BEIJING — Yao Yao, 18, emerged from her college entrance exam at Beijing No. 55 Middle School tired but relieved it was finally over. She had done what she could. In a few weeks, a website will reveal a single three-digit score that will determine her future.
The odds are high for Yao and the other 8.8 million Chinese high school students who pored over Chinese, math, science, art and English questions in quiet halls around the nation this month. China has only 2.6 million university seats to offer them.
Nor is this a forgiving process. Chinese college admissions officers don't look at your high school grades, personal interviews, recommendations or essays in making their decisions. They don't make allowances if you don't test well. They won't even cut you slack if your mother died the day before. Everything, countless years of sacrifice and hard work, boils down to this one test. Those who perform miserably have to wait another year to take the exam.
"I don't think it's a fair system," said Yao, wearing eyeglasses, a white T-shirt and a jacket wrapped around her waist. "It treats you like a number, not a person. As a Chinese saying goes, 'The winner becomes the king, the loser becomes the bandit.' "
Reformers have proposed alternatives over the years, arguing that the exam and the education system built up around it place too much emphasis on rote memorization, in effect grinding creativity and individuality out of young minds. They also fret over the years of stress that young Chinese must endure in this giant game of elimination.
Few see much hope for dramatic change anytime soon, however, in part because the system is so deeply engrained: Rigorous exams have been a feature of Chinese life for more than 1,000 years, part of a Confucian system that saw official jobs allocated through a withering civil service exam.
At the root of its endurance is the system's perceived fairness and the safeguards it provides against corruption and backroom dealing. Family money or Communist Party connections don't matter when students have the test in front of them.
China has flirted with alternatives in the past. Midway through the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, education officials decided to break with the "tyranny" of tradition by choosing candidates based on village and work unit recommendation, an approach viewed as fairer and more democratic.
"It seemed like a good idea," said Tang Min, Beijing-based chief economist with the Asian Development Bank. "But the results were disastrous. Without an objective standard, some got in through hanky-panky, making many people angry at the unfairness." By the time the Cultural Revolution ended, China was back to an all-or-nothing exam system.
China is not alone in questioning the value of its rigid Confucian education system. Japan and South Korea have worried for years that their school systems are creating people with the wrong skills for a global economy. But China, by virtue of its size and latecomer status, is facing reform pressures more acutely than its counterparts did, economists say.
Enduring up to six hours of homework and cram school classes a day for years also threatens to heighten anxiety levels and rob students of their youth, experts say. At Beijing's Sunshine Heart Mental Consulting Center, the number of calls to its hotline and face-to-face consultations exceeded 100 a day in the weeks before the exam. Among the common exam-related symptoms its workers see are irregular heartbeats, eating disorders, sleeplessness, short-term memory loss and shaking hands.
Nor are children the only ones feeling the heat. One survey found that 76% of parents suffered from their own version of pre-exam anxiety.
"Parents end up feeling it's their fault if their kids fail," said Wang Ying, a psychiatrist and head of the counseling hotline. "They can end up at least as nervous as the kids."
In their quest to push the next generation along, no gesture is deemed too small. Parents rent expensive hotel rooms and hire chefs to make favorite dishes in a bid to eke the very best out of the test takers.
In extreme cases, teens buckle under the pressure. A survey in the state-run China Daily newspaper last year listed suicide as the fifth biggest killer in the nation after lung cancer, traffic accidents, heart disease and other illnesses, with exam stress cited as a significant cause.
Although few see any dramatic shifts in China's exam system anytime soon, some expect incremental change over the next decade.
The market economy has created more private colleges, which over time should spur competition to attract good students through more flexible enrollment systems, education specialists say. China is also developing a vocational training system that should further ease the pressure. And employers are beginning to demand more creative graduates.