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)
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?
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.