“China is caught in a prisoner’s dilemma,” says Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon and the author of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” “Nobody is willing to break away, because the gaokao is still the only path to heaven.”
There has to be another way.... -Angela
The main street of Maotanchang, a secluded town in the furrowed hills of eastern China’s Anhui province, was nearly deserted. A man dozed on a motorized rickshaw, while two old women with hoes shuffled toward the rice paddies outside town. It was 11:44 on a Sunday morning last spring, and the row of shops selling food, tea and books by the pound stood empty. Even the town’s sacred tree lured no supplicants; beneath its broad limbs, a single bundle of incense smoldered on a pile of ash.
One minute later, at precisely 11:45, the stillness was shattered. Thousands of teenagers swarmed out of the towering front gate of Maotanchang High School. Many of them wore identical black-and-white Windbreakers emblazoned with the slogan, in English, “I believe it, I can do it.” It was lunchtime at one of China’s most secretive “cram schools” — a memorization factory where 20,000 students, or four times the town’s official population, train round the clock for China’s national college-entrance examination, known as the gaokao. The grueling test, which is administered every June over two or three days (depending on the province), is the lone criterion for admission to Chinese universities. For the students at Maotanchang, most of whom come from rural areas, it offers the promise of a life beyond the fields and the factories, of families’ fortunes transformed by hard work and high scores.
Yang Wei, a 12th grader at this public school, steered me through the crowd. A peach farmer’s son in half-laced high-tops, Yang had spent the previous three years, weekends included, stumbling to his first class at 6:20 in the morning and returning to his room only after the end of his last class at 10:50 at night. Yang and I met at this precise moment, after his Sunday-morning practice test, because it was the only free time he had all week — a single three-hour reprieve. Now, with the gaokao just 69 days away — the number appeared on countdown calendars all over town — Yang had entered the final, frenetic stretch. “If you connected all of the practice tests I’ve taken over the past three years,” he told me with a bitter laugh, “they would wrap all the way around the world.”
Yang and I had communicated on social media for weeks, and the 18-year-old seemed almost giddy to be hosting an American expatriate. Yet there was a crisis brewing. Even with all the relentless practice, Yang’s scores were slipping, a fact that clouded over the lunch I ate with his family in the single room that he and his mother shared near the sacred tree. We were joined by Yang’s father, visiting for the afternoon, and his closest friend from his home village, a classmate named Cao Yingsheng — all squeezed into a space barely big enough for a bunk bed, a desk and a rice cooker. The room’s rent, however, was high, rivaling rates in downtown Beijing, and it represented only part of the sacrifice Yang’s parents made to help him, their only son, become the first family member to attend college.