All or nothing: Inside China's "cram schools"

Brook Larmer

The gruelling test, 'gaokao', is administered every June over two or three days (depending on the province), and is the lone criterion for university admission in China. For the students at Maotanchang, most of whom come from rural areas, it offers the promise of a life beyond the fields and the factories.

The main street of Maotanchang, a secluded town in eastern China’s Anhui province, was nearly deserted on a Sunday morning in spring. A man dozed on a motorised rickshaw, while two old women with hoes shuffled towards the rice paddies outside town. 

Then, at 11.45am, the stillness was shattered. Thousands of teenagers swarmed out of Maotanchang High School. It was lunchtime at one of China’s most secretive “cram schools”—a memorisation factory where 20,000 students train for China’s national college-entrance examination, known as the gaokao. 

Yang Wei (pictured with his grandfather above), a peach farmer’s son, had spent the previous three years, weekends included, stumbling to his first class at 6.20 in the morning and returning to his room at 10.50 at night. Now, with the gaokao just 69 days away, Yang had entered the final stretch.  He tells me with a bitter laugh:

 

“If you connected all the practice tests I’ve taken over the past three years they’d wrap all the way around the world.”
 

 

Even with all the relentless practice, Yang’s scores were slipping, a fact that clouded over the lunch I ate in the single room that he and his mother shared. We were joined by Yang’s father, visiting for the afternoon, and his closest friend from his home village, a classmate named Cao Yingsheng. The room’s high rent, rivalling rates in downtown Beijing, represented only part of the sacrifice Yang’s parents made to help him—their only son—become the first family member to attend university. 

Yang’s mother Lin Jiamin quit her factory job to support him in his final year of cramming. Cao’s mother came to live with her son as well. “It’s a lot of pressure,” said Cao, whose family paid more in school fees than Yang’s family—about £1,300 a term—because of his low marks entering high school. “My mother constantly reminds me that I have to study hard, because my father is out working construction far from home to pay my school fees.”

 

The Gaokao

Each year, more than nine million students take the gaokao. There are two versions: one focused on science, one on humanities. The pressure to start memorising and regurgitating facts weighs on Chinese students from the moment they enter primary school. “To be honest,” one of my Chinese friends, a new mother, told me, “the gaokao race really begins at birth.”

Even as the gaokao produces some of the world’s most scarily proficient test-takers, it’s coming under fire in China as an anachronism that stifles innovative thought and puts excessive pressure on students. Two years ago, a student posted a shocking photograph online: a public high-school classroom full of students hunched over books, all hooked up to intravenous drips to give them the strength to keep studying.

Beijing is now pushing reforms to reduce student workloads, expand the curriculum beyond core courses and allow universities to consider factors other than gaokao scores. “China is caught in a prisoner’s dilemma,” says Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon. “Nobody
is willing to break away, because the gaokao is still the only path to heaven.”

 

Away from modern distraction

Maotanchang School, China
Students stream into a building at Maotanchang

Isolated in the foothills of Anhui, Maotanchang prides itself on eliminating the distractions of modern life. Mobiles and laptops are forbidden; the dorms—where roughly half the students live—were designed without electrical outlets. Romance is banned. 

In town, where the rest of the students live—mostly with their mothers in tiny partitioned rooms—the local government has shut down all entertainment. This may be the only town in China with no video arcade, billiards hall or internet cafe. “There’s nothing to do but study,” Yang says.

Maotanchang’s head teachers dole out lessons—and punishments—with military rigour. Security guards roam the 165-acre campus, while cameras track students’ movements in classrooms, dormitories and even the town’s main intersections. This “closed management practice”, as an assistant principal has termed it, gets results. In 1998, only 98 Maotanchang students achieved the minimum gaokao score needed to enter a university. Fifteen years later, 9,312 students passed.

The Maotanchang school began humbly, in 1939, as a temporary oasis for students escaping the Japanese invasion of Hefei, Anhui’s capital. It became a permanent school after the 1949 Communist revolution. Yet half a century later, it was a neglected hulk, hollowed out by rural-to-urban migration and buried in debt. Its resurrection hinged on China’s decision in 1999 to expand education, tripling the number of universities and pushing China’s student population to 31 million—greater than any other country. And every student must first pass the gaokao.

 

"Besides rapping knuckles with rulers, students told me, some teachers pit them against one another in practice-test 'death matches'—the losers must remain standing all morning."

 

Upward mobility

The gaokao was intended to create a path of upward mobility for students of meagre backgrounds. But rural students are still at a severe disadvantage. Villages such as Yuejin, where Yang’s father is the Communist Party secretary, have poor school facilities and a paucity of well-trained teachers. Wealthy urban families can hire tutors, pay for expensive preparation courses or bribe their way into the best city schools.

At first, the school offered extra exam-prep courses. Then, in 2004, the local administrators turned the entire public-school curriculum into an intensive cram course and opened a private for-profit wing that catered to “repeat” students—high-school graduates who were so desperate to improve their scores that they would pay to go through the gaokao mill again. More than 6,000 students pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to nearly £5,000 a year in tuition. (Students with low scores pay the highest fees.) 

“This school is rich beyond imagination,” Yang’s father Yang Qi said as he and Lin Jiamin strolled around the school grounds with me. He pointed out the fruits of the school’s recent £20m expansion: a huge LED screen, a sports complex, statues of Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping, and administrative offices that looked more like a prison lookout. 

Perhaps nobody on campus is more motivated than Maotanchang’s 500 teachers. Base salaries are two to three times as high as China’s normal public-school wages, and bonuses can easily double their incomes. “They make good money,” Yang told me, “but they face worse pressure than we do.”

The head teachers’ schedules are so gruelling—17-hour days monitoring classes of 100 to 170 students—that only young, single men can fill the job. Teachers whose classes finish in last place at year’s end can expect to be fired. It’s no wonder that teachers’ motivational methods can be tough. Besides rapping knuckles with rulers, students told me, some teachers pit them against one another in practice-test “death matches”—the losers must remain standing all morning.

 

Study Xu Peng

Xu Peng, Maotanchang's most famous student

Maotanchang’s most famous graduate is Xu Peng (pictured above), a skinny 19-year-old with hair flopping over his eyes. Xu was raised in Hongjing village by his grandparents while his parents worked as migrant fruit sellers in the distant city of Wuxi.

When he faltered on the high-school entrance exam, ruining his chance to get into the region’s best high schools, Xu turned to Maotanchang. “I only knew that the school was very strict, to the point that some students had supposedly committed suicide,” he told me. “That convinced me. I couldn’t discipline myself otherwise.”

At Maotanchang, Xu filled every moment with study, testing himself between classes, on the toilet, in the cafeteria. After the lights went out at 11.30pm, he sometimes used a battery-powered lamp to keep going.

Before the gaokao, Xu holed up in a hotel near the exam site and didn’t emerge for 48 hours. The extra push might have helped: Xu scored 643 out of 750 on the gaokao, enough to become the first Maotanchang student to be admitted to Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Xu’s achievement is so well known that Yang refers to him as “a cult figure”. Just as the Chinese are exhorted to “study Lei Feng”—a model soldier
who gave his life for the motherland—Maotanchang students are now encouraged to “study Xu Peng”.

When I met Xu on Tsinghua’s grassy campus near the end of his first year, he still looked out of place: a young villager in a threadbare blazer. Many of the students around us were members of China’s urban elite, worldly young adults armed with iPhones.

The freedom of university life took adjustment. “There are no rules here,” Xu said. “I was so confused during the first term, because nobody told me what to do.” Reading engineering, he’s learning to enjoy new things: hanging out with friends, doing volunteer work, spending weekend days in the park. “I’m still studying hard,” said Xu, who wants to pursue graduate studies in the US. “But now I can finally breathe.”

 

Increasing criticisms 

When I returned to Maotanchang in June, Yang wasn’t feeling very lucky. His smile had disappeared. Yang’s mother was gone too. Her anxiety had started to make her son tense and irritable, so he asked if his grandfather could take over from her.

Before dawn the next day, Yang’s parents drove from their home in Yuejin to take their son to a rented room near the exam site in Lu’an city. Yang was just waking up when his mother knocked on his window. His grandfather seemed agitated. Somebody had warned him that he would get in trouble for speaking with me. 

A year after trumpeting its success in the press, Maotanchang was now seeking a lower profile. With a trembling voice, Yang’s grandfather asked me to leave. I bid the family farewell.

When the gaokao results were released, I called Yang. He sounded ecstatic. His score far surpassed his practice tests. It wasn’t high enough to qualify for a first-tier university in Shanghai, as he once dreamed of doing, but it would win him entrance to one of Anhui’s best second-tier universities. There’s no guarantee he’ll find a job when he graduates, but he’s eager to learn about the world outside Maotanchang. “I think there are a lot of students like me,” he said, “who don’t really know much about anything beyond taking the gaokao.” 

Not all the news was happy. Yang’s friend Cao tanked on the exam. Cao’s family was heartbroken. His mother had spent years supporting him as he studied, and his father worked 12-hour days to pay the Maotanchang fees. Days after learning he failed the gaokao, Cao left their home village to search for work in China’s glittering coastal cities. He would end up on a construction site, like his father.