“Milk containers are always square boxes; mineral water containers are always round bottles; round wine bottles are usually packed in square cases. Write an essay on the subtle philosophy of round and square.” Here is an example of a question from the Chinese higher education entrance exam, the gaokao.
This week, 10.78 million Chinese took the gaokao tests across the country. The largest exam in the world is basically the only entrance to the university in China.
Here, candidates list their preferred universities, and the score on this national exam determines whether the student has access to any of them. Gaokao is part of the Chinese dream, it is a path to social ascension, to better jobs, to a life far from the factories and the countryside. In many ways, gaokao is close to Enem or the entrance exam in Brazil. But the value of education in Chinese society is very different. The importance of gaokao in the collective imagination is another.
During exam days, drivers are prohibited from honking near test sites. Students may have priority on public transport. Temples receive offerings from anxious family members. Parents have already blocked streets so that the noise of cars would not interfere with their children’s oral comprehension of their children’s English exam, as the Chinese Pagode podcast tells me, in a great episode about gaokao.
Virtually all Chinese school life is test-oriented. There are 12 years that culminate in the moment of go or break. Parents sacrifice themselves for their children’s success in gaokao, which translates into pressure on children from an early age.
Some foreign universities, including Cambridge, recognize the gaokao result in their admissions process. Interestingly, however, many financially able Chinese families send their children to study abroad when their gaokao grades do not guarantee them access to a good university in China. In such cases, studying abroad can turn out to be the remedy for poor performance in gaokao.
Criticism of the model is not surprising. The gaokao ends up skewing the entire educational system, valuing the test culture at the expense of more complete training. Schools would have become preparation factories for gaokao. In addition, excessive pressure has repercussions on the mental health, self-esteem and sociability of adolescents.
The reality is that despite this, gaokao reflects important values of Chinese society. The country has a millenary history of exams for entry into the public service. To become a “mandarin”, a bureaucrat in imperial China, there was a test. Education and meritocracy have deep cultural roots.
Furthermore, effort, discipline, and hard work are Confucian values—and gustoably endorsed by today’s official discourse. What’s more: in contemporary China, there is great pressure to be successful and have good living conditions. Gaokao fits perfectly into this cultural broth.
There are voices that propose reforms in the system, but the task is not easy. In 2016, one of the best schools in Nanjing adjusted its curriculum to value creativity, encourage group activities, etc. Student performance in gaokao dropped. Angry, the parents demonstrated in front of the school. The liberal director turned around, the changes were reversed and everything was back to what it was before.
Possibly the students of the Nanjing school today are able to talk about the subtle philosophy of square and round. To the parents’ relief—and to my amazement.
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