Back to Front PageFeature StoryMenu BarBack to Front Page
Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 21, August 13 - 19


Hey Ayi,
I teach English at a university. Why does the word 'test' immediately cause my students' faces to turn white with fear?
Yours truly,
Lotta Learn

Dear Lotta,
Have pity on your students! They were traumatized as teenagers. Every year, between July 7 and 10, Chinese middle school students take the infamous gaokao or high school graduation tests. Egged on by eager parents, students turn into zombies well in advance of these notorious days and remain that way for some time afterward, recovering from the months of late night preparation. Many Chinese youngsters joke that getting a university degree requires very little studying whereas gaining admission into university has ruined the health of many a studious youth.

Examination frenzy is not a new phenomenon in the Middle Kingdom. A common Peking Opera trope involves a male student perusing ancient texts in a poor, dimly lit temple, preparing for the Civil Service Examination aka Imperial Examination. This test qualified young men to become government officials by testing how accurately they could memorize Confucian classics, which is of course highly appropriate preparation for organizing the affairs of rural Chinese villages. Anyhow, in the old Peking Opera tale, a beautiful girl spies on the diligent young scholar through a small hole in the paper window of his room. Naturally they fall in love because he is an idealized geek and she is a charming maiden. But the young man must leave the girl in order to sit the Imperial Examination. The boy passes the examination and becomes a mandarin (scholar official). He returns home to marry his love and they live happily ever after.

This formula is repeated in hundreds of operas and stories. The flip side of the coin however, is the tale of the young man who fails the examination. The unsuccessful candidate either cannot go home, or returns in shame. He loses his popularity with maidens. If there is a girl who truly loves him, she ends her shame by jumping in a river and drowning herself.

These stereotypical opera stories give an idea of the pressure under which even today's Chinese youngsters take their final high school tests: failing or doing badly is seen as the first part of a rapid slide into ruin.

Unlike today's egalitarian system, wealth and status in the rigidly stratified society of imperial China were dependent entirely on political power. The only pathway to power was through the examination system, often called "the Ladder to the Clouds" (zhishang qingyun). The metaphorical ladder had four rungs. The first rung was an examination held in the examinee's district capital. After paying a stiff fee, candidates would take the test over a whole day and night. Each candidate would spend the entire time alone in a small cell, writing out memorized extracts from the philosophical, historical and literary classics of Confucianism. The degree awarded to successful examinees, called 'flowers of talent' (xiucai), was about equivalent to the certificate given to graduating lower middle school students today.

Those who passed would continue studying and then travel to the provincial capital to take the tests of the second rung, taking with them necessary supplies like candles, writing instruments, food and books. The student would enter a large hall filled with thousands of examination cells, each no larger than six feet deep and three feet wide. Many boys would transcribe Confucian classics on their underwear or on concealed pieces of paper, so students were thoroughly searched before they entered their cubicles. The exams lasted three days (like today's university entrance exams), conferring the title of Promoted Scholar (jinshi) on those who passed.

Promoted Scholars travelled to the imperial capital to sit exams that allowed entrance into the national civil service. Mandarins with real ambition climbed up the fourth rung by taking the most difficult test: a palace examination under the Board of Rites (dianshi) held in the presence of the emperor. Every year, as many as 3,500 candidates would sit the exam that conferred the right to hold government office. Around 10 percent of them would pass, a figure very close to today's university admission rate.

In theory the system was meritocratic and even a peasant of the most humble origins was allowed to sit the examinations. In practice, local gentry (officials or nobility) were most likely to send their sons up the Ladder to the Clouds because they could pay good teachers and bribe bad officials. The examination system nonetheless provided remarkable social stability. Ideally, aspirants for office aimed their ambition not at amassing wealth and power but at service to their ancestors and to the emperor.

China brought the era of the imperial examination system to a close in 1905. After a series of humiliating military defeats, beginning with the first Opium War, intellectuals began to feel that China was socially and technologically backward. In 1872, an official named Li Hongchang argued that scholars "have confined themselves to the study of stanzas and sentences and are ignorant of the greatest changes of the last several thousand years."

Education, like everything else, was chaotic and differed vastly from place to place after the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1911), until the founding of the People's Republic (1949). The post-revolutionary national school system was modeled partly on the Soviet system, until the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when it was modeled after the pedagogic principles outlined by the characters of The Lord of the Flies.

Since then, things have stabilized. Today's students have many choices. There are vocational high schools for people who don't want to go on to university; cram colleges for students who fail their graduation exams but still want to go to university; part-time and distance learning programs for those who want to work and get rich ("It's glorious!") at the same time as studying; exchange programs at two-bit colleges and high schools in western countries for students who wish only to emigrate and finally: men selling 'degree certificates' for students who prefer not to study at all!

The university entrance examination in July is still the most famous and popular test. Students take six or seven subjects: English, mathematics, Chinese language and at least three of history, chemistry, geography, physics or biology. Successful students are 'unusually lucky persons' (tianzhi jiaozi). They can go onto university where they learn to drink beer, smoke cigarettes, flirt and start multi-million dollar software companies.

In conclusion Lotta, your students are scared of tests because the very word kaoshi (test) evokes an anxiety about making the grade that has been around for five thousand years. In the examination cubicle, no one can hear you scream!


Previous Stories

Ayi in Control

Creation Ayi

Ayi picks up Internet losers (and winners)

Traditional Chinese exercise

Flyin' high

Is the plural of abacus 'abuci'?

Travel Scene China's Cultural Underground Classifieds Daily Events Guide Book Reviews Wine and Dine Guide FYI Ask Ayi Doctor Doctor Comrade Language cartoon News from the Chinese Press Book Reviews