Students Hope ‘Gaokao’ Pens Will Work Like a Charm
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2017-06-05 12:17:04

Ahead of China’s yearly university entrance exam, high schoolers are buying up lucky charms to improve their fortunes.

From charmed pens to miniature pagodas, a range of items “blessed” by prominent monks have sprung up on online sales platforms, promising to prevent students from encountering obstacles during the all-important exam, also known as the gaokao.

According to statistics from Alibaba-owned Tmall, one of China’s largest e-commerce websites, one distributer for M&G Stationery, a major manufacturer of school and office supplies, sold nearly 10,000 packs of pens that had been “blessed” at a Confucian temple within the last 30 days at 15 yuan ($2.20) each, while other pens only had sales in the hundreds.

From customer feedback on Tmall it appears the buyers are either exam-takers or their parents, nearly all of whom give the products glowing reviews. “I wish my daughter all the good luck in the coming gaokao using this product,” one parent commented. “I bought this for the gaokao,” wrote another buyer. “It feels good; I hope it will bring me good luck.”

When Sixth Tone contacted an online distributor of M&G Stationery products via Alibaba’s online chat service and asked whether their pens were taken to the Confucius Temple in Nanjing and blessed there as advertised, the answer was a straightforward “No.”

The pens themselves have four gold-embossed Chinese characters on them that translate to “consecrated at the Confucius Temple.” M&G Stationery could not be reached on Monday to comment on the authenticity of these products.

In addition to pens, other hot gaokao items include brass models of wenchang pagodas, named after a Chinese god associated with learning and scholarship. Prices for the figurines can vary from 100 to several thousand yuan, depending on their height, with the largest models measuring nearly half a meter.

When Sixth Tone sent messages posing as a potential customer, one online vendor operating on Taobao wrote back that their shop can sell a dozen wenchang pagoda models per day. “These artifacts can grant you blessings on all the important examinations,” the employee said. “The effect is guaranteed because I will have the monks sing incantations to empower the pagoda once you give me your name and birth date after your purchase.”

Another vendor on Tmall, Dingfengge, sells around 600 wenchang pagoda models per month. A company employee told Sixth Tone via text message that they are collaborating with the Lotus Temple in the southern city of Guangzhou. “The effect will be stronger if the pagoda model has more tiers,” the seller explained. “The only thing you have to do is buy this and put it on the corner of the desk in your house, and you will be blessed on the exams.”

However, when Sixth Tone contacted the Lotus Temple, a monk who refused to give his name for religious reasons denied any commercial collaboration with the Taobao seller. “I have never heard about a cooperation with [Dingfengge],” he said. “They must be stealing and abusing our name. These kinds of products provide minimal psychological comfort. I suggest the students trust more in their own efforts.”

Every year in June, after months if not years of preparation, a new batch of stressed-out high schoolers takes the gaokao. Well aware of the extent to which a good score can improve one’s future prospects, their parents go to great lengths — such as hiring nannies to be at their beck and call or burning papers bearing characters associated with good fortune — to make sure their children have every possible advantage.

“The initiative of parents who buy such items is driven by a deep love for their children,” Zhao Junyan, a psychiatrist at Capital Normal University in Beijing, told Sixth Tone. “Sometimes, it’s the parents who face more stress during the gaokao.”

Editor: Sarah O’Meara.

(Header image: Parents of high schoolers burn candles and incense offerings while praying that their children will get high scores on their university entrance exams, Lu’an, Anhui province, June 1, 2017. Zhang Tai/VCG)