“Tick tock!” The clock is ticking. There are only 30 minutes left, and still I have half of the paper to be filled out. The invigilator’s steps pound on the floor, causing a vibration in my chest, even though she is not wearing high heels.
Eight years later, this nightmare is still haunting me from time to time. And each time the plot slightly changes, whether it’s physics or math exam, and there is always a moment of total blankness I experience when I try to recall all the equations and formulas, but no matter how hard I try I just can’t remember.
For our generation, the college entrance exam is the kick-starter towards a brighter future. For most school kids in China, the past decade of studies all lead up to this one moment, two days crammed with exams. All previous exams you’ve taken throughout your academic career don’t matter anymore. This is it, this will decide your future path. Just like the old Chinese saying, “Troops are kept a thousand days to be used on one day.”
In fact, it is nothing new. For over one thousand years, the feudal imperial examination system has been regarded as one of the most unprejudiced and impartial ways of talent selection in imperial China, granting ordinary students from humble birth an opportunity to rise high in the society. Before the implementation of the system, government officials were only chosen among the sons of noble families, namely the rich and the powerful. Through layers of selection from county, municipal to country level, the most prominent ones might have a chance to catch a glimpse of the emperor’s palace, and express their ambitious ideals of country governing to the emperor himself.
Of course, they didn’t need to study chemistry or physics back then. It’s mostly the teachings of Confucius, poetry and literature, economics and politics, which varied depending on the dynasty.
One thousand years later, the basic essence of the system remains unchanged, however with more significance underneath. For most of us who haven’t migrated to the west or gone astray early in life, the college entrance exam remains the only way to get into a good university, and to pave the way for a promising life and future career.
February 26 marks a hundred days left to the college entrance exam in 2019. On the sports field of Hengshui No.2 High School, one of the most renowned high schools across the country, over 2000 high school students rallied up, shouting the slogan at the top of their lungs, “100 days to the final battle, to conquer or die.” Together with the school faculties and teachers, they sign their names on the 100 meters’ long banner, along with their wildest dreams.
The preparation of the exam always involves massive efforts from high school faculties, teachers and parents. Every year, in some renowned high schools, seeing the examinees off has become more its own ceremony, where anxious parents line up with flowers and flags alongside the school buses. They wave to their young sons and daughters who are heading out to battle, to fight for a better future with their families’ expectations weighing heavy on their shoulders. A scene similar to what’s often seen in war movies, when relatives and loved ones see the soldiers off.
To some extent, it is indeed a battle, you might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. According to statistics, in 2018, the total number of examinees taking part in the college entrance exam is 9.75 million. Imagining 9.75 million people heading out to the same “battlefield”!
And what comes after the battle is the triumph. There are usually banquets, or rather celebration parties held at schools or among relatives when the results come out. In rural areas, those who do exceptionally well and get admitted into Tsinghua, Peking University or other top universities in China, become the honor of the village, and become local celebrities over night.
No matter what happens to them later on in life, this moment of victory and glory will always be commemorated for the rest of their lives, along with all the sweat and pain, tension and stress they have experienced during senior year.
To me as an ordinary Chinese student, my senior year was the most unforgettable year of my life. I remember all the details, the day I wrote my new year’s resolutions down on small notes, put them in a lid of a used thermos and ventured out in the mountains with my roommates to bury the notes there, the day my father got me a branch of peach flowers and told me to take a walk and not get too stuck in never-ending studies. I remember the last few days before the exam we were all moving home from the confined campus, and deserted draft papers flying all around smelling like freedom. I remember the pouring rain the day I took the English exam, it’s still there somewhere, triggering the moist memories. It sounds all so dramatically sentimental.
This Spring Festival, an old friend drove me to the previous campus where we used to stay during senior year. It’s a confined area surrounded by mountains, so tranquil and separated from the outside world. But now it’s been renovated into a nursing home for elders. I wonder if the peach tree flowers would still blossom when spring comes.
Featured photo credit to bannedbook.org