “My mum tried to act like she wasn’t nervous but I know she was actually even more nervous than me. She prepared my breakfast and said, ‘What do you want to eat?’ I gave her an answer and she said, ‘Oh don’t eat that, I don’t think that’s suitable. No no no, choose this. Let’s try another one.’ So I think she was pretty nervous about it.”

Zhou Wenye says she doesn’t think the exam will get less stressful for students in the future. She says it is a problem caused by China’s large population, not the college entrance examination itself. “[It is] because the social resources are limited. There are not enough university opportunities for every student,” the professor says.

Source: Sohu News

Justin Xi in his office at East China Normal University. Photo: Madeleine Stephens

All this pressure is not healthy for students. East China Normal University psychology lecturer and Positive Education China Academy chairman Justin Xi runs sessions promoting mental health at schools around the country and says the pressures of the gaokao exam can impact students’ mental health. Students have difficulty sleeping, cannot focus on their work and in the most extreme cases, students cannot bear the pressure and choose to end their life. A government study in 2014 found out of 79 suicides in 2013 in school-age students, 93 per cent were caused by teacher-student arguments or academic pressure. The Guardian Australia reported schools were forced to barricade their top floors to stop students from jumping. Professor Xi says more and more researchers are speaking out about how the pressure of the gaokao can damage mental health but their voices are not heard by many outside of the mental health community. He says it is difficult to get the message through to parents but maybe things will change in the future, especially in the large cities where more educated parents are beginning to open their minds to more diverse career opportunities.

Students from rural areas unfortunately aren’t so lucky. As more and more of China’s population move to urban areas, there are increasingly less opportunities in the countryside. An investigation by state-run Xinhua news agency of the 2009 gaokao questions examined how cultural differences between rural and urban areas caused rural students to be at a disadvantage by arguing rural students could not answer essay questions about topics they were less familiar with such as style and celebrity endorsement. The research discovered adolescents who grow up in the city as opposed to rural areas were more culturally adept. The State Council mentions the need to remove the urban-rural divide but critics of the reforms say the issue has not been addressed properly.

Zhou Congcong took the exam at the same time as Shen in Shanxi Province. In 2016, only 9.93 per cent of people from this province received their first university preference, compared to 30.53 per cent in Beijing. He says he doesn’t know what he wants to do, but he wants to study at university. He attends a boarding school in a small town where they are less educated than other areas of the country. However, he believes the exam to be fair and says if you work hard, you will get the grades you deserve. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to change people’s lives, but at least there is a chance,” he says.

Percentage of students who received their first university preference by province in 2016


It’s 8pm on a Saturday night in June. Chloe Shen’s hands are shaking as she clicks on the web page. She types in her student number and presses enter. Her heart is pumping fast and she feels a little light-headed. Error: wrong number. Her mum and dad sigh from either side of her. She types in her number again, this time it works and she sees the three digit number which will determine her fate. 530. Shen stares at the screen. Her parents say nothing. She can’t think of anything, her mind is blank. Although her score is good, it is a little lower than she expected.

I receive a WeChat message from Shen a few weeks later. It is a picture of a red and white certificate, decorated in Chinese characters and an official-looking stamp; she will be studying law next year at Shanghai International Studies University. I asked her what she thinks of the exam now that it is over: “At first I thought it was important but now I don’t think so. I think maybe it is just a way to start a new part of life.”


This story was produced as part of the Curtin Journalism 2018 Shanghai Study Tour which was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.