“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 the round and the square. Here is an example of a question for the entrance examination for Chinese higher education, the gaokao.
This week, 10.78 million Chinese passed the gaokao tests across the country. The world’s largest exam is basically the only university entrance in China.
Here, applicants 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 towards social advancement, towards better jobs, towards a life far from factories and the countryside. In many ways, the gaokao is close to the Enem or the entrance examination to Brazil. But the value of education in Chinese society is very different. The importance of gaokao in the collective imagination is another.
During examination days, drivers are prohibited from honking their horns near the test sites. Students may have priority on public transport. Temples receive offerings from anxious family members. Parents have already blocked the streets so that the noise of cars does not interfere with their children’s oral comprehension of the English exam, as the Chinese Pagode podcast tells me, in a great episode on the gaokao.
Almost all of Chinese school life revolves around testing. There are 12 years which culminate at the time of the go or break. Parents sacrifice themselves for the success of their children at gaokao, which puts pressure on children from an early age.
Some foreign universities, including Cambridge, recognize the result of the gaokao in their admissions process. Interestingly, however, many financially capable 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 be the cure for poor performance in gaokao.
The criticism of the model is not surprising. The gaokao ends up skewing the entire education system, promoting the culture of testing to the detriment of more comprehensive training. The schools would have become factories of preparation for the gaokao. In addition, excessive pressure affects the mental health, self-esteem and sociability of adolescents.
The reality is that despite this, the gaokao reflects important values in Chinese society. The country has a thousand-year-old history of civil service entrance exams. To become a “mandarin”, a bureaucrat in Imperial China, there was a test. Education and meritocracy have deep cultural roots.
Moreover, effort, discipline, and hard work are Confucian values - and enthusiastically endorsed by today’s official discourse. What’s more: in contemporary China, there is great pressure to succeed and have good living conditions. Gaokao fits perfectly into this cultural broth.
There are voices proposing reforms in the system, but the task is not easy. In 2016, one of the best schools in Nanjing adapted its curriculum to promote creativity, encourage group activities, etc. Student performance at gaokao plummeted. Angry 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.
Perhaps the students at Nanjing School today are able to talk about the subtle philosophy of the square and the round. Much to the relief of the parents and to my astonishment.
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