Exam victory can be a rough ride

By Liu Sha Source:Global Times Published: 2012-7-3 22:55:02

Beijing’s highest-scoring students in the 2012 gaokao, Li Ze (left) and Han Mucen, both from the high school affiliated with the Renmin University of China, are interviewed by reporters on June 23. Photo: CFP


Li Juanjuan, 18, a high school graduate in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, has been interviewed by over 10 newspapers and invited to two televised interviews in just three days. China's top universities, Tsinghua University and Peking University, have been calling her to ask if she has decided which university to attend.

"I've received more calls and messages over the last two days than I did in the last two months. I feel like I've become a star," Li told the Global Times.

A week ago, gaokao (national college entrance examination) results began to be released throughout different provinces including Guangdong, but Li was unable to check her score. She was soon told that Guangdong's education authorities had blocked the release of information relating to the 10 highest scores.

The authorities said this move was to protect the highest scorers from being harassed by the public or media, including newspapers and television networks as well as businesses, according to reports in Guangzhou-based newspaper, the Nanfang Daily.

However, concealing this information proved impossible. Over a dozen of journalists were waiting at the Shenzhen Middle School for the four highest achievers on Thursday, when the 10 top students finally learned their scores.

The disruption begins

Zhong Shuyu, a 19-year-old girl who is Li's classmate, earned the highest score in Shenzhen (aside from Li Juanjuan). She said she was exhausted after being interviewed by so many reporters. "The camera flash dazzled my eyes," Zhong told the Global Times.

Li had the same experience. "Yesterday I was an ordinary student on campus, but today my name is appearing in the media and people are treating me like a movie star, just because I scored higher in the gaokao than others," Li said.

Li said she was happy to share her experiences, but felt annoyed by media misquoting her. "When I said I didn't have a clear goal or dream, the reporters pushed me to think of one, so I made up one about winning the Nobel Prize someday. I was just kidding."

The next day however, Li read about her so-called dream on microblogs. Many Web users commented on how a girl who only scored high marks on one exam could be so ambitious. "I was very sad," she said.

Zhong doesn't like her new label. "Wherever I go, people say 'you got the highest score! You are so smart!' Actually, I wish people would forget it."

With the four highest scorers of Guangdong Province, the admissions office at Shenzhen Middle School was happier than the students.

"They are the best advertisements to show that Shenzhen Middle School is among the best for attracting elite middle school graduates," a staff member working in the office told the Global Times.

Promotion and profit

Jiangsu provincial television invited Li to participate in a quiz show. "They were going to cover my trip expenses and pay me 500 yuan ($79) but I refused," Li said, adding that she didn't like the spotlight.

"We all know it's very difficult to stand out on such a hard exam, so they are like stars. The audiences like to see these students who beat so many people at such a fiercely competitive examination," Zhu Linlin, a senior producer from Hunan Television, told the Global Times.

Zhu said that although some people had criticized the TV show for exploiting gaokao high-achievers for self-promotion, the increasing audience ratings spoke louder than anything else.

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, told the Global Times that worshipping the highest scorer has been a tradition embedded within the gaokao system and culture.

In ancient China, zhuangyuan was the title given to the highest scorer in the national exam, who was expected to become a high-ranking official.

Being a zhuangyuan guaranteed wealth and a high position overnight and glorified one's family name. The idea still persists in modern China.

Student or product?

Universities pay high scholarship to freshmen who are gaokao zhuangyuan and nutritional product companies hire them to advertise how their products could help aspiring students.

"That is because their customer base is students and their parents, who deeply believe in the importance of high scores," Wang Hongcai, professor with Institution of Education, Xiamen University, told the Global Times.

Geng Yuan, a gaokao high-achiever in 2004 in Liaoning Province, discovered to his surprise that his name had appeared on the packet of a nutritional food product called "Kaolishen" without his consent.

"I found my mug shot printed on an advertisement, saying 'drinking Kaolishen will help you be the next me!' I had never drunk that kind of thing," Geng told the Global Times, adding that he planned to sue the company but it turned out they'd never formally registered themselves as a company.

The burden of expectations

An ongoing survey by Web giant Tencent showed that as of yesterday, more than 60 percent of the  45,054 polled said gaokao champions are role models worth emulating.

"The gaokao system, which only values one's score in a two-day exam, gives us the fantasy that success in this one-time exam means success in life," said Xiong.

Li Ze's photo was plastered around one of the campuses of the high school affiliated with the Renmin University of China. It is the school's tradition to erect posters of students who had Beijing's highest gaokao scores, in a bid to encourage other students. 

A survey by the Academy of Education Studies at the Central South University, which tracked 1,120 gaokao high scorers over 30 years, punctured the bubble surrounding the gaokao. None of them became industry elites or leaders.

Xiong said high scorers don't have a responsibility to become outstanding performers in their field, and the expectations placed upon them are unreasonable.

"This twisted habit of worshipping the highest scorer will never die if the gaokao system is not reformed," Xiong added.

Li Ze refused interview requests from the Global Times. As Beijing's highest gaokao scorer, he has been interviewed by too many journalists, which has disrupted his life, one of his friends told the Global Times.

"Media and advertisers should also be blamed for expecting too much from gaokao winners, who are just students that have a long way to go. Our education shouldn't end with the gaokao," Wang said.


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