For the mainland's roughly nine million high-school seniors, a two-day stretch in June is the moment they believe will shape their entire future. They bid farewell to families, and armed with pens and pencils, head off to take the gaokao, the mainland's college-entrance exam.
All pupils take it at the same time - June 7 to 8 this year - and all things gaokao-related are instant fodder for the media. In Beijing, even the ever-present construction crews are put on leave. Beijing Times said last Monday that drivers in areas near test centres should not honk their horns and surrounding bars must keep the music down.
Teachers monitoring the exam have been ordered by the local education authority to avoid wearing high heels or perfume just in case these distract the students.
Xinhua reported that thousands of police had been deployed around the test sites, equipped with devices to detect 'abnormal radio signals' - a sign that perhaps someone is sending answers to pupils over a wireless device. The Oriental Morning Post said last Thursday that Guangdong officials would allow pupils to take only transparent cups and boxes for their pens into the classroom, while the Jiangsu government said test-takers had to leave their watches at home.
But perhaps the pressure is becoming too much for some of the teenagers. Citing data from the Ministry of Education, Legal Daily says that in the past three years, the number of test-takers has dropped. About 9.15 million people took the exam this year - 180,000 less than last year's 9.3 million, which was in turn less than the 9.5 million in 2010. The numbers hit an all-time high of more than 10 million in 2009.
Some students are now seeking to get around the test entirely. Xiong Bingqi, a professor at Shanghai's Jiao Tong University, said an increasing number of wealthy Chinese students sought higher education abroad.
'The gaokao is too competitive and more Chinese parents now believe the quality of the education at Chinese colleges is poor,' Xiong was quoted as saying.
China Daily published an opinion piece on Friday saying the nation's education system might require a fundamental change but the current gaokao was still the fairest way to assess millions of pupils.
The test allows students, especially ones from unprivileged families, 'a chance at a good future for themselves and their families'.
'The gaokao is the most spectacular admissions test in the world,' said the Chinese version of Global Times newspaper. In an editorial on Friday titled 'Gaokao reveals the complexity of Chinese society', it said the test system should be treated like other problems in China: people should discuss only how to improve it but not abolish it.
However, many people believe the system stifles students' creativity and the results should not influence a teen's future to such an extent.
The story of 'Brother Pancake', a 27-year-old Shandong college graduate in digital design who developed a successful career selling pancakes, has led many high school and college students to question the value of academics, Xinhua said.
Hu Guangwei, deputy director of the Sociology Institute at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted by Xinhua as saying: 'We are no longer in an era when university graduates are regarded as rare talent. Higher education should no longer be simply regarded as a way of changing one's fate; it's only a way to seek self-improvement.'
Zhu Qingshi, head of South University of Science and Technology of China, told Wuhan Evening News last Tuesday that the exam system stunted individual interest and talent, resulting in Chinese universities' failure to produce the best minds in the past 30 years. Zhu said his school would rate pupils not only by their test results but also other factors such as their overall grade in high school.
Still, Zhu said that given the country's endemic corruption and inequality, the gaokao system, for better or worse, was the fairest way to ensure efficient use of educational resources. And that sentiment is fairly widespread: China News Service said that since the test was resumed in 1977, the gaokao yielded a relatively reliable insight into pupils' abilities.
Given the lack of trust in a country where corruption and suspicion are common, if there were no gaokao, there would only be guanxi (special connections).