the zhongkao cometh: assessing thirty years of reform and opening

In the West, the gaokao gets the most press of any aspect of the Chinese education system. However, the zhongkao or high school entrance exam, which is administered locally may be even more life altering than the gaokao because although high school is non-compulsory in China, it is absolutely necessary preparation for the gaokao.

Indeed, one of Shenzhen’s stickier political problems is dealing with might be called zhongkao refugees: (1) neidi students who have the test scores but not the finances to attend high school and thus have to leave the city; (2) students with Shenzhen hukou who have the economic resources but not the test scores to attend high school (because there aren’t enough public schools for all Shenzhen students); and (3) students with Shenzhen hukou, middling resources, and middling grades who end up in high schools from which testing into a top college is probably not going to happen. After all, only the top four high schools in Shenzhen – Shenzhen Foreign Languages (深圳外国语学校), Shenzhen Middle School (深圳中学, Shenzhen Experimental (深圳实验学校, and Shenzhen Senior High School (深圳高级中学) – guarantee that most graduates will go to college, but even they cannot guarantee a place at Beida, Qinghua, or Fudan.

As with the gaokao, the zhongkao tests, evaluates, and ranks students’ political correctness. In fact preparing for the zhongkao is the entire content of a ninth grade education at top Shenzhen middle schools; this is the quotidian brutality of what is conventionally known as “teaching for the test (应试教育)”. To give a sense of how Shenzhen’s history is being institutionalized to serve the Party, I have translated a portion of a study guide for one of the political essay topics for Shenzhen’s 2011 zhongkao: “Reflect on Shenzhen’s thirtieth anniversary, the invincible might manifest by Reform and Opening (回眸深圳三十周年 改革开放显神威).”

Background Material:
(1) August 26, 2010, China’s first Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen will celebrate its thirtieth birthday. The epitome of thirty years of Reform and Opening, this city was once the concrete explanation of how Chinese People understood the abstract nouns of development, wealth, and progress. For an individual, thirty is the year when s/he becomes independent [in thought and deed], and thrives; for a city, thirty years is also a pivotal year. These thirty years, from Shenzhen’s issuing the first share of stock to lowering the gavel during the first land auction; from Zhuhai’s first offering of a million yuan prize for anyone who made a national contribution to science and technology to the establishment of the first Chinese-Foreign joint enterprise; from Shantou first deciding our Country’s first private property law to the first time reforming the national system of allocating housing…each time a Special Zone stepped forward, daring to pioneer and experiment, it was a deep revolution. According to statistics, these past thirty years, Shenzhen alone created over 300 “National Firsts”. Shenzhen is the lead scout of all the Special Zones.

(2) On September 6, 2010, the Celebration of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was held. Party Secretary, National Chairman, and Military Commission Chair, Hu Jintao attended and gave an import talk, emphatically affirming the successful development and construction of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. Hu Jintao affirmed that these past thirty years, by keenly reforming, daring to pioneer, daring to experiment, and daring to forge ahead and create new ideas, Shenzhen’s perseverance has created a global industrial, urban, modern construction miracle, contributing greatly to the national project of Reform and Opening. Hu Jintao expressed that we must be unwavering both in supporting Socialism with Chinese characteristics and supporting the theoretical system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, bravely reforming, bravely inventing, never becoming rigid. Hu Jintao emphasized that not only was it necessary to continue the Special Economic Zone, but also to do it better. The Central Government will continue to support the Special Economic Zone’s functions of courageous investigation and first attempt and experiment.

(3) Thirty years have passed in a flash and for independent Shenzhen it is a time of ending and new beginnings. Facing new opportunities, Shenzhen has already made strides toward becoming a wise city (智慧城市).

A science and technology wise city is a new road of development, and the first goal in this direction is becoming an “intelligent city”. Shenzhen Municipality’s “Some Opinions about how to Transition from Industrial Economic Development” clearly states that we must take advantage of the new generation of technological revolution and information property wave, fully exploit Shenzhen’s advantages, and construct an urban development wise environment.

A humanitarian wise city. Shenzhen announced that although it was important to commemorate Shenzhen’s thirtieth anniversary, it was more important to pay attention to people’s livelihoods, to secure democracy, to improve work conditions, to move forward in planning that concretely helps the people, to earnestly research and propose projects that benefit the people, in order that the laobaixing can truly enjoy the fruits of the Special Zone’s thirty years.

An ecological wise city. Shenzhen has prosed to become China’s first “low carbon city”, through enthusiastic investigation of planning construction, low carbon industries, public transportation, green architecture, and resource management, the city will be the first to implement and first to try, striving to set new standards for the entire country and province.

Prediction about this essay topic being assigned:

As a successful prototype of Reform and Opening, Shenzhen has received the critical attention of the entire country, also becoming the best exemplar of the successes of Reform and Opening. Therefore this year, the examiners may combine testing knowledge about Shenzhen’s thirty years with knowledge about Reform and Opening, and with attention to the Country’s fate. It’s possible that the type of questions will be analysis or multiple choice because an essay on the thirtieth anniversary of Reform and Opening was already assigned, so this year it is unlikely to be a major question.

The guide then continues with thirteen detailed questions and answers about the meaning of Shenzhen, Reform and Opening, and the necessity of continuing this path even though we are clearly in a different era from when Reform and Opening began. Of note is the rigidity of language use and proper interpretation. These questions leave no room for alternative explanations. Indeed, students are memorizing precise reiterations of Party history. For example, question number one:



What do Shenzhen’s past thirty years prove?

Reform and Opening is the road to becoming a strong country. It is the vital source of our Party and our Country’s developmental progress. Reform and Opening was a crucial choice determining the fate of contemporary China. It is the necessary road to develop Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and to realize the renaissance of the Chinese people. Persevering in the basic policy of Opening is correct. Reform is the force, development is the hard truth, stability overpowers everything. Taking economic construction as the center [of society] is necessary to prospering the country. It is the first realization of the superiority of the socialist system. Reform and Opening demonstrates the incomparable superiority of the socialist system. The Chinese Communist Party is the core strength of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

Other questions are more factual, such as, “What are China’s five Special Economic Zones? [Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, Xiamen, and Hainan]”, but the gist of the study guide is to remind students that memorizing the party line is a condition of getting into high school. At gaokao level, the questions and answers are more detailed, but as rigidly constructed. Indeed, the question and answer section of the study guide reproduces the political study guides on which functionary promotions are still based.

And yet.

Even high school students know that they are not learning knowledge, but rather learning to perform what is expected of them in order to get what they want: parental approval, the respect of their peers, the promise of a beautiful future. And this fundamental cynicism beats at the heart of the political essays, which, if asked in good faith would be the basis of a robust socialism.

more thoughts on education

at the park

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

the question of what to believe is is troubling and profound, even in cities like shenzhen, notwithstanding all this capitalism with chinese characteristics. some days it feels like people only say they want to make money because that is what they think they’re expected to say. at heart, i sense that people are making money and how far they are willing to go to make that money (because yes, questions of ideology are also questions of belief) is tied up in reworked versions of what constitutes a “household (家)”. indeed, neotraditionalism and neoconfucianism are profoundly shaping (what i am told is the most feudal of chinese institutions) – early childhood education.

a few years ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of the “three character jing (三字经), a text that chinese children used to memorize as part of a traditional education. my friend told me that after her son had memorized the three character jing, he had become a better student, more filial, and overall a more considerate human being. she concluded that traditional education educated the entire person, whereas modern education was necessary, but incomplete.

i am also aware of a strong impulse toward home-schooling among many people my age. many had their children memorizing chinese classics and indeed, i bought my own recitation copy of the “book of changes”. the set came with pinyin, simplified and standard versions of the text in addition to cds of a man and girl reciting the text. the many who sold me this set told me that when children recited the classics their voices became clearer and more beautiful.

recently, the push toward remaking the self through the classics seems both stronger and more popular – in all senses of the word. a new favorite text is the “standards for being a good student and child (弟子规)”. meanwhile, an administrative assistant has left her job to take her three-year old daughter to a mother-child camp, where she will learn how to teach her daughter the classics.

it is worth noting that although students had been memorizing tang poems as part of their elementary education, the new push for “three characters” and “standards” is (a) part of grassroots pre-school training; (b) involves a moral impulse that combines education with obedience; and (c) is re-coding shenzhen’s nuclear families in confucian terms.

so i am learning to listen to chinese debates about education, debates which frankly did not interest me when i thought of them as being merely about how the gaokao (高考) has ruined the possibility of true learning. in fact, the closer we get to the june test dates, the more incessant and shrill these debates become and the lower my tolerance for parents who say, “but we had no choice [except to force our child to study ten hours a day and give up their dreams of being an artist]”. however, as i have learned to hear how questions about what and how to believe inform these debates, i have become more interested in and yes, more sympathetic to the chinese obsession with education.

there are, after all, many ways of trying to become human.

three more text messages

Recent text messages on gaokao blues, the meaning of life, and lived common sense.


Gaokao got you down? Future prospects uncertain? [Go abroad connections] will help you get into a famous Canadian University (no English necessary), and have a better chance for a green card! Student interviews on July 20 at 2:30, tel: XXXXX


Only three Chinese characters gloss all the important points of a human life. The character for sharp (尖) can be both big (大)and small (小); the character for refinement (斌)can be both cultured (文)and martial (武); the character ka (卡) can go both up (上) and down(下): human life is complicated, three characters make it clear.


To complicate simple matters is culture, to simplify complicated matters is science. To muddle obvious matters is philosophy, to clarify muddled matters is law. To brainlessly cure a patient is Chinese medicine, to wisely medicate a patient to death is Western medicine. A teacher is someone who straightens out the confused, a leader is someone who confuses those who know what’s what.