Inside a Chinese Test-Prep Factory

Brook Larmer, New York Times, December 31, 2014

The main street of Maotanchang, a secluded town in the furrowed hills of eastern China’s Anhui province, was nearly deserted. A man dozed on a motorized rickshaw, while two old women with hoes shuffled toward the rice paddies outside town. It was 11:44 on a Sunday morning last spring, and the row of shops selling food, tea and books by the pound stood empty. Even the town’s sacred tree lured no supplicants; beneath its broad limbs, a single bundle of incense smoldered on a pile of ash.

One minute later, at precisely 11:45, the stillness was shattered. Thousands of teenagers swarmed out of the towering front gate of Maotanchang High School. Many of them wore identical black-and-white Windbreakers emblazoned with the slogan, in English, “I believe it, I can do it.” It was lunchtime at one of China’s most secretive “cram schools”–a memorization factory where 20,000 students, or four times the town’s official population, train round the clock for China’s national college-entrance examination, known as the gaokao. The grueling test, which is administered every June over two or three days (depending on the province), is the lone criterion for admission to Chinese universities. For the students at Maotanchang, most of whom come from rural areas, it offers the promise of a life beyond the fields and the factories, of families’ fortunes transformed by hard work and high scores.

Yang Wei, a 12th grader at this public school, steered me through the crowd. A peach farmer’s son in half-laced high-tops, Yang had spent the previous three years, weekends included, stumbling to his first class at 6:20 in the morning and returning to his room only after the end of his last class at 10:50 at night. Yang and I met at this precise moment, after his Sunday-morning practice test, because it was the only free time he had all week–a single three-hour reprieve. Now, with the gaokao just 69 days away–the number appeared on countdown calendars all over town–Yang had entered the final, frenetic stretch. “If you connected all of the practice tests I’ve taken over the past three years,” he told me with a bitter laugh, “they would wrap all the way around the world.”

Yang and I had communicated on social media for weeks, and the 18-year-old seemed almost giddy to be hosting an American expatriate. Yet there was a crisis brewing. Even with all the relentless practice, Yang’s scores were slipping, a fact that clouded over the lunch I ate with his family in the single room that he and his mother shared near the sacred tree. We were joined by Yang’s father, visiting for the afternoon, and his closest friend from his home village, a classmate named Cao Yingsheng–all squeezed into a space barely big enough for a bunk bed, a desk and a rice cooker. The room’s rent, however, was high, rivaling rates in downtown Beijing, and it represented only part of the sacrifice Yang’s parents made to help him, their only son, become the first family member to attend college.

Yang’s mother, Lin Jiamin, quit her garment-factory job to support him in his final year of cramming. Cao’s mother came to live with her son as well. “It’s a lot of pressure,” said Cao, whose family paid more in school fees than Yang’s family–about $2,000 a semester–because of his low marks entering high school. “My mother constantly reminds me that I have to study hard, because my father is out working construction far from home to pay my school fees.” The room went quiet for a minute. They all knew this was the boys’ fate, too, if they failed to do well on the gaokao. “Dagong,” Yang said. “Manual labor.” He and Cao would have to join China’s 260-million-strong army of migrant workers.

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Nothing consumes the lives of Chinese families more than the ever-­looming prospect of the gaokao. The exam–there are two versions, one focused on science, the other on humanities–is the modern incarnation of the imperial keju, generally regarded as the world’s first standardized test. For more than 1,300 years, into the early 20th century, the keju funneled young men into China’s civil service. Today, more than nine million students take the gaokao each year (fewer than 3.5 million, combined, take the SAT and the ACT). But the pressure to start memorizing and regurgitating facts weighs on Chinese students from the moment they enter elementary school. Even at the liberal bilingual kindergarten my sons attended in Beijing, Chinese parents pushed their 5-year-olds to learn multiplication tables and proper Chinese and English syntax, lest their children fall behind their peers in first grade. “To be honest,” one of my Chinese friends, a new mother, told me, “the gaokao race really begins at birth.”

China’s treadmill of standardized tests has produced, along with high levels of literacy and government control, some of the world’s most scarily proficient test-takers. Shanghai high-school students have dominated the last two cycles of the Program for International Student Assessment exam, leading more than one U.S. official to connect this to a broader “Sputnik moment” of coming Chinese superiority. Yet even as American educators try to divine the secret of China’s test-taking prowess, the gaokao is coming under fire in China as an anachronism that stifles innovative thought and puts excessive pressure on students. Teenage suicide rates tend to rise as the gaokao nears. Two years ago, a student posted a shocking photograph online: a public high-school classroom full of students hunched over books, all hooked up to intravenous drips to give them the strength to keep studying.

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Even as cram schools have proliferated across urban areas, Maotanchang is a world apart, a remote one-industry town that produces test-taking machines with the same single-minded commitment that other Chinese towns devote to making socks or Christmas ornaments. {snip}

Isolated in the foothills of Anhui, two hours from the nearest city, Maotanchang caters mostly to such students and prides itself on eliminating the distractions of modern life. Cellphones and laptops are forbidden; the dormitories, where roughly half the students live, were designed without electrical outlets. Romance is banned. In town, where the rest of the students live, mostly with their mothers in tiny partitioned rooms, the local government has shut down all forms of entertainment. This may be the only town in China with no video arcade, billiards hall or Internet cafe. “There’s nothing to do but study,” Yang says.

Town planning is not the only means through which the school instills discipline in kids like Yang, a normally fun-loving teenager from Yuejin whom his father calls “the most mischievous kid in the village.” Maotanchang’s all-male corps of head teachers doles out lessons, and frequently punishments, with military rigor; their job security and bonuses depend on raising their students’ test scores. Security guards roam the 165-acre campus in golf carts and on motorcycles, while surveillance cameras track students’ movements in classrooms, dormitories and even the town’s main intersections. This “closed management practice,” as an assistant principal, Li Zhenhua, has termed it, gets results. In 1998, only 98 Maotanchang students achieved the minimum gaokao score needed to enter a university. Fifteen years later, 9,312 students passed, and the school was striving to break the 10,000 mark in 2014. Yang and Cao hoped to be among them.

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Yang’s parents and I lingered in front of the rows of dormitories where their son spent his first two years at Maotanchang. Ten students, sometimes 12, bunked in each room. The wire mesh covering the windows–“to prevent suicide,” one student told me later, only half-joking–was festooned with drying socks, underwear, T-shirts and shoes. The dorms have few amenities–no electrical outlets, no laundry room, not even, until a separate bathhouse was installed last year, hot water. There is, students note, one high-tech device: an electronic fingerprint scanner that teachers log into every night to verify that they have conducted their obligatory bed checks.

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The head teachers’ schedules are so grueling–17-hour days monitoring classes of 100 to 170 students–that the school has decreed that only young, single men can fill the job. The competition to hang onto these spots is intense. Charts posted on the walls of the faculty room rank classes by cumulative test scores from week to week. Teachers whose classes finish in last place at year’s end can expect to be fired. It’s no wonder that teachers’ motivational methods can be tough. Besides rapping knuckles with rulers, students told me, some teachers pit them against one another in practice-test “death matches”–the losers must remain standing all morning. In one much-discussed case, the mother of a tardy student was forced to stand outside her son’s class for a week as punishment. For the repeat students, the teachers have a merciless mantra: “Always remember your failure!”

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When I returned to Maotanchang in June, the night before the students’ mass departure for the gaokao, the darkened sky was illuminated by dozens of floating paper lanterns. The ethereal orange orbs rose higher and higher, until they formed a constellation of hope. I followed the trail of lanterns to their source: an empty lot near the school’s side gate. There, several families were lighting oiled wads of cloth. As the expanding heat lifted their lanterns off the ground, their prayers grew louder. “Please, take my son past the line!” one mother intoned.

As the glowing lanterns soared unobstructed into the night air, families cheered. One lantern, however, became tangled in electrical lines. The student’s mother looked devastated–for this, according to local belief, was a bad omen, all but dooming her child to finishing “below the line” on the gaokao.

For a town that turns test preparation into a mechanical act of memorization and regurgitation, Maotanchang remains a place of desperate faith and superstition. Most students have a talisman of some sort, whether it’s red underwear (red clothing is believed to be lucky), shoes from a company called Anta (their check-mark logo is reminiscent of a correct answer) or a pouch of “brain rejuvenating” tea bought from vendors outside the school gates. The town’s best-selling nutritional supplements are called Clear Mind and Six Walnuts (the nuts are considered mind-boosters in large part because they resemble brains). Yang’s parents did not seem especially superstitious, but they paid high rent to live close to the mystical tree and its three-foot-high pile of incense ash. “If you don’t pray to the tree, you can’t pass,” Yang says, repeating a local saying.

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The 10,000 or so parents who come to live in Maotanchang will do almost anything to enhance their children’s chances on the gaokao. Many of the mothers, like Lin, lack formal education. Yet they are the fiercest enforcers of the unwritten rules that forbid Maotanchang residents to watch television, do laundry or wash dishes during students’ sleeping time. When an Internet cafe opened in town a few years ago, posing a potential distraction to students, the mothers helped the school carry out a boycott that eventually forced it to close. When Yang’s scores slipped, his mother confiscated his cellphone and made him study late at night while she sat next to him, weaving needlepoint slippers with butterfly and fish designs. During the day, Lin timed her cooking to coincide precisely with class breaks, so her son could devour his meals without wasting a second of study time. “We have to do all we can,” Lin said. “Otherwise, we will always blame ourselves.”

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