This is the third and final part of a series on China’s high-stakes college entrance exam, the gaokao. View the entire series here.
As a child growing up in the countryside near China’s border with Vietnam, Alex Tang was a superstar, always top of the class and winning countless school prizes.
In 2012, the then-18-year-old achieved her crowning glory: She got the highest score of any student in her town in China’s college-entrance examinations, earning a place at one of the country’s top universities — Fudan University in Shanghai.
All summer, Tang basked in her achievement, accepting the congratulations of family friends and anticipating the opportunities ahead of her. Finally, September arrived, and the student moved to the eastern megacity to begin her new life.
Within weeks, she felt lost.
To Tang, who grew up 2,000 kilometers away in a small rural community, Shanghai seemed a strange and alien place. She didn’t know how to ride the metro; she’d never tried an egg tart before; and the modern art in the city’s galleries baffled her. Most of all, however, she struggled to relate to her classmates — the majority of whom had grown up in major Chinese cities.
“There was a huge gap between me and the kids from the big cities in terms of our mindsets,” Tang tells Sixth Tone. “It was so hard for me to accept that.”
Even now, at 26, Tang still struggles to explain her complicated feelings toward her four years at Fudan — an experience that expanded her horizons in myriad ways, but also did lasting damage to her self-esteem. But she has, at least, come to realize one important thing: She’s not alone.
In May, Tang stumbled across a group of netizens on Chinese social platform Douban who call themselves “exam experts from small towns.” Like Tang, they are all people from rural China who managed to beat the odds and gain admission to elite universities by acing the college-entrance exams, or gaokao. And their tales of anxiety and frustration were instantly recognizable to her.
The phrase “exam experts from small towns” was coined by a Douban user in a blog post describing his “mental journey” from being a top student in high school to a “loser” in university. After a childhood spent cramming for tests, the young man struggled to adapt to life in college — where success depends on knowing the right people as much as the right answers — and was left feeling “helpless and confused.”
In the end, the user wryly reveals he’s decided to pursue a career in China’s civil service — where applicants are selected based on their performance in a notoriously challenging exam.
“That might be the destiny for ‘exam experts from small towns,’” he writes. “Sigh.”
Many students from rural backgrounds have shared similar stories over recent months, turning a small corner of the Chinese internet into a “tree hollow” — or safe space — for “exam experts.” A related group named Losers Attending “985” Universities — a reference to a group of elite Chinese colleges — has attracted over 1,000 members a day since it was set up in May.
The emergence of these online communities has sent ripples across Chinese academia — not only providing “exam experts” like Tang with a bittersweet sense of identity, but also sparking wider discussions about the deep inequalities still dividing China’s wealthy urban centers from their relatively underprivileged rural peripheries.
Despite decades of government efforts to promote education in rural areas, the gap between the countryside and the cities remains enormous. Around two-thirds of high school students from urban areas born in the ’90s went on to attend university, compared with just one-third of rural students, according to a study published in April.
But as the “exam experts from small towns” label implies, urban privilege extends far beyond the discrepancy in gaokao scores. Even when rural students manage to gain access to top colleges, they often run into new, invisible barriers to success.
Though it’s been over a decade since she started university, Rebecca still felt a pang when she first saw the “exam experts from small towns” Douban thread.
“It described my situation so accurately,” the 30-year-old tells Sixth Tone. “It captured all those contradictory emotions I’ve experienced all these years: feeling superior and inferior at the same time.”
Growing up in a remote part of the southern Guangdong province, Rebecca — whose name has been changed to protect her privacy — had tunnel vision as a child. Like many Chinese kids from humble backgrounds, she believed from an early age that the route to a better life lay through excelling at school. And success meant only one thing: good exam grades.
“I was totally dominated by rankings and scores, and I felt that was my whole world,” says Rebecca. “Whenever I rose up the (class) rankings a little, I felt on top of the world.”
By contrast, flunking a test caused her almost physical pain. After performing poorly in a middle school physics exam, Rebecca recalls writing in her diary: “I’m going to die.”
The laser-like focus paid off: In the gaokao, Rebecca ranked in the top 200 out of 240,000 liberal arts candidates in Guangdong, winning a place at a top 10 university in southern China.
When she started college, however, Rebecca quickly came to a painful realization: Whereas she’d spent the past decade cramming for the gaokao, her classmates had been simultaneously preparing for life after the all-important exam.
“Unlike high school, university is a period of transition toward entering society: Emotional intelligence, networking skills, and even your appearance become criteria on which you’re evaluated,” says Rebecca. “And it’s not as easy to improve in those areas compared with taking exams.”
In her second year, Rebecca lost out in the student union elections. At the time, she recalls feeling crushed, but she never had much chance of beating her more worldly opponents. She didn’t have much experience planning big events or school contests. And she never even thought to bring dessert and drinks to the meetings.
“The children from the big cities had silver tongues and knew how to network,” she says.
Liu Haifeng, a senior arts professor at Zhejiang University, says the stark differences in students’ backgrounds are clearly visible in the classroom. He points out that kids from middle-class families start traveling overseas and making useful social connections from a young age, whereas others concentrate purely on school.
“This kind of gap isn’t about intelligence, but social experience,” says Liu. “Family background, economic status, and cultural capital matters. And once these students are in the same university, which emphasizes independence and initiative, the ‘exam experts’’ limitations are exposed.”
For Tang, the Fudan student, the classroom was actually where she initially struggled most. She’d quickly learned to appreciate egg tarts and impressionist art, but she still had no idea how to effectively use a search engine, or how to prepare a class presentation.
The most humiliating moment was her first English class. In high school, English had been her best subject, but at Fudan she sat mute while her classmates fluently chatted with the teachers.
“I was so proud of my English: I’d master everything in the textbooks, and I always got the maximum score of 150 points in the exams,” says Tang. “But here, I’m also defeated. I have nothing special.”
And as Tang learned to her cost, even good grades aren’t enough to guarantee success in the real world. At the end of her undergraduate program, Tang was among the top two students in her class and hoped to transfer to do a master’s in philosophy. But to do that, she’d need to build relationships with the philosophy teaching staff.
For weeks, Tang attended philosophy lectures. But each time, she was unable to summon up the courage to talk to the staff and left the class in tortured silence. She never got a place in the program.
“More connections mean more opportunities,” says Tang. “But even though I realized that, I still didn’t dare do it. I felt so embarrassed. I just couldn’t.”
For “exam experts,” all these disadvantages coalesce to form a glass ceiling that impacts their prospects long after university. According to a 2018 survey by education consultants Mycos, fresh graduates from rural families earn 4,469 yuan ($675) per month on average — 287 yuan less than graduates from urban backgrounds.
Closing the urban-rural divide, however, is easier said than done. Many blame the overriding importance of the gaokao for fostering an extreme exam culture and an obsessive focus on test-taking. Yet as Tang points out, without the gaokao, she would almost certainly never have had the opportunity to go to study in Shanghai.
“But the gaokao is also like a bandage that covers up our wounds instead of solving the real problem, which is the imbalance of educational resources in urban and rural areas,” says Tang.
The gap in resources is significant. According to a 2016 report, 70% of children of kindergarten age in China are from counties, towns, and rural regions, but educational facilities in these regions receive less than 50% of the country’s total financial investment. In rural middle schools, under 79% of teachers have a bachelor’s degree or above, compared with over 90% in urban middle schools, according to the Ministry of Education.
Since graduating, Tang has worked in Shanghai as a consultant helping students apply to overseas schools — and the difference between her childhood experience and those of her clients is striking.
“I have some clients from rich families, and they’re reading academic papers and doing research with the help of professors from American universities,” says Tang. “My hometown only had one 20-square-meter bookstore.”
Liu, the arts professor, says more investment in rural schools is needed, not least to help attract top teachers to work in the countryside. In the meantime, schools can focus on preparing students for the reality of college life.
“Teachers should get them (rural students) more mentally prepared,” says Liu. “Otherwise, there might be psychological risks for them as they go through this hard transition.”
Rebecca says it took her two years to recover from the shock of beginning life in college, where she was no longer seen as a star student, but as introverted and unremarkable.
In the end, however, Rebecca found a way to use all her disadvantages as an edge over her classmates. Accepting herself as an introvert, she decided to focus on a career in finance — a field requiring hard work and a methodical approach — that suited her strengths.
Then, she started thinking about how she could obtain a good job. She concluded her best approach was to keep her grades high, take the Certified Practicing Accountant test, and complete internships at finance firms.
“It was about focusing on a goal and completing the tasks one by one, like when I was preparing for the gaokao,” she says.
Rebecca, who is now a manager of a financial department at a Fortune 500 company, puts her success partly down to her humble background. Unlike many of her peers, she grew up with no influential family or social connections and had to find her way and make decisions by herself.
“I know many people regard 'exam experts from small towns' as a negative label … but I hope they could see it in a neutral way,” says Rebecca. For someone from her background, becoming an “exam expert” is their best way out, she adds.
“What else can you do, except carry on completing exercises?”
Additional reporting: Huang Jijie; editor: Dominic Morgan; illustrations: Wang Zhenhao.