|Book Mountain, High School students in China study for their final exams, the Gaokao|
I cycled on to find three more high schools had been mobbed by the grieving parents. It looked as though there had been a terrorist attack and they were all out the mourn the victims, such was the sombre atmosphere.
I found out later that they were the parents of high school students taking their final high school exams, the dreaded Gaokao. 11 years of education comes down to one, four part mega exam. The students have been preparing for their Gaokao since the age of 8. Repeating and reciting the answers, the methods, reading until 3am only to begin school at 6am the next day.
|A Gaokao cartoon, the father's sign reads "only four days to go until the Gaokao" and the mother saying "You Go Girl!"|
There's good reason to study hard, the Gaokao is the only exam taken in China where cheating is not tolerated. Students have to pass on merit alone, and their entire future is decided on the results of this one exam.
|A woman prays for her Child during the Gaokao.|
A high score means scholarships to the top universities and a white collar life as a top professional. A low score means failure, embarrassment for parents and a life of hard graft for the failed student unless daddy can buy them a nice stable job. The pressure is so great that some even kill themselves.
|Schools motivate their students with fascist style rallies to get them to keep marching on despite the terrible burden relentless study takes on their bodies and minds.|
This is the one chance kids from a poor family get to break through the social barriers which dictate the lives of most people in the "communist" country. No wonder parents spend hours sitting on the wall outside the exam hall like nervous wrecks, just praying their kids do well.
|Crowds of parents wait for their children to finish their exam|
There is something fundamentally unfair about the Gaokao, despite sounding meritocratic. Each province has a quota for how many students are allowed to pass. In provinces like Hainan, Tibet, Xinjiang and Beijing, provinces with tiny populations, the Gaokao is an easy exam with high pass rates and a good chance of going to top university. In Henan however, the province in which I live, the pass rates are exceptionally high due to a population of over 100 million.
|More Parents expectantly waiting for their kids after a Gaokao exam.|
I've heard a story about two boys taking the Gaokao, one from Zhengzhou, Henan and the other from Beijing. The student from Zhengzhou got a score of 600, but failed to get a place at a good university or any scholarships. The boy from Beijing got 490 on the same test, getting a place at QingHua, China's most prestigious university. The Zhengzhou lad went on to become a migrant worker, scraping a living building luxury apartments. The Beijinger became an architect, designing the very same buildings.
|Parents waiting for hours outside the exam halls during the Chinese University Entrance Exams or Gaokao.|
Students taking their A levels or SAT's don't have any concept of pressure. I consider myself lucky to be born in the UK, if I was Chinese I wouldn’t stand a chance.