China is well known for its grueling college entrance exam – the gaokao. The exam is infamously known for pushing students to the end of their wits, but new changes have been introduced recently to relieve the academic burdens students feel.
China is known notoriously for its immense academic pressure on students, pushing them to the brink of emotional breakdowns and in extreme – suicides. That is not to say school in other countries is not highly pressurized, but the school system and the process of college recruitment definitely makes China one of the more academically stressful countries. Many are already familiar with the grueling two day, 9 hour college entrance exam known universally as gaokao. Just the length of this exam alone overshadows the three hour SAT exam that most students take to be admitted into an American university. The test consists of varying subjects as in the SATs, but three subjects are mandated to be tested – Chinese, English, and Mathematics. Other subjects include Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Political Education, History, and Geography. These would be most similar to the SAT II subject tests that most American students take. Chinese students will take the tests that are applicable to the University program of study that they’re applying to. The overall intensity and weight of this exam are so great in China that both parents and students go to far extremes to ensure the entrance into a prestigious university. Not only are long hours of study warranted (from 7 AM in the morning to 10 PM at night), but in an effort to not have students’ health falter while studying, a popular “remedy” to academic stress are amino acid drips. And presented here is another strong contrast between education in the States and those in China. While my peers are engulfing another bottle of 5 Hour Energy to stay awake to finish a paper, students in China are hooked onto IV drips to power up for the gaokao. There have even been instances where parents ask for doctors to prescribe birth control pills to delay their daughters’ menstrual cycles to guarantee that no physical ailments will plague their chances for admission into a prestigious college. In addition to parents taking all means necessary to ensure their child is admitted, the entire nation cooperates as well, making sure that construction projects near the testing sites be suspended until after the test is over and redirecting traffic on test day. Essentially, the admissions test becomes a collection of public efforts to make the admissions process easier for students. This attitude mostly stems from Chinese cultural principles, which reward successful students for elevating the family status or “giving face” to the family name. Of course, the time and energy spent is not only for the bragging rights that accompany success, but for most poor families living in rural parts of the country, it is that success will be able to dig them out of the trench of destitution. But where and when did this attitude come about? Well, the gaokao has a history that stems back into the Han dynasty. In order to recruit government officials and bureaucrats in a fair manner, the keju or imperial examination was introduced. This too took a few days to complete and required absolute mastery in poetry, calligraphy, politics and much more. During the Tang dynasty, the acceptance rate was a mere 2% – much less than the acceptance rate of the most prestigious university in the U.S. today. As in today, the academic pressures from 1500 years ago forced many students who were unable to pass to resort to committing suicide to avoid facing the misery of failure. The keju was the primary means to escape poverty at the time and to elevate the family status and fortune, much like the gaokao is and this traditional attitude toward the prospect of reversing financial situations has translated into overwhelming anxieties for students and their families alike.
Though this arrangement sounds anything but easy, recent changes have been made to alleviate the heavy burdens students feel. One problem being addressed is the lack of “real learning” taking place, or in other words that students are learning for the sake of learning and not just for doing well on a test. Because of the large testing culture in China and other countries, motivation for learning stems only from the fact that it will affect your grade or performance not from the sake of learning itself. Thus, students like myself are more focused on the material that are tested than the actual value of knowledge presented and consequently, no learning will actually be taking place – only temporary retention of facts until they are thrown out when they are no longer needed. In China, some elementary schools have lessened the homework load on students, allowing them to branch out and invest their time and energy on other activities besides studying. Some youngsters have already taken advantage of this new improvement by committing themselves to playing sports, instruments etc. Other universities have also dropped the English test from their list of testing requirements in an effort to ease the immense weight on students. These improvements are largely welcomed in a place where exams are the stepping stones into success. The unrelenting rope of stress has pushed students to their brink, endangering their health and mental wellbeing for most of China’s history so the new proposals have been well embraced by the general public.