LINCANG, China — The European Fine Steak & Seafood Buffet would not have been my first choice for a celebration dinner: this city of 320,000 people is located in landlocked Yunnan province in the southwest, more than a day’s drive from the sea. And I’ve always been disappointed in the Chinese take on steak—typically a slab of meat akin to a super-sized McRib fillet drenched in black pepper or tomato sauce. On the menu, the “American flame-broiled” and “Fragrance of Sichuan” steaks are only $12.75, including the all-you-can-eat buffet. The “Snow Region Yak” steak is just $1.50 more. The prices were almost as low as my expectations.
But the restaurant was not my decision. It was Zhang Wenjun’s and he’d earned it, having just passed the college entrance exam, known as the gaokao, widely regarded as one of the hardest tests in the world. This year, over ten million Chinese students took the two-day exam—five times the record-setting 2.1 million that took the SAT in the United States last year. The test score is the sole criteria for admissions at most universities in China, where attending a good school is one of the best ways to ensure access to good networks, career opportunities and, of course, a qualified spouse. Many hold that it is the single most significant inflection point in a Chinese person’s life—“more important than your wedding day,” one parent told me. As far as I was concerned, Wenjun could eat whatever he wanted.
Our dinner conversation had been a long time coming. Wenjun is from Bangdong, the village in Yunnan where I live, so in early 2019 when I heard he was preparing to take the gaokao in June, I visited his family to try to connect. “We only get to talk with him for five minutes every Sunday,” his father told me. The nearest high school is in Lincang three hours away, where Wenjun has boarded for the last three years. Cell phones are prohibited at school and students follow a rigorous study schedule: rise at 6:40 a.m., classes from 7:30 a.m. to 5:40 p.m. with brief breaks for lunch and naps, then dinner and self-study until 11:30 p.m. Weekends do not exist except for a break Sunday afternoon. “Like prison,” his father told me. “Only for students.”
As soon as the test was over, Wenjun got a cell phone and we arranged to meet.
“May I bring three friends?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied, eager for a larger sample size of students.
“How about five?” he followed up boldly.
“Maybe just three,” I said rebuffing him. “Steaks are expensive.
Students break for lunch at a local noodle shop between gaokao exams
I recognized Wenjun immediately as his father’s son: He has similar handsome features with sharp, bright eyes and milk chocolate skin, darkened by a childhood in the countryside. But his face has the glow of youth, not yet weathered and wrinkled with worry like his father’s.
In the end, he brought only one friend to the European Fine Steak & Seafood Buffet. “I’m Yang Le,” he said, “but you can call me Happy.” It was a textbook introduction, just like he’d memorized. He wore plain black-rimmed glasses and had oily skin dotted with acne. But he was confident and quick to smile, qualities that probably helped him become class monitor, an important leadership position in school and often a gateway to Communist Party membership. Happy enumerated his responsibilities:
1. Encourage study
2. Enforce the rules
3. Unify thought
As with most young Chinese men, the conversation quickly turned to the NBA. “Do you like the ‘Lake People Team?’” Happy asked. I don’t follow basketball so I struggled through translations of team names and players: The ‘Gold State Brave Soldiers.’ The ‘Mi-er-wo-ji Male Deer.’
“I want to go to the US to watch Le-bu-lang!”
“Le-bu-lang Zhan-mu-si! He has a beard like yours.”
If only it were his beard that earns LeBron James $35 million per year.
“I’d like to see what the US is really like,” Wenjun said, shifting the conversation. “In Chinese politics, power is concentrated; in the US, you have three branches: the judicial, legislative and Te-lang-pu.” Trump.
“A visit to the US would be great,” I said, encouraging Wenjun. “People are friendly and I think you’d learn new perspectives talking to people. The US is different than most people here think. We don’t all carry guns, and the steak’s different, too.”
Happy (left) and Wenjun (right) with their American flame-broiled steaks and buffet selections
The waitress interrupted to take our order. Three American flame-broiled steaks. Our thought was unified. I paid the bill, including a required $5 deposit to deter food waste, while Wenjun and Happy wreaked havoc on the buffet.
First they went for the cake. Then steamed buns, mussels and bowls of ice cream. They sampled the fried sticky rice straight from the serving counter and Wenjun loaded up a plate with a side of ketchup. I saw Happy sampling all the cocktail flavors, alcoholic concoctions of blue, pink and green in unsupervised drink dispensers. Anyone over 18 may drink in China, but at the European Fine Steak & Seafood Buffet, it seems to be whoever can reach the tap. I returned to our table to find no room for my plate. Chinese buffet, I’d forgotten, is to share and Wenjun and Happy were feeling generous tonight. I resigned myself to losing my $5 deposit.
Between mouthfuls of cake and ketchup, Wenjun described the road to the gaokao. The teachers told them about it in elementary school, he said, but the students had no idea what it was. In junior high, they were focused on testing into a good high school. But once in high school, reality hit. “The seniors studied from morning to night,” Wenjun recalled. “They were under so much pressure.”
“As soon as the exam was over, the seniors were xiaosa,” Happy said—free and easy. “We were so jealous.” Meantime, Happy and Wenjun became seniors and the gaokao countdown began: 290 days. Each classroom had a digital readerboard to remind students daily of their incumbent doom. “It seemed so far away then,” Happy said as if recalling a distant memory. “But then all of a sudden, there were only 100 days left.”
“I kept watching the smartest kid in our class,” Wenjun said. “He was like a studying machine.” Students did over 500 practice exams and The Machine always placed first. “Anytime I felt like quitting, I’d look at him and keep going.”
Soon, there were only 50 days left. Then 30. The readerboard numbers ticked down like a shot clock. 10… 09… 08…
Wu Yue leads the Learn from Lei Feng Volunteer Service Group and organizes volunteer activities throughout the year, including free transportation for students during the gaokao. He gave me a postcard of soldier Lei Feng, part man-part myth, who died serving his country (struck by a falling pole in a freak accident) and is now emblematic of a spirit of service and self-sacrifice
When the countdown finally reached “00,” I was in Gejiu in the mountains of southeast Yunnan. I had come to spend Ramadan in a nearby town that features one of the largest mosques in China, and realized it was also gaokao season. I ventured to Gejiu, a city of 180,000 and the only one nearby large enough to host the exam.
Gejiu’s surrounding mountains are known for their mineral deposits. In the early 1980s, with loosening economic policies and non-existent environmental regulations, private companies flocked to Tin City, as it’s known, and, along with local landholders, began extracting minerals. The tin rush began and Tin City boomed. Millionaires sprang up overnight, as did casinos and brothels, fixtures of the nouveau riche economy.
But today, the tin is gone and Gejiu’s future is uncertain. For most students, the gaokao is the surest path out, and all Tin City conspires in helping them leave. Construction sites rumble to a halt for the two days of exams. Drivers refrain from honking and city buses disable their stop announcements. Taxis chauffer test-takers free. The stakes are so high, everyone does his part.
High stakes have also prompted desperate parents and students to go to great lengths to boost scores. In recent years, test administrators have confiscated gadgets worthy of James Bond—including photo pens and tank tops wired with transmitting devices—and rumors about hiring gaokao ringers to sit exams for students are rampant. As a result, security is tightening, with radio frequency blockers at testing sites and even facial recognition and fingerprinting. Cheaters now face up to seven years in prison.
Outside the gates of Gejiu Third High School, an hour before the test was to begin, students poured over review books. The twelve-year marathon of gaokao study now turned into a sprint as students headed into the final stretch. They recited ancient poems and essay hooks they’d memorized for the writing exam until, finally, the clanging school bell released them from the obligation of study. They shuffled past anxious parents, SWAT police and a brigade of motorcycle cops and disappeared into the schoolyard.
A student gets a last-minute ride to the correct gaokao testing site after showing up late at the wrong one
For Wenjun and Happy, that was all now a memory. Happy sipped blueberry cocktail through a bendy straw, the epitome of xiaosa and the envy of his junior classmates. The liquid was bright blue like anti-freeze and made him even quicker to smile. Our steaks arrived and the waiter lit the cast iron plate on fire. We held up our napkins as shields while flames lapped our American flame-broiled slabs of McRib.
Wenjun also had reason to smile. “I scored 695 out of 750,” he told me. “It was even easier than the practice exams.” The score ranked him 136th in the entire province, the highest in Bangdong’s limited gaokao history. The Machine scored only ten points higher.
“But every point counts,” Happy said between bites of tomato sauce steak. “One point is the difference between 2,000 students across China.” Happy got 674 on the exam and received an extra ten points because he is Miao, one of China’s officially recognized minority groups. Preferential policies for minorities vary across China, ranging from college entrance points to reprieve from the one-child policy. With the minority bonus, Happy’s final score trailed Wenjun’s by just eleven points—or 22,000 students.
“The policy is good because it helps tuanjie,” Happy said—“unity”—the buzzword most associated with minorities. Thanks to the machinations of Communist propaganda, the word often appears with its over-spun comrades “harmony” and “social stability.”
“To be honest, I’m not actually disadvantaged,” Happy continued. “I grew up in the city around Han Chinese. My ID card says Miao but I don’t really fit the profile. It does feel a little unfair.”
Although Wenjun is Han—China’s ethnic majority, comprising 92 percent of the population—growing up in rural Bangdong village meant he enjoyed even fewer resources than Happy. He speaks diplomatically about that: “Our country has its reasons [for the policy]. There may be drawbacks, but there are more advantages. Yunnan is backward compared to other parts of the country. We need more opportunities to develop.”
“But as things even out, we should gradually do away with this policy,” he added, tempering his position. “If it always existed, it wouldn’t be good.” Although the minorities policy has been in place in some form since 1950 in the wake of the Communist Party’s taking power, debate continues around notions of fairness and education inequality. The Global Times, a Party publication, recently opined that the central government should put an end to the preferential admissions policies.
A woman waits outside Gejiu Third High School to congratulate her niece on finishing the gaokao
Broader gaokao reform is also in the works. A common criticism is that the authorities place too much importance on a single test that produces automatons with no critical thinking skills. Urgency for reform is further being fueled by the US-China trade war and President Xi’s call for greater self-reliance in order to realize China’s hi-tech ambitions, like its “Made in China 2025” industrial policy. The exam has been restructured to offer students more choice in what they test, rather than forcing them to choose between science or humanities in their first year of high school. Students are also able to take some tests in advance and multiple times to reduce stress around the two-day exam.
Nevertheless, the pilot reforms—expected to roll out nationally by 2020—have had disappointing results. Despite the restructuring of the exam, teachers still have to teach to the test. The addition of more tests has also reportedly increased students’ stress levels and academic burdens. And the main structural issues have not been addressed: the gaokao score remains the main driver of university admissions.
“Our professors have told us all about Made in China 2025,” Happy told me. “I want to study Computing and AI in Bei-Shang-Guang.” He used the abbreviation for Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, the massive urban centers on China’s east coast. “Maybe I’ll move abroad, I don’t know. But I’m never coming back to Yunnan and I’ll take my parents with me.” He has read online that in Belarus, there are seven women for every three men, and that they like China because it’s rich and powerful. “They loaded up an entire bus and drove here to marry Chinese men,” he told me with a grin. “Maybe I’ll marry one of them.”
For Wenjun, life decisions are more nuanced. “I need to consider my family,” he told me. “My parents won’t leave Bangdong, so I should find a job nearby.”
“But what kind of jobs can a top-scoring student find near Bangdong?” I wondered.
“I scored high enough to study medicine. Maybe I could be a doctor in Kunming,” he said, referring to the provincial capital a day’s drive from his home village.
“What would you study if you didn’t have to worry about anything else?”
Wenjun didn’t even pause: “I would sing.”
Men from Bangdong village dig a grave and build a stone tomb in preparation for Old Yang’s death
The next day, I was welcomed back to Bangdong by a bonfire. Old Yang, a village elder, was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and the previous week I had joined a group of thirty men to build his tomb. “Knowing his second home is already prepared for him will put him at ease,” one of his sons told me. Old Yang died while I was in Lincang with Wenjun, and his family was now following the custom of burning his possessions by his tomb on the hillside.
At Old Yang’s wake, Zhang Wenjun’s father excitedly shook my hand and pulled me aside to the road overlooking Bangdong. There was warmth in his handsome features and his eyes sparkled like Wenjun’s. “Peking University, Tsinghua and Fudan all want him!” he told me, listing China’s top three universities. “To have an American treat my son to dinner, you gave our family dian ge zan,” Mr. Zhang said, using internet slang equivalent for a Facebook “like” and flashing me a thumbs up.
“It was nothing,” I replied. “Plus it was all-you-can-eat, so he and Happy really got our money’s worth. I couldn’t believe how much they ate!” They cleaned our collective plates—I even got my $5 deposit back. The entire meal cost around $35, about double what Wenjun makes each day organizing files at his summer job. His daily wage is also roughly the same amount his father makes for a day picking tea.
Bangdong villagers play cards and eat late-night snacks at Old Yang’s wake; family members wear white cloth headbands in mourning
Mr. Zhang squatted on his haunches, feet flat on the road in standard waiting posture. I followed suit, bracing for a longer conversation. The fading light enhanced the wrinkles across his forehead, deep and dark. He was already a bit drunk from corn liquor at the wake and our one-sided conversation ran in a loop:
“Wenjun ranked 136th in the entire province…
He was going to study medicine and be a doctor nearby…
But professors in Beijing have brainwashed him to study Electronics and Mechanization for Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road…
It’s because he tested so well, 136th in the entire province…
He was going to study medicine and be a doctor nearby…”
Mr. Zhang’s excitement waned, now overtaken by anxiety. The Belt and Road—the Chinese initiative to build infrastructure across Eurasia and Africa—would be certain to take his son out of country. He slumped onto the road, sitting flat on the concrete. I joined him in solidarity and, in silence, we watched the few houselights in the village twinkle. Next door, Old Yang’s wake buzzed with card games and corn liquor. There is no place for Wenjun in Bandong. He’s not even a product of this place or his parents, really. Having been in boarding school since elementary—essentially raised by his teachers—he’s more defined by the gaokao–centered education system.
For all its faults, the exam has produced an outstanding young man who can talk politics with a foreigner and also navigate complex familial obligations—even sacrifice his own dreams for them. The reality is that Wenjun can do anything, and anything will probably take him far away from Bangdong. “But most important,” I told Wenjun’s father, “your son has a good brain and a good heart.”
Those can take him far and bring him back to Bangdong.
“He ranked 136th in the province,” Wenjun’s father repeated, standing up and brushing off his pants. “He was going to study medicine and be a doctor nearby…”
The moon had risen above the mountains as we talked, but its orange glow now hid behind silver clouds. We said goodnight and I watched Wenjun’s father shuffle home in the darkness, a proud and beleaguered man.