Authorities try to end China's age-old worship of top scorers in gaokao exams

Updated 2018-05-18 15:37:06

The cult of score worship is detrimental to students' all-around development: expert

○ Top-scoring students of China's national college entrance examinations (gaokao) are no longer allowed to be exploited by schools, companies

○ In the past, top students were commercialized as spokesmen or branded by schools in exchange for lucrative sponsorship deals

○ Experts hope the policy will ease the stress and burdens that students feel

For the first time, Chinese Minister of Education Chen Baosheng announced that the country will ban propagandizing gaokao zhuangyuan (the title given to the student with the highest score in the national college entrance examinations) after this year's test, which falls on June 7 and 8.

"Once we find the case, we will deal with it seriously," Chen said during a recent national conference. He also mentioned the ban of propagandizing local enrollment rates.

Many speculated that the motivation for such a punchy prohibition comes from a concern about the excessive commercial value attached to zhuangyuan and that such propaganda brings students and parents too much pressure.

Others view it as a sign that China will further push forward its "education for all-around development," which has been mentioned for years, but with little effect.

Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences, told the Global Times that an important incentive to publicize zhuangyuan is due to the national worship of the highest scorers. Zhuangyuan are linked with the reputations and achievements of schools and even local governments, so they are willing to do extensive publicity.

Xiong Bingqi, an educationalist in China, added that the key problem behind the zhuangyuan hype is China's exam-oriented educational system. "But if the ban doesn't specify the targets and the executors, it will very possibly become an empty talk," Xiong told the Global Times.

Lucrative business chain

In China, the word zhuangyuan originated from the imperial examination of the Sui Dynasty (581-618). Chinese people's worship of young geniuses has never changed throughout history.

Media reported that four students from Bobai County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, with red silk flowers (used to praise one's achievements in Chinese culture) stood out from their cars' sunroofs, followed by a motorcade, a musical band and a lion dancing team in August, 2017. Waving to the people on the road, they looked like pop stars.

Such a celebration does not only attract people's admiration but also economic benefits. Some zhuangyuan have received financial bonuses, a SUV and even a house.

Beijing-based media outlet Meirirenwu reported that the student who achieved the highest mark during the gaokao in Enping, Guangdong Province, was rewarded a 130 square-meter-house by a company last year, which was worth at least 500,000 yuan (,587).

The interest chain behind gaokao zhuangyuan extends beyond the genius themselves. Companies such as educational institutions and health care products may approach them for help in promoting their brands.

On China's e-commerce website taobao.com, the highest price for zhuangyuan's written notes is around 2,000 yuan; most sell for around 350 yuan. A zhuangyuan from Hebei Province who declined to reveal his name told the Global Times that many companies approached him after he achieved the highest score.

"Every time I delivered a speech to my peers, I was given 8,000 yuan," the young man said.

Research conducted by news portal thepaper.cn in 2016 showed that 70 percent of zhuangyuan respondents endorsed companies to commercialize their halo.

Zheng Shuhao, a 2017 gaokao top scorer in science in Shanxi Province, said that many educational institutions asked him to share his experiences and teach courses to his peers.

Such publicity is "necessary," as zhuangyuan are "rare and precious," he said. "Besides, students are more willing to listen to our preaching than teachers and parents. What we say will benefit the students," he said.

But he also acknowledged that when taking part in a popular Chinese TV show called Super Brain, he felt burdened and pressured. "I can't afford to lose as a zhuangyuan," he said.

In addition to companies who want to have a finger in the pie hyping zhuangyuan, local governments and schools also promote these young "heroes."

After producing a zhuangyuan, a senior high school will publicize its own faculty and educational strengths to the local community to gain a better reputation. The schools then can attract more top students easily and some will raise their entrance fees.

"For local educational departments, they treat students' gaokao results as their administrative accomplishments," Xiong said.

A netizen on China's Quora equivalent zhihu.com pointed out that, currently, schools can only win the hearts of Chinese parents with high enrolment rates, so the reality doesn't allow them to give up their emphasis on scores, as they can't afford the economic loss.

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