Education in China

A general background


Basic education in China includes pre-school education (three years), primary education (six years) and secondary education (six years). There are two routes for secondary education--academic secondary education and specialized/vocational/technical secondary education. Academic secondary education consists of three years of middle school and three years of high school.


Primary school graduates wishing to attend the best middle schools should take the middle school entrance exam--Xiaoshengchu--to qualify for the most prestigious schools. Middle school graduates wishing to continue their education take a locally administered high school entrance exam--Zhongkao--on the basis of which they will have the option of continuing in an academic high school, entering a vocational middle school to receive two to four years of technical training, or quiting education to find a job. High school graduates wishing to go to universities must take the college entrance exam--Gaokao. 

All Chinese citizens are required to finish middle school, according to the Nine-year Compulsory Education policy. This nine years’ education in public schools is fully funded by the government, but not in private schools.


Data: In recent years, around 60% of middle school students qualify for academic high schools, and around 80% of high school students qualify for universities.


College application: the Gaokao

Understanding the current college entrance exam in China is vital to understanding the design of Chinese high schools and people’s attitudes towards rankings and test scores.

The national examinations at the end of high school are the same examinations that universities in that country use for admissions.  The high school graduation exams and college entrance exams are the same. Students from the same province take the same test with the exact same questions. There are usually two forms of the test with one of them consisting of harder humanities questions and the other consisting of harder STEM questions. Students can choose at the second year of the high school which test they want to prepare for. Other than the emphasis of the test, everything is the same for everyone, which means that a student interested in pure math still has to study hard for physics, chemistry, Chinese, etc. to get a high score on the entrance exam to get into a good university, and then choose math as his major. 

The exam usually consists of multiple choice and short answer questions. The format is similar to AP exams, except that the time constraint is far more strict, the test is harder, and there is no curve. Raw scores are used to calculate the rankings in a province with the same test. It should be noted that there is always a standard answer for almost everything on the test, including the short answer questions for history or literature. (More details can be found here.)

Many Chinese schools exist for test prep, and a school’s reputation is directly related to its average test scores. Almost every class, every teacher, and every school is about preparing for the exams. In most schools, the last year of high school is reserved exclusively for test preparation. No new content is taught. All students do the entire year is take practice tests and learn test-taking skills.


Chinese people's attitude towards education

Chinese students have long been stereotyped as great test-takers and it seems that most Chinese international students work hard to go to a college with high rankings. Why do Chinese people value education so much?

The Influence of Confucian Values

Confucius was a famous Chinese educator who lived around 2,500 years ago. He was the teacher of many famous Chinese philosophers and emperors. As a result, Confucianism became a crucial part of Chinese educational philosophy and his opinions were considered the orthodox views. In his time when the Chinese government still followed feudalism, Confucius emphasized social order, respect for teachers and elders, and loyalty to emperors to establish a harmonious society. He thought it was important to obey the orders of emperors, parents, and teachers and sacrifice one's personal interests for these people, as he said "let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father, the son a son." After he died, his quotes were recorded in the Analects and taught to most Chinese people for 2,000 years. Nowadays, his educational philosophy is still popular in China, and rules, obedience to authority, and filial piety are emphasized in Chinese traditional culture.


The Keju System 

In feudal China, government officials had large power, received high salaries and had respect from people. The only way for normal males with low socio-economic status to become government officials was through the keju system.


The system required people to take an exam, which tested knowledge of Confucianism and other orthodox views. People had to memorize the famous Chinese traditional values and philosophies and wrote essays which derived from such views. The exam had a fixed format, and people could not write about their own views which consisted of unorthodox thinking. To excel at the keju exam, people had to read countless books and memorize them, which took longer than 10 years. Still, the majority of people who wanted to change their fate chose to study for the keju exam. After reading and memorizing the orthodox views starting from a young age, they tended to agree with these values and lost the chance to develop their creativity or original ideas. Some people believed that the keju system was one important reason to slow down the process of innovation and technological advancement, as the smartest people of the country spend most of their time preparing for a standardized exam.




In fact, one of the most important goals of the keju system was to promote the idea of obedience, homogeneity, and conformity so that emperors could easily govern people and give them orders.


As time went by, the importance of test-taking, hard work, memorization, and finding the single right answer passed on to influence Chinese people, as well as the notion that excelling at exams could change one’s fate.