Jun 10

Essay topics: 50 years of Gaokao

Written by Buxi on Tuesday, June 10th, 2008 at 6:10 am
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As many might know, this weekend was the 3-day university admissions test (gaokao). For decades, all Chinese children have studied for this test as if their life depended on it… and for decades, it really did. For those living in a culture that has long treasured the value of academic study, and a country with a planned economy, receiving a university degree has meant literally everything. If we look back even further in history, ever since the Tang dynasty (700 AD), education has been the primary method for advancing yourself in society.

With the help of a post from Tianya (原贴, originally from Xinhua), here are the national essay topics used over the last 50 years. Read the questions and the years carefully enough, and you’ll get a hint of Chinese society as it has dramatically changed over the last 60 years:

1951: My work outside of the classroom; discuss advantages of increasing production and conservation.
1952: Remember a new person’s new event; throwing myself into the motherland’s embrace.
1953: Write about a revolutionary cadre you’re familiar with; remembering the person I’m most familiar with.
1954: How did I decide my preferences (field of study, university).
1955: What kind of a university student am I preparing to be?
1956: I live in a fortunate era.
1957: My mother.
1958: The most touching scene from the Great Leap Forward.
1959: Remembering a meaningful part of life.
1960: In physical labor, I received exercise.
1961: The legacy of a revolutionary from earlier generations encourages me.
1962: Say I’m not afraid of ghosts; after the rain
1963: A diary entry from May 1st – Labor Day
1964: Feelings from reading the newspaper: a story about transporting dried vegetables to the disaster zone (考卷).
1965: A letter to the Vietnamese people (Ed: Start of US/Vietnam war)

1966-1976: Gaokao is interrupted for 11 years

1977: Guangdong: During my year of fighting; (Hunan question: What I want to say to the Party). Other versions from around the country: Shanghai, “Is it true that the more knowledge, the more counter-revolutionary”?; Tibet, “My revolutionary ideals”.
1978: Summarize: “The speed problem is an important problem” (Ed: An article stressing the importance of quickly raising the country’s economic growth rate. 考卷)
1979: Rewrite in your own words: “The story of Chen Yiling”
1980: Impressions after reading: “Drawing an Egg” (Da Vinci’s story)
1981: Impressions after reading: “Destroying a tree is easy, planting a tree is hard”
1982: “First worry about the troubles under heaven; later celebrate the joys under heaven”.
1983: Write a story based on an attached picture.
1984: How to write an essay.
1985: “A Letter to Guangming Daily’s Editorial Department” (Regarding environmental protection)
1986: “Trees – Forest – Climate” (A news report)
1987: A news brief, summarizing a elementary school’s swimming class. (考卷)
1988: Habits.
1989: “A letter to my young classmates” (On the difficulties of setting preferences)
1990: The flowers and thorns in the rose garden
1991: 1) using a round object as base, write a work of fantasy. 2) argue or debate one side of: “those around ink are blackened”, “those around ink might not be blackened”. (Ed: A Chinese saying, the question is asking whether people are inevitably influenced by their environment?)
1992: Discuss “social morality: a scene from the rainy street corner”.
1993: A script for a radio broadcast: the problem of compensation for after-school tutoring.
1994: Trying new things.
1995: Review the poem, “A dialog between birds”
1996: Compare two cartoons of plastic surgery for a six-fingered child, discuss the topic of “I like more”
1997: “Helping people for fun”.
1998: Determination; the personal values I strive for, defeating weakness.
1999: What if memories could be transplanted.
2000: Based on your interpretations of these four images, talk about your perspective on problems in life, your understanding of these problems, and your method for resolving problems?
2001: Trust.
2002: The soul’s choice.
2003: The influence of emotional distance on thinking clearly and correctly.
2004: Meeting frustration and magnifying pain.
2005: Outside expectation and within reason.
2006: Discuss why Chinese people are reading fewer books.
2007: Liaoning: “I can”; Chongqing: “30 year anniversary of Gaokao’s revival”; Jiangsu: “Thinking of space”;

And of course, questions from the 2008 gaokao:

  • Jiangsu: Curiosity comes with a happy childhood, and also linked with words like success, failure, doubt, mediocrity. Using “curiosity” as a topic, right a 800-character essay. Choose your own perspective. Using any writing form other than poetry/song.
  • Anhui: “Heading off with emotion”
  • Shaanxi, Henan: “Fighting the earthquake and rescuing from disaster”
  • Guangdong: Facing your first time, don’t lightly say “No”. (Ed. Yes, this question is as amusing in Chinese as it is in English.)
  • Shanghai: Normally we think of ourselves, now, write an article about “them”.

And here’s a faintly Zen-like question from this year’s Beijing test being mocked by many… it seems few of us have any clue what the story is really trying to say (新华分析)

Based on this material, select your own perspective and topic:

In the classroom, the teacher pulled out a glass cup. In the cup, he put in a rock of about the same size. He asked everyone: “Is the cup full?”
A student replied: “No, you can still put in sand.”
After the student filled the cup with sand, the teacher asked again: “Now is it full?”
Everyone in the class said it was full, but one boy said not yet; you can still put in water.
The teacher smiled. He poured out the sand and rock, and the cup was again empty.
This time the teacher put sand and water in the cup, and then asked: “Is the cup full? If we want to put the rock in there, how should we do it?”
A boy poured out the sand and water, and put the rock back in.

We should mention one of the most dramatic eras during modern Chinese history. During the Cultural Revolution, schools and universities shut down. An entire generation of young Chinese were denied the opportunity to study. In 1977, the doors were finally flung open. In that first year, 5.6 million Chinese took the test for a total of 270k positions, a total admission rate of less than 5%. By contrast, this year, ten million high-school graduates will be taking the test, and six million will be admitted into higher education, a total admission rate of 60%; new high-water marks in every respect.

Gaokao is one of the most brutal, competitive, but also most remarkable aspects of Chinese society. Factories close down in part to accommodate the test; bus routes are rerouted; taxi drivers setup special volunteer shuttle services; parents rent expensive hotel rooms so that their children can sleep in air-conditioned luxury… even the Olympic Torch is no exception, with the route shortened and modified to avoid test centers. Although many still question whether a standardized test and brutal memorization is useful in the 21st century, this entire exercise is still one of the most poignant reminders of the Chinese dedication to self-improvement through study.

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38 Responses to “Essay topics: 50 years of Gaokao”

  1. FOARP Says:

    I am so glad that I got to choose three subjects to take at A-level (the university exams in England and Wales – from 16 to 18 you only study three subjects) rather than have to answer questions like these. I have to ask, for someone who hopes to be a science/engineering/medical student what use is there in answering such mock-philosophical questions?

  2. Nimrod Says:

    FOARP, this is not the whole test, just one part of the test (the essay part). The US has an emphasis on a liberal education (i.e. one with broad studies in the humanities and sciences as a starting point), while Europe doesn’t. It’s a tradition, I suppose. For China, it is also a tradition, because writing essays was the way the government examinations worked. In modern times, the Chinese are heavily tilted toward the studies of sciences out of necessity, for building the country, that keeping the humanities is a good idea rather than a bad idea.

  3. FOARP Says:

    @Nimrod – I understand that, all the same, I’m glad that I didn’t have to take this exam. Obviously most people prefer the system they grew up with, but all the same, if you’re going to be a science student what use is it to you or to the university you are going to to be answering such a question? Don’t you think that seperate tests for people intending to study different subjects at university might be a bit better?

  4. Charles Liu Says:

    We had to take entrance exams for highschool and college in Taiwan. Same thing in Japan, Korea.

    BTW, the SAT (US’ de-facto college exam) also has essay component.

  5. Nimrod Says:

    Charles Liu, not only that, but applications too require you to present yourself and answer questions much like these.

    FOARP, I don’t know if it’s any use. I agree that it’s better to not have your core competencies judged on something unrelated, but then again, we want people to be well rounded, no? I think it’s fine, as long as humanities students are expected to have some mathematical competency as well. It’s only fair. It also should be noted that the true stars who have proven themselves in competitions don’t have to take these because they are exempted.

    The problem in China isn’t that the idea behind the examination is bad, but in the implementation. Because everybody wants a high paying job, they all go for these “hot majors”, i.e. engineering, finance, management, whatever. The result being, the ones who go into humanities are not doing so for interest but because they got outcompeted. I’ve met people whom I would peg as perfect for various humanities and arts fields, the creative types, but they were also smart, so they were pushed to become engineers. Real humanities also needs high caliber people, not those that got left behind.

    The other problem is the amount of memorization/cramming/standardized answers that go into preparing for them, and the one-shot, hair-splitting difference nature of the exams. Can’t even begin to solve that problem till people reach a comfortable standard of living and good paying jobs are no longer scarce, in other words, till China is a developed country.

  6. FOARP Says:

    @Nimrod – I totally agree, the problem we have the the UK right now is the opposite – people choose easy subjects because they know they can get good marks at them. They know that once they graduate people won’t care so much what subject they studied – only what kind of degree they got (degrees in the UK are classified according to performance – 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd and fail). The result is you have a lot of people studying history, media, sociology etc. who have zero interest in what they are studying.

    Likewise, I buy the ‘well-rounded’ argument at least part way – especially given how rubbish science students are at essay writing, and how bad most arts students are at science here in the UK. However, the idea of going to university to study a subject is surely that you are going to become an expert on something – not a generalist.

    However, all education systems have their own strengths and weaknesses, and are designed to acheive different results.

    @Charles Liu – I’d heard about the SATs from American friends, all I can say is there’s a reason why American exchange students get put in the year behind when they come to the UK. It’s not that their universities are any worse – far from it – but under-graduate students do not seem to be that expert in their chosen ‘majors’. There seems to be a great emphasis on jumping through hoops rather than getting on with studying the subject.

    One thing which totally worked (for me at least) when appying to university was the interview system we have in the UK, where the universities call you in for an interview before the exams and after talking to you will decide what marks you need to get to come to their university. This means they can make their requirements lower if they like you – I wouldn’t have got into my university of choice if it hadn’t been for this system. Obviously China and the US are so large that a system like this wouldn’t be appropriate, but maybe a central interview might be just as good. Of course, the interview system is open to abuse and to the ‘bad day’ effect, but not much more so than these essays, and they give people a better idea of your strenths than this kind of essay question does.

  7. Buxi Says:

    One thing which totally worked (for me at least) when appying to university was the interview system we have in the UK, where the universities call you in for an interview before the exams and after talking to you will decide what marks you need to get to come to their university.

    Very interesting, that’s the way all university admissions function in the UK…? A lot of potential examples for China to consider as it goes forward.

    But as you said, China’s model evolved due to China’s very specific situation: very few slots for very many people. When admission rates are only 5%, many people felt only a simple point system can be fair.

    But now that 60% of young Chinese are being admitted to upper education, China’s system is also reforming. A few areas are now modifying the way they evaluate students to consider their “comprehensive” profile: volunteer work, extra-curricular activities, interview, etc… but this also raises concerns in the minds of many, because it opens the door to rampant corruption, right?

    So, stay tuned. Just like everything else in China, this will be sure to change.

  8. BMY Says:

    The Chinese system (or any other similar exam systems) put too much weight of judging students/people’s capacities based on their exam marks. I had few very talented high schoolmates who were very good on essay writings or classic Chinese but failed the uni entry exams on subjects like math or English. They ended up going back to the farm. We’ve also seen people who are only good with exams and could do little other real life things.

    The Australia New South Wales system is similar system based on exam marks but the final high school exams-HSC only contributes a portion of the uni entry points and the students’ academic records of all the high school years contribute the rest of the points. But still, it’s exam based and we know how to deal with it. So our Chinese parents very often(almost every these days) put kids into after school academic coaching while the anglo kids are in the sports fields in the weekend. As a result, the majority (some say about more than 80% ) selective high school students in Sydney are Chinese backgrounded. I don’t see this as Chinese kids are smarter I see this is a bit sad result of scarifying childhood for exams which have no much to do with real life. Some high education institute just started implementing interviews for students who applying medicine studies.

    But interview system would be a disaster if we implement it in China because of the corruption.

    Regarding the a total admission rate of 60%, I think it’s only true in big cities. In the counties where the majority of high school students in China live, many junior high students are outcompeted to get into senior high schools so they have no chance to be counted be part of the total admission rate . I grew up in a county which had about 10 junior high schools but only one senior high school. It was more than 20 years ago. Things might have changed but won’t be like 10 senior high.

  9. BMY Says:


    Chinese high schoolers do take different exams depends on they are going to study science or humanities.

  10. JXie Says:

    The 60% is based on those who finish 12-year education (high-school graduated). Currently only about half can get to that point. About 98% complete the mandatory 9-year education. The numbers are:

    50% high school graduate (12-year)
    30% enroll in 2- to 4-year college immediately after high school. Another 5% will enroll in some sort of adult college education later.

    The numbers for the US:

    75% 12-year. Actually it’s a hotly debated topic. The numbers are ranged from mid-60% to high-80%. 75% is a rough mid-point of these stats.
    39% enroll in 2- to 4-year college among 18 to 24 year olds.

  11. JXie Says:

    On the other hand, if we arbitrarily define the midpoint of a knowledge-based economy productive age group as 45 year old, the numbers for their education roughly are:

    China, high school graduation, 20%. 2- to 4-year college graduation: 5%.

    The US, high school graduation, it is probably actually higher than the current 75% — more like 80%. 2- to 4-year college graduation: low 30%.

    If you look at how the numbers have progressed over the years, it screams “short the US and long China”.

  12. BMY Says:

    Thanks for putting up the numbers. we still have a very long way to go.
    it’s a shame our education budget is even lower than the spending on government vehicles if it’s true(I didn’t verify the numbers)

  13. Opersai Says:


    But if that’s your point, why do I bother to study English at all? I don’t know about UK, but at least in Canada, up to even grade 9, I have to take two of the electives, like cooking, sowing etc. Then why bother, it’s not like I’ll ever be doing those.

    In Canadian education system, I can take 3 of the best recognized electives(e.g. chemistry, physics, history), PLUS my core courses – English, Math.

    I believe subjects such as arts, language can be very broadly applied and useful. Perhaps, for a science student, science marks can take a heavier proportion.

    On your point about university students aren’t specialized in what they study. Well, I thought… they weren’t suppose to?! Undergraduate study, for me, is a opportunity to broaden vision, to try out different things. When I get into graduate school, then I’ll settle in for something to specialize.

  14. Opersai Says:

    sorry, forgot to add, for the interview system, I think it’s very nice that it’s a more interactive way to test student’s ability.

    However, there are qualities of this method that’s not applicable to the current Chinese situation. What would be the standard? Interview can be a very subjective and flexible thing. While flexibility is one of its great qualities, it allows opportunity for foul play. In addition, I would imagine this is a time consuming process, with the mass number of students they have process in China each year, I’m not sure they’d have the capability.

  15. Buxi Says:

    There’s a lot of progress still to be made in education reform, no doubt about it. Over the last 3-4 years, one of *the* biggest problems in China has been the growth of unaccredited universities. Numerous schools have implied they’d be accredited by the time students graduate… 4 years and tens of thousands of RMB later, nothing. Only a meaningless “certificate”.

    This was a problem in Nanjing just this last month, a PLA-affiliated “Artillery Institute” was the scene of significant clashes between students and PLA soldiers, after the students learned that they wouldn’t be graduating with a legitimate degree. Sad.

    So, more spending will definitely help… more time will also help. It’s important to educate 98% of Chinese to 12-th grade level if we can, and it’d be nice to educate 98% of Chinese to university level for that matter… but it’s all meaningless if we can’t create enough skill-appropriate jobs to absorb these numbers.

  16. Buxi Says:

    Oh let me also add… probably the *biggest* factor keeping me from moving my family back to China is the gaokao + education system. I just don’t know if I want to put my kids through that system.

    Right now, in the United States, with the typical Chinese pressure that BMY talked about before, I’m confident my daughter (+ one more on the way) will do reasonably well in school without too much difficulty. Looking ahead 17 years, I think they’ll have an excellent chance of going to an Ivy League, Berkeley, Stanford, or MIT…. and eventually come out with a great diploma and a great paying career.

    But the path in China is just far more difficult. The workload for children is so intense, and it all comes down to test-taking performance over a 3-day period. I don’t know if I can put my kids through that.

    Any thoughts on this from other parents out there? This is a theme I often hear on other Chinese message boards, also.

    I’ve thought about an international school in mainland China, but these are so elitist, and I’ve heard their quality is also questionable…

  17. Nimrod Says:


    From what I’ve heard, the Chinese-numerous school systems in the Bay Area and LA are already taking on “Chinese characteristics”. In competing for college spots, people get on multi-year waiting lists to volunteer at some hospital so they can put it on their essays. And teachers get bribed to write letters… er… doesn’t seem right.

    In 17 years, who knows what it’ll be like, in both countries. Also there is always Taiwan or Hong Kong to choose from, especially for you…

  18. Buxi Says:


    My wife is the product of a “Chinese-numerous” school in the San Francisco Bay area (according to her: 40% Chinese, 40% Indian, 20% Caucasian and dropping)… that competition is definitely becoming an issue around here too.

    You’re right, who knows what it’ll be like in 17 years. You’re making me worry! But… I’m pretty sure it’ll still be quite a bit easier here than it is on the mainland.

    Taiwan and Hong Kong are probably out of the picture; I don’t want my kids learning traditional characters (or Cantonese). I do have numerous friends who graduated from Taipei American School – and that’s the kind of successful institution I’d love to see in the mainland.

  19. shadowfax Says:

    Not all UK universities conduct interviews. My university (LSE) doesn’t – admission is based solely on academic qualifications, extracurricular activities and our personal statement (admissions essay). As far as I know, only Oxford and Cambridge place great importance on interviews as a way of judging applicants. Applicants for medicine at other unis are also interviewed, since competition for places is stiff. For other courses, once you have been invited for an interview, you’re pretty much guaranteed an offer – they just want to get to know you better and market the uni to you (in the hope you will accept their offer). If they like you a lot, it is possible they will lower the admission requirements.

    I sat for the British A-level exams last year (not in the UK though – in my home country) and I have to say that the way certain A-level subjects are examined is not all that different from the rote memorisation that characterises most Asian pre-u exams. For A-level chemistry and mathematics, memorising standard answers is crucial as the same questions come up every year. You are guaranteed an A as long as you do past papers and memorise model answers. The only subject I took that required a little more critical thinking was Economics, but even then my teacher gave me a list of ‘critical thinking points’ to be slotted into my answers whenever appropriate to earn marks for ‘original thought’! I have never experienced the Chinese education system, but surely you cannot get more dependent on rote memorisation than this!

    Looking at the GaoKao essay topics, I am really impressed at the level of creative thinking the questions seem to require. My high school education definitely did not prepare me to answer questions like ‘Thinking of space’ – I don’t even know what that means! But perhaps Chinese students have been prepped for such topics, just as I was prepped to answer A-level economics questions that required ‘critical thinking’. I am glad I never had to sit for this pressure cooker of an exam, but I confess that the A-levels did not prepare me for the transition to university, where you really do need to be an independent learner and thinker.

  20. FOARP Says:

    @Shadowfax – All students coming in through the UCAS system do (or, at least, did ten years ago) I think a different system exists for foreign students – especially as it would be rather onerous to require them to fly over for interviews months apart.

    British students select six universities to send applications to through UCAS, and those universities that think you’ll meet the grade will either invite you to come for an open day or will just send you an offer straight off. Of course I’m a fan of this system because the offer they gave me ws considerably lower than the one in the UCAS book – which in the end was actually the mark I ended up with.

    As for the A-levels not inspiring critical thinking, it wasn’t exactly great when I took it, and since the Labour government got into power they’ve accelerated the ‘dumbing-down’ of the exams. I hear that nowadays 25% of marks awarded are ‘A’ grades – when I took them only top ten percent or so of students got even one ‘A’. I’m sure you’ve heard that Imperial are bringing in entrance exams, and that the top public schools are bringing in separate ‘pre-U’ exams.

    I can’t remember memorising answers though, but maybe that explains the mark I got!

  21. Buxi Says:


    I am glad I never had to sit for this pressure cooker of an exam, but I confess that the A-levels did not prepare me for the transition to university, where you really do need to be an independent learner and thinker.

    Unfortunately, this highlights another weak point in the Chinese education system as it currently exists. I think it’s great that in “university” you really need to be an independent learner and thinker…

    For many years now, admission to university has been the primary “filter” in China. If you could pass the gaokao test with flying colors, you were basically done, you were de facto already part of the elite. Many students correspondingly took university classes less seriously. (Except for those planning to go onto graduate school…)

    That’s changing now as a matter of fact, since we now have 3-4 million university students graduating every year. (And in 4 years, this year’s entering class of 6 million students will graduate.) But I don’t know if people’s mindset have quite caught up yet to the importance of what’s actually taught in university.

  22. Opersai Says:

    To Buxi,

    I would say it has changed in recent years. As numbers of University students swamp, the value of a university degree cheapens. More University students strive to go to graduate school now, for a better chance of employment, especially for girls. Most of my cousins in China do want to go to graduate school after university.

    To Shadowfax and FOARP,

    I think that depends on individuals, teachers, and schools. I remember my cousin tell me in elite schools in China, experienced teacher teaches student how to study rather than just teaching how to solve a particular problem. Here in Canada, for example, I didn’t have so good physics teacher, I flee at sight of physics; then I took it again, with a better teacher, my mark and understanding of physics improved drastically. And that, in the end, resorted similar method they use in China, write many, many questions till I was familiar with all sort of questions asked.

    Lastly, which subject studied also matters, some are more dependent on memorization, some explores more critical thinking.

  23. JXie Says:

    it’s a shame our education budget is even lower than the spending on government vehicles if it’s true(I didn’t verify the numbers)

    BMY, that’s an urban legend. The public education expenditure stands at some 15% of the total government expenditure. That’s higher than most of the relevant countries, with the noticeable exception of South Korea. When it comes to public education expenditure as a percentage of the GDP, China is lower than many countries, simply because China’s taxation is less persuasive. If you compare the US (or Japan) to China, in the US, you pay the government higher tax to offer your kids free lunch; and in China, you don’t pay that portion of tax and you pay yours kids’ lunch.

    The interesting numbers in comparison that I can’t quite reconcile are from India. India’s government expenditure as a percentage of the GDP, and public education expenditure as a percentage of the government budget, both are lower than those of China. Yet India’s public education expenditure as a percentage of the GDP, is supposed to be slightly higher than that of China. I can only guess that number from India is actually the total education expenditure (private and public).

  24. BMY Says:


    Thanks for the more comparisons. Public education expenditure is issue in many developed countries as well. Public education is always a call of trying to win votes on every state or federal election here in Australia. The local public primary school’s facilities like the clad boards classrooms are even far behind the primary school I was in about 30 years ago in China. But a school in rural Australian has no much different than a school in a Sydney suburb.

    But in China especially in rural area, many kids can not afford to go to schools and many teachers wages are just too low. there are not enough senior high schools to allow more kids to finish 12 years education rather than 9 years. I don’t think everyone need go to universities but I do think most of people(80%-90%) need have a 12 years high school education.

    no matter the percentage, the actual amount of money are poured into public education is far behind enough comparing China’s economic growth, the relatively low rate of literate population .

  25. shadowfax Says:

    @FOARP: I applied through the UCAS system as well. You’re right that most foreign students aren’t interviewed at all (except for Oxbridge applicants – professors actually visit target countries like China, Singapore and Malaysia to interview candidates. Some of my friends who applied for medicine at other unis were also required to fly to the UK to be interviewed). But I know for a fact that LSE doesn’t interview at all. Oh I thought the purpose of Open Days was to market the uni to the students who already hold offers, not to interview them.

    The A-level exams of 10 years ago were significantly harder than the ones I sat for last year – I’ve seen the past papers and there was less predictability in terms of the exam questions that came up back then. I think getting a B or a C for A-levels last time was an achievement, whereas nowadays straight-A scorers are a dime a dozen.

    @Buxi: Does that mean the grades you get in uni aren’t important at all? In the UK, if you are offered a job at an investment bank or one of the Big Four accounting firms (I don’t have experience with other types of firms), the offer is usually conditional on attaining a 2.1 (second class upper) grade. I am curious about the standard of education in Chinese universities – do they emphasize rote learning just like in high school? Are the courses designed to genuinely challenge students or just to hand out passes (or even A’s) to anyone who does past papers?

  26. BMY Says:


    “I am curious about the standard of education in Chinese universities – do they emphasize rote learning just like in high school? Are the courses designed to genuinely challenge students or just to hand out passes (or even A’s) to anyone who does past papers?”

    from my personal experience I think it depends on which university. And there is no 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd to classify degrees in chinese system. generaly people expect diffrent qualities of degrees from different universities.the degrees from universities like Peking university or Tsinghua university and few other ones normally are seen as the best ones over other 2nd, 3rd tiers universities.

    It also doesn’t mean university students don’t work hard. might not be studying that hard like in the ends of high school but its not just a easy pass.When I was in uni in late 80s and early 90s, most of our schoolmates went to classrooms and library every night from Mon-Fri to study and do assignments. It was hard to find a seat if we went out late after 7:00pm(We all lived in campus those old days). there were about 8 out of 32 in my class failed to get them degrees. They only got undergraduate certificates. the subjects and assignments we got might not that creative like the ones in the western colleges.

    a side note: I am not talking on behave of buxi. just my own opinion.

  27. S.K. Cheung Says:

    I like our education system in Canada. There’s an emphasis on well-roundedness, and that your GPA is but one aspect of your person, and hence but one aspect of your desirability in the eyes of learning institutions. Having said that, this current generation of university students already faces much greater challenges than what I faced, both in terms of GPA and extra-curricular expectations. So who knows when my kids get to that stage.
    However, I disagree about the importance of things like reference letters. Rather than basing admission on a test (cuz you can always have a bad day), it seems reasonable to get an opinion that was formed over a period of months or years. I suppose there is a potential for abuse, as there would be for any subjective measure, but if an applicant sounds like Mother Teresa on paper yet is a dolt in person, I would think that any interviewer worth his/her salt would figure that out pretty quickly.
    I do feel sorry for you guys in the US. I know people my age who are still paying off student loans, which amazes me.

  28. FOARP Says:

    @BMY – I’m sure you heard about all the kerfuffle that surrounded the government decision that university students would have to live on campus. Of course, some don’t, but they still end up having to pay for a place on campus and basically hide the fact that they live off campus. This can be difficult, especially if (shock horror!) they are living with their girl/boyfriend.

  29. BMY Says:


    I am not quite sure about the kerfuffle and how government or uni can control where students live in now days economic and social environment. in my uni time, government pay our uni fees and accommodation on campus. unmarried boy/girlfriend living together were seen as disgrace/dishonor. there was almost no house renting market. we only had 50-60RMB in average every month to spend. So there was little chance to be able to live off campus.

    But these days, there are market, there are enough pocket money,relationship culture/value has changed. not too sure the effective about the kerfuffle. the last few years before I left China, college students lived openly with their boy/girl friends off campus. I doubt they would hide if they live off campus these days.

  30. FOARP Says:

    @BMY – The problem is for students who go to universities which operate so-called ‘university cities’, basically out-of-town campuses with guards at the dorm entrances and people ensuring that students are all present and correct. Some of the dorm wardens turn a blind eye, but others are pretty strict. I used to go to a pub that was run by university students that was closed down after they all had to move back to campus when the university (at the prompting of the government) brought in a new policy – this was how I found out about it. The discussion about students living off campus made all the newspapers back in 2004/5, with most coming down on the side of keeping the students on campus as it was ‘safer’ there. Most students nowadays don’t actually have that much more than you did in your day – maybe 4-500 yuan a month.

  31. Opersai Says:


    Not all students don’t want to live on campus, and that has it’s benefits.

    My cousin, for example, wanted to live on campus, even when he was offered to live at my uncle’s place outside campus. That’s because he wants to better integrate into the student life in university. To get to know, and establish network with his schoolmates. He said there’s this one ‘mysterious’ classmate who they don’t know much even after couple years into university. Because the person doesn’t live on campus, he doesn’t have much interaction with rest of them except in class. In universities in China, students establish enormous friendship through 4 years of close living together. He didn’t want to be like this ‘mysterious’ classmate and miss the great opportunity.

    I sometimes envy my friends and cousins back in China. Here in University in Canada, if I don’t try very hard, I can finish my 4 years without making any friend.

  32. BMY Says:

    Thanks, FOARP. I didn’t know there was talks/policies about “living on campus” in 2004/5. I support that move. students should live on campus and focus on study during full time school years.


    you are absolutely right about “students establish enormous friendship through 4 years of close living together” which often last life time.
    I think the enormous friendship between classmates(同学)amount Chinese is also a culture thing. not living together high/primary classmates also have enormous friendship extend to adult life time. when someone says 同学 automatically has the meaning of friend in Chinese culture.

  33. Buxi Says:


    I think the bond between classmates is definitely a culture thing, but the “system” also supports it.

    In the United States at least, kids don’t have a single united “class” starting from 7th grade on. They go to different classes for different subjects. So, in American schools, kids form friendships and cliques on the basis of other things… which is why I think American schools are more self-segregated than Chinese schools.

    Going back to the question of kids… I wish there were American schools that used the Chinese “class” system, so that I could send my kids there!

  34. Nimrod Says:

    Well, there are special programs in some schools that a group of students always end up taking the same classes, but I know, it’s not the same thing. Also, this may have changed a lot now, but classmates in China used to live close by, so you could visit them after school.

  35. BMY Says:

    you are right, the system also supports it.

    I stayed in same class with same group of kids from year 1 till year 8 which was the last year in junior high then. It was a company attached school so we classmates also lived next doors.

  36. Opersai Says:


    You are very right. Students establish very strong bond with their classmates. Not just in university, in senior high school as well. I heard some of my friends, who came after attending senior high school in China, talking about their high school classmates, and how 铁 (strong?) their bonds are. I am, sometimes very envious of that. They seemed so close, the next best thing besides having real brothers and sisters, when most of us are single child in the family.

  37. Fatima Says:

    Hello, I’m 5 years late to this post, but thanks so much for this. The line of ideas in the gaokao questions is fascinating and also really moving, looking at the different ways the essay asks us to look at society and the individual over time. I’ve been researching the history of the gaokao and I have a question I hoped someone could answer. What happened to the Beijing gaokao examinations in 1989? Were they held in July, were they disrupted by the traffic and circulation issues in the city, or by disruptions at the universities themselves? Does anyone know how the demonstrations affected the examinations that year? Thanks for any information anyone has.

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