The annual nationwide tests saw traffic blocked for hours near some schools, while dancing aunties put their daily routines on hold and mums dressed auspiciously in qipao waited outside exam venues to support their children.
In China, great importance is attached to the gaokao – scoring well enough to be accepted into a prestigious university can lead to good job prospects and higher salaries.
But with the exams now over, everyone can breathe a small sigh of relief as the wait begins for university offers, which are expected to be sent out on July 23.
Wu Yitian was a bundle of nerves while her 17-year-old son, who went to Jinyuan Senior High School, sat the exams in Shanghai.
“I dare not ask my son about the test,” she said. “All he said was that every subject was difficult – and more difficult than they expected.”
Wu’s son is one of 9.4 million high school students across the country who sat the exams this year. Of those, more than 3.2 million students will land a place at a mainland university, according to the Ministry of Education.
It includes subjects ranging from Chinese language, mathematics and English to politics, chemistry, physics, history and geography, depending on where the test is held.
But Wu’s son told her that there were many types of questions the students had not encountered before. He said the maths test had several questions that were so difficult even the best students in his class couldn’t work out the answers.
In Shanghai, one of several regions where the system is being reformed, students are tested on subjects other than Chinese, maths and English ahead of the official gaokao period.
While that lessened the pressure, Wu was still worried about her son. “My son sat the English test on Friday. He wasn’t worried the night before the oral and listening English test because his English is pretty good, so he played online games all night,” she said. “I was so anxious about him falling asleep in the middle of the test.”
Wu added that she wouldn’t be able to relax until the results came out and she was sure her son had made it into a good university.
For Lin Ning, meanwhile, it was important to communicate to his son that he shouldn’t be too hard on himself if he didn’t do as well as he wanted to in the exams.
“My son is quite strong in maths, but he said he didn’t do well in the test. I told him he could feel down for just one minute and then he needed to pull himself together for the next subject,” Lin said.
But not everyone sees the gaokao negatively. Jiangxi native Luo Ping took the test in 1998 and said she was thankful for the doors it opened. “It’s impossible for me to forget it,” said the human resources manager who graduated from a university in Beijing. “Without gaokao, I wouldn’t have had the chance to study in Beijing, and later work in Beijing.”