Gaokao: A Matter Touching 1.4bn People in China

Gaokao: A Matter Touching 1.4bn People in China 

2023-06-08 BY  Kathy Yin


In these two days (June 7&8), the whole country has been busy around one thing – The National College Entrance Examination, or gaokao.

This year, a record number of 12.91 million candidates are heading for the gaokao in China, nearly one million more than last year.

But if you think that gaokao is only a matter for the candidates, you are completely wrong.

What is Gaokao?

Gaokao is an annual standardized test in China that is taken by high school students who wish to attend college or university.

Different from some Western countries, gaokao covers a wide range of subjects, including Chinese, mathematics, English, and a choice of either natural sciences or social sciences. While university admissions exams in Western usually focus on specific subject areas.

How important is gaokao in China?

The gaokao is considered one of the most important exams in China. The results of the exam can have a significant impact on a student’s future career prospects and even social mobility.

Thus, during gaokao, everyone is there to support the candidates, including parents, teachers, volunteers, and related government departments such as education, health and transport.

Firstly, local governments have introduced various measures to provide protection for students.

Transportation – In order to ease the traffic pressure on candidates during the examination period and ensure that they arrive at the examination sites on time, various authorities and institutions in Hubei, Hunan and Liaoning, etc., have adjusted their working hours and implemented staggered working hours. Other places like Zhejiang, Henan, Shandong, etc. launched “green channel” for candidates.

Exam environment – In order to create a good exam environment for the candidates, Shandong, Sichuan, Luzhou and many other places turned on the “silent mode”. For example, buses around exam centers are prohibited from sounding their horns, construction work and other noise-polluting activities are prohibited during the exam period.

Student Safety – Firefighters and police officers in many places carried out detailed safety checks on campuses before the exams, while food safety checks were also carried out on and off campus. In terms of Covid-19, in accordance with the requirements of the Ministry of Education, all regions have formulated examination prevention plans and emergency plans.

Security Checks – Preventing mobile phone cheating is an important part of the security checks for the gaokao. Many places are equipped for the first time with the use of intelligent security gates, as well as 5G signal shields, metal detectors and other equipment. As for the escorting of the examination papers, it is even stricter than the transportation of money, with police cars and fully supervision.

(Monitoring of an examination center to prevent cheating.)

Secondly, volunteer services for gaokao are carried out in many places.

For example, Tianjin launched the “Emergency Service Vehicle” for gaokao, with 60 taxis on duty at 30 examination points. Hefei mobilized more than 1,000 youth to participate in volunteer services. And most of cities launched the “Gaokao Express” activity, drivers of taxi, buses and private cars are included to drive candidates to the gaokao sites.

(High-five to a candidate from volunteer taxi driver. Photos/Xinhua)

Thirdly, besides those “hardware” preparations, it is also worth mentioning the special behavior of Chinese parents in their quest for good luck. This should be one of the most characteristic scenes of the gaokao.

(Parents of candidates waiting outside the entrance to the examination center. Photos/Xinhua)

Going to temples and other religious places to make wishes and pray has become a norm before the gaokao. There are also some unusual ways of cheering up.

For example, on the day of gaokao, they hold sunflowers to symbolize the children’s success, or wear green clothes means “green light” all the way in the future. Besides, wearing Qipao is a tradition that has been going on for years. Because it represents the Chinese idiom Qi Kai De Sheng, which means “success at the first attempt”.

Why do Chinese people value gaokao so much?

The university admissions exams are not unique to China, but in terms of its importance, China is arguably one of the best. Though gaokao is generally well-known in Western countries, it may not be fully understood by those who have not experienced the Chinese education system or culture firsthand.

Overall, gaokao is important in China for several reasons, many of which are related to the country’s history and culture.

History – In China’s long history, education has been highly valued, and passing exams has traditionally been a way to move up the social ladder. The gaokao is seen as a continuation of this tradition.

This was also evident in the ancient imperial examinations system – a way for commoners to gain access to the highest ruling body of the state.

Uniqueness and Fairness – Unlike university admissions in the United States, where in addition to the results of a unified examination, the usual grades and comprehensive literacy assessment are also taken into account.

In contrast, final results of gaokao are the only reference for university admissions. So, it is seen as a way to promote social mobility and equal opportunities for all students, regardless of their background.

The main way to change fate – There are few stories of people who have been preparing for gaokao for decades to get into university. Why? Because since the establishment of gaokao system, it has indeed changed the fate of many people and families. There are many examples of people who have been able to “get out of the mountains” by taking the gaokao.

Before Yuan Yaxiang took gaokao in 1977, he had been working at home as a farmer for three years. After gaokao, he successfully entered Xiangtan University in Hunan, majoring in computational mathematics. Afterwards, he went to Beijing, and then Cambridge in the UK, breaking the “ceiling” of his life and reaching the pinnacle of mathematical research time and again.

“That gaokao more than 40 years ago brought about a sea change in my life.” He said.

This is just one of the thousands of people who have been able to change their destiny through gaokao.

It has to be admitted that gaokao still has its shortcomings. But for more than 40 years, gaokao has continued to adapt and improve as the country develops and explores the “China experience”.


The good news is that more and more overseas institutions, including the University of Cambridge, the University of Birmingham and the University of New South Wales, are now actively recruiting Chinese students who have performed well on the gaokao, recognizing the rigorous nature of the exam and the academic abilities of the students who have excelled on it.

Although the exams are not the only proof of one’s future and destiny, nor is it the only key to growth and success, it still carries the vow of the student to live up to his or her prime of youth and the promise of a better future for the country and the nation.

(Other Photos/HKCNA)