When he showed up for his “gao kao,” or high exam, at the gate of Nanjing Shuwen High School, Mr. Wang Xia caused quite a stir. After all, this was Wang’s twelfth gao kao since China’s Ministry of Education lifted age restrictions for takers of China’s dreaded college entrance exam. But it gets better: Wang is 83 years old.
When in his 50s, Wang participated in the gao kao three times, but never won admission to university. With high school diploma in hand, Wang found employment at a hospital and worked for 30 years. But he wanted a college diploma ardently, and never relinquished this ambition.
Others have tried to help the indefatigable Wang. In 2002, Nanjing Medical University made an exception and allowed Wang to audit classes there. He passed all 49 courses he took, but wasn’t able to get an official diploma from the university since he had not passed the gao kao. So when the Ministry of Education opened its doors in 2001, Wang didn’t even hesitate to re-register for the test.
Chinese have been suitably impressed by a tenacity and work ethic that exceeds even the most industrious of China’s overworked high-schoolers. Some have called Wang a “gao kao freak” (高考狂人). When queried by reporters this year, Wang explained himself: “Everyone has a dream. I hope you can understand me.” Reporters asked if he would come back again next year if he failed yet again. Wang confessed he was aware of his age, and would make that decision after receiving this year’s score.
Predictably, microbloggers on Weibo, China’s Twitter, would not let this news slip. Many were inspired by Wang’s courage and persistence, while others expressed doubt. @巴楚渔樵, a classics professor himself, saw Wang’s quest as a waste of time. The good professor tweeted, “As much as I respect Wang’s right to take the gao kao and admire him for his perseverance, I honestly think he could have put his precious time for better use. If he likes studying, spending twelve years on reading books he actually likes [instead of just high school textbooks] would have been so much nicer.”
Some even felt Wang was not, in fact, taking the gao kao seriously enough. @广昭科技 wrote: “Is he making a game out of the gao kao? Or is he just bored and needs something stimulating? 12 years! While other students face tremendous amounts of pressure, he feels nothing. While other students have to give it everything they have, he doesn’t have to take his results all that seriously. For others, the gao kao is a rat race. For him, it’s just a nice way to realize his dreams.”
While this sentiment is surely too harsh, it is revealing. The gao kao is stressful. It’s a big deal. And it follows the economic law of diminishing marginal utility: a Herculean effort is required to score slightly higher and to gain even the smallest edge over others. Why would Wang subject himself to such a punishing regime? If not, why does he think he stands a chance?
We won’t know until the end of June. For now, as candidates wait an agonizing month before learning their scores, Tea Leaf Nation crosses its fingers for all of China’s gao kao-takers, young and old alike.