A record 10.5 million young Chinese on Saturday participated in the national College Entrance Examination (CEE), the largest of its kind in the world.
The country, as usual, is in the grips of summer madness of the exam. Success in the exam, also know as "gaokao," can change a candidate's life in this fiercely competitive society. However, the after-effect of the deadly May 12 earthquake is felt in many parts of the nation.
"I could only change my life by entering the college," said 19-year-old Shen Chuanjun before entering a makeshift house to take part in the exam in quake-hit Ningqiang County of the northwest Shaanxi Province.
"In my village, families would do whatever to support their children who passed the exam," he said.
A total of 1,921 students in Ningqiang participated in the exam in 70 makeshift houses on the playground of a local middle school. Many of the students resided in nearby tents for fear of aftershocks.
It became quiet as soon as the bell rang signaling the exam's start. Proctors and school staff kept silent so as not to affect the participants who bore the hope of their families.
About 38,000 participants in Tianshui, Gansu Province, were taking the exam inside the city's strongest buildings, despite most local people currently living in tents.
"We selected the strongest buildings and examined them once and again to ensure safety. These buildings could stand even an 8.0-magnitude earthquake," said Li Chun, Tianshui educational bureau director.
The Ministry of Education said only 5.99 million of the 10.5 million participants would be able to enter college.
As the May 12 earthquake was also felt in Beijing, emergency exit maps were seen in the high school of Peking University, one of the capital's exam venues. Emergency telephone numbers were put on every elevator exit.
School President Kang Jian said "after the Sichuan earthquake occurred, the school administration attached more importance to the safety of students and teachers in case of emergency."
In Shanghai, college candidates were required to write essays under the topic of "They" for the Chinese language and literature test. Liu Lihui, one of them, said he wrote about ordinary people who turned out to be heroes after the quake hit.
The exam was postponed in the 62 counties worst hit by the 8.0-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan and Gansu provinces. The exact date for the exam has yet to be set.
The state education authorities also asked colleges nationwide to offer 2 percent more placements than what they had previously planned for the Sichuan candidates. Students who were brave in rescue and relief work would receive preference in college enrolment this summer.
In Qingchuan County, Sichuan, 179 students were taking a simulated college entrance exam in tents at the Sanguo Middle School.
Qiang Yue, a 18-year-old who lost her mother in the quake, said the students were aware of the preferential policies for the college entrance. "I shall study harder so as not to let down my father and all the people who care about us."
Many students have become more sensible and studied harder after the quake, said a teacher named Yang Ruiling. "Nobody dozes nowadays, even it is very hot in the tents. Before, some even dozed in the classrooms."
As of Friday noon, the massive quake had claimed 69,130 lives and left another 17,824 missing.
Many young Chinese lost the chance to study during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). When Deng Xiaoping, China's late leader and chief architect of China's reform and opening drive, reinstated the gaokao in 1977, about 5.7 million Chinese competed for 270,000 university places that year.
The resumption of gaokao was viewed by many observers as a signal of the reform and opening up drive that brought great changes to this country over the past three decades.
Chinese describe gaokao as "thousands of troops on a single-log bridge" because of the low pass rate. For students in poverty-stricken rural areas, the tough exam could be their only opportunity to escape the rigors of country life.
A survey conducted by the Ministry of Education and China Youth Daily showed that 89.6 percent of those polled felt their fate was changed by the exam. Among those who said their fate was "totally changed," 69.1 percent came from the countryside and only 30.9 percent were from cities.
(Xinhua News Agency June 8, 2008)