[photopress:mba_exams_start.jpg,full,alignright]The National College Entrance Exam, which takes place on the first Thursday and Friday of June, sees at least 10 million Chinese high-school competing for an estimated 5.7 million university spots.
The students are tested by the gaokao, as it is colloquially known. Kao means test, and gao, which means high, indicates the test’s perceived level of difficulty.
It last two days and has the ability to decide your future in life. It is as important as that.
As economic development in China moves forward, interest in and the ability to pay for a college education swell. So does competition. Getting into a top-tier university such as Beijing’s Tsinghua or Peking University — the former the alma mater of four of the nine members of China’s current Politburo, the latter China’s oldest university — might lead to an interview with a major multinational or an elite political job.
The idea is, of course, not unique to China — although in its intensity nearly so — but it has a long tradition behind it.
The Imperial examinations originally determined who among the population would be permitted to enter the state’s bureaucracy. The Imperial Examination System in China lasted for 1,300 years, from its founding during the Sui Dynasty in 605 to its abolition near the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1905.
The examination system brought at least theoretically and potentially power to the people.
In theory at least, any male adult in China, regardless of his wealth or social status, could become a high-ranking government official by passing the imperial examination. There are vast numbers of examples in Chinese history in which individuals moved from a low social status to political prominence through success in imperial examination.
By 1370, the examinations lasted between 24 and 72 hours, and were conducted in spare, isolated examination rooms; sometimes, however, it was held within cubicles. The small rooms featured two boards which could be placed together to form a bed, or placed on different levels to serve as a desk and chair.
Although the Imperial examination system was abandoned for a time under the Yuan Dynasty, and completely abolished in 1905 before the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 there is still a feeling that your future life is controlled by this examination, the gaokao.
Students become aware of the gaokao, the sole criterion for university admission, at an early age. Pressures and preparations begin accordingly. All schooling, especially middle- and high-school curricula, is oriented toward gaokao readiness. Students often joke that it takes 12 years to study for the test.
Essentially, Chinese universities accept those students who are good at taking tests. It can be argued that this has its flaws — and it has. But although it is oriented toward rote learning where memory makes the difference it is arguably better than other systems where class distinction and/or money decides university entrance.
Many brilliant students are not memory machines. So they retake the test after another year of studying (the gaokao is offered just once a year) and enroll when their scores permit.
This style of learning might not encourage creativity or individuality, but for the world’s most populous country, the gaokao provides an objective yardstick by which to measure academic success.
In theory at least, students’ social and economic statuses don’t matter.
Many Chinese citizens find the system painful, inflexible, and ineffective. But one student said, ‘It’s not perfect, but it’s the fairest system.’