No Chinese student can hope to attend a decent Chinese university without the ability to test well in the English language, if not necessarily speak well. The distinction both frustrates and inspires Chinese educational reformers. They've long pushed to do away with the country's exam-oriented education system, especially the notorious national college entrance exam, or gaokao. But despite occasional, highly incremental changes meant to dissuade China's teachers from teaching to the test, English education -- and education in general in China -- remains nearly as regimented today as it was in the 1980s.
That helps explain why news that China's national education authorities plan to drop English from the gaokao in 2017 set off a brief but intense debate last weekend over whether and how Chinese should be learning English in the first place. Much of the discussion was overheated and went well beyond the bounds of what the reform package entails. (English will still be taught and tested in Chinese schools.) Yet the tone itself revealed a Chinese public eager to move beyond a test-driven education system that encourages rote learning, to one that rewards actual mastery of a subject. "Reducing the role of English in the gaokao doesn't deny the importance of English," wrote Yuan Guangko in the Changsha Evening News. "It just means that we have serious issues with the traditional teaching method that need to be rectified." The problem, he later explained, is simple: "English is learnt only for the purpose of taking an exam and only a very few Chinese master it."