Scholarship and education

Students choose English, oracle bone characters for entrance exam essays

Not particularly auspicious

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):

A knowledgeable source said that Xiao Huang's ancient character essay only scored eight points. The test marking team supervisors found an ancient writing expert to interpret the essay and then held a lengthy discussion before deciding upon that score.

"One supervisor insisted that it be given a zero." The source said that the supervisor felt that although gaokao rules did not stipulate that essays must be written in simplified characters, the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language Law clearly requires the use of standard written language — that is, simplified characters — in public venues and published materials. "The law naturally trumps gaokao rules," and thus the essay should be given a zero.

However, another supervisor felt that giving the essay a zero was unfair: "Using ancient writing is something innovative, after all." And while it strayed from the topic, that was not enough to justify a zero. For this reason, they ultimately gave him a low score.

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:

This reporter's initial reaction was astonishment when I first saw the paper covered in ancient characters on the copy Xiao Huang made of his essay. After inspecting it carefully, several language arts teachers who had studied ancient characters discovered that it contained oracle bone characters, bronze inscription characters, and seal characters. And after reading Pu's transcription, a number of language arts teachers said that although some of the sentences were ungrammatical or strained, the meaning was basically understandable.

Pu said that Xiao Huang's writing was usually better than this, so the ancient characters may have affected his thought process.

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:

"In both form and expression it's excellent," said one test scorer, who teaches at a provincial-level model high school. The teacher said that although the old-style poem used historical material, it was not empty of content but expressed feelings of reverence and aspiration. Another teacher said that a high school student who chose such a form and wielded it so deftly must have read widely and must possess a good grounding in the classics.

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:

Yesterday, news came from the Wuhan high school entrance exam marking center: one student used English to complete the essay portion of the language arts exam. The test scorer immediately reported this to the expert panel. According to a source at the marking center, the essay, written entirely in English, was titled "Do, try you best" (sic). The quality of the essay is currently unknown.

A language arts teacher in Wuchang District who has scored entrance exam papers many times in more than a decade of teaching, claimed never to have encountered an English-language essay before. This reporter talked to a number of other junior-high language arts teachers who all expressed their surprise. One teacher in Hankou said that teenage rebellion should not be ruled out in the case of individual test takers, but using English to answer an essay question was particularly risky.

Reportedly, one test-scorer at the marking center hypothesized that the author of the English essay may have been a "network recruited student" (网招生) who, according to the rules, was already admitted to a high school and had no need to take the entrance exam. Perhaps the student took the exam simply for the experience, and thus could risk "demonstrating English ability" on the essay portion.

A source with the Wuhan Institute of Educational Science said that they had not yet received a report from the marking center, but if an essay question was indeed answered in English, it would be translated and judged according to whether it was on-topic. If it was in-line with the standards for high-school exam essays, it would not be given a zero.

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There are currently 15 Comments for Students choose English, oracle bone characters for entrance exam essays.

Comments on Students choose English, oracle bone characters for entrance exam essays

Chinese education is crap. The system and the curriculum are built to fool all student so that when they graduate, they will be just as foolish as billionts of others and will listen to whatever the government says blindly.

This is education, not building robots!

Whether the Chinese education is good or not should not be concluded as a simple yes or no. There does exist some shortcomings in our education, but so it is with everything else.Seen China's rapid development, the contributors are mainly the Chinese people who received a good education from A-Z in China.One cannot just arbitrarily say that Chinese education is crap.We students have our own independent thinking.

what's with the two misplaced "an"s, 'an knowledgeable' and 'an source' in the quotes?

the kid doing the oracle bone essay should have kept to a single script or not done it at all. mixing it all up as he did is hardly going to impress someone in Liu Zhao's position.

[Fixed. Thanks. Had been an informed source and an official; changed the keywords without changing the articles. --JM]


Your argument is highly logical and convincing, and can be used when instructing opinionated foreigners about virtually any aspect of Chinese society or life.

Just fill in the blanks:

"Whether the Chinese ____ is good or not should not be concluded as a simple yes or no. There does exist some shortcomings in our ______, but so it is with everything else."

also you forgot to say "well, china has so many people so…"

The student got a low mark,but who can ensure teh translator did not make mistakes in his translation of the oracle bone words into common Chinese?
That boy or girl should immediately be enrolled into Peking University for PhD study.

Chinese education has its merits and weaknesses. From my experience, Chinese college education is not as good as that in the US, but primary and secondary education is certainly not as bad. Those who say it's complete crap tend to be losers.

That (the 甲骨文 thing) is incredible. Even if he did mix up his scripts or whatever, the system's reaction to his cleverness and dedication kind of makes the heart bleed. What a way to reward that kind of love of the written language that forms the basis of the very culture that the system wants him to love...

I find it significant that, to date, our mini discussion postulates that:

1) The gaokao exam IS "Chinese education."

2) The natural point of comparison would be the US system of education.

I submit that the gaokao is merely a tool aimed at deciding who gets into university, and among them, into the elite universities. It is a key element in the race to enter university, but it is not equivalent to pre-university "Chinese education" which is a much broader affair.

There is a tendancy to compare EVERYTHING Chinese with its US counterpart. This is unwise, given that the two societies are hugely different; education is largely free in the US, itself a wealthy society, and the curriculum of most schools is set by themselves or along local/state, not national guidelines, and the US even arguably has an oversupply of tertiary places for high school graduates -- all of which are utterly different than in China. In my opinion, it would be more useful (even creative!) to look at pre-university education in other countries rather than just the US. "Education with Chinese characteristics" has its special needs and has already produced some excellent results, and there is no need to constantly refer to the American reality, which, it should be remembered, often includes gun searches at the school gates, high rates of high school pregnancy and drug use, and a fairly mediocre record of literary upon "graduation."

I don't understand how he could've written the entire thing in oracle bone script, seeing how there's probably less than 200 identifiable glyphs, half of which don't correspond to modern characters. Did he just mix them and make up new ones?

Either case, a lot of Chinese today don't think the gaokao is really a good thing. Personally I believe it will go the way of imperial examinations and be gone in the future.

If you give this guy a high mark or "immediately be enrolled into Peking University for PhD study", then the next year everyone is going to try to stray from the topic to stand out from the crowd.

I doubt whether anyone in English speaking countries would attempt to read an essay written in the futhorc.

“Chinese education has its merits and weaknesses. From my experience, Chinese college education is not as good as that in the US, but primary and secondary education is certainly not as bad. Those who say it's complete crap tend to be losers.”
Exactly~ that's why there are a lot of Chinese American dream chasers. And I do realize that current education in many colleges are just disappointed and that's why my friends and I wanna go abroad to get a better education.
I'm still confident and proud about my country, whether it's blind or not.

"I doubt whether anyone in English speaking countries would attempt to read an essay written in the futhorc. "

Don't doubt it! It'd take me a while, but the kid would SO get full marks! Even if he mixed up his runes a bit.

well said Bruce.

re Futhorc, they'd probably try to read it but be unlikely to give full marks.

I agree it's incredible that he knew as many oracle bone characters as he did, and yes there aren't so many of them hence using seal script for others. But if he really wanted to go for impressing someone, he ought to have stuck to seal script alone. At least then whoever he was trying to impress may have thought he was well versed in one of the ancient systems, not a slacker in 3. I guess my point is Liu Zhao would probably see it as little more than a stunt.

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