How Now Gaokao? Ten Frustrated Imperial Examinees Agree: Failure IS an Option


The cream of a nation’s youth is sequestered for days, placed under tight surveillance in rooms equipped with devices to jam radio signals. Millions of stressed parents grow grayer by the minute lingering outside the gates while their progeny toil under intense scrutiny. Dozens of local governments ban nighttime construction and restrict airport departures to avoid disturbing their precious labors. What Herculean labors could cause a nation to hold its collective breath in eager anticipation? This week is China’s dreaded gaokao 高考, the “high test,” the culmination of eighteen years of preparation, the one task that will determine the future collegiate and professional careers of 9.3 million ambitious Chinese teenagers.

The gaokao in modern Mainland China began in 1958, went on a hiatus during the Cultural Revolution, and then returned in 1977 when over five million students contended for 220,000 university slots. The expansion of China’s educational system since then will allow an estimated 72% of exam takers to earn a spot in one of their chosen colleges in 2011. The number of students taking the exam increased until five years ago when it began to decline. 9.3 million students may seem like a lot, but it actually is a decrease of 300,000 from 2010. Many students are applying to colleges overseas that do not require the dreaded gaokao, and others are choosing to take their chances in China’s burgeoning job market without first earning a college degree.

Despite this decline, success on a national exam has been the prime root to fame and fortune for Chinese scholars for millennia, and a college education still holds comparably prestigious connotations for some. One man, 44-year-old Liang Shu of Chengdu, is attempting the exam for the fifteenth time this year. Despite starting his own business that employs 200 people, Liang still dreams of studying mathematics at Sichuan University. This year, Liang and his son are taking the exam together, but Liang isn’t sure he will try again if he fails again.

Many complain that this examination system puts too much pressure on students and is not really an accurate predictor of students’ success in college or later in life. Indeed, a study of over 1,000 zhuangyuan 狀元 (a title for the exam’s highest scorer that has been borrowed from imperial times) between 1977 and 2008 found that virtually none of these outstanding test-takers have achieved a comparable level of success later in life. Like Heisman Trophy winners in American college football, the media fawns over these stars, and they are heavily recruited, but most often, high expectations lead to disappointment. A high suicide rate, lack of creativity, epidemic of cheating, and lost youth among workaholic students have all been traced to a system that places too much importance on a single test.

Of course, today’s students have it easy compared to those who braved the imperial civil service exam before it was abolished in 1905. Only about 1% of those who took the national exam administered every three years would actually pass, but those who did could be assured an official post and the enduring prestige it entailed. However, many failures at the exam also went on to lead extremely successful careers as teachers, physicians, authors, revolutionaries, businessmen, etc. And today’s struggling examinees should take heart, because some of these ‘failures’ are still renowned luminaries in the vast annals of Chinese history. Indeed, Mr. Liang from Chengdu seems to have done well for himself without a college degree, and some would say Confucius himself was a failure, since he never found a state to fully implement his philosophy of governance. So, I would urge any gaokao victims out there (and sufferers of the SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT, GRE, TOEFL, or other members of this alphabet soup of standardized hell) to step back from that ledge, pause before setting your sights on next year’s exam, and read through this brief and woefully incomplete list of ten notable figures from Chinese history who failed in examination, but found success in life. And remember all you failures out there, you’re in good company.

Head of a Chinese man with a goatee, a mustache, and black headwearDu Fu 杜甫 (712-770): He and his friend Li Bai 李白 (701-762) are considered the greatest poets of the Tang Dynasty and all of Chinese history. Perhaps because of politics or his innovative style, Du failed the imperial exam both times he attempted it. While he was not widely respected in his time, his work’s stylistic excellence, concern for the poor, and loyalty to the state led it to be rediscovered in the Song Dynasty and widely loved through the present.

Luo Yin 羅隱 (833–909), born Luo Heng 羅橫, he gave himself the penname Yin, meaning “dormant” after failing the exam ten times. Nevertheless, he is still remembered for his straightforward and witty poetry. His most famous poem, entitled “Self Consolation 自遣,” should be a favorite of examinees everywhere:

()()(gāo)()(shī)()(xiū)(duō)(chóu)(duō)(hèn)()(yōu)(yōu)
(jīn)(zhāo)(yǒu)(jiǔ)(jīn)(zhāo)(zuì)(míng)()(chóu)(lái)(míng)()(chóu)
Gain produces high music; loss produces rest.
More worries bring more hatred, even in distant reverie.
Today there is wine; today is to be drunk.
Tomorrow worries will come; tomorrow is to worry.

Li Shizhen 李時珍 (1518-1593)- Although his father and grandfather were doctors, they encouraged Li to pursue a more prestigious scholarly career in public service. Li passed the county level exam at just fourteen, but failed the provincial exam three times over the next nine years.  Finally, Li decided to dedicate himself to a medical career and became a renowned physician, earning a spot in the Imperial Medical Institute in Beijing before focusing on compiling, editing and publishing historically important medical texts. He is still revered in China today and an award given for accomplishments in traditional Chinese medicine is still named after him.

Wang Zhihe 王致和 (17th century): According to legend, he was too ashamed to return to his home village after failing an imperial exam in the Qing Dynasty. So Wang stayed in the city and supported himself selling tofu until the next exam. When some of his tofu began to spoil in the summer heat, the inexperienced tofu peddler tried to preserve it by storing it sealed in a jar with some salt. When he opened the jar months later, the tofu smelled horrible, but he tasted it anyway (maybe there was a reason he failed the exam…) Surprisingly, it was delicious, so he began selling it labeled as “stinky tofu 臭豆腐,” a culinary singularity still loved by many Chinese and feared by most outsiders today.

Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640-1715) After spending most of his life studying for and failing examinations, he finally succeeded in the county level exam at the ripe old age of 71. However, Pu is better known today than any of the zhuangyuan of his time because he recorded numerous stories he learned during a life of teaching, which were later published as Strange Tales of Liaozhai 聊齋誌異.

Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (1715?-1763?) Little is known about this man who wrote Dream of a Red Chamber 紅樓夢, one of China’s four greatest classical novels. However, since his father, grandfather, and uncle were all high government officials, one can only assume that he attempted the imperial exam. And since his name is not recorded among degree holders, one can ascertain that he failed. This would account for the centrality of studying and examinations in the lives of his male characters who usually require supernatural assistance to succeed.

Jiang Chun 江春 (1721-1789) was one of the most successful and wealthy merchants from Huizhou (now Huangshan黃山, Anhui安徽) in the Qing Dynasty. After failing the imperial exam numerous times, he turned to the salt business and made a fortune. He became a patron of the opera, architecture and his native cuisine. The Qianlong Emperor 乾隆帝 respected Jiang so much that he granted him an official title and salary when his business went sour later in his life. Centuries later, a descendant of Jiang, Jiang Zemin 江澤民, would become president of the People’s Republic of China.

Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全 (1814-1864): The founder and king of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace 太平天囯 failed the exam four times. Some would argue that stress from intensive study and repeated failure helped inspire the vision of Jesus Christ calling him little brother that would ultimately spark the Taiping Rebellion one of (if not the) bloodiest conflicts of the 19th century. [Note to present-day ‘failures:’ Please don’t emulate this guy.]

Yuan Shikai 袁世凯 (1859-1916): The head of the Beiyang Army and first president of the Republic of China failed the exam twice before entering the military and later buying an official title. Perhaps if he had studied harder, he would not have made the ill-fated decision to crown himself emperor in 1915. [Note to ‘failures:’ You’re better off not emulating him either.}

Chen Duxiu 陳獨秀 (1879-1942): He passed the county level exam in 1896, but failed the provincial exam in 1897. He would become a key figure in deposing the Qing Dynasty, one of the founders of the Communist Party in 1921 (with which he later parted ways), and a prolific writer, philosopher, and educator.

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