The national college entrance exam is less than two weeks away, and 9 million Chinese high school students are freaking out.
That’s normal. But in a sign that Chinese educational habits are changing, teachers at some schools this year are trying to calm their students, instead of piling on the stress as they usually do.
The three-day “gaokao” exam is a make-or-break moment in every young Chinese citizen’s life. Really good marks open the doors to elite universities and a bright future. Average marks condemn you to a second-rate provincial college and poor job prospects.
Traditionally, teachers here have believed that stress brings out the best in a student. (My own son, sitting his exams next month to get into an English university, was criticized by his Chinese teacher on Monday for not being worried enough.)
But suddenly the Chinese press is full of stories of schools taking a more Western approach, and encouraging the kids to chill out.
In Yangzhou, near Shanghai, examinees are being made to take a break from their studies to stamp on balloons and fly paper planes. The No. 7 High School in Linyi, Shandong province, has called in a psychologist for consultations. A school in Beijing is telling its Year 13 students to go out and lie on the grass for a while. Others are organizing pillow fights or games of blind-man’s buff or limbo dancing competitions.
Local governments are doing their bit, too, as they have in the past. In the western city of Lanzhou, for example, the authorities have banned construction work at night during the “gaokao” period, so that students can sleep undisturbed.
Parents, of course, many of whom have spent money they couldn’t really afford on extra classes for their children, are still going all out in traditional fashion to give their offspring a crucial edge.
Some mothers will be preparing power food for the occasion; soups made of deer antler and sea cucumber are particularly prized. Other parents will be paying for sessions at an oxygen bar, or sending their kids to have relaxing massage and acupuncture treatment, or renting rooms at a hotel near school so their children don’t have to worry about traffic on their way to the exams.
The more spiritual among them will go to their grandparents’ graves to pray to their ancestors for help, or take their children to the local temple, or light an incense stick at home in a spot chosen for its “feng shui” properties at the moment their child starts an exam.
All this may help, of course. But as I told my son when he wondered whether he should be stressing out more, all that really matters is whether he has absorbed his lessons. No pressure.