Scholarship and education

Invisible Wings: 2009's college exam essay questions


Sunday, the first day of the national college entrance examination (aka. the gaokao), marked the culmination of months if not years of work on the part of high school seniors sitting for the exam.

For the rest of the country, it was a chance to see what interesting topics the test-makers had come up with for this year's essay question.

In Beijing, the prompt students were given was I have a pair of invisible wings (我有一双隐形的翅膀), a line that comes from a popular song sung by Angela Chang (张韶涵). Students were required to write at least 800 characters in any form of writing apart from poetry.

Yesterday's evening Mirror asked five well-known authors born in four different decades for their impressions of the topic:

Zheng Yuanjie (郑渊洁, 1955)
For several years now, the gaokao essay topic has become increasingly connected to imagination. I think this is a good topic that students have a lot of room to develop.

A few days ago a reporter asked me, "You've written King of Fairy Tales for twenty-four years all by yourself. Where do you get the inspiration?" My answer was very much like this prompt: "Because I have a pair of invisible wings." If I was given this topic to write about, I probably wouldn't stop even at 8,000 characters. I'd write an essay about my experiences and feelings over several decades.

In the end, for this year's topic, the better imagination a student has, the more points they will score.

Wang Hailing (王海鸰, 1953)
This is a very mainstream topic. Because my child has already graduated, I had no expectations for this year's essay. I think the hardest essays are the ones were you can't simply transplant the classwork you've memorized. Ideals, hopes, aspirations — mainstream topics like those will lead to student essays sharing lots of similarities.

In such circumstances, to stand out from the crowd is very difficult, particularly in terms of ideas. On the other hand, a topic like this has both advantages and disadvantages. This year's topic hopes that students will pursue their ideals, and I think it will be difficult to score points any other way.

Students with a good grounding in language have the advantage.

Qiu Huadong (邱华栋, 1969)
I think this is a decent topic. The lines, "invisible wings, flying toward the distance," are a good spark for students' imagination.

I've always paid close attention to gaokao essay topics. It's hard choosing good topics these days; hard in that they need to judge ability. This topic is a huge test of students' imagination. Every student will have their own interpretation of the topic, and the essays they write will be easy to separate into good and bad.

Compared to previous years, therefore, this topic gives easy points to imaginative students, but those who aren't able to open up their minds will stray off-topic and score poorly.

Ding Li (丁力, 1971)
The topic gives students lots of room for self-expression. This is a song often played by the TVs on subways and buses, one that even I know how to sing, so I believe that many students are familiar with it. It's not like essay questions of the past that did not make much of a personal impression on students.

If I were to write this essay, I would be inclined to use the form of a lyrical essay. I believe the people who chose this topic are looking for students to express their own ideals, so it gives them a lot of room for this. Ultimately, the topic is moderately difficult and will generate some good essays. In particular, students emotionally invested in life will very likely receive high scores.

An Yiru (安意如, 1984)
I think this is a fine topic. At the time of the Sichuan Earthquake, many people sang this song, and it appears quite frequently in various concerts.

I think that the lyricist may not have realized how well the song matches the emotions of people caught in a disaster. In answering the prompt, I think students ought to tie in to contemporary society, and of course they can also talk about their own response to the song.

For example, singing this song at KTV, a high-school student may have thought nothing more than that it sounded nice. But later on? Lots of people discovered that the song could encourage us during a disaster. It touched our hearts and had the power to heal emotional wounds.

Overall, half of this year's questions ask students to write an essay that fits a set title (denoted by * in the list below). Of the remainder, eight provide short prompts but allow students to choose a title and theme of their own, and two (Guangdong and Jiangxi) ask students to discuss a specific topic. Students in provinces that do not specify a topic of their own are given one of the two National prompts.

  • * National (I): Paths (路径) — Rabbit, the reigning champion sprinter, can't seem to learn how to swim. Different animals give their opinions on what he ought to be studying (more on this and National II at ChinaGeeks).
  • National (II): Dalton and colorblindness — Three prompts; select one and write an essay with a title of your own choosing: (a) John Dalton discovers color-blindness after noticing his mother's odd behavior; (b) Momofuku Ando invents instant noodles during postwar food shortages in Japan; (c) a poor American handyman spills kerosene, and discovers that it takes out stains [dry cleaning was discovered in France through a similar accident].
  • Shanghai: Zheng Banqiao's calligraphy — In regard to Zheng Banqiao's calligraphy, which is a random yet ordered mix of regular and clerical, ancient and contemporary, someone said "It is necessary for such work to exist, but it is necessarily unique." (这种作品不可无一,不可有二)
  • * Tianjin: My thoughts on the post-90s generation (我说九零后)
  • * Chongqing: Stories and Me (我与故事) — "Life is full of stories. You may be a participant, you may be a listener, or you may be a critic."
  • * Jiangsu: Appreciating Fashion (品味时尚) — "People pursue fashion not because of its intrinsic qualities but because everyone else is doing the same thing."
  • Guangdong: Common Knowledge (常识) — Discuss how you experience "common knowledge" in your life, or your opinion of "common knowledge."
  • Zhejiang: The Affection of Leaves for the Stem (绿叶对根的情意) — Respond to the theme expressed by the lyrics of the Mao Amin song by writing your own interpretation, relating a personal story, or expressing a critique.
  • * Shandong: Witness (见证) — "In the course of life, we witness life's tragedies and society's changes. In the flow of history, many people and things stand as witnesses to history."
  • * Hubei: Standing at the Door to _____ (站在____门口) — Fill in the blank and write an essay using this as a title.
  • Ningxia, Hainan: Honesty and Kindness (诚实善良) — (a) "Three classmates went to play basketball and came across a girl begging on the street. In chalk on the ground, the girl had written, 'My purse was stolen when I was traveling. Please help me.' One boy gave the girl ten yuan. The other two boys said that he had been taken in because no one would take along chalk when traveling." (b) "A coal mine flooded, and after a few days, rescuers found the bodies of the victims. Next to the body of a miner named Nie Wenqing, they found a note written in chalk on a helmet. It read, 'It is hard to part with friends and family. I own my mother 200 yuan, I owe Deng Shuhua 100....'." Choose one prompt and write about honesty and kindness.
  • Jiangxi: Animal Head Auction (兽首拍卖) — Write an opinion piece on a hot social issue.
  • Liaoning: Celebrity Endorsements (名人代言) — The prompt includes five statements: (a) Given a choice among similar products, 47% of people will choose the one endorsed by a celebrity; (b) Celebrities are blameless. They can't know that a product is fake; (c) [omitted]; (d) Celebrities command large endorsement fees; (e) Oversight is weak.
  • * Fujian: This too is a kind of ____ (这也是一种_____) — Fill in the blank and write an essay using this title.
  • * Sichuan: Familiarity (熟悉)
  • * Anhui: Overtaking on the Curve (弯道超越) — Originally a term of art in car racing, this idea is now used in finance and politics.
  • * Hunan: Stand on Tiptoe (踮起脚尖)
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There are currently 7 Comments for Invisible Wings: 2009's college exam essay questions.

Comments on Invisible Wings: 2009's college exam essay questions

"I have a pair of invisible wings": sounds like a nice vehicle for sociological platitude and literary cliches.

What if one culinary-minded cynic writes like this: "I have a pair of invisible wings... that can nevertheless be steamed, fried, braised, or pickled in rice wine. What other use I have of it anyway, for you don't think they'd actually let me fly?"

Assuming this is graded, how?

"Deng Banqiao's calligraphy"
Zheng Banqiao?

[Yes, of course. Thanks. --JM]

Thanks for this article. The range of gaokao essay questions from different provinces was fascinating. Following up on the above comment by Anon., I too would love to see a Danwei feature on how essays are graded, and by whom. I've often wondered how the essay sections on American standardized tests - SAT, GRE, etc. - are graded. Bet a look behind the Chinese exam system would be illuminating.

The Shandong topic was my favorite:

"In the course of life, we witness life's tragedies and society's changes. In the flow of history, many people and things stand as witnesses to history."

Bet can't beat this Hunan Question and answer.

Essay questions: Using the 2007 Dongting rat’s disasters (billions of wild rats runs into fields as Donting lake flooded) as background, write a letter and a response from the rats to the rat’s natural predictor.
The students brilliant answer:
Titile: Zhizhi and Gaga

zhizhihizhiz zhizhizhi zhizhizhizhi zhizhizhi (imagine this repeated 800 times)



Owl’s Repose
gagaga gagaga gagaga ga gagaga (imagine this repeated 800 times)



"Students were required to write at least 800 characters in any form of writing apart from poetry." (from the opening to this article)

And why not poetry?

China, like every dynamic society, needs poets and poetry!

If nothing else, to spice up the absolute drivel that passes for lyrics in Chinese pop music...


The Shanghai one was a bit tough...

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