10 million Chinese students, metal detectors and Danish fishermen: it's the gaokao

10 million Chinese students, metal detectors and Danish fishermen: it's the gaokao

The 2010 China College Entrance Exams began on Monday with odd questions and extra security measures kicking things off
Chinese students gaokao
Chinese students cram in a final few minutes of studying before heading in to take the gaokao.

The three-day China College Entrance Exams (gaokao) began on Monday with some 9.57 million students sitting for the test, 66,000 taking the exam in Shanghai. According to the Ministry of Education, these students are competing for 6.57 million places at the country's universities or colleges. Although higher education is becoming increasingly available to students across China, the gaokao continues to be critical in students’ advancement to higher education. 

Cities around the country are doing their part to eliminate distractions for students partaking in this intellectual endurance test, by pledging to reduce noise, traffic jams and “other possible disturbances at this crucial moment in their lives,” according to China Daily. Some provinces have even gone to the extreme of closing Internet cafes until the exam is over. 

Why chase mice when there are fish to eat? (有鱼吃还捉老鼠?)— Chinese national gaokao essay prompt

Contrary to previous years where competition for university spots has gotten stiffer, students at this year’s gaokao have a better chance of being accepted, due to a 650,000 person drop in the number of students registering to take the gaokao, a reflection, according to the Wall Street Journal, of China’s one-child policy. 

The Chinese education system is seeing fewer students overall, not just at the gaokao. The number of total primary school students has “dropped to roughly 100 million in 2008, the most recent data available, from 132 million in 1995,” according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. 

Even with numbers on their side, students’ anxieties aren’t exactly eased, especially those looking to attend top Chinese universities. 

"I am worried the exam will be too difficult," says Cui Shijie, a student from a high school affiliated with Fudan University, which is considered to be one of the best high schools in Shanghai, to China Daily. 

Cui hopes to major in architecture at Tongji University in Shanghai and competition will be fierce.

Gaokao cheating and security

With the pressure on, the gaokao is notorious for the lengths students go to to gain an advantage, as well as the lengths local governments go to to stop them. Adding to the security issues is the recent spate of school violence which has left 17 people dead -- including 15 students -- and many more injured.

AFP reports that, “Police, security guards and volunteers were seen in Beijing, patrolling and setting up road blocks outside exam venues, while state media said some schools have installed metal detectors for the test.” The metal detectors are looking for dangerous objects as well as mobile phones, in case some students use them to cheat.

With the exam pressure increasing along with the authorities’ ability to detect cheating, students are looking to more and more high-tech solutions from wireless transmitters to hard-to-detect ear pieces. 

Another China Daily article reports that, “64 people suspected of selling high-tech devices to help students cheat in China's annual make-or-break national college entrance exam” were caught this past weekend.

I am worried the exam will be too difficult.— Cui Shijie, a Shanghai high school student

Devices confiscated include wireless earphones, signal emitters and scanner-imbedded pens and watches. James Bond would be proud. Authorities aren’t stopping there. They are also setting up closed-circuit cameras and wireless network signal jammers at some exam venues to monitor the tests and prevent common forms of cheating. 

The gaokao essay

For the average gaokao watcher, although it’s entertaining to track the high-tech devices students use to circumvent the system -- and the lengths authorities go to catch them -- the real fun begins with the release of the gaokao essay question after Monday morning’s exam segment.

Danwei (blocked in China) explains how the essays work: “Many prompts ask students to write an essay that fits a set title; others give students more freedom in their choice of approach. Poetry is usually prohibited. Students in regions that do not specify a topic of their own are given one of the two national prompts.”

For a full list of gaokao essay questions, see the Danwei post, “Head in the clouds, feet on the ground: 2010 college exam essay questions.”

The two national topics were:

  • “Why chase mice when there are fish to eat? (有鱼吃还捉老鼠?)” which shows a cartoon of one cat chasing a mouse while others eat fish.
  • “Light Reading (浅阅读行动): What is light reading? B: It is reading for the purpose of relaxation, interest, and practicality. Unesco's selection of April 23 for world reading day arose out of a beautiful legend: April 23 is the date that famed Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes died, and it is also St George's Day, celebrated in Catalonia. The legend goes that the knight George slew a dragon, rescued a princess, and was granted a gift in return: a book, representing knowledge and power. Every year on this day, Catalonian women will give a book to their husband or boyfriend, and the men will give a rose in return. Actually, the same day is the date of Shakespeare's birth and death, and is the birthday of authors such as William Faulkner, Maurice Druon, and Halldó Kiljan Laxness, so it is a fitting and proper choice for world reading day." Regions are allowed to use their own questions as well.

The Shanghai gaokao essay question was: “Danish fishermen (丹麦人钓鱼). When Danes go fishing, they carry with them a ruler. When they catch a fish, they will measure it and toss it back if it is not long enough. They say, 'Isn't it better to let the little ones grow up?' More than two thousand years ago in our country, Mencius said, 'If fine nets do not enter the pools, there will be more fish and turtles than can be eaten.' And in fact this principle runs throughout many areas of our lives."

How would you answer that question?

A borough-bred Manhattanite, editor and writer Jessica Beaton lived in Shanghai for five years and has now moved to Hong Kong.

Read more about Jessica Beaton
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