Scholarship and education

Head in the clouds, feet on the ground: 2010 college exam essay questions

Tolstoy on the gaokao

China's two-day National Matriculation Exam started this morning for more than nine and a half million students. For everyone else, the fun comes when the essay questions are reported in the national media after the conclusion of the morning exam segment.

Over the next few days, journalists, pundits, educators, writers, and unaffiliated bloggers will pick apart the prompts and offer up their own sample responses.

Many prompts ask students to write an essay that fits a set title; others give students more freedom in their choice of approach. Poetry is usually prohibited. Students in regions that do not specify a topic of their own are given one of the two National prompts.

Listed below are this year's topics.

  • National (I): Why chase mice when there are fish to eat? (有鱼吃还捉老鼠?) — A cartoon showing one cat chasing a mouse while others eat fish has this as a caption.
  • National (II): Light Reading (浅阅读行动) — "A: What is light reading? B: It is reading for the purpose of relaxation, interest, and practicality. Unesco's selection of April 23 for world reading day arose out of a beautiful legend: April 23 is the date that famed Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes died, and it is also St. George's Day, celebrated in Catalonia. The legend goes that the knight George slew a dragon, rescued a princess, and was granted a gift in return: a book, representing knowledge and power. Every year on this day, Catalonian women will give a book to their husband or boyfriend, and the men will give a rose in return. Actually, the same day is the date of Shakespeare's birth and death, and is the birthday of authors such as William Faulkner, Maurice Druon, and Halldó Kiljan Laxness, so it is a fitting and proper choice for world reading day."
  • Beijing: Looking at the stars with your feet on the ground (仰望星空与脚踏实地) — commenters see this one as asking for an evaluation of idealism versus practicality.
  • Shanghai: Danish fishermen (丹麦人钓鱼)— "When Danes go fishing, they carry with them a ruler. When they catch a fish, they will measure it and toss it back if it is not long enough. They say, 'Isn't it better to let the little ones grow up?' More than two thousand years ago in our country, Mencius said, 'If fine nets do not enter the pools, there will be more fish and turtles than can be eaten.' And in fact this principle runs throughout many areas of our lives."
  • Tianjin: The world I live in (我生活的世界) — "The world is like a painter's dazzling array of colors, the world is a melody dancing about on an instrument; the world advances through innovation and finds warmth through harmony; the world can exist in a marvelous virtual network, and the world is expressed in the real lives of ordinary people; the world may seem large, but it is really very small….everyone has their own world, but everyone lives in the world. Sum up your experiences and understanding of 'The world I live in.'"
  • Chongqing: Tough problems (难题)
  • Jiangsu: Green Life (绿色生活) — "Green is vibrant, visually pleasing. Green is intertwined in life and ecology. Today, there is a new concept of green, one that is closely connected to the lives of every person."
  • Guangdong: Neighbors (与你为邻) — "We are neighbors and rely on each other. You might be visible or invisible. It is impossible to avoid having neighbors, but you can make a choice."
  • Zhejiang: As Roles Change (角色转换之间) — "When fledglings grow up, they are said to feed their aging parents with food from their own mouths. This is known as 'reverse feeding' (反哺). Similar phenomena exist in human society. The cultural influence of the younger generation on its elders is known as 'reverse cultural feeding.' For thousands of years, under the orthodox traditional model of children receiving instruction from their parents, the undercurrent of reverse cultural feeding was not obvious. But in today's rapidly-changing society, young people have a reverse feeding ability unprecedented among earlier generations. Their scientific knowledge, values, lifestyles, aesthetics and interests, are exerting a growing influence on their elders, leading to constant changes in the roles of instructor and instructed."
  • Shandong: Light and shadow — '"All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.' – Leo Tolstoy." (Other sources are reporting an alternate question about luxury purchases and a high-class lifestyle.)
  • Hubei: Fantasy (幻想) — "Sun Wukong somersault cloud and Nezha's Wind Fire Wheels are products of fantasy bearing humanity's dream to fly through the air. Who would have thought that the Fair of 10,000 Nations in Shanghai's Lujiazui district, described in the late-Qing fantasy novel New China, and the journey "From the Earth to the Moon" dreamt up by French science fiction novelist Jules Verne would become reality today? Fantasy arises from the human instinct to seek out knowledge and is an expression of humanity's uncommon imagination. Fantasy motivates reality, fantasy illuminates life, fantasy is the source of happiness…"
  • Hunan: Morning (早)
  • Jiangxi: Recovering childhood (找回童年) — "Why do we want to recover childhood? Because society is too utilitarian, children have too much pressure, and childhood ends too early. Society needs innocence and requires a return to childhood."
  • Liaoning: Happiness is ____ (幸福是____)see update — (1) A poll on November 19, 2009 showed that 80% of Chinese respondents felt that happiness was connected to a house; more than 90% of Japanese respondents felt there was no connection. (2) A philosopher fell into the water, and after he was hauled ashore, the first thing he said was "Breathing is such a happy thing. Life is happiness. But why do so many people ruin themselves for "so-called happiness"? (3) "At its most superficial, happiness comes from desire and material objects, but these can never be satisfied in life." (4) "Everyone pursues happiness, but in the pursuit of your own happiness, you must not harm others, or harm the country."
  • Fujian: The birth of Grimm's Fairy Tales (《格林童话》的诞生) — "The brothers Grimm felt that there was a connection between folk tales and human history, but after collecting many of them without finding that connection, they gave up. Later on, a friend chanced across the things they had compiled, and arranged with a publisher to have it published, becoming what we know as Grimm's Fairy Tales."
  • Sichuan: Points and Life (点与人生) — "A point can form a line, can form a plane, can form a body. Life is like a few unregulated points which can be connected into countless lines, which can then form different planes, which can then form different geometric objects." (another version)
  • Anhui: Philosophical association (哲理联想) — Take inspiration from the philosophy expressed by Ruan Yuan's "Poem on Wuxing" [not translated here].
  • Shaanxi: Success and the environment — (1) A tropical fish placed in a fishbowl will only grow three inches long; placed in a pond, it can grow quite large. (2) Wolves are so strong and powerful because they live in an outdoor environment. (3) A psychologist picked ten people and told them they had extraordinary talent. They then went on to find success. Later, the psychologist admitted that they were just ordinary people.
  • Hainan and Ningxia: Participation (参与)

Update (2010.06.14): The Liaoning prompt translated above seems to be mistaken. The source of the "Happiness Is ___" question is unclear, but according to online accounts, other exam reports, and Sina's updated question, no such prompt appeared on the Liaoning exam. The mistaken question can still be found online (see 51Test).

The revised, updated question, according to Sina, gives the following anecdotes as inspiration for an essay:

When he was three and wanted to eat all of the candy in a jar, he got his hand stuck inside the jar and began to cry.

Working on a farm as a twenty-something, when they handed out fruit he got the smallest piece, but he was still satisfied.

At fifty-eight, his company said that whoever collected on a 300,000-pound debt would be given 100,000 pounds. His colleagues came back empty-handed, but he was successful in collecting, because he only asked for the debtor to repay 210,000, leaving him with just 10,000 pounds.

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