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Battle cries of examinees reflect reality

By Bai Ping | China Daily | Updated: 2013-06-08 07:56

How do Chinese schools psych seniors up for gaokao, the all-important national college entrance examination that is held around this time every year? A number of slogans and mottoes doing the rounds in high schools have hit the Internet recently. And they are both amusing and disturbing.

The lighter ones encourage students to aim for top Chinese universities with a sense of humor: "Go to Tsinghua (University) to be young alumni of the president and premier", or "Today Beida (Peking University) is in my dream, tomorrow I'll dream in Beida". In a video that went viral on the Internet, students of a high school in Fujian chanted "May elder sisters be butterflies emerging from cocoons and elder brothers eagles soaring in the sky" in unison to wish seniors good luck in gaokao.

But many others have created controversies because they intend to exert extreme pressure on students to persevere through the ordeal of cramming, including "Why need to sleep so much? You can rest long after you die", "Never raise your head, be soundless (while studying)" and "You must go crazy first to be successful".

Some even play on the public resentment against the widening social divide: "Without gaokao, do you have a chance to compete with the rich second generation?" Or, "Let's score better than the rich and the handsome, and outsmart the children of officials".

I took gaokao decades ago when it was much more competitive with a national college enrolment rate of about 5 percent. For almost all high school graduates then, the options were either to go to college or to take up work in a factory or a farm. School buildings then were adorned with slogans such as "Study hard for China's modernization" and "One red heart, two preparations", which students found a little pompous and funny. Yet no school or teacher would tell students openly that the exam was a make-or-break time for them.

Ironically, the tribulations of the national college entrance exam have increased manyfold, especially in provinces where good universities are few, despite the decreasing numbers of high school graduates, exodus of rich students to foreign campuses and the proliferation of colleges and courses in recent years that have resulted in a dramatic increase in the enrollment of students.

While more seats are available for fewer applicants, the stakes have been upped for high schools as an increasing number of parents and students are keen to get into elite universities, a trend further exacerbated by the preferential treatment meted out by the education authorities and employers to such universities. Many high schools have long prided themselves on being able to produce crops of top scorers every year owing to their tough management and teaching methods.

Education policymakers have long known that holding the same test for different universities is not the best way to select students from diverse backgrounds and abilities, and admissions based mainly on a single exam have forced many students to spend as much as a year to raise just a few points to surge ahead.

But they cannot do much about the system, because in times of widespread mistrust of the privileged and powerful, gaokao results are still seen as the fairest criterion for admission to college, as well as one of the few avenues still open for poor and connection-less people to move up the social ladder.

Besides, it would be difficult to expand the scope of gaokao and change its emphasis on rote memory because of the vast gap between students from families living in cities and those from poor rural areas.

Until gaokao is relegated to just one of the criteria for admission, as many education policymakers hope, we may just have to continue hearing examinees giving battle cries like "Every point raised eliminates 1,000 rivals".

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail:

(China Daily 06/08/2013 page5)

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