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  Beijing Scene

Educating Ayi

Hey Ayi,

All my Chinese friends say they're busy studying for exams. I know the tests don't start until July, so I can't believe they're cramming already. Are they really working that hard, or are they just using this as an excuse to throw me over? And while you're expounding, how does the school system here work?


Peter Dantic

Dear P. Dantic,
First of all, take heart. It's not you your friends are avoiding, but the prospect of a jobless and hopeless future (not to mention their parents' wrath). When spring hits, Chinese high school students begin spending most of their time holed up in the library preparing for July's three-day, nationwide college entrance exams. I know it sounds early as it's only April, but most students probably wish they had even more time since the exams are regarded as the toughest and most important they will ever have to sit.

But before I get onto the subject of exams, to help you appreciate today's system I think it's best to brief you on the history of learning in China. The roots of the Chinese education system can be traced as far back as the Shang dynasty (1523-1027 BC). Although the core curriculum has changed considerably since then, for thousands of years the education system remained virtually the same. Prior to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the system was based on the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC), which outlined the principles of society and government, as well as codes for personal moral conduct and influenced almost all aspects of life, particularly education.

In imperial China, political power determined wealth and status, and the only pathway to power was through the examination system, widely referred to as the "Ladder to the Clouds" (zhishang qingyun). The first series of tests-the first rung on the metaphorical four-rung ladder-was offered in every district capital. Left alone in a small cell for an entire day and night, each candidate was required to expound on philosophy, history and the writings of Confucius.

Those who passed the first tests traveled to their provincial capital to take the second series. For three days (the same duration of today's exams), thousands of students tested in solitary cells no larger than a bathroom stall. Those who passed were bestowed the title of Promoted Scholar (jinshi).

Promoted Scholars then traveled to the imperial capital to take the final exams that would determine whether they could enter the national civil service. Those with real ambition climbed the fourth rung by taking the most difficult test-a palace examination held in the presence of the emperor. Every year as many as 3,500 candidates took the exam that conferred the right to hold government office, but only some 10 percent would pass, a ratio not much different from the present university admission rate.

In theory the system was fair and even a peasant of the most humble background could take the exams. In practice however, local officials or nobility were most likely to see their sons move up the ladder as they were the only ones who could afford to pay for good teachers and bribe corrupt officials.

After thousands of years of dynastic rule the examination system saw its last days in 1905. A series of humiliating military defeats, beginning with the Opium War (1840-1842), forced China to admit that they were socially and technologically backward. Education, like everything else, underwent drastic changes after the fall of the Qing dynasty until liberation in 1949. After the founding of the People's Republic, the school system was modeled on the Soviet prototype until the Cultural Revolution during which the entire education infrastructure was decimated and students spent more time "making revolution" than studying.

Things have since stabilized, and since the 1978 ascension of Deng Xiaoping to power a compulsory nine-year education policy is back in place (jiu nian yi wu jiaoyu). The school system is broken down into a 6-3-3 compulsory system: six years of primary school, three years of middle school and three years of high school.

During the six-year primary school period, students take a variety of subjects such as Chinese language, mathematics and moral education. In recent years, English has become an optional course which students are strongly advised to take by both their teachers and parents. In middle school, subjects such as chemistry, biology and physics are taught as well as history and geography. Once students get into high school they take six or seven subjects: English, mathematics, Chinese language and at least three of history, chemistry, geography, physics or biology, depending on whether you are a science (like) or arts (wenke) student. The university entrance exams usually take place July 7-9-the same time that Beijing heats up to furnace-like temperatures. Not surprisingly, this month has earned the moniker "Black July" (heise qiyue).

In general, high school is a tough time for students in China. While their Western counterparts might be nipping round the bike shed for a quick cig or hanging out in the pub, Chinese high school students face intense competition for admission into university and parental pressure to succeed. However, there are more choices for students today than there were in the past. Those who can't or don't want to go to university can enroll in vocational colleges. Cram colleges are available for students who fail their high school exams but still want a university education. Part-time and distance learning programs help those who want to work, study and get rich all at the same time. And then there are the increasingly popular exchange programs with colleges and high schools in Western countries for wealthier students looking for a life abroad. And if you really can't stand the thought of studying, there is always the option of buying a fake degree certificate-although obviously your Ayi can't condone such actions. Instead, I will advise you to remember one of the well-known idioms taught in all Chinese schools: haohao xuexi, tiantian xiangshang (study hard and improve daily).

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