The Satirical Relief After China’s Pressure-Cooker College Exam
Every June, millions of students in China take the all-important gaokao, the national university entrance exam that determines whether they can continue their educations and where. And just as regularly, the essay questions on the exam become the target of social commentary and a brand of humor known as the “zero-point composition.”
The two- to three-day exam tests students’ ability in mathematics, science, the humanities, a foreign language and Chinese, with some variations by region and for special programs, such as art. About a third of the grade for Chinese comes from the composition segment, in which students are presented with a situation and asked to expound on it in about 800 characters. These “composition prompts,” once they have circulated publicly after the exam, typically inspire discussions of which ones would have been the hardest to write up and, more entertainingly, what would be guaranteed to score a failing “zero-point” grade by deviating from a presumably “correct” response.
Here is one example of a composition prompt that has attracted a good deal of attention, in a version of the exam that was administered in the provinces of Hebei, Henan, Jiangxi, Shaanxi and Shanxi:
Because her father kept answering his mobile phone while driving on the highway and ignoring his family’s admonishments, Ms. Chen, a university student, in the interests of safety, reported her father to the police via Weibo. After the police confirmed it, they fined Mr. Chen and lectured him and posted Ms. Chen’s report on their official Weibo account. Ms. Chen’s action attracted many likes from commenters, but also some criticism. The news media then reported the story, prompting a broader discussion.
How do you view this incident? Please write a letter to Ms. Chen, Mr. Chen or one of the other parties. Present your opinion and elaborate. You must consider the story and its meaning, choose an angle well, set up the theme and carry it through.
Given this prompt, many Chinese students, hoping to second-guess what the exam-graders would consider a “correct” response, might decide to praise the daughter for upholding the law by calling the police, even at the expense of her father.
One online commenter went further. Xie Mingbo, a teacher at New Oriental, an educational services company that coaches students for exams such as the gaokao, suggested that students faced with this prompt could argue that informing on one’s father represents a loftier order of filial piety. Mr. Xie quoted an ancient commentary on the teachings of the philosopher Mencius, on the error committed when “children intentionally follow adults in the wrong way and tolerate their mistakes because of the blood relationship.” Therefore, he wrote, the daughter’s report was actually “a sign of responsibility toward society and her father.”
But a widely reposted zero-point composition took a radically different approach, questioning the presumption of the composition prompt that any students seeking higher education must be familiar with the trappings of urban, middle-class life — and therefore that a university education is not for the rural poor.
My father is a peasant who has never left his hometown. For 365 days a year, he toils in the fields. …For me, highways only appear on TV, in newspapers and in books. I’ve never seen a highway in my life. …The material in the prompt is so strange to me. I can’t even imagine such things happening in real life. …If the material were about the countryside, such as raising crops or livestock, I could seriously write something about it because I’d at least be familiar with it.
Several other zero-point compositions berated the daughter for turning in her own father to the authorities, a common practice during the Maoist era. Said one:
Sister, how dare you “place rightness above family” [a Chinese idiom] and become an informer? Don’t you know how hard your father has worked for you?
Here’s another composition prompt, from the version of the exam given in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing:
A little boy asked a bus driver to wait for his mother. After a minute, other passengers started complaining that the mother and son were wasting their time. When the mother finally boarded the bus, the passengers could see her legs were crippled. They fell silent.
Dong Xiaoyu, the dean of journalism at Southwest University in Chongqing, analyzed this prompt on Chongqing Daily’s Weibo account. She recommended that students respond to the prompt by expressing an appreciation for tolerance, respect, virtue and calm.
“The prompt focuses on real life and points to a clear direction,” Ms. Dong wrote. “It tells people to calm down, reflect upon themselves and society, and re-evaluate their lives and values.”
Enter the zero-pointer, dismissing any such lofty reflections:
Time is money, my friend! Even online gamers want to speed things up, let alone those who are on their way to work!
Rather than wasting other passengers’ time, the boy should simply have waited for the next bus, since some buses in Chongqing run as frequently as every five minutes, the zero-pointer wrote, adding:
Virtue cannot hijack our judgment of right and wrong, and having tolerance and respect for the weak doesn’t mean that the weak are always right.
Here’s yet another example of a composition prompt, from the exam given in 13 provinces and regions including Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang:
There are three finalists in the contest for “Contemporary Distinguished Figure”:
Xiao Li, who studies hard and thinks fast, concentrates on innovation and has contributed to discoveries in the life sciences. He has led his team to the frontiers of international scholarship.
Lao Wang loves his job and has honed a set of skills, transforming mundane manual labor into an art and following a life course from vocational school student to master welder.
Xiao Liu loves photography and travels around capturing breathtaking views. His blog garners praise from his followers: “You help us appreciate the beauty and diversity of the world.” “You help us preserve the beauty of home.”
Which of the three finalists do you think is the most distinguished?
According to Gao Fang, another teacher at New Oriental, the three candidates “represent innovation, hard work and sacrifice respectively, the themes and core values of our society and also the values that we lack the most.” Therefore, he wrote on the education channel of Sina.com, exam takers could make a good case in their compositions for any one of the finalists.
A commenter from Tianjin disagreed:
The “experts” [like Gao] only talk nonsense. They don’t understand the challenges the students face.
And, once again, a zero-pointer attacks the prompt itself. A zero-point composition posted on 51test.net and many other sites, titled “Whoever Conducts Himself Decently Is the Most Distinguished,” asks why anyone should have to choose “the most distinguished” in the first place.
The common people are the most honorable, but they keep to themselves and work hard, and never promote themselves as elegant. … Why stage a contest for the most elegant when what will really make people happy is to lower prices and raise incomes?
The zero-pointer also lists figures who courted fame but later fell in disgrace, such as the politician Bo Xilai, now serving a life sentence for corruption.
In this society, as long as you are brazen enough, you can self-advertise and trumpet how distinguished you are. … In the end, it’s no more than petty tricks.
The emergence of these alternative compositions, as a form of social criticism clad in the humorous embrace of a willfully incorrect “zero grade,” has attracted its own share of analysis. According to an editorial in Guangming Daily:
This criticism of the gaokao prompts reflects people’s assessment of China’s basic education system. The questioning of the prompts reveals people’s desire for higher educational standards. … and signals the possibility for improvements in education. This possibility depends on the freedom of thought in society.