Scholarship and education
Posted by Joel Martinsen on Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 12:25 PM
China's competitive college entrance exam is a source of great anxiety for graduating high school students.
The essay portion of the language arts section of the exam, which took place on June 7 this year, may be oriented toward essays that are boring, predictable, or slanted toward a particular point of view, but some students, particularly if they are not confident of achieving high marks overall, see the essay as a chance for self-expression, or a way to distinguish themselves from the crowd.
One student in Sichuan took the unusual step of responding to the essay prompt in modern Chinese written using ancient characters. The student, Xiao Huang (not his real name), said that he was afraid that otherwise his essay wouldn't stand out.
His gambit seems to have failed: a report in the Chengdu Business News said that his essay received a score of 8 points out of 60 (later reduced to 6):
The test paper reproduced by the newspaper (and shown in the image above) is a copy rewritten by "Xiao Huang" after the exam. In the original, the author substituted the title "Thorough Understanding" (深入了解) for the prescribed "Familiarity" (熟悉) because he could not remember the ancient forms of those two characters.
The newspaper included a transcription of Huang's essay made by his language arts teacher, Pu (not his real name). Although Huang's use of "oracle bone characters" is highlighted in media reports about the essay, his writing was actually an amalgam of various ancient forms:
Given his poor performance on the essay portion, Pu expects Huang's total score to be around 480, which will be beneath the cutoff for major universities.
Huang went to Shanghai to meet with Liu Zhao, a professor of ancient writing at Fudan University. News reports suggested that he hoped to duplicate the experience of Cai Wei, a laid-off factory worker with a high school education who was admitted to the university's PhD program on the recommendation of Liu and Qiu Xigun, another professor in the ancient documents department. However, Liu told Huang to gain a good grounding in the basics at college first before pursuing graduate studies.
Meanwhile, in Wuhan, another student found success with a non-traditional essay. Zhou Haiyang answered the prompt "Standing at the Door to _____," from Hubei's province-wide test paper, with a long poem about the 1911 Huanghuagang uprising. Test scorers gave it full marks.
Zhou's "Standing at the Gate to Huanghuagang Cemetery" contains 102 seven-character lines, along with a preface and afterward written in classical Chinese. The Chutian Metropolis Daily quoted the breathless praise of the test-scorers:
The Beijing Youth Daily spoke with Zhou late last week and reported that he had never actually been to the Huanghuagang Cemetery: he based his poem on visits to the Wuchang Memorial Park and information he had gleaned from the Internet and TV. He also said that the poem was written on the spur of the moment during the test. He he had not prepared it beforehand.
However, Zhou's performance on the math portion of the exam — 45 point — did not match his success on the essay, and along with middling scores on the other sections, his final score of 370 was far below what is needed to place into a major university.
Zhou told the Chutian Metropolis Daily that he intends to take the exam two more times in the hopes of evening out his imbalance between math and humanities disciplines.
Another Wuhan student reportedly went in the opposite direction on the recent high-school entrance exam and answered the essay prompt, "Doing Your Best is Enough," in English. Again, from the Chutian Metropolis Daily, June 26:
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