Kung Fu Panda Versus China's College Entrance Exam: World View

I saw two large crowds this week in Shanghai. The first was lined up – and I’m using that term loosely – for a Saturday night screening of "Kung Fu Panda 2" in 3D with good-natured aplomb. A few days later I came across the second, a group of grim-faced parents and grandparents waiting behind barricades set up to keep them from rushing into a school where the gaokao – China’s fate-determining, suicide-inducing college entrance exam  – was being administered to their children.

 Unlike the jovial "Kung Fu Panda" crowd, the gaokao crowd seemed like they were at a funeral. Which, for many of them, the gaokao is: 18 years of parenting and education are often directed toward success on the test. The consequences of a low score isn’t a fate that ambitious parents, or students, want to contemplate.

In any case, a few days earlier, over dinner with two instructors at a Shanghai community college, the conversation was dominated by the organizing events that inspired both crowds – the gaokao and "Kung Fu Panda 2" (with a healthy dose of the NBA Finals thrown in, to boot). “I cannot believe that Americans understand China so well,” said the older teacher. “And it’s a pity that China doesn’t have the creativity to make 'Kung Fu Panda,' itself.” Later, the younger teacher, added: “We won’t be creative until we get rid of the gaokao. And I’m not sure how we’ll do it.”

There are few things more predictable in the Chinese news cycle than the annual hand-wringing over whether or not the gaokao – and, by extension, China’s bone-crushing test-oriented education system – should be reformed to encourage more creativity by Chinese students. In the decade I’ve been following the debate, the terms have rarely changed, and the sides are well-known. In one corner we have the nationalist Global Times, and an early week editorial headlined “Fading Gaokao Worship Marks Social Progress:”

The fading worship of gaokao marks the social maturity. For so many years, it was seen as a culmination that young Chinese strived for during the first 18 years of their lives.

The change of attitude makes people feel more relaxed about gaokao. The Chinese have been complaining that gaokao robs children of their childhood, creativity and imagination.

Now when gaokao does not serve as the only possible chance to change one's life, people may see education in an easier way. This certainly leaves larger room for the growth of individual interests and personality among young Chinese.

In the other corner we have … the seemingly schizophrenic Global Times, writing exactly one day later, in an editorial headlined “Gaokao Exam Acts as Great Leveler:”

We have heard too many criticisms about the problems of gaokao, such as it robs children of their childhood and creativity and discriminates against students from regions with less education resources.

Nevertheless, a basic fact is that there is no better alternative to gaokao, given the current social environment. Hasty reforms like rapidly raising colleges' independent enrollment and giving extra marks to students with specialties may further undermine the fairness of the existing talent-selection system, as such flexibility can be exploited by those with powerful social connections … [W]e have no choice but to continue with the gaokao system and minimize its potential unfairness.

But, in fact, choices are emerging. For example, in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen, once the original test site for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms (that have since transformed China’s economy), the local government established the South University of Science and Technology of China  in 2009 and dismissed the requirement that students take the gaokao as a prerequisite of admission.

 In China, where the gaokao might be, depending upon which editorial you read,  a legal requirement to getting a college education, this is big news. And, in fact, in advance of this week’s administration of the gaokao, 45 newly admitted SUSTC students (admitted in March without having taken the gaokao), wrote an open letter explaining why they refused the gaokao, which became – for a day or two – trending topics on China’s internet. Most commentary was supportive. “The education administration is concerned about the quality of SUSTC and its graduates, as well as its diplomas,” wrote the Beijing-based Guanming Wang. “This is understandable. But in fact, the people who give those matters the most serious concern are these forty-five students and their parents. No one will care more than the parents about their own child. Of course they also know that they send not only their child, but also a lot of money to SUSTC.”

Despite the attention that SUSTC received in the run-up to the gaokao, most Chinese parents – and most Chinese netizens – remain obsessed with the gaokao itself, and trending topic lists proved it. Indeed, as in past years, it didn’t take long for the gaokao’s essay questions to move from the testing rooms, into the chat rooms, blogs, and microblogs that constitute China’s internet. The questions vary by province, and some generate more comment than others. One of the first to emerge, via a report from the Xinhua newswire,  became instant net fodder, and reads, in part: “Stories about China's economic and political rise appeared on a list of ‘the ten biggest news stories of the 21st century’ published by American Global Language Research, and are thus considered big news. So what aspects of China's rise are the most worthy of commendation and attention … [C]hoose an appropriate angle, draft your own title, select any style of writing you like (except poetry).”

Though the tweet is not, presumably, an acceptable style in which to answer a gaokao essay question, China’s microbloggers didn’t allow that to stop them (Chinese tweets are  much "longer" than English ones, owing to the compact, information-heavy nature of Chinese characters, and thus the answers can be quite lengthy compared to English). There were the earnest tweets, worthy of high gaokao scores. “Sixty years ago, she stood up. Forty years ago, she toddled,” wrote Wu Dongxiao,  a Sina Weibo user of no particular celebrity. “Thirty years ago, she strode forward. Twenty years ago, she walked fast. Now, she runs.”

There were the snarky tweets, bound for gaokao failure but popular amongst China’s netizens, such as this one from a Sina Weibo user who identifies as Roman Knight,  who wrote in part: “Owing to soaring prices and GDP rankings, national pride and psychological endurance become stronger …”

And then there were the bleak and overtly critical tweets, such as this one left by St. Black Day, ruminating on national expectations: "the 1940s generation expects our motherland to be stronger, and world peace … the '60s generation expects prosperous business and a smooth official career, the '70s generation expects a clever child, a full purse, a quiet wife and a docile mistress … the '00s generation expects nontoxic milk powder and drink without plasticizer in it ...”

No doubt, most student answers were far more staid than the ones their online counterparts were leaving. Rebels aren’t much tolerated much less admired in Chinese education,  and the consequences of a low gaokao score are just too high, as evidenced by the sad news, delivered on the last day of the three day test, of a student killing himself outside of a testing center. A motive wasn’t given, but early reports suggested that he jumped from a sixth story window after arriving a few minutes late and being denied entry to the testing center.  There’s been some disagreement as to whether or not the motive triggered the act, but few if anybody in China would doubt the plausibility of the motive itself. It’s the gaokao after all.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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