For Huang Zhimin, a senior at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, there was only one way out of the small town in Guangxi where he was raised: three days in the summer of 2004 in a stuffy city testing center, sweating over China's National College Entrance Examination or gaokao, as the test is known. "I'm the first in my entire family to go to college," says Huang, "and the gaokao was incredibly high-pressure."
This year, close to 10 million Chinese students sat for the gaokao ("big test" in Mandarin), starting June 8. Students who perform superlatively can expect to be courted by the nation's top schools; the rest find spots in provincial universities or two- and three-year colleges. For the 40 percent of test-takers who fail, there's always next year or enrollment at one of China's less-selective private institutions. As China's economy booms, job competition has become ferocious and the pressure to land a prestigious degree can be unbearable. Every year, Chinese newspapers fill up with tragic tales of exam-time suicides. "The gaokao is about the most pressure-packed examination in the world," says Ari Wolfe, an English teacher in Guangzhou who tutored students for last weekend's exam, "given the numbers, the repercussions, and the stress involved."
Chinese cities ground to a standstill during this year's gaokao, moved up a month to avoid the oppressive summer heat. In some cities, police cars were barred from using their sirens during testing hours, and taxis were given yellow signs allowing them right of way when delivering examinees to their test sites. In others, construction was halted at night for fear that the clangs and booms might stand in the way of a good night's sleep. In Tianjin, China's third-biggest metropolis, doctors reportedly prescribed birth control pills to female test-takers whose parents feared that an untimely period would prove distracting.
Exam fever in China is older than gunpowder, and only marginally less volatile. Chinese students have been cramming since about 600 A.D., when the keju, the imperial civil service exam, was first conducted. Chinese lore is filled with stories of aspiring bureaucrats who grew delusional and insane while hitting the books for the grueling tests, which lasted days and covered everything from arithmetic to horsemanship. The keju's modern descendant is still intimidating: when the gaokao exams were reinstated in 1977 after a decade-long suspension during China's tumultuous Cultural Revolution, almost 6 million students competed for 220,000 university spots. Odds are slightly better now: this year nearly 10 million applicants fought for about 5.7 million spots at national universities.
With stakes so high, the Chinese government guards each year's questions as if they were plans for nuclear weapons. Exam authors are confined to secret compounds while the test is being written, while the printing is carried out by inmates at maximum-security prisons. This year, the northeastern province of Liaoning forked out an estimated $13 million on metal detectors and cameras to discourage would-be cheaters. The penalties are severe: a student convicted of peeking at a neighbor's paper is never allowed to take the gaokao again, and his name is entered in a public database for prospective employers' perusal.
Still, every year some students come up with innovative efforts to beat the system 3,000 were caught last year alone. Before this year's gaokao, police raids in the industrial city of Shenyang turned up "cheating shoes" outfitted with radio transmitters. On Thursday, students in Jilin confessed to paying a team of accomplices $1,500 to park outside their testing hall in a minivan and transmit answers via a tiny walkie-talkie.
Given the intense pressure, it's not surprising that some critics are beginning to wonder whether the gaokao's shortcomings outweigh its benefits. China's university acceptance system has come under attack from a variety of fronts in recent years. Schools are under fire over lowering their admissions standards for rural students in an attempt to redress years of provincial neglect a policy that critics say leaves qualified urban students out. And charges of sex discrimination made against some schools by female applicants, who say they were denied places in programs because of their gender, have called the whole admissions system into question.
Meanwhile educators increasingly view the exam as the centerpiece of an outmoded teaching model that emphasizes bleary-eyed rote learning and fosters an economically fatal lack of creativity for Chinese workers in an increasingly global marketplace. Some schools, like Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University, are moving slowly away from the institution by basing their admissions on other factors in addition to gaokao scores. But changes in China's labyrinthine bureaucracy move slowly, and the test is in no danger of disappearing anytime soon.
Huang, as he prepares to graduate, can look back on his gaokao experience with satisfaction, but knows that his joy is far from universal. "There are so many students in China," he says, "that it's got to be very hard to find a fair and effective way to judge students. I'm enjoying a lot of success now, but some of my close friends have ended up at bad universities. For me, the exam was a good thing but for most Chinese students, it's really complicated."