MaotanChang High School: A factory unlike any other


Gaokao testing, Photo Courtesy of Xinhuanet

毛坦厂(MaotanChang) is an unremarkable village.

Situated in the valleys of eastern China’s Anhui Province amongst hundreds and thousands of villages, MaotanChang is, undoubted, the most boring of them all. Unlike villages with mines or drilling wells, MaotanChang does not possess any of it; the town lacks any infrastructure resembling entertainment: it does not have a movie theatre, mall, bars, parks, nor internet cafes. The town’s busiest places are an awkwardly understaffed post office and a few scattered guestless restaurants; the restaurants are so far apart from each other that, to many outsiders, their distancing must be crafted on purpose.

But before you dismiss MaotanChang for its dullness, you should be reminded that tens of thousands of people migrate into this four thousand-person town, a town that fails to impress the outside world with its attractiveness. Although there are no jobs to be had in this town, there is one factory, a factory that is peculiar to the public eye.

MaotanChang High School.


MaotanChang High School, Photo Courtesy of Xinhuanet

The school’s deliberations of constructing itself at a remote location, surrounded by inanimated streets, are ironically its glittering features. MaotanChang high school is known across China as a “study factory,” where parents bring their children to prepare for the most exam of their lives – Gaokao.

高考 where 高(Gao) means high, and 考(Kao) means exam. Today, around 10 million 3rd-year high school students – graduates in the Chinese education system – take the test annually, making it the most-taken exam anywhere on earth. In normal years, the nine-hour exam begins on June 7th and ends on the following day but could last two to three days, depending on the province. Although the exam is implemented nationally, excluding Macao and Hong Kong, its questions are determined by the provincial and provincial-level city governments.

For most students, Gaokao consists of Mathematics, Chinese, a foreign language (English, Japanese, Russian, or French), and his or her choice of humanities (Geography, history, politics) and science (biology, physics, chemistry). The test’s format is mainly multiple choice and short answers, though the Chinese sections contain an essay, which is later scored by two random test-graders.

However, before and after the exam, students list the school they wish to attend. And by the time scores are released in July, provincial governments have negotiated admission quotas for each university and determined the lowest-accepted score.

The test’s highest number of points is 750, but anyone who passes the 700 mark is considered to be legendary, thanks to its notoriously inscrutable questions. When all are said and done, around 10% of students receive offers from one of the “Tier 1” university, 20% from “Tier 2”, and 30% from “Tier 3”. To a distant observer, Gaokao may seem like a larger and more elaborate version of the SAT, but people who imply this stance will be ridiculously mistaken.

Gaokao is only offered once per year, meaning that if a student is not accepted into his or her listed schools, which there can only be a few, will have no choice but to wait until next June, and many do, sometimes several times over.

Statistically, only about 8 of 10 million test takers are accepted. This leaves an unenviable situation for the rest of the 20%: wait for another year, or give up. Parents resent students who choose to take the exam multiple times – saying that they inflate the average score at the expense of their child – this is because Gaokao is the only criteria for college admission.

The Gaokao is a “make or break” project on steroids, which explains why it has generated numerous lucrative industries, of which MaotanChang is one of its biggest benefactors; its specialty is that it proclaims to have a 90% college admission rate, compare to the 30% of its province as a whole.

Such success, as usual, comes at a price.

The campus is operated much more like a military complex than an academic institution – with 16 hours of studying per day. There are no laundry rooms, electrical outlets, and for many years, hot water. The school’s visitors are only allowed on campus for exactly 3 hours each Sunday afternoon.

But its secret, however, is its meticulously crafted ranks, rewards, and punishments for its teachers and students. Teachers of MaotanChang High School receive higher-than-average wages, but what prompted them to give up – quit their job, hold off at starting a family, and move to desolations – are the bonuses. If a student is accepted into China’s famous universities (Tsinghua or Peking), a sum of ¥50,000 or $8,000, is divided amongst his or her teachers. A good educator, therefore, can easily double or triple his or her salary. On the contrary, the lowest-ranked teachers each year can be expected to be fired.

To many people, such descriptions of MaotanChang High School may elicit sympathies, if not outrage. Indeed, one may produce this feeling whenever an image or stories of a 6-foot pile of books or the school’s incredible 16-hour schedule goes viral, a particular fury follows – “How dare someone try to pay game to test?” or “what a waste of young peoples’ lives!”

Sights shown in this picture are common throughout all Chinese High schools. Picture Courtesy of Xinhuanet

In actuality, most students in MaotanChang high school are not rich kids from cities, rather, children of poor rural families who had saved for years. For them – Gaokao is a route – their only route – to upward their social stature, and MaotanChang High School is their golden ticket.

Such explanations elucidate why, when the test day arrives, it is a day of celebration and hope, not dread or hatred. To us, June 7th may look like the beginning of a festival as convoys of buses filled with students roam the cities, escorted by a parade of their families while cars are forbidden from honking their horns, constructions sites within half a mile are ordered to stay silent, and airplanes are prohibited from flying over air routes where their noise may disturb this unconventional peace, all to make sure test-takers are proctored by a million of supervisors across the country. Then, on the final day, where students make their last stroke of pens, they unisonous reported the same yet unexpected feeling: loss.

Parents escorting test-takers on June.7th, Photo Courtesy of Xinhuanet (WangWei)

While these nine fateful hours have consumed nearly every second of students’ past three years, if not their entire education, the Gaokao presents itself as a powerful goal, a singular milestone so distant yet so immediate enough to instill urgency.

However, this great equalizer in Chinese education is not meant to be romanticized. Critics rightly emphasize the unfathomable mental strain it places on students and families – strains sometimes spiral into permeant damage. The years of lives Gaokao robs of every boy and girl, the unnecessary rote memorizations which is never recalled, and the permeant destiny to those deemed unfit.

But such an all-encompassing task also provides a concrete purpose that drives students forward and a universally-accepted excuse to all failures unacademic: One can be just bad at everything but still can be celebrated for scoring highly.

In some ways, Gaokao is a great mask, hiding all accomplishments and challenges behind a single person-defining number; Social and economic inequalities are also rationalized and upheld by its meritocratic nature. Socially, it is a great implementation of Social Darwinism – it suggests that everyone gets what he or she deserves, providing an excuse for substantial differences in opportunity. And while there have been many moves to reform Gaokao and even chatters about replacing it, the great irony is that those who suffer the most, families and students, are also its most vocal supporters. To them, Gaokao maybe the hardest bus ticket to acquire to move up the social ladder, but it is nevertheless their only ticket.