October 1, 2016, by Tony Hong

China’s Examination Hell

By Anthony Carter,

BA Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

9:30pm. The seconds ticked by and then, like animals being released from captivity into the Serengeti, a shy, lonely trickle of students, slowly developing into a stream, sleepily marched from the main school building and out of the dark school gates into the bustling throng of cars and taxis that mushroomed around the gates like the roots of an old tree.

In common with millions of teenagers across China, these children at Hebei Province’s Tangshan No.1 High School face gruelling 15 hour school days in the years running up to the crucial ‘Gaokao’ examinations, the equivalent of the UK’s A-levels. These exams determine who gets a place at China’s increasingly competitive top universities.

Every student the world over knows the energy drink-infused frenzy of sleepless nights and seemingly never-ending revision in the days leading up to an important exam. Despite this, the pressure China’s education system puts its students under has still managed to attract worldwide infamy. Such stories as a school classroom in Hubei putting students under intravenous drips to help them study late into the night fit into the stereotypical narrative of ‘hard-working’ Chinese students.

China is the Emperor of exams. In as far back as the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD), as an act to ‘strike a blow against government by the hereditary aristocracy’, students would take Imperial Examinations to earn government positions. Thus consolidating the Emperor’s power. Passing the Imperial Examinations became an entrenched must-do stage of life for ambitious youngsters, and an entrenched part of Chinese culture. The virtue of studying was waxed lyrical in classic Chinese texts.

‘To enrich your family, no need to buy good land:

Books hold a thousand measures of grain.


Marrying, be not vexed by lack of a good go-between;

In books there are girls with faces of jade.’

– Song Emperor Zhensong

Back then, the main subject on the curriculum was the boring and boorish philosopher Confucius. Students were expected to learn a staggering 400,000 characters in the 7 books that form the Confucian classics. They would spend days upon sunny days of their childhood slumped over a desk copying line upon line of characters, being beaten if they couldn’t regurgitate it all exactly word for word for their relentless, troll-like tutors, eager to dish out the same as they received in their childhood. The wheel comes full circle. Try to think of something more tiresome than that.

Then there is the utter pointlessness of it – students who passed the Examinations were elevated to a caste called the ‘shenshi’, a scholar-gentry who were, absurdly, put in charge of government departments and even major engineering projects. Was such a one-dimensional curriculum an effective way to fully equip these officials? It’s as if Wayne Rooney was put in charge of building a pagoda.

Under the Imperial Examination system, more important than creativity was the ability to memorise and copy one, official narrative and way of thinking. Any deviation from the official narrative was penalised – indeed reports from the late Qing Dynasty have markers, unable to find differences in ideas between the papers, passing students based merely on the tidiness of their handwriting. Reformers such as Kang Youwei and Lu Xun cited the examinations as a reason for China’s weakness, and stressed their abolition.

Today, students are now far more likely to pore over trigonometric functions or Newton’s laws of physics than the works of Confucius. But the system remains remarkably similar. Like the Imperial Examinations, the Gaokao exams are seen as the most important stage in many children’s lives. Getting a good grade in the Gaokao is essential for these children to become successful in their future. Mingze Chen, an 18 year old student from Yongcheng, Henan Province, knows this pressure all too well. He shows me around Yongcheng’s modern and seemingly enormous public library, which, like some sort of reverse-Tardis, only has one smallish room containing books. Mingze says he often comes here to study; ‘there’s not much to do here’ he says. He is taking the Gaokao this year and hopes to get a place in Shanghai’s Jiaotong University. He is optimistic, but the odds are stacked against him.

9 million students took the Gaokao examinations in 2016, competing for 7 million university places. Shijian, a 17 year old schoolboy living with his mother in Tangshan, has similar aims to Mingze. His mum moved with him onto the ‘Xiaoqu’ (community) opposite the Tangshan No.1 High School to guarantee him a place at the prestigious school. This involves classes from 6:30 in the morning up until 9:30 at night, Monday to Saturday, with an hour break for lunch, and an hour’s homework to do each day. Teachers rotate shifts from morning to afternoon to gear their students for maximum preparation for the Gaokao exams.

‘I like school’, Shijian says under the watchful eyes of his mother, ‘but it is so long’. His mother seems to agree with this point. ‘There is too much pressure on children now. China’s population is too big’. Asking what his ambitions for the future are, Shijian says he wants to go to a good university. ‘Beijing University is the best, I want to go there’, but so, it turns out, do most of his 60 classmates.

This is a social system which places such monumental importance on one examination. All elements of family and civic life as a teenager in China are geared around it. This not only hard-wires order into its promising youngsters, it leaves them creatively impotent.

If you channel the energy of all students in China into Confucius, they will naturally be very good at it. Heck, if you channel the energy of all students of China into anything they will become very good at it; Chairman Mao turned them into pretty decent farmers. But the Chinese examination system is a hangover from Imperial times, elevating conformity over individualism and an inability to nurture and promote creative skills. No wonder more wealthy Chinese parents send their children abroad to study.

Chinese people in general are very proud that China is the oldest continual civilisation in the world. Imperial China’s dynasties constituted the longest political system the world has ever seen, and only 6 years after the official abolition of the exams, the Dynastical system fell. It is for this reason that it would be no surprise that the current Gaokao system could continue in China for a long time yet.


Miyazaki, Ichisada (1976) China’s examination hell, the civil service examinations of Imperial China. New York, Weatherhill

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