Xinhua Insight: "Gaokao sweatshop" spotlighted as examinees target matriculation

by Xinhua writers Zhou Yan and Ren Liying

BEIJING, June 5 (Xinhua) -- Chen Siyu was strolling out of the school eatery one spring afternoon in 2011 when she saw an unusual motto on the side of a classroom building. It read, "Run. Don't walk."

She ran all the way to the classroom and concentrated on her studies.

That summer, Chen was admitted to Beihang University, one of the best polytechnic universities in china.

The motto that inspired her is one of many similar mantras espoused at Hengshui High School, a school that is as notorious for its exacting approach to exam cramming as it is for its students excelling.

Last year, 104 of its graduates were admitted to Beijing and Tsinghua universities, the country's top two. In the past two decades, at least 80 percent of Hengshui High School graduates have secured seats at noted universities in the big cities.

In a few weeks, they will be joined by the cream of this year's crop.

More than 4,000 Hengshui High Schoolers will sit the national college admission test, or "gaokao," scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, and they will no doubt rise to near the top of the 9.39 million candidates competing for places at nationwide universities.

The success, however, has not come without controversy. The school is criticized for its rigid rules and heavy workload for teenagers. Amid concern that China's education system focuses too much on exams, Hengshui High School is seen as the worst "gaokao sweatshop."


Here are some of the best-known slogans from the school, located in Hengshui, a rather underdeveloped city with 4.4 million people about 270 km south of Beijing.

"If you haven't died from hard work, just work harder."

"Life is not a rehearsal, because you won't have the chance to live it all over again."

"Always ask yourself: what am I doing here? What kind of person do I want to be? And how much have I progressed today toward my goal?"

The school has more than 10,000 students, all of whom are boarders and follow a strict timetable.

As soon as they get up at 5:30 a.m., the students gather at the sports ground for 15 minutes of exercise. They all take their textbooks to the sports ground in order to steal a glance while lining up, and then go directly to the classroom for a 30-minute morning recital from 6 to 6:30 a.m.

The students have 13 classes a day, five in the morning, five in the afternoon and three in the evening. They have 40 minutes for lunch, an hour for a nap, 30 minutes for supper and 20 minutes to watch TV news.

But all lights are out at 10:10 p.m. to ensure the students can sleep for seven hours.

On Saturdays, all the students have to take mock tests so that when the real ones begin, all are well-practiced.

Only Sunday afternoons are a time to relax and meet family members. Parents often travel to Hengshui on Sunday for a brief meeting with their children. Hotels and restaurants become suddenly crowded for just a couple of hours -- as the students need to get back to school by supper time.

The busy schedule is widely criticized for depriving youngsters of their personal freedom and instead turning them into robots. Students are even penalized for eating sweets in class. Penalties range from oral warnings in public to suspension of classes for up to a week.

However, supporters of Hengshui High School's methods can be relied upon to argue that all the work is worth it. Chen, who studied there for a year after failing the national college admission test in her home city of Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province, says such criticism almost always comes from people who know little of the school.

"Some say the school is a sweatshop," she says. "They just lack the real-life experience to realize that it's sweatshop and hard work -- not sweet shop and fun -- that pave the way to universities."

Chen knew only two schoolmates who quit. "One of them dreamed of being a singer and the other was too timid and feared competition."

Chen herself says she will cherish her experience there for life.

"I was motivated by the school's inspiring culture," she remembers. "We were all encouraged to do our best and show others how well we were getting along. My teacher once asked me, 'Why are you content to be a little potato when you well deserve to be a very important person?'"

Notably, this contradicts China's traditional value system, which encourages young people to take a low-key approach and avoid standing out.

"That year, I learned to work harder, to speak louder in public and to persevere," says Chen. "I was no more the shy, taciturn girl."


For Chen, the "sweatshop" had its own charms.

"School authorities tried to provide us with the best environment: exam rooms were air-conditioned to the most comfortable temperature and food at the school canteen was always delicious," according to the undergraduate. "On exam days, our teacher brought each of us a boiled egg, saying the protein would boost brainwork."

Kong Linghang, a freshman at Tsinghua University, also has fond memories of his three years at Hengshui High School.

"The pressure was high indeed, but I believe it is the same everywhere as long as you have to pass eliminatory tests," Kong argues. "My school had strict rules that help us improve efficiency and ensure we all concentrate on our single goal."

Looking back, he remembers the simple environment, the friendly chats with his classmates and the encouraging words from his teachers more than the scores and rankings after every single test. "It's true I received an education that was oriented entirely around exams, but I was one of the lucky guys who got the best possible results. So I feel grateful for my teachers and school."

Mrs. Bai, a mother from Shijiazhuang, is still in close contact with her daughter's teachers and other parents two years after the girl graduated. Her daughter is now a sophomore at a top university in Beijing.

"She was rather spoiled at home, and I feared she might not stand the strict rules. Fortunately, it didn't take long for her to fit in the new environment," says Bai, who did not wish to give her full name.

Tests were frequent at Hengshui High School, and the results were always published on the school's official website by 5 a.m. the next day. "The teachers had to work overnight to evaluate all the test papers and publish the scores and rankings for parents to browse," Bai says.0 She adds that most parents of Hengshui graduates supported the school authorities. "They have worked out a most effective training system for students to excel in the national competition. The students' report cards are evidence of the school's success."


Hengshui High School's rise began in 1994, a year after the formerly small, shabby school made boarding mandatory.

Inspired by the success of several big-name high schools in Beijing and central Hubei Province, former principal Li Jinchi planned to build Hengshui High School into one of the country's best.

He applied for 12 million yuan in government funding to build new classrooms and a library, and launched a strict evaluation system to push the teachers and students.

"Unlike other schools where students are given free time, Hengshui High School strives to make maximum use of every minute of their waking hours," says Chen Gang, who taught Chinese there for four years. "The students never sat idle. Their time was arranged specifically for a certain subject, and a teacher was always there to ensure they were getting along."

A graduate of Hebei Provincial Normal University, Chen passed a series of tests and interviews to secure a job in Hengshui.

"I think the school is excellent in terms of teaching and management. It has arranged a fixed timetable for all students, and whoever follows it will have his dream fulfilled," he believes.

But he hesitates when asked if he would send his future son or daughter to his alma mater.

"It depends," he says. "If I have a boy who's outgoing and confident, I'm sure Hengshui High would be an ideal place for him."

For teenagers who are not confident enough or dread competition, however, parents need to think twice, the teacher advises.

"Whether you like its practices or not, Hengshui High School's success is undeniable and the school is likely to continue its present mode of operation for many years to come," says Shi Fan, an official with the Hebei Provincial Education Department.

In a country with 1.3 billion people, matriculation remains a relatively fair way of selecting competent young people to receive higher education and subsequently gain the expertise needed to earn a living, Shi argues.

The national college entrance exam, a standardized test including math, Chinese, English, natural and social sciences, is seen by many parents as the definitive way of shaping their children's future.