One test, one chance—that's all there is for millions of Chinese high school graduates who prepare for the annual national college entrance exam, known as gaokao, in June, the score of which is the sole determinant of where they will attend college. Perhaps this is why Chinese parents are said to be so strict, especially when it comes to their children's education. In many cases, at certain times of the year the entire life function of Chinese families is centered around preparing for the exam. Yanna Gong explores China's examination culture in her first book, Gaokao: A Personal Journey Behind China's Examination Culture, published by China Books, an imprint of SinoMedia International Group. Recently she spoke with Beijing Review contributing writer Corrie Dosh about the test, and what it's like to bridge two cultures.
Beijing Review: Tell me a little bit about your motivations for writing gaokao. You mentioned the importance of education in your family—did you ever resent it? Did you feel different from your classmates?
Yanna Gong: When I first began this project, I never actually had any plans to write a book. These past few years, there's been a lot of media attention on China's education system. For example, in both 2009 and 2012, the Program for International Student Assessment, an international exam that looks at the abilities of 15-year-olds' scholastic performance in math, science and reading, ranked American students' scores in the late 10s and 30s in these subjects while students in China ranked first. A few years ago at an education summit, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates remarked that the United States needs to look to China to make education reforms. And for me personally, these seemed like quite dramatic events.
I think it was quite justified for me to be curious about this situation, specifically why China's education system was seemingly so "elite" compared to our own. And given that this was such a hot topic, I decided to compile some information—statistics, data, analyses, and so on—to see if I could write a research paper on China's education system.
After a bit, I realized there was so much more information than I originally imagined. A 20-page research paper would not suffice. So I started to compile all this information, and took trips back to China where I would primarily focus on interviewing students, parents, teachers, and principals and I'd ask them if they could provide any insight into China's education system. The book kind of evolved from there.
In regard to education in my family, I think there were definitely times when I didn't really understand why I had to do things so differently. I'd study for school, complete all the projects, and participate in class discussions. But then I came home and it was like there was more being expected of me. At times it was definitely frustrating, but through this project I learned the importance of it. And honestly, I value it immensely now.