Why is the Chinese Gaokao system flawed? | Teen Ink

Why is the Chinese Gaokao system flawed?

August 15, 2023
By youmiji SILVER, Tokyo, Other
youmiji SILVER, Tokyo, Other
6 articles 0 photos 0 comments

“Pliye, pliye, pa kase.” (Rahill, et al.)

This Traditional Haitian saying, meaning “bend, bend, don’t break” in English, describes the core value of every Chinese household: resilience. Taking the Gaokao — the Chinese college entrance exam, also commonly known as the “most important exam in one’s life” — at the age of 18 has been seen as the ultimate destination of every Chinese child’s education. Similar to the way the imperial exam functioned in ancient times, the gaokao aimed to bring in an element of meritocracy to a system that was otherwise exclusive by offering an opportunity for students from less privileged backgrounds to advance up the social hierarchy. (Larmer) Every year in early June, 10 million Chinese pupils around China participate in the stressful exam which lasts for nine hours over a span of two to four days. During the examination, students are tested in Chinese language, Mathematics, a foreign language of choice, as well as liberal-arts subjects (history, geography, etc.) or STEM subjects (physics, chemistry, etc.) Achieving a higher score on the Gaokao allows students to be accepted into more prestigious colleges, thus enabling them to find a high-salary job which is believed to equate “success in life.” Because of the belief that Gaokao is strongly correlated with one’s ability to be successful in the future, Chinese students are encouraged to spend their entire teenage years studying restlessly for the nine-hour-exam which will determine their futures. 

Although the Gaokao has already become a crucial part of Chinese culture as the examination has existed for multiple generations, this system of testing has been a topic of debate for many reasons. This research paper will aim to discuss the flaws of the Gaokao system mainly through the psychological, social, and educational lens: does Gaokao help students build resilience for the long run? Is it an effective way of education?

The immense psychological pressure of the gaokao system on teenagers is perhaps the most obvious issue with Chinese education. In a study by Alex Cockain published by “The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the College of Asia and the Pacific,” the author examines the Chinese student’s conflicted feelings toward their education system through incorporation of the perspectives of “a group of young Chinese studying on an international foundation program in Beijing.” (Cockain) One participant in the research expressed the common feeling of anxiety brought by the exam: “We can lose everything at the gaokao: a bad score in the gaokao means we go to a bad university … This means we get a bad job … and this means we will have a bad life.” (Cockain) 


What causes this type of “slippery slope” mindset — that if one bad thing occurs, everything else will also go wrong — is the strong correlation between one’s Gaokao score and  the chances of acceptance to a university. In an article titled “The benefits of acing China’s most important academic exam” from the Economist, a study involving data from over 10,000 participants found that “whereas students who score just below the cut-off have only a 6% chance of attending a top-tier university, those who score at or above it have a 20-40% chance. They also earn 5-9% more in their first job out of school” (the Economist). 

In this situation, students are usually convinced by adults who have had similar experiences that the pain is only temporary: if they work diligently in the first 18 years of their lives and are able to score higher on the Gaokao, they would not need to endure the same hardship for the rest of their lives; failing the Gaokao, in contrast, means that they would continue to “suffer.” This notion of resilience is referred to as chiku, literally meaning “eating bitterness,” and is often a trait associated with positive connotations. Contrary to this ideology, “large-scale scientific studies suggest that even adaptive competencies become maladaption if taken to the extreme” (Chamorro-Premuzic and Lusk). Anhui’s “exam factory,” Maotanchang, is a fitting example which demonstrates the previous statement. In this town, all distractions like cellphones, laptops, and other forms of entertainment are eliminated, leaving the students to have “nothing to do but study” (Larmer). Students from Maotanchang are well-known in China for studying for over 16 hours daily, a fact used by many parents to educate their children on the importance of resilience and hardwork. Though it may seem like this would be the right thing to do considering the importance of Gaokao scores, this form of learning is an instance of  “maladaptive behavior” which will cause harm to the teenagers in the long run.  

In “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela, he reflects on his previous experience from spending 27 years in prison. Mandela argues that imprisonment is about being trapped in a routine and losing a sense of time, which is “an easy way to lose one’s grip and one’s sanity.” (Mandela) Although it may seem like the students are preparing for their futures by spending time in Maotanchang town, a prison-like environment, they are in fact losing time by being confined in the sea of knowledge and ignoring other essential skills for living. In this sense, the diligence that Chinese students are educated to follow is not necessarily a positive skill as it comes at the cost of sacrificing other important life skills. 

Disregarding the quality of human nature and entertainment and solely living for the sake of an exam score should not be promoted. The ancient wisdom from around the world has taught us that the best way to build a resilient future is to work with nature instead of against it. (Watson) While it may seem like the students are able to gain resilience from enduring hardships, “eating bitterness,” this surge of motivation is most likely to disappear after the goal (scoring higher on the Gaokao examination) is achieved — this phenomenon can be explained by the self-determination theory. According to Yu, Chen, Levesque-Bristol and Vansteenkiste from Purdue University and Ghent University, one of Gaokao’s crucial characteristics lies in its extrinsic motivations, as described in an ancient “Poem for Motivating Learning” written by an emperor: “In books there will be golden mansion, in books there will be beautiful women.” (Yu, et al.) As aforementioned, the Gaokao is important because having a higher score correlates with a more prestigious University and a higher-earning job. Students are not studying because they seek knowledge, but because they want to “obtain a good job in the future,” “please their parents,” or “gain respect from others.” (Yu, et al.)

Equally important, another reason why students may start to adapt extreme study habits like shown in the Maotanchang example is due to regional discrimination. Universities usually set a fixed admission quota for each province, with a higher number of students coming from its home province. For instance, Peking University (which is one of the most prestigious universities in China) planned to admit 800 science students from Beijing (with 80,000 applicants in total), but only 38 from Shandong (with 660,000 applicants in total). To put these statistics into perspective, this would mean that students from Beijing would have an overall acceptance rate of  1%, whereas students from Shandong would have a chance of around 0.006%. Some may argue that the Gaokao is “the fairest form of exam” due to the various forms of surveillance preventing any chance of cheating (China Daily) as well as the lack of influence from corruption; however, the regional quota system provides unequal opportunities to students from different provinces across China, putting even more pressure on students from rural areas to “fight” for the scarce spots — for 99.994% of the students, they may be on a wild goose chase.  

Due to various reasons, experts state that the Gaokao system “may have impaired education and developmental outcomes in students by not supporting or even thwarting basic psychological needs,” according to the same source titled “Chinese Education Examined via the Lens of Self-Determination.” (Yu, et al.) Because the students are forced to focus on studying, they lack time to explore their true interests: in agreement to this claim, a study found that the majority of the student participants (around 70%) were unsure about their true interest and which career they would like to pursue personally. From this, it seems that another detrimental effect of the Gaokao is its tendency to take away the students’ “time and energy for developing an autonomous, direction-giving identity and inner compass.” Over time, perhaps after the Gaokao, this issue will become an inevitable problem that Chinese teenagers have to solve as they discover that having studying skills alone will not guarantee success in life. 

The Gaokao examination can be compared to the college entrance exams in the US — SAT and ACT. Ruike Zhu from the University of Akron composed a study titled “A comparative study of college entrance examinations (CEEs): SAT and ACT in the United States of America and Gaokao in the People’s Republic of China.” In her paper, Zhu states that whereas universities in the United States have the freedom to establish their own admission requirements, this level of autonomy is not as prevalent among Chinese universities. To add on, “the only standard for most universities in most cases is Gaokao score.” (Zhu)

As the Gaokao system has already become a deep rooted part of Chinese culture, it is impossible to remove the examination completely. Different cultural, political and economic factors should be considered when hypothesizing for a possible solution to the problem. In Zhu’s study, she proposed that one way Chinese universities/the Ministry of Education can reduce the negative effects of the Gaokao is through “adopting multiple admission standards.” (Zhu) This could mean that other factors such as extracurricular activities are taken into consideration during the admissions, similar to the college admissions process in the US where sports, arts, volunteer work, etc. are considered. 

This reform could prove several benefits. First, as aforementioned, high Gaokao scores may not be the best way to measure a student’s learning abilities. Reviewing other aspects of the student’s school lives could help gain a better overview of their academic performance. More importantly, including multiple components in the admissions process instead of solely measuring their years of hard work based on their score on a nine-hour exam will reduce the stress that students are under. In summary, incorporating more elements in addition to one’s Gaokao score would allow Chinese universities to have a better understanding about the student as an individual; at the same time, “this encourages students to participate in more extracurricular activities, which is helpful in their well-rounded development.” (Zhu) However, this solution may have some limitations because of China’s large population. China has much more people than the US, meaning that there would also be more students applying to college every year. It is possible that universities will not have enough time to look over each application if each candidate submits multiple elements of their academic life.  

 In short, “the supreme importance of the gaokao means that schools usually focus only on cramming students for it during their three years of senior high school. Other skills that are needed for the creation of the “knowledge economy” that President Xi Jinping says he wants to build, such as teamwork and creativity, are neglected.” (The Economist) In a broader view, the Gaokao is flawed because it fails to accomplish the fundamental goal of education: helping students acquire knowledge for later use in life and reaching their full potential. Because of this system, Chinese teens are encouraged to study through extrinsic motivations like higher grades, more prestigious colleges, bragging rights, and higher salaries. They are deprived of the time to reflect on what they truly want to accomplish in life after they graduate high school as well as other similarly crucial character traits, such as communication skills, a curiosity for learning, and an autonomous desire to improve. 






Works Cited


Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas, and Derek Lusk. “The Dark Side of Resilience.” Harvard Business Review, 16 Aug. 2017, hbr.org/2017/08/the-dark-side-of-resilience. Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.

China Daily. “Public Security Stepping up Checks to Safeguard Gaokao.” Chinadaily.Com.Cn, 3 June 2021, chinadaily.com.cn/a/202106/03/WS60b8cafca31024ad0bac3772.html. Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.


Larmer, Brook. “Inside a Chinese Test-Prep Factory.” The New York Times, 31 Dec. 2014, nytimes.com/2015/01/04/magazine/inside-a-chinese-test-prep-factory.html. Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk To Freedom. Hachette UK, 2013.

The Economist. “The Benefits of Acing China’s Most Important Academic Exam.” The Economist, 23 Feb. 2021, economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/02/23/the-benefits-of-acing-chinas-most-important-academic-exam. Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.

The Economist. “The World’s Most Important Exam Is Flawed.” The Economist, 30 June 2018, economist.com/leaders/2018/06/30/the-worlds-most-important-exam-is-flawed. Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.

Watson, Julia. “How to Build a Resilient Future Using Ancient Wisdom.” TED Talks, Video, 11 Aug. 2020, ted.com/talks/julia_watson_how_to_build_a_resilient_future_using_ancient_wisdom. Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.

Yu, Shi, et al. “Chinese Education Examined via the Lens of Self-Determination.” Educational Psychology Review, vol. 30, no. 1, 2018, pp. 177–214, doi.org/10.2307/45379667.

Zhu, Ruike. A Comparative Study of College Entrance Examinations (CEEs): SAT and ACT in the United States of America and Gaokao in the People’s Republic of China. Dec. 2014.

Similar Articles


This article has 0 comments.