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China’s Ethnic Minorities And The Gaokao University Entrance Exam

China’s ethnic minorities are often put at a disadvantage when it comes to the gaokao university entrance exam, here’s one reason why.

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Hailar, Inner Mongolia- It was a circus. No, it was the gaokao. Hundreds of parents were huddled around the gates of a high school, police and security guards were out in force directing traffic, erecting barriers, keeping the mob orderly, and assisting students through the throng. This would be the final act in these kids’ high school careers, it’s what they’ve spent their youth training for, and the outcome will dictate the course the rest of their lives will follow.

The gaokao means everything to the Chinese. This single test, which is administered immediately after students finish high school, determines what university they will be permitted to attend, what subjects they will be allowed to study, and even if they can obtain a higher education at all. Each year, roughly ten million students throughout China compete for nearly seven million places at the country’s universities by taking the gaokao.

Students are trained intensely for this exam from the time they step foot in a high school class room — often going to school for over 12 hours per day, six or seven days per week. Many go to high school during the day and then attend additional training centers at night. The future of these young people hangs in the balance of this single test, as what university they go to and what they study directly determines what jobs or other opportunities they will have available to them as adults.

Like so, the the gaokao is often seen as a family’s ticket to attain or maintain a higher socio-economic position, so the amount of pressure that students are under to perform well on this exam is truly extreme — it’s not just their own ambitions and dreams that hang in the balance but that of their families as well.

From The Chronicle:

“Gaokao failures can expect to work on farms or in factories under bleak conditions, while top scorers will gain entree into the cosmopolitan cities of China’s east coast.”

Passing the gaokao remains “the only real route for families to get their perfect, precious bundle into a higher income bracket,” says Heidi A Ross, director of the East Asian Studies Center at Indiana University at Bloomington, and an expert on gaokao reform.

Each June, the gaokao is administered over a two day period which has taken on holiday-like proportions all through the country. Streets are often closed near high schools, the police are out in force, and parents gather in large masses around the gates of the exam centers where students are inside facing what is often the biggest event of their lives.

The crowd around the gates of a high school during the gaokao

China’s ethnic minorities are in the same boat as the Han majority, but, in many areas, the cultural, geographic, or economic context in which they grow up often doesn’t put them in a place to excel on the gaokao. For this reason the Chinese government awards most members of the country’s 55 recognized minority groups extra “merit points” on the exam. The amount fluctuates between province, minority culture, and the current socio-economic standing of the particular community the students come from, but it is generally an extra ten to twenty points. A director at the State Ethnic Affairs Commission described the extra points given to minorities on the gaokao as being like, “a big brother helping his younger brothers.”

On such a highly competitive test, where 750 is the top score and 600 is considered very good, ten or twenty extra points could mean a huge difference. In fact, it has widely been reported that these extra points are so highly sought that many Chinese from remote or even non minority backgrounds will attempt to fake minority status for this additional boost.

So told me that she was just coming back from the stupa that rose out of the hilltop just before us. She went there to pray to do well on the gaokao university entrance exam that she would be taking the following year. It was gaokao day for her classmates who were in the year ahead of her, and as we spoke they were locked in the exam room, taking the singular test that would dictate their future in Han China.

She told me her English name was Queenie, and that she was an ethnic Mongolian living in Hailar, the city that we were on the outskirts of.

More on The China Chronicle: Mongolian Culture Struggles To Survive In Inner Mongolia

“Do you want to see the atmosphere at the gaokao?” she asked, “I think it is very interesting and you should write about it.”

I took her up on the offer.

Worried Chinese parents at the gaokao

I was in for a surprise after we returned to town and began walking towards Queenie’s school. “Now is a good time to get out your camera,” she said as we rounded a corner. There I saw a crowd of hundreds of people gathered outside a gate. Beyond the gate was a large high school.

“The looks on the parents’ faces says it all,” she said.

I looked at parents, their faces were tightly puckered, their eyes wide, their jaws clenched, their bodily movements rigid. Many were figiting. They were nervous — perhaps even more so than their children, who they gave final words of encouragement to before they passed through the gate and into the examination hall. The gaokao seems to mean just about as much to the parents of Han Chinese students as it does to the students themselves, and the atmosphere around the school was incredibly terse.

A loud siren blasted out from the school grounds that sent a ripple of tense chatter through the crowd. “That’s the first bell,” Queenie said. Three bells will sound before the gates are closed and students will no longer be admitted.

Queenie goes to a mixed Han and Mongolian school, but there was a distinct cultural divide among the parents in the crowd: there were far more Chinese parents than Mongolian.

“Almost all of the parents here are Chinese,” Queenie said. “The Mongolian parents don’t care about gaokao.”

The gaokao atmosphere

As the students came in Queenie pointed out who was Han and who was Mongolian. The Han students almost invariably had their parents or grandparents accompanying them, but most of the Mongolian kids came alone or with their peers.

“Mongolian families don’t pressure their children,” Queenie continued, “they tell their child to do what they want. The most important thing is to be happy,” she said. “Going to a good university is not that important to us.”

We then talked about how the Han students are so wrapped up in studying for this exam that have very little free time to do what they want and just be kids. Queenie said that she wanted no part of this.

“I am an athlete,” she said, “I want to be outside playing sports.”

A typical Han high school regime would make this difficult. From a previous article about the gaokao on the China Chronicle:

Students in Chinese high school study hard . . . On weekdays, they are in class from 7 a.m. until 10:30 p.m., with breaks from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. On Saturdays, they have class from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., and on Sundays, they have class from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. With a study schedule like this, it’s no wonder that China topped the PISA international education test scores in 2010 . . .

The second bell then rang. More students nervously shuffled through the crowd and stepped through the gate.

I asked Queenie why the Mongolians in Hailar generally have a different attitude towards the gaokao and education than the Chinese.

“Mongolian students know how to do other things,” she replied, “we can work with animals and do our own jobs. Chinese students can only do gaokao. They live for gaokao. They live for their parents. Mongolians dream,” she continued, “we say ‘I want to be a singer.’ The Chinese just want to do what their parents tell them.”

Worried Chinese parents crowd together outside the high school where their kids are taking the gaokao

The third bell rang, the gates were closed, no other students would be admitted to the exam. I nervously watched in anticipation to see what would happen if anyone arrived late. I asked Queenie what would happen if a student didn’t make it in time, and she told me a story about how a Chinese student killed himself last year by jumping from the roof of his school because he showed up late and couldn’t take the gaokao.

Queenie and I left for awhile, but then returned to meet her friends after they finished. The crowd around the school was even larger this time. “Some of the parents waited the entire time,” Queenie said, and joked that none of them were Mongolian.

A bell then sounded and a sea of students began pouring out. Each student matched him or herself with a waiting parent, they hugged, they were congratulated. Some of the students were smiling and their parents were patting them on the back ecstatically; others were visibly upset, and their mothers or fathers embraced them. Emotion was everywhere. A huge era in these students’ lives had just come to a close, and both parents and students seem to have difficultly containing themselves as raw humanity poured out. It was a rare glimpse into this culture that so often wears a very stoic mask.

“These are the Han students,” Queenie said, “the Mongolians will come out later.”

The Mongolian students were given ten extra minutes to complete this portion of the exam, and during this time the crowd thinned out considerably. Just about every single parent left, and the only people waiting for the Mongolian students were their friends and taxi drivers waiting to take them home.

Mongolians waiting for their friends to finish the gaokao

Another bell rang and a moment later the Mongolians poured out of the school in a hoard. Many appeared pissed, most were visibly upset. A group of guys stomped by and one of them snapped at Queenie, “Don’t talk to me about it.” Two other guys were acting flippant, as though they bombed the test and didn’t give a shit, but something in their brashness belied their true feelings. One of Queenie’s friends was balling nearby, tears were streaming down her face, she was crushed.

Obviously, the Mongolians care about this exam, they are just not as obsessed with preparing for it as their Han counterparts. They seem to know that there is more to life than gaokao, and they are put at a disadvantage because of it.

Queenie shared with me one prevailing Mongolian perspective on the gaokao, but I’m sure there are many others. But she said one thing that I feel many Mongolians and Han alike would agree with:

“Gaokao is not good.”

Filed under: China, Culture and Society, Education, Inner Mongolia, Intercultural Conflict, Mongolian Culture, Travel Guide

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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