How do we decide who is intelligent in our society? Qualified? Successful? Does everyone have an equal shot at these things, or do certain people have special advantages over others because of their parents, their money, their language, or other factors?
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.
- Scholastic arts: music, arithmetic, writing, and knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies in both public and private life.
- Militaristic: archery and horsemanship
The Confucian System
The Family and the State
According to Confucius, each person had a specific place in society and certain duties to fulfill. Confucius hoped that if people knew what was expected of them they would behave correctly. Therefore, he set up five principal relationships in which most people are involved. These relationships were (1) ruler and subject; (2) father and son; (3) elder brother and younger brother; (4) husband and wife; and (5) friend and friend.
Confucius placed great importance on the family. Family life was seen as a training ground for life in society. It is at home in the family that the child learns to deal with problems that he or she will face later in the world. The family is responsible for educating the child to be a good member of society. Confucius emphasized the importance of education, the aim of which is to turn people into good family members, responsible members of society, and good subjects of the emperor.
The state (government) was regarded as an extension of the family in many ways. The emperor and his officials were referred to as the parents of the people. Subjects owed the same loyalty to their rulers that they owed to the senior members of their family.
All of these concepts would have been seen in some form in the imperial exam, with those demonstrating the greatest understanding of Confucian morality earning the best government jobs. The system of testing was designed according to the Confucian principle of a society ruled by men of merit, and to achieve this by objectively measuring various candidates knowledge and intelligence.
Taking the test
Intense pressure to succeed meant that cheating and corruption were rampant, often outrunning strenuous attempts to prevent or defeat them. In order to discourage favoritism which might occur if an examiner recognized a student’s calligraphy, each exam was recopied by an official copyist. Exact quotes from the classics were required; misquoting even one character or writing it in the wrong form meant failure, so candidates went to great lengths to bring hidden copies of these texts with them, sometimes written on their under garments.
By the Ming dynasty, the highest degree, the jinshi (進士/进士), became essential for highest office, while there was a vast oversupply of holders of the lowest degree, shengyuan (生員), who could not hope for office. At least one armed rebellion during the 19th century was carried out primarily by unemployed and disgruntled degree holders.
Critics charged that the system stifled creativity and created officials who dared not defy authority, yet the system also continued to promote cultural unity. Wealthy families, especially merchants, could opt into the system by educating their sons with private tutors or purchasing degrees. In the 19th century, critics blamed the imperial examination system with its focus on the classics for China’s lack of technical knowledge, its lack of creative thinking, and its defeat by foreign powers like Britain and the United States. The exam system was finally abolished in 1905.
The gaokao is modern China’s university entrance exam. Somewhat similar to the American SAT, except that it lasts more than twice as long, the nine-hour test is offered just once a year and is the sole determinant for admission to virtually all Chinese colleges and universities.
A report by Xinhua, the state news agency, said that of the 9.15 million students who took the gaokao in 2012, at least 2 million will get rejected from college. Once the students get their scores, they submit a list of universities to education officials, ranking them in order of choice. Administrators at the universities then look at the students’ scores and decide whether to admit them for the coming September.
Students must pass four tests as part of the Gaokao – this is known as the 3+X system.
- “3” refers to compulsory subjects, including “Chinese, Mathematics and English,” each of which accounts for 150/750 in total score.
- “X” means that students can choose, according to their own interests, one subject from either Social Sciences(including Politics, History and Geography), or Natural Sciences(including Physics, Chemistry and Biology), which accounts for 300/750 in total score.
Listen to typical lesson from the Chinese classroom where I once taught English:
Criticisms of the gaokao
Regional discrimination and Corruption
The gaokao is a key to social mobility in China and a defining moment in the lives of those who take it. Success and failure on the test can mean the difference between prosperity and a life of drudgery. It also determines the direction in life an individual will take: company management, government bureaucracy, or a profession such as medicine. Success or failure can not only shape the lives of those who take it can also shape the lives of their families, who may depend on their future earnings.
Because gaokao is one of the most influential examinations in China and the fact that students can only take the test once a year, both teachers and students undergo tremendous pressure in preparing for and taking the exam. Because Chinese society focuses on a teacher’s rate of student admission into universities, teachers have to pay more attention to each student’s ability to take the exam. This teaching methodology, colloquially referred to as “cramming”, involves students memorizing large volumes of information fed to them by teachers and undertaking many practice exercises in order to optimize exam writing ability. Disadvantages of this method include the lack of focus on teaching critical thinking and ignoring students’ emotions, values, and personalities.
The gaokao has been called the most pressure packed examination in the world. Many examinees suffer from severe nervousness during the test. One report had doctors in Tianjin purportedly prescribing birth control pills to female students whose parents wanted to ensure the girls were not menstruating at the time of examination. Testing pressure, for some critics, has been linked to faintings, increased drop out rates, and even increasing rates of teenage clinical depression and suicide in China.
Because the gaokao is so vitally important, there are always students willing to attempt cheating on it, and with modern technology cheating has become a veritable arms race between students, the authorities, and enterprising merchants who offer everything from false erasers and rulers to eyeglasses featuring hidden cameras connected to off-site helpers who use the internet to scan questions and feed test takers correct answers. Authorities now patrol test sites with remote controlled drones and often outfit test sites with a variety of signal-blocking electronic devices, but cheating devices of various sorts are still readily available to those foolish or unprepared enough to attempt using them.
The Bottom Line
- Summarize the history of the Imperial Examination. What subjects were traditionally covered on this test, and what does this tell you about the values that Chinese have sought in their leaders?
- Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, called the gaokao a weapon of the bourgeoisie which kept the rich rich and the poor poor. Gaokao expert Professor Wang Yong calls the gaokao a chance for the children of the poor to “surpass the privileged ‘tall, rich, and handsome,” to beat the offspring of the wealthy and powerful.” Evaluate each of these arguments.
- Compare and contrast the gaokao with high stakes testing such as the SAT or state standardized testing in the U.S. Draw upon the arguments articulated by Mao and Professor Wang in question two – in your opinion, who best describes the U.S. system?
- Is it better for the government to design such tests, or should this task be contracted to a private corporation like ETS or Pearson? What are the downfalls of each system? For further background on this controversy, start here.
- If you were in charge, would you modify the Chinese college entrance system? Describe specific measures you would take to modify, reform, or abolish the gaokao.
- Consider issues of bias that might arise from a national test given to rich children and poor children, urban children and rural children, and children of different ethnic backgrounds. Have you ever experienced examples of bias in exams you have taken? Identify potential bias in the following questions taken from the actual gaokao – what assumptions are being made by the authors of these questions?
- Topic 1: “A father was talking on the phone while driving on a highway. His daughter reminded him repeatedly to stop doing this, but her father would not listen. The daughter called the police and reported her father at last. When the police arrived, the father was reprimanded. This generated heated debate among the public.” Write a letter of 800 words to either the father, the daughter or the police officer.
- Topic 2: Who do you admire the most? A biotechnology researcher, a welding engineering technician or a photographer?
- Biotechnology researcher: Mr. Lee led the company to a globalized market.
- Welding engineering technician : Mr. Wang was an ordinary welding engineering technician, and through perseverance, has become a world-renowned craftsman.
- Photographer: The photographer posted a collection of his photos to his blog and was well-received online.
- Topic 3: Do butterfly wings have colors? “A teacher asked the students to look at butterflies under a microscope. At first, they thought the butterflies were colorful, but when they looked at them closely, they realized that they were actually colorless.” Based on this story, write an essay.
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM FULBRIGHT-HAYS SEMINARS ABROAD.
You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:
Scenes from China, 2015 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.
Transmissions from the Emperor’s Heavenly Ford Volume One – A diary of my time teaching English in China, originally published as a zine in 2011.
Transmissions from the Emperor’s Heavenly Ford Volume Two – A diary of my time teaching English in China, originally published as a zine in 2011.