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Decades of gaokao essays mirror changes

China Daily | Updated: 2017-06-10 07:09

After this year's national college entrance exams, Gan Fubao will have collected all 40 exam papers since the gaokao resumed in 1977.

The 70-year-old from Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi province, holds a deep affection for the exam.

The exam was disrupted by the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and its reintroduction by then leader Deng Xiaoping was a clear signal that times had changed.

Gan started to collect the papers after he took the exam in 1977. After completing the gaokao, Gan enrolled in Jiangxi University to study physics and bid farewell to his life as a factory worker. He became an engineer after graduation.

Gan regards the essay topics as mirrors reflecting a changing China over the decades. "Each represents the characteristics of the time," he said.

Decades of gaokao essays mirror changes

Liu Xiang, editor-in-chief of a Party magazine, still remembers the essay he wrote when he took the gaokao in 1977.

"The topic for the essay was 'An Unforgettable Day,'" he recalled. He wrote about the downfall of the "Gang of Four", a disgraced political faction of four officials that came to prominence during the "cultural revolution".

"If they had remained in power, I might be still a farmer in my village and may never have had the chance to take the college entrance exam," he said.

The 59-year-old graduated from middle school in 1975, before returning to his hometown of Zhucheng in Shandong province, where he worked first as a tractor driver and then as a village teacher. Two years later, he heard in a news broadcast that China would resume the gaokao system.

Liu saw an opportunity to change his fate.

"I elaborated on the significance of the crushing of the Gang of Four and expressed my joy at being able to take such an important exam," he said.

After talking with his fellow exam takers, Liu later learned that most of them had either written about that same day or the day when Mao Zedong died. "There is also someone who wrote about the day he got married, but he didn't get a high score," he said.

During the initial years, the essay topics students were asked to write about were highly political.

In 1977, the topic for Beijing students was "My revolutionary year", while for students in northeast China's Jilin province it was "A great success: The unforgettable October 1976". The following year, the topic was "The problem of speed is a problem of politics".

After the beginning of the reform and opening-up, the economy became increasingly important, and the change could also be seen in essay topics.

Ma Yanwen, a Chinese-language teacher at a middle school in Shandong province, remembered that in 1985, students were asked to write "a letter to the Guangming Daily to talk about pollution."

Topics became increasingly diversified in the 1990s, when the old values were challenged.

Shi Jing, a teacher at an experimental middle school in Shandong, remembered when the 1994 essay topic was "An attempt". A student wrote about a romance at school.

"At that time, teenage romance was not allowed, so the essay was initially given only 25 points," Shi said.

The essay was then passed to Professor Song Suiliang, head of the team marking the exam papers. Song liked the story.

"Falling in love is one of the biggest endeavors of one's life," he noted, giving it the full 50 points.


(China Daily 06/10/2017 page2)

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