What if I flunk the gaokao?

I'm a Chinese high-school student fearful about our national college entrance exam

Published March 8, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hello Cary!

I'm a high school student in China. I'm deeply troubled by my early decision to go to America for college. You see, in my country, most students will take the college entrance exam, aka gaokao in my country, to go to college. Yet it's not so easy as anyone who have no idea what it is expected.

I am now in the 11th  grade and most of the students the same age as me will have to work really hard to get better grades in the exam, even sometimes stay up late to 3 in the morning. It's not hard to imagine what we will be like in the 12th grade.

For me, or for anyone who chooses to study for the SAT and TOEFL in order to go to America for higher education, it means to abandon gaokao. But I chose this path a little late so I'm really worried that I may not be admitted to go to any colleges in America or in China. What can I do?

A Little Worrying Student

Dear Little Worrying Student,

What can you do? You can realize that regardless of how you do on this test, you will be OK. You will be OK because regardless of how you were raised and what culture you are a part of, you have an "I" that has the ability to look with detachment at the world. You have an inner self that is a universal self, that is like all other selves; you have an "I" that belongs not to China or the U.S. or to capitalism or Marxism or your family but to the world and to all humanity. You have been taught to believe certain things about destiny and honor and what makes a good person and what is admired, and that is fine; but regardless of the esteem that others extend to you, regardless of how they rank you in their categories of achievement, you have control over how you feel about yourself. You are a being distinct from your culture and its beliefs. You are capable of having a happy life no matter what your social rank.

This may sound very American and Western and like a cowboy song. I suppose it is. But the existence of the individual self is not in dispute. It is merely a matter of emphasis and cultural teaching. You can take steps to cultivate your distinct, culture-neutral, inner sense of self and dignity. You may not get much support from those around you on this matter. But know that it is true. Know that you have individual dignity and choice, and that you can be happy and have a good life regardless of how well or poorly you do on a test.

There is a part of you that may feel shame at not doing well on a test, of course, or that may dread going into the street knowing that you only got a certain score on a test, or may fear that because of a score on a test you will never experience certain pleasures. And it is true that you may not be able to go to certain schools or work in certain businesses based on your score on a test. But that doesn't mean that you can't have a happy life. All these things affect only the part of you that is attached to ego and pride; there is another truer, deeper part of you that is pure consciousness, that sees all this fear and trouble and can laugh at it, for this pure part of you knows that you are a good and worthy soul; this pure part of you can delight in the love of others and of nature and of hard work and of meditation and sleep, and can revel in the dazzling, unfathomable fact of consciousness itself.

You have nothing to worry about. You only have opportunity.

Capital will change China forever and you are going to be a part of it. The rise of a strong middle class means more money floating around and more chaos and more opportunity. It means more chances for odd coincidence and quiet accumulation of wealth. One of my best and richest friends here in the U.S. is also the one with the least formal education; he just started working at companies and figuring out how to make things go right and that is how he made his money. He didn't need the prestige of a degree.

Maybe you will do fantastically well on the gaokao. Maybe you will not do so well. Maybe you will go to school in China or maybe you will go in the United States. Whatever happens, you are privileged to be witness to a historic event, and you are going to have unprecedented opportunities and choices. In the chaos and movement of capital millions of cracks will appear and people will slip through; entrepreneurs will find ways to express their visions; dissidents will find ways to express their views; freedom-loving individuals will find ways to live in this maelstrom of change whether they do well according to traditional standards or not.

China is not the same as America, but the forces of rapid social change and economic progress that operated on America for so long are now operating in China, and a new kind of person must emerge from it. How can that not happen? How can that not be true? You will be one of those new individuals, those new Chinese, born aloft on history.

So of course, I say to you, like a good surrogate parent: study hard, my child, maintain your standing among your peers, be good to your parents. But know, in your heart, that no matter what happens, you have an individual soul, and you can stand apart from all this and view it with the cold and detached eye of history.

Whatever happens, I hope you will let me know how things turn out because I want to know how this story ends.

Meanwhile, here are some interesting things for readers about the tradition of testing in China, the rise of a well-managed national system of civil servants and meritocracy, and various opinion pieces on the educational system and the gaokao.

What is the gaokao?

Why does China go nuts over a test?

A BBC video on studying for the gaokao.

Edward Wong, New York Times, June 30, 2012, on the debate over the college entrance exam.

Imperial exams in Chinese Literature

Capitalism as existentialism

Modern Meritocratic Civil Service exams

The imperial examination and gaokao: "The most truly unique aspect of Chinese culture -- and the one with the most powerful legacy -- is the Confucian examination system with which the Son of Heaven's empire was staffed with civil servants over the best part of two millennia."

By Cary Tennis

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