The Pilgrimage of Gaokao

by Huina Zheng

TW: mentions of abduction, human trafficking, abortion, rape, sexism?

Even though I took Gaokao, the national college entrance examination in China, over a decade ago, I dream that I am taking the exams at least once a year. In the dream, everything is dark and blurry. In a classroom where other examinees are writing quickly on the test paper, I can’t even see the questions. Stomach-turning fear and anxiety envelop me.

When I wake up, I feel that I have to keep running. The moment I stop, hundreds of long, black hands stretching after me will drag me back into that bottomless pit. I can’t stop. I have to run.

I am among many Chinese people that keep dreaming of Gaokao. Some psychological articles explain this phenomenon—Gaokao represents the highest tension in my life, and it has left me with a permanent psychological shadow.

Taking Gaokao is like competing with millions of students to traverse a single-log bridge, pushing each other into the river along the way.

Yet, I can’t blame Gaokao. Instead, I thank Gaokao for giving me the chance to change the trajectory of my life.

Nowadays, we take ‘tiger mothers’, those who will use every resource to push their child(ren) to success, for granted; however, it was different when I was young. I was born into a family in south China in the 1980’s with an elder brother (who died of cancer when I was six), an elder sister, a younger brother, and a younger sister. My parents believed that only teachers should be responsible for their children’s studies.

When I was little, grown-ups asked me when I planned to drop out and help with the family. I always replied, “I will leave school after I finish sixth grade.” My mother told us that girls did not need to study. An elementary school diploma was sufficient. Girls should marry young, have sons, and dedicate themselves to the family. In that world, girls were inferior to boys. My parents left the village and hid in remote mountains to elude the one-child policy because they wanted sons. My uncle (my father’s second brother) has so many daughters that he gave one away.

The summer after I completed third grade, a toy factory nearby recruited summer help. My mother thought it was an excellent opportunity for us to gain real-world experience and earn some money, so she signed up my older sister, who is two years my senior, and me. As summer helpers, we worked only eight hours a day, six days a week, but time in the factory seemed tedious. We had to concentrate and work as fast as possible; we couldn’t pause or talk. A supervisor would walk around and abuse anyone he thought was not working hard or fast enough. 

You needed the supervisor’s permission to go to the bathroom. I remember that when I told him I needed to pee, he shouted, “Already, you slack off by making excuses to go to the bathroom.” 

“Please,” I begged him. 

On my way to the bathroom, he yelled and stopped me. I don’t remember how he threatened me, but he ordered me to pee on the ground to prove that I needed to pee. And I did it.

When the two-months of work ended, I was sure of one thing—I never wanted to work in a factory. A year later, we moved to a town where the education was better, and my grades improved.

The next summer, I spent a week at my uncle’s home in the city. Because he and his wife were civil servants, he had only one daughter. (After my cousin left home for a police school, he eventually bought a son—this was not considered trafficking, because the baby’s biological parents sold him.) I marveled at my cousin’s beautiful clothes and the many books on her bookshelves. Unlike nowadays when parents understand the importance of reading, the only books students were supposed to read and study then were textbooks. Otherwise, you wasted your valuable time. I borrowed my cousin’s books and read them day and night. I met a Taiwanese author, Sanmao, whose works ranged from autobiographical and travel writing to reflective novels: she studied in Spain, Germany, and the United States. She also had a Spanish husband. My world at that time was small, but I saw a vast, diverse world through her work.

In the following summer, I spent two weeks in the home of my mother’s other brother, who has a daughter and four sons. Their eldest daughter was several months my senior. When they lived in the village, my cousin, as young as seven or eight, needed to wash the whole family’s clothes along the river, even in freezing winter. Her parents never worried that she might slip and drown. I asked her what middle school she would attend, and she told me that her parents needed her to work in a factory after she completed sixth grade. Her mother would get her full-year’s payment from the factory in advance and leave her working there. I remembered having to pee on the ground, and the roaring of the supervisor. My heart sank.

I was lucky—not just because my father had a factory and the money to send me to school, but because he let me study as long as I had good grades. His father had fled to Hong Kong, a British colony then, so during the Cultural Revolution in 1966-76, he and his family were classified as class enemies. My father had planned to study to change his life, but the government forbade him to attend middle school. My father never forgave the Communist Party for it. He recounted this anecdote and bitterly said that was the first and only time he cried. He didn’t cry when his father or my elder brother died. So, I knew he wouldn’t deprive his children of education.

Like my father, I decided to study to have a different life. If you want to attend middle school, you need to ace the municipal middle school entrance examination. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was in the top twentieth percentile of the class, but I needed to do better to get into a good middle school. I started to work harder.

We lived on a street that became a market every night. Vendors lined up the road, and we heard various noises—traffic, music, talk. I couldn’t concentrate, so I decided to sleep after having dinner, wake up at 1  a.m. and study until the morning. 

In the end, I achieved the highest score on the middle school entrance exam in my elementary school and got into one of the best middle schools. The six years that followed were more or less the same—studying, quizzes, monthly tests, mid-terms, and final exams. When I look back at that period, it is like watching a black-and-white movie.

On the first day of middle school, our headteacher told us that we only had three years to prepare for Zhongkao, the high school entrance examination. On the first day of high school (which begins in tenth grade in China), our head teacher would say the same thing; the difference was that we needed to study for Gaokao.

The study load increased year by year. My mother has four brothers and my father has three brothers, and even if you include them, I am still the first one in my family to attend college. Naturally, they didn’t understand the pressure and workload in middle and high school. The educational system was designed for selecting the superior and eliminating the inferior. Only the fittest survived. In school, the teachers taught ordinary-level textbook knowledge, while homework and quizzes were at honor class-level, and the major exams were at Advanced Placement-level. It was up to the students to make up the gap. In those years, few students attended tutorial classes, and the only way to catch up was to study reference books. In a grade of about 500 students, I consistently ranked in the top ten, and many times ranked first. Still, I got anxious. The high school entrance acceptance rate is less than 50% nowadays, and was even less all those years ago. If I failed, I would end up working in a factory. End of story.

My parents and relatives couldn’t understand why I needed to study day and night to maintain this ranking, and they assumed it was because I was stupid. They kept telling me, “You get first place because you study hard. You make up for lack of talent by hard work.” 

My family forbade children to show feelings. Children were supposed to be seen, not heard. Naturally, I was quiet. I ignored their remarks and kept studying.

My friend once asked me, “Your parents must be very proud of you, right?” 

She meant my top ranking in school. I could only give her a forced smile. My parents believed that if you praise children, they will get too proud and fail, so they always pointed out what I did not do well to urge me to make progress. Even if a relative complimented me on my academic achievement, my parents would reply, “But she only works hard. She is not a smart girl.” 

However hard I tried, I was always just a daughter.

In a politics class, our teacher told us that according to the Inheritance Law of the People’s Republic of China, men and women have equal inheritance rights. I thought to myself, Even if my father were a billionaire, my sisters and I wouldn’t get a penny; my brother would be the only heir. Our teacher said daughters could go to court to reclaim their inheritance rights. Right, if you are ready to declare war with the whole world. In theory, all human beings are born free and equal. In practice, girls need to fight to claim their basic rights.

Study was the only important thing for a student. Anything that might distract one’s attention was deemed evil. Students lived to study. Yet, I secretly read. I borrowed books from a local library and read whatever I could get. It was how I could breathe: to know the diverse world and imagine a different life, to keep studying beyond my comfort level. After I graduated from college, when no one would forbid me to read, I still felt the need to hide from others that I read. When someone spotted me holding a book, I felt anxious and ashamed, like being caught while stealing.

I got into a selective high school. There I met Gaokao. Finally.

Pressure increased tenfold in high school with the indestructible Gaokao looming. I could easily ace liberal arts subjects, but I struggled in math and science. In middle school, when girls performed better than boys in study, teachers told us that boys matured slower than girls, but they caught up and exceeded girls in high school. People also assumed that excelling in science subjects was a sign of high intelligence, and boys were naturally more intelligent than girls. Life was so much easier for boys—unconditional love and support from family, faith and encouragement from the community, with excuses for not doing well. I scolded myself for thinking in this way. I didn’t want to believe in male superiority.

Each time a teacher made such remarks, I resolved to beat boys in math and science. I did not like these subjects, but I made myself do well in them—far better than most boys.

That’s how I remember those six years—study, study, and study. In the depth of night, the whole world seemed to sleep except for me. I felt like I was walking along a long dark tunnel alone, not knowing when and how I could reach the exit.

In romantic TV shows in China, female leads are always young, innocent, and kind, ready to be rescued by handsome, rich males. But in reality, knights aren’t coming. Gaokao was my only way out, but he was not my savior. In my imagination, Gaokao was a male incarnation that represented authority. We were equals. I had an agreement with him that as long as I studied hard and did well in school, he would let me pass the single-log bridge towards a new land. He would not deny my admission based on my gender, which was a great consolation.

Unlike the SAT or the ACT, where students can take the test multiple times and submit the highest scores to the colleges they apply to, Chinese students only have one chance to take Zhongkao and Gaokao. As a popular saying goes, one point in Gaokao eliminates so many examinees that they can fill a playground. There is no room for error. Every point counts. Work harder. Always be alert.

Years later, I would read a news report that shortly before Gaokao, an examinee had a traffic accident and was severely wounded, yet he still insisted on taking Gaokao. That was the logical choice. Why wouldn’t you die for it, when the whole country worshipped Gaokao? If someone stabbed me on my way to Gaokao, I would still take the exam, my left hand holding a handkerchief over the bleeding, right hand scribbling on the test paper. I would not let the pain distract me or affect my performance. If I died during the exam, I would become a martyr. The adult in me would hesitate, but the teenager in me would die for Gaokao.

Before Gaokao, we needed to select universities and majors, and my father suggested I choose a medical major. If I wanted to, I could be a doctor, but my agreement with Gaokao was that I aced Gaokao and got to live the life I wanted. By age 18, I already knew what I liked and what I had to do. I did not want to be a doctor.

I scored in the top ten on Gaokao in the city. I was reported on by a local newspaper, and I got into a prestigious university in Guangzhou, the municipal city of Guangdong province.

People say that life is incomplete without Gaokao. They also say that you enter the land of promise after you pass the single-log bridge. No one ever warns you that you might feel disoriented and lonely in this new world.

I met different people in college. Some of my friends were only-children. We came from different worlds. I observed them, learning how I should act in this new world. So often, I couldn’t explain things to them.

College life was not about falling in love, having fun, joining clubs, or exploring the world. I was either studying or doing a part-time job. My father could have afforded my college fees, so but I couldn’t explain to my friends why I needed to support myself. 

In my family, daughters are not part of the family; my parents raise daughters-in-law for other families. Daughters need to repay their parents. If I explained this to my friends bluntly, they would think I was an ungrateful, selfish daughter who never knew how much her parents loved their child. So instead, I told them I worked to be independent.

After college, I worked in Guangzhou city. I wanted to buy an apartment, a home for myself. When I visited my parents during the holidays, my uncle (my mother’s youngest brother) told me that daughters should repay their natal family before marriage. I was single then. I understood. He meant that I should give my salary to my parents instead of saving it to buy an apartment. That was a daughter’s obligation. But for a son, parents would save enough to buy them an apartment to get married. A few years later, before I got married, I gave my father a majority of my savings. I hoped that it could pay part of my debt to my parents.

Last year, when I told a friend I was distant from my parents, she was puzzled and said, “Parents love their children. I am sure if you want to, you can be close with them.” 

If I could meet their expectation, my parents would love me accordingly.

Of course, it is always my fault.

My country advocates for filial piety, the basis of individual moral conduct, to show obedience, devotion, and care towards our parents and elder family members. We’ve passed down such values from generation to generation. That’s how my parents learned how the world was. However, China went through a dramatic transformation due to the reform and opening-up that started in 1978. The world is no longer the one my parents remember. The intergenerational gap is widening between us.

Their love for daughters is conditional. I learn and want a different love.

I work in an educational agency that helps Chinese students apply to overseas schools. All of my clients are upper middle-class, with the same goals for their children—the best educational resources in China, better education in a developed country, and a secured middle-class future. Their whole world is in their hands.

Most of my colleagues are from middle-class families with impressive credentials. We talk about recent significant achievements China has made and feel proud of our country. I see all the bright sides working among them—fast-growing economics, gender equality, safety, possibilities, and hope. We see outstanding, confident, and strong girls. Women indeed hold up half the sky. When everyone wonders at the amazing circus show, why should you imagine what the animals must have been through to perform these acts?

When I told a friend that I planned to write about Gaokao, she said, “I think you should show the outside world the real China.” I understand what she means. She represents the bright side of our country. Born in a middle-class family, the only daughter, college-educated, her understanding of the real China is different from my own. The world is made up of the projection of our subjective feelings.

I think of my childhood friends, sisters, and female relatives. The outside world changes dramatically, but their small world remains the same. My best friend in middle school had five children to have a son. My elder sister wanted an abortion when she found out her first child was a girl; she wanted to give away her second daughter. My sister-in-law has two daughters and plans to have twin sons through in-vitro fertilization. I wish her the best of luck—and no, I don’t want her to introduce the doctor to me.

They are real, live people, not my delusions or characters I create for fiction. They also represent China. They also deserve to be known and seen.

I read this recent news article that a “mad” woman was found in a video chained by her neck in a hut in China. Despite freezing temperatures, her clothes were too light. She has eight children. Chinese authorities have launched an investigation into this case: a case of the abduction and trafficking of women.

I recall the missing girl I knew in college. My father’s friend asked me to help translate in a meeting with the girl’s British boyfriend. One day, she went to a bar and disappeared. A girl like her—from the village, mid-twenties, divorced, with a toddler and a British boyfriend who planned to marry her—would never run away. If a girl is missing in China, you do not think of serial killers or brothels; you think of trafficking. She was most probably sold, beaten, raped, and locked in a room until she had a son. The whole village worked together to trap her. No one helped her out. She became a mad woman. Whenever I read news about women being trafficked, I think of this girl. How is she now? Is she sane? Did she give up trying to escape?

I had feelings of malice when I learned that, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, China has over 30 million men who can’t find wives in the aftermath of a severe gender imbalance. These people killed 30 to 60 million girls either through abortion or shortly after birth due to their preference for sons and the one-child policy. Their sons deserve to be bachelors. 

They solve this dilemma by buying wives. In the end, women always suffer.

An established male Chinese writer wrote a novel about a village that buys women. He expressed his sympathy towards the villagers, claiming that the village would die out if they did not buy wives. He blamed the girls who were so careless as to be abducted. The suppressed rage from when I learned the story of Medusa in the “Greek and Roman Mythology” course I took in college simmered. Medusa was a maiden whose beauty caught the eye of the sea god Poseidon. She sought help in the sacred temple of Athena, who did nothing to stop Poseidon from raping her. Worse, Athena transformed Medusa into a monster to punish her for desecrating her temple. That’s how we do it—we watch women suffer, punish the victims, and then turn them into monsters. I hope that this writer is reborn as a girl in his next life and sold to a remote region to fulfill his glorious duty of sustaining the village. 

I look down at my hair, each strand of which flicks its tongue at me.

In China, if you buy an abducted woman, you shall be sentenced to imprisonment of no more than three years. If you do not abuse the abducted woman, the punishment may be lighter or mitigated. However, if you purchase a first-class protected animal, such as a golden monkey, you get an imprisonment of more than ten years, plus fines or confiscation of property.

I thought that girls could change their destiny through hard work—but all along, you still needed to be lucky not to get abducted.

People nowadays criticize exam-oriented education that hinders students’ ideological development and indirectly stifles creativity. I partially agree with them. During those six years, I made myself a robot programmed to study. I suppressed and detached myself from feelings to focus on Gaokao. I still support Gaokao, although it turns students into learning machines.

A woman named Zhang Guimei established the first free girls’ high school in a rural area in 2008. She enrolled girls and made them study hard, for she knows that Gaokao is still the only way out. She has helped over 1,600 girls get into colleges. When these girls get out, they will encounter difficulties and challenges, but they will also enter a world of possibilities and hope. Being a  study machine for a few years is better than becoming a lifelong breeding machine.

When I looked at the few photos taken during those six years of studying for Gaokao, I couldn’t figure out the look on my face. I had this solemn and defiant look in a photo taken by my headteacher while being awarded as one of the top ten students in a mid-term exam. When I watched a World War II spy movie and saw the look of the actor who was captured by the Japanese army and would be tortured to get the intelligence, it dawned on me that that was my look—destroy me as you wish, but you will never defeat me. I didn’t like seeing myself all those years ago—a warrior, a machine, but not a human.

A few years ago, my younger sister told me that she met one of my high school classmates who said to her that when he had to repeat the twelfth grade to retake Gaokao, my encouragement lit up that dark period of his life. I searched my memory and vaguely remembered the brief conversation we had. Another thing our teachers always emphasized, besides studying hard, was never falling in love. Puppy love was strictly forbidden. Any students in a relationship would be publicly scolded, set as a bad example, and forced to break up. I was a good student, and I stayed away from boys. We were in the same class for three years, but I don’t know his name.

It was the summer after Gaokao. The class had a graduation trip. He approached me, and we talked briefly. I survived Gaokao, but he didn’t pass it. I understood. I don’t remember what I told him, but that conversation stayed with him.

People say the intensity of Gaokao makes students see their peers as potential rivals. I never wanted to defeat my classmates. All I wanted was not to be eliminated. I am delighted that my encouragement helped him through that dark period of his life. I am glad that he told my sister, who later told me. I saw myself as an emotionless robot, but someone remembers me differently. Even in those six years, I was still capable of feeling, empathizing, and helping someone out.

Gaokao made me highly self-disciplined and cultivated a habit of getting to the bottom of everything. I didn’t know how to be a mother, since my mother is clearly not a good example to follow. I bought dozens of books about psychology, education, and parenthood and studied them the way I studied for Gaokao. If there was a test for all those books I read, I  surely would have gotten an A+.

Once, when my daughter and I were walking in the park, she asked, “Mom, do you wish that Granny would love you the way you love me?”

“Your granny loves me the way she was taught. We grew up in different ages and believe in different things.”

“Do you wish you were a boy?”

I paused. I didn’t know how to explain that my answer was both yes and no to a seven-year-old. I chose the simple answer. “No, I like being a girl; otherwise, I couldn’t have had you.”

She brightened up and smiled. “I am happy that you are a girl, or you couldn’t be my mom.”

I am glad that I can love my daughter wholeheartedly. For this, I am forever grateful to Gaokao.

A muted-tuned painting of a pink figure crossing a plain, touched by many large hands and other figures at the base of the painting.

Verso a Luce

by Delta N.A.

Huina Zheng was born and grew up in south China. She has worked as a college essay coach since graduating from college in China. Her stories were published in Brush Talks, Evocations Review, and The Meadow. She currently lives in Guangzhou city, China with her husband and daughter, and is pursuing an online M.A. in English program at Arizona State University.

Delta N.A., paired in art and life, work simultaneously on each artwork with a shared language that reveals deep meanings and speaks directly to the heart. Timeless stories develop in each artwork, where figures and forms are placed in a subtle and ethereal space halfway between dream and reality and where the soft flow of emotions and intuitions collects the sense of a free and introspective existence. Delta N.A. spent years travelling to discover the world and their identity, and this experience in foreign countries has deeply marked their technical development and their artistic expression that now combines poetry and strength in a constant search for harmony, portraying the infinite dream of a total and exhaustive well-being. The artworks signed by the duo are present in numerous public and private collections and have been exhibited in solo and group shows across Europe, U.S.A. and Asia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s