China's make-or-break exam

SUN JOURNAL

Aspirations: For nearly 4 million students, the national test determining college admission carries high stakes and high stress.

July 11, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - He Hanghang leaned back in the chair of a touring bus and inhaled the oxygen piped into her nose through the coil of rubber tubes snaking along the luggage rack.

In half an hour, she would begin plowing through the final section of China's national college entrance exam and probably seal her fate. Glancing at handwritten notes in a last-minute cram, she hoped the oxygen would help her relax during the final two hours of the three-day test.

When she and a couple hundred others poured out of the exam recently, though, she seemed disappointed. "I couldn't understand part of the test," said He, who ran out of time and guessed at the answers on the last reading comprehension passage. "I think maybe I fell below the passing level" to enter a four-year college.

He, 19, joined nearly 4 million students taking the national exam last weekend during what is known as "Black July." The test, which was administered from Friday to Sunday, gives new meaning to the term "final exam."

Those who do well will gain admission to college - a precious opportunity in the world's most populous country. An undergraduate degree from a top school such as Beijing University, the Harvard of China, could lead to a high-paying job with a foreign firm or graduate school in the United States.

Many of those who do poorly will become also-rans in an increasingly competitive society where second chances remain hard to come by. Some will join the People's Liberation Army or take low-paying service-sector jobs as secretaries, technicians or cashiers at fast-food restaurants.

The stakes are so high and the pressure so great that the Red Cross and a state-owned oxygen company sent buses to 17 testing centers in Beijing to service students. More than 1,000 bought half an hour's worth of oxygen at $3.60 a session.

The test - widely regarded as brutal - covers Chinese, math and English and includes separate sections for science and liberal arts students. In Beijing, where 50,000 participated, officials, parents and businesses had gone all out to help teen-agers prepare.

Since early last month, the city government ordered a halt to work on construction sites between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. to reduce noise. Parents have been buying tonics and pills for more than a year to help improve their children's memory. Hotels have offered heavy discounts to students who want to escape cramped apartments and nosy relatives so they can review in peace.

For many, the effort will not pay off. Only about half will be admitted to college.

The anxiety surrounding the national exam - or "Gao Kao," as it is called in Chinese - is a function of numbers, economics, history and policy. In a country of more than 1.2 billion with a per capita income of around $750, the government simply can't fund enough colleges to accommodate the nation's ambitious youth.

Compounding the pressure is China's one-child population policy, which has left most urban families focusing all their hopes and dreams on a single son or daughter. That helped explain the crowd of several hundred parents outside the Beijing Huiwen Middle School on Sunday morning, waiting for their children to emerge from the English section of the exam.

While He labored inside, her mother, Sun Ruihong, discussed the agonizing year leading up to the test. Unable to sleep, she rose each morning at 4 o'clock and fixed He breakfast by 5. To help He study more effectively, Sun researched various Chinese medicines, which promised to improve memory and increase brainpower. She pored through advertisements, quizzed salespeople and listened to lectures.

After much investigation, she chose Jin Lan Sha, which includes extract of shark brain, and Song Hua Fen, which comes from pine trees and boasts more than 200 nutrients. Sun swears by Song Hua Fen, which she says also works as a laxative.

"Now everyone in the family takes it," said Sun, 47, sounding like a pitch woman.

Like most of her generation, Sun had no chance to attend college because of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). She was poised to graduate from elementary school when Mao Tse-tung closed the nation's schools and began to turn the country's socioeconomic hierarchy on its head.

Three years later, Sun moved from Beijing to the frigid northeastern province of Heilongjiang where she was required to farm wheat, soybeans and corn. She later attended vocational school at night and now works as an accountant. "We hope our kids will be better than us," said Sun's friend, Huang Hong, as she waited for her daughter, Yang Jie, to finish the exam.

As in many other competitive societies, some worry that parents' expectations are robbing children of their youth. While government figures suggest teen suicide is not a major problem in cities, Chinese newspapers often report poor students taking their own lives

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