China’s university entry exam, gaokao: elliptical, obscure and confusing

The hardest part of university entrance in China is getting through the Chinese essay writing paper. The subjects are abstract and sometimes unintelligible. Here are some of the weirdest essay prompts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 3:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 3:54pm

Millions of Chinese high school students take the gruelling “gaokao”, the national university entrance exam each year. The most challenging paper of all may be Chinese essay writing, where candidates have an hour to write on a given prompt – and most of them are notoriously elliptical. There are eight versions for different provinces and here are some examples from this year’s papers.

“Each generation has their own opportunities, mission and challenges. You are walking and growing alongside China in the New Era, chasing and fulfilling your dreams,” one paper writes.

Candidates are required to write an essay that will be kept in a time capsule, to be opened in 2035 by teenagers that turn 18 that year. It provides extra information that students can use as a guide – “2020, moderately prosperous society is fully implemented; 2035, socialist modernisation is realised”.

Sichuan candidates have to write an essay according to three slogans. One of which is “At Shenzhen in year 1981, time is money, efficiency is life.” No information is provided on how the time and geographical context matters.

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Beijing candidates are luckier as they get to choose between one of two prompts, but neither is simple. The first option is to write an argumentative essay on “New Era New Youth, growing up while the motherland is developing.” The alternative is a narrative essay on “lucid waters and lush mountains”, describing “a beautiful scene where men and nature coexist peacefully.”

Shanghai students came across a more philosophical conundrum – they are asked to share their thoughts on “being needed”.

“In life, humans are not just concerned about their own needs, we also long to be needed,” writes the prompt.

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While these are hardly easy topics, they are no match for some of the most whimsical exam questions in the past.

In 2016, Beijing candidates chose between writing about “a mysterious bookmark” that is interactive and can help you attain your wishes (that sounds more like Aladdin’s lamp) or explain why “old accent” can be stunning.

The year before that, Anhui candidates scratched their heads over an essay prompt that seemed to be testing their knowledge of science instead. The paper described students observing the wings of butterfly under a microscope and coming to the conclusion that “butterfly’ wings are initially colourless, they only reflect different colours under the light because of their microscopic structure.”

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Candidates are required to write an essay based on this story. But even more baffling is that fact that this description is not scientifically correct. While some butterflies have iridescent colours due to their scales, some are brown and yellow because of melanin.