“Today is cruel, tomorrow is even crueler. But the day after tomorrow is beautiful. However, most fall at the dawning of tomorrow.” These are the words written on the blackboard of Maotanchang high school.
Every year before the college entrance exam (“Gaokao” in Chinese), parents will line up for farewell parades, seeing off their dear children as they leave for the examination in school buses. Teachers with the surname “Ma” and “Chen” will usually walk in the front of the line, as the literal translation of their names implies “achieving instant success”. Every year before the college entrance exam, the headmaster takes the teachers to burn incense and pray for the students to receive good grades.
Old revolutionary base area
Maotanchang, where the school is located, is actually an old revolutionary base area. Up on the mountain behind the schoolyard stands a giant bronze statue of Chairman Mao, which was built by the school. The statue shines brightly during the night, bringing hope and excitement to passers-by. It’s such a beautiful scene that some pious students go there and kowtow before the statuette.
After all, it is a place where revolutionary martyrs shed blood and fought wars, which endows the scene with an inherent heroic temperament.
According to a report in 2015, there are altogether around 24,000 students in the school, two thirds of whom are repeat students, meaning students who re-enrolled in classes after failing the college entrance examination. Some students came to realize the huge variance between different levels of universities, and as they are unsatisfied with their current level, decide to drop out and try to improve their Gaokao score to gain entry into a better college. So they made up their mind to start over, ready to be tormented once more, both mentally and physically, in this Gaokao factory. They believe that the right path to success includes hardships and pain. In an online community, users explained that they come all the way from Sichuan, Yunan and other faraway provinces to gather here.
It is said that there are between 140 and 160 students in one class, while teachers have to use loudspeakers to effectively communicate with the whole class. One can imagine how uncomfortably crowded it would get in the summer.
“Seven years after I graduate from my master school, I still have the nightmares, I still dream of those classes, where the teacher is shouting, those sweaty summer days. I would dream of how I didn’t finish my math paper, and failed to find all the revision materials. I kinda feel it will haunt me all my life.”
“At that time I just thought I can’t take my defeat. I’m still very young, maybe studying for one more year could change my whole life. That’s how I persuade myself to persevere until the end.”
The “Red and white” list
After the monthly preparation exam before the Gaokao, every class will make a list, nicknamed “the red and white list”, which clearly displays, not only the rankings of each student in the whole grade, but also how much each student has progressed or regressed on the exam.
For instance, “Wang Xiaohong, plus 10”, means her ranking has improved by 10 among the whole grade. All these rankings will be clearly posted on the board in the classroom.
In the CCTV documentary The Day and Night of Mao Tan Chang, a girl was reciting the English words like an emotionless robot, which transmits a sort of depressing feeling to viewers. She has a typical Chinglish accent, putting stress on every single syllable. “De-ligh-ted, de-ligh-ted.” But it doesn’t really matter, because all that matters is that you memorize the words and their meanings, and recognize them in the exam papers.
The head teacher told students who have drastically regressed on the previous monthly exam, “Don’t make your own study plans, just do as I tell you, and work on the homework I give you.” With a dozen years of experience, he is crystal clear on what is best for the students to give them every chance of passing the exam.
One user, on the online community for the high school, commented, “The decline of the Maotanchang high school started from the day when dozens of student hooligans went to smoke in the food store outside the east gate of the school. Those that study here must have improved their smoking skills.” One of the specialties at the school’s supermarket is that it sells single cigarettes, rather than packs. Each one costs about two or three yuan for normal local brands.
The school officially bans smoking, and there used to be a school policy that a security guard will be awarded fifty yuan by the school for each student caught smoking. But later on he doesn’t really care that much. It seems that such rigorous studying warrants a cigarette or two.
There is altogether a limited break of ten to fifteen minutes for dinner, during which over ten thousand students will rush out the school gate to grab a quick dinner. Food stands and vendors make the street so much more vibrant during meal times. It is during this moment of youthful exuberance that makes this whole town come alive. Mothers have been waiting for almost an hour carrying the food they so devotedly prepared for their children. After all, home-cooked meals are always the best.
The gourmet documentary A Bite of China once profiled a famous local snack, made of meat and rice, and fried like pancakes, with a tempting light brown color. It’s heavenly delicious.
No romance is allowed at Maotanchang, but usually rules are there for you to break. Maotanchang is a tranquil and beautiful town, with mountains on all sides, with many perfect secret spots for love birds. “There were several couples in my class even, they would hold hands secretly when the teacher is not watching, and often take sweet little walks in the mountains.”
The media has demonized much of what happens at Maotanchang. However, some of the rumors are true.
“Some beat, but not every teacher. Our head teacher happens to be one of those violent types. He is very impulsive, utterly impatient, and often instigates conflicts with some boys in our class. Sometimes it is really something small and he has to use violence. I saw with my own eyes how he beat the boys, while swearing heavily. He beat them really hard, and every time I would tremble at the scene. I still feel afraid when I think of this sometimes.”
“He would also beat the girls, but only on the hand, with an iron ruler, or a wooden stick.”
While this is only an individual account, some teachers do deal with problems in a milder, even humorous way. According to the memory of a Douban user, when he was a repeat student there in 2009, teachers would play footage of undisciplined students in class, just for a moment of fun, since every classroom has a CCTV.
Parents who moved along with their children
The county of Maotanchang is permanently populated with over 8000 Gaokao families, which is almost twice the number of local residents. Most of the parents come from rural areas or small counties nearby. They rise early in the morning, around five or six to prepare breakfast for their kids. They spend two to three thousand yuan per month on rent, nearly their monthly salary, just to provide their children with a better studying environment.
However, compared with the rough conditions at school dormitories, such an investment is worth it. There are usually ten people living in one dormitory, with very limited furniture consisting of a bunk and a small locket big enough for putting several clothes. The dorm has a toilet, but no hot water for bathing, which means one can’t bathe often in the brutal humid summers.
Crazy as it may seem, the Gaokao is always the one and only fair game. It is the bridge that enables ordinary students from humble families to achieve socio-economic ascension through academic achievement. When they look back at how their scores improved from 430 to 630 due to another year of senior high school, they will eventually understand the value, and what it meant, to be a senior three student in China.
Featured photo credit to nytimes