Although Liu Haifeng, director of the Institute of Education at Xiamen University, has won a host of achievements and been awarded many honorary titles during his academic career, he firmly believes his success is the result of an event that occurred four decades ago.
In the winter of 1977, the then-18-year-old hopeful was one 5.7 million people who walked into exam halls nationwide to take the first gaokao in more than 10 years, after it was suspended during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).
The 1977 exam is notable for two things: first, it was the only gaokao to be held during winter, not summer as is customary; and second, it resulted in the lowest acceptance rate since the 1952 creation of the exam and its related admissions system as just 5 percent of examinees were granted places at colleges. Liu was among the lucky ones.
Though he had applied to study Chinese literature at Fujian Normal University, after passing the exam he was unexpectedly offered a place in the history department at Xiamen University in his hometown in Fujian province. That set him on a decades-long path of teaching and research at the prestigious establishment.
For him, the revival of the exam was not just a hugely significant event for the examinees, but also a turning point for China.
“The gaokao in 1977 and the following two years selected about 1 million talents, who are called ‘the new three classes’ (of 1977, 1978 and 1979). Later, many became well-known figures and pillars in all walks of life and they played key roles in China’s reform and opening-up, laying a firm foundation for the country’s economic takeoff and today’s prosperity,” said Liu Haifeng, director of the Institute of Education at Xiamen University.
For Wang, then age 19, gaokao was a distant and irrelevant word. When the exam was suspended in 1966, it was replaced by a college admissions policy that relied solely on recommendation, which meant only workers, farmers and soldiers were selected to attend college, irrespective of academic achievement or lack of it.
Wang, born and raised in a large city, quickly found life difficult and disappointing: he “cohabited” with mice in a thatched cottage that lacked electricity, sanitation or boiled water; worked from 5 am to 10 pm every day; walked barefoot along muddy lanes on rainy days; and drank water boiled with chilies to keep warm in winter.
“However, I had a strong feeling that such an abnormal situation wouldn’t last long. I knew the gaokao would be revived sooner or later, but didn’t know exactly when.”
With that belief, Wang studied during the evenings. He read all the books available to him and learned English by listening to radio programs.
Having passed the exam, Wang studied English and American Literature at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, becoming an official at the Ministry of Commerce after graduation.
In 1984, he traveled to Canada to study for a master’s and a doctorate in business administration, and then worked at senior positions for several large companies. In the mid-1990s, he returned to China and started a number of businesses.
“If not for the gaokao that year, all those things would never have happened.”
In 1977, Tang Min was a 24-year-old math teacher at a middle school in Nanning, the capital of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. He took the exam together with his students and was admitted by the math department of Wuhan University in Hubei province.
“Twenty-five was the upper age limit for examinees that year, and I was already 24. I treated it as my last opportunity to take the exam, so I seized every minute, trying to make the best preparations,” said Tang, now a macroeconomic researcher and a State Council consultant.
Students such as Liu, who planned to pursue arts-based academic paths at college, were tested in four subjects, similar to today’s gaokao: Chinese, math, politics, and a combination of history and geography.
“So many people came to the classes that the lecture rooms were unable to hold them all, resulting in some having to stand outside at the window to listen to the teachers.However, no one complained. It seemed like everyone was filled with energy and hope, and they were thirsty for knowledge. The atmosphere was really fantastic,” he said, adding that although he often had chilblains on his hands in the harsh winter, he doesn’t remember feeling cold.
Born in 1955 in Anhui province, Li was sent to work as an “educated youth” at a village in Fengyang county, Anhui, in 1974. He was among the 5.7 million young people who took the first gaokao after a 11-year suspension in 1977 and was admitted to Peking University’s Law School.
Born in 1949 in Beihai, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, Chen moved to Beijingwith his family when he was 8. In 1968, he graduated from the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China and became a coal miner in western Beijing during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). He was admitted to the Chinese literature department of Peking University after passing the gaokao in 1977.
Born in 1951 in Miluo, Hunan province, Jiang graduated from high school in 1969 before serving in the army. He passed the gaokao in 1977 and was admitted to Peking University’s Law School. He began working at the university after graduating in 1982 and is now an expert on the Constitution and administrative law.
Born in 1949 in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Meng moved to Beijing with his parents at age 4. During the “cultural revolution”, he worked at the Beijing Automobile Works, later part of BAIC Motor Corp. After taking the gaokao, he studied journalism at Peking University.
Born in 1958 in Shanghai, Yuan was assigned to work in a textile machinery plant in 1976. She gained the highest score in Shanghai in the 1977 gaokao and went on to study biology at the city’s Fudan University. She earned a doctorate in neurology from Harvard University in 1989 and became an assistant professor, obtaining tenure in 2000. Yuan is best known for her work in apoptosis, the process of cell death in multicellular organisms.