Testing times that created a clamour for education
The 1977-78 university exams defined a nation
The winter of 1977 has since proved to have been an extraordinary time for China. In November and December that year, 5.7 million eager candidates ranging in age from 17 to 37 flocked to makeshift exam centres across the country to take the first university entrance examination in more than a decade.
Among them were pig farmers, fishermen, factory workers, former Red Guards, half-illiterate high school students and urban youths sent down to the countryside to learn from peasants. The Cultural Revolution started by Chairman Mao Zedong 11 years before had turned them into a 'delayed generation'. And now they would do anything to catch the 'late bus' of higher education to change their fate.
'My teacher said it's the difference between wearing grass shoes and wearing leather shoes,' said Chen Zhangliang , who was admitted to South China College of Tropical Crops in Hainan province in the autumn of 1978 and is now deputy chairman of Guangxi . 'He urged us to give it our all to seize this opportunity.'
The conditions were harsh. Mr Chen, then just 17 with two years of high school behind him, was tending crops day in and day out in a village in southeastern Fujian province . 'Actually, I went barefoot a lot of times,' he said.
With no money for a hotel in the nearby town where the entrance exam was being held, Mr Chen and his 40 or so fellow candidates carried blankets and grass carpets with them, sleeping on a classroom floor on the eve of the big test.
'I didn't fully understand what a university education was exactly, but I knew it was something that would change my life,' said Mr Chen, who went on to serve as vice-president of Peking University and president of China Agricultural University.
He was among tens of thousands of people whose fate was indeed turned around by the reinstatement of the university entrance exam.
In the summer of 1978, the second post-Cultural Revolution university entrance exam was held nationwide and anybody who had a high school diploma was allowed to take the test.
Deng Xiaoping , the veteran revolutionary who had just returned to power, decided that the whole generation, who had spent their prime time in political struggle rather than academic pursuits, could not afford to wait any longer.
'Deng made the decision to reinstate the annual exam as soon as possible,' said Yang Xuewei , former director of the Ministry of Education's test centre.
Altogether, more than 11 million candidates took the tests within eight months, in what might have been the biggest-scale higher education test in human history.
'One big worry was simply that we wouldn't have enough test papers for all those exam-takers,' said Mr Yang, who helped organise the 1977 and 1978 tests.
Also, the decade-long rupture in the education system during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution meant the academic level of many would-be college students was appalling.
'Some just drew signs and symbols on the test paper because they didn't know how to write those characters,' Mr Yang said. 'And others were clueless about how to write an essay, and were instead ranting on about how the Gang of Four had destroyed their youth.'
But, for those who passed the two-day exam and won admission to university - with the admission ratio being 29:1 compared with the current 2:1 - the next four years were probably the most fruitful of their lives.
Known as the Class of '77 and '78, they were widely regarded as the brightest and the most dedicated of their time. Thirty years later, many of them have taken the top positions in politics, economics, law, education, the arts and business.
'Taking the university entrance exam was the turning point of my life, and the next four years were transformative,' Mr Chen said. He later won a government scholarship to study in the United States, where he obtained a doctoral degree in biology.
'We cherished this hard-earned opportunity so much that we would feel guilty even if one minute were to be wasted,' he said.
It was the golden era for knowledge. On university campuses across the mainland, students were driven and passionate about learning.
'For the first time in our lives, we felt we could have a future if we worked hard enough,' Mr Chen said.
One such student was Li Keqiang , who studied law at Peking University between 1978 and 1982. Classmates recalled he easily fell into the most diligent category, even memorising English vocabulary when queuing in the dining hall.
Last year, Mr Li became the youngest member in the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee - the innermost circle of the political elite - and is tipped to become the country's next premier.
A similar political star in China's new generation of leaders is Bo Xilai , a history major at Peking University. Before entering college in 1978, Mr Bo was labouring at a hardware repair factory in the capital. He went on to become minister of commerce and now party chief in one of the country's four provincial-level municipalities, Chongqing .
Other prominent politicians to emerge from the Class of '77 and '78 include Li Yuanchao , the personnel chief of the Communist Party; Wang Yi , party secretary of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and a former ambassador to Japan; Zhao Leji , party chief of Shaanxi province ; Yuan Chunqing , the governor of the same province; Lu Zhangong , party chief of Fujian province ; Lu Hao , party chief of Gansu province ; and Zhou Qiang , governor of Hunan province .
The '77 and '78 alumni have also taken a firm hold in other quarters of the country's great drive towards modernisation. Members of the group who have thrived in the economic and business community include Yi Gang , deputy governor of the central bank; Tu Guangshao , former vice-chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission; Jin Liqun , the chairman of the supervisory board of China Investment Corp; Li Dongsheng , chief executive of TCL, the world's biggest television maker; and Meng Xiaosu , chairman of the China National Real Estate Development Group, the country's largest state-owned property developer.
There is also a long list of artistic and literary talent that developed in that era: internationally recognised filmmakers Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige , cinematographer Gu Changwei , Grammy and Oscar award-winning composer Tan Dun , and writers Chen Cun , Ye Zhaoyan , Liu Zhenyun and the late Wang Xiaobo , widely considered one of the best novelists and essayists of the past 30 years.
'They [the graduates from the '77 and '78 intake] have now become the pillars in various fields in China's development,' Mr Yang said.
Mr Chen agreed. 'The reinstatement of the university entrance exam changed the fate of my generation of people, and the fate of the country.'
The ruling class
Some of the university entrants to the first-year classes of 1977 and 1978 now hold key positions in government and business, and leading roles in arts and entertainment
Vice-chairman of government of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, former vice-president of Peking University and former president of China Agricultural University
1961 Born in Fuqing, Fujian province
1978-83 Attends School of South China Tropical Botany (bachelor's degree)
1983-87 Attends Washington University in St Louis (PhD)
1991 Receives the Javed Husain Award from Unesco
Member of Politburo Standing Committee, vice-premier
1955 Born in Dingyuan, Anhui province
1978-82 Attends Peking University (bachelor's degree)
1988-94 Attends Peking University's economics college (master's degree and PhD)
Member of Chinese Communist Party Politburo, Chongqing party secretary
1949 Born in Dingxiang, Shanxi province
1978-79 Attends Peking University
1979-82 Attends Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (master's degree)
Member of Politburo, secretary of Central Committee Secretariat and minister of party's Organisation Department
1950 Born in Lianshui, Jiangsu province
1972-74 Attends Shanghai Normal College
1978-82 Attends Fudan University (bachelor's degree)
1988-91 Attends Peking University (master's degree)
1991-95 Attends Party Central School (PhD)
Tomson Li Dongsheng
TCL Group chairman and president
1957 Born in Huizhou, Guangdong province
1978-82 Attends Huanan Engineering College
China National Real Estate Group chairman
1949 Born in Suzhou, Jiangsu province
1978-96 Attends Peking University (bachelor's degree, master's degree, PhD)
1951 Born in Xian, Shaanxi province
1978-82 Attends Beijing Film Academy
*Wins international awards for Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live and Hero, among others. Directed opening and closing ceremonies of this year?s Beijing Olympics
1952 Born in Beijing
1978-82 Attends Beijing Film Academy
*Wins international awards for Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine and Together
Chinese classical composer
1957 Born in Changsha, Hunan province
1978-86 Attends Central Conservatory of Music (bachelor and master's degree)
1986-93 Attends Columbia University (PhD)
*Wrote Grammy- and Oscar-winning scores for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero
Number of first-year undergraduates
Total number of undergraduates
1978: 7b yuan
2008: 156b yuan
SOURCES: MINISTRY OF EDUCATION, CHINA YOUTH DAILY, MINISTRY OF FINANCE