China’s endless search for distinguished talent

| November 22nd, 2009


A new system

For most Chinese students, the most harrowing event of their lives is the dreaded gaokao, the exam that has omnipotent powers to determine where they go to college. Unlike college entrance in the U.S., which is determined by a combination of SAT scores, grades, activities, recommendations, China has used the gaokao system since 1977 and has not had drastic changes to the system since then.

Until recently.

Peking University (often equated as the Harvard of China), bravely suggested a new way to pick students. The new experimental system allows principals from 39 different schools to recommend a student for admissions, followed with interviews at Peking University as confirmation. This system has come under intense scrutiny – in an online poll conducted by Sina, of 14,227 voters, 10,046 did not agree with the experimental system.

The impetus for a lot of talk of reform and Peking University’s new system is China feels that the current gaokao system is not doing its job at discovering rencai, which can be directly translated as “talented person” but the meaning is a bit heavier and I would translate it as “distinguished talent.” Chinese people often complain that China still has not produced a Nobel prize winner, and that even though it’s students are extremely good technically, it still fails to produce scientists of the finest quality. How should China, with the largest population in the world, go about finding the gems in its population that can drive economic expansion, intellectual innovation, and scientific development?

Recently, the first student recommended by a principal was decided. And how did the principal pick the student? Using a school-wide exam. Due to the high-profile nature of these recommendations, the principal did not want to risk seeming unfair. A netizens says, “If these principals are just using exams to determine the quality of students, is there really any meaning in the new system?”

For and Against

A major argument against the new system is that students will use guanxi (special relations) to obtain recommendations. Corruption and unfairness rampant among schools in China, for example principals selling records of exceptional students to make money, grades simply being changed to all A’s when a student wants to go abroad, and the large gap of quality of education between schools in the city and schools in the countryside.

Another complaint is that of the 34 provinces in China, only 13 have been selected in the experimental phase., a website for news from Hubei province, says, “Are the other provinces that behind in student quality and resources? This is probably a crucial problem in the first place.”

Many experts are praising Peking University for its spirit of innovation. In his blog, Wang Xuming, the host of a popular TV show focused on education applauds Peking University for its “noble motive,” but also says that the new system does not take into account China’s national conditions. He mentions that China has poor provinces and richer provinces, too many students for the principals to really know their students in depth, and not enough money devoted to education.

The Ministry of Education is supportive of Peking University’s new tactic. They say that this is an important step forward in exploration of improved college admissions system. They recommend that the selected high schools rely on their own situations and expectations to discover talent and develop regulation.

How to distinguish people of talent?

Zhong Gong asked Confucius, “How to distinguish people of talent?” Confucius replied, “Promote those you know. Will others then fail to promote those you do not know well?” Perhaps Peking University’s new system is aimed at finding this sort of promotion, but can they guarantee that these principals actually know the students well? Probably not, but perhaps it can be a push for principals to become more connected to their students.

While this new system is being harshly criticized in theory, there are already students chosen in practice. One is Li Lei, who goes to Nankai High School. He is 1.84 meters tall and is a “rather famous shuaige (hot guy)” at the school. He says, “I am not someone who reads books to death, my hobbies are widespread, I like badminton, volleyball, Tae-Kwando, and I would say I’m almost professional in these activities, there is no one in my grade who can beat me.”

Another lucky student is Guo Caiwei, also of Nankai High School. She performs at the top in all her classes, plays piano very well and is also an excellent badminton player. She says, “The gaokao exam is the true clincher, I would hope that without the advantage of a recommendation I can still get into Peking University.”

These students seem worthy enough to attend Peking University, but what most Chinese want to know is: are they the most worthy? This might be a difficult question to answer at the high school level when students are just beginning to develop deep interests in subjects and activities

Now, the Chinese will have to decide whether or not they want a system that produces results, much along the lines of Deng’s “black cat white cat” theory, or if they are looking for a system that is theoretically fair. Or, should the question really be: can talent be discovered through a system, or must it naturally develop in an environment that is conducive to it?


Beijing University’s “High School Principal Recommendation System” attracted many cartoonists to draw their positions on the issue.


“There is another way “ Gaokao vs. Principal Recommendation”



Left: “To teacher Wang: Has students everywhere in the world” (praise of a teacher)
Rigfht: “To principal Li: Has students everywhere in Beida”





Left: Nice one Beida, now accountability has a target
Right: This kid is not bad, I guarantee with my reputation





“Thank you principal’s love, completed my Peking University dream!”

21 Comments | Leave a comment | Comment feed

  1. Wangwei says:

    Something tells me that without the supporting mechanisms (ie. press, transparency, etc) the ‘c’ word* will find its way into the mix within months.

    * I mean corruption

  2. pug_ster says:

    I thought it is more like how GWB 43 got into Yale because his Dad is politically connected.

  3. jay says:

    I can’t seem to figure out if this is because Chinese are deliberately fueling corruption, or they genuinely cant find a better way to implement due process through rotating comitees.

    I’m sure they thought of it, but maybe the big BJ just said, fuckit, we don’t want to spend money on having a standing commitee. It would have to be a huge committeeIts cheaper and makes better guanxi to give all professors the authorita to issue golden tickets.

    I’m sure the principals, like most good chinese would never sell the ticket to the highest bidder, or solicit services from students for a free pass right? They would never tell an incoming freshmen that if she came over everynight to take care of uncle, she would get a golden ticket when she graduates right? Maybe just a carwash is good enough.

    But at least they are doing something. the process needs to be balanced out. All it takes is one pregnant 14 year old with the courage to stand up to the pressure to come forward and give her story to prompt a correction. Maybe free passes sold on TaoBao would work too. I give it 2 years for overhaul.

  4. jay says:

    I mean principals*

  5. j3welz says:

    I have to say they’re screwed either way. If they continue with the gaokao system, then students are just going to be studying like mindless zombies and not actually know how to critically think. If they choose to reform the system and include recommendations from principals, then people will blame it on corruption.

  6. Randy says:

    Dutch media have been informed; we’ll have to see if they will pick it up somehow. Meanwhile I would be willing to transfer all my chips to the stack of a pregnant 14 year old. And I would suggest to her to go ‘all-inn’ this round. But then again, I feel that I don’t have that much to lose. Yet the pot size seems enormous in this case…

  7. RuiKe says:

    BeiDa, like every other university in China, can’t even tell the truth about its own history. How many of its students and teachers were killed 20 years ago? They can never hope to earn an ounce of respect until they learn to tell the truth.
    BeiDa and Tsinghua, across the street from each other, are the Harvard and MIT of China, and yet they are dirty, filthy, polluted places with raw, stinking sewer running through their Qing Dynasty canals. Their students download graduation dissertations while their teachers find any opportunity to make some money. There is no independent, objective publication of academic articles in China – just politically arrogant presses pushing out shallow, self-praising ideas in an attempt to appear academic. The lowest ranked universities in the US have far superior education.
    The whole educational system is so worthless that it’s no wonder why so many students wish to go overseas, but lack the money, of course. Those who have the money go. Good for them.

  8. stuart says:

    “The whole educational system is so worthless that it’s no wonder why so many students wish to go overseas, but lack the money, of course. Those who have the money go. Good for them.”

    Good for them, maybe, but not necessarily for their host institutions (who are not blameless, btw). Oftentimes the ones who arrive on foreign shores do so with fake qualifications, inadequate language skills, and fabricated financial ‘evidence’ in support of their applications.

  9. GuoBao says:

    China needs more Rosa Parks in,, well, everything.

  10. HelloWorld says:

    I can’t believe a top university made such move.
    Well, in the UK, every single student is recommended by their tutor.

    Everyone has their talent, it’s just some are lucky that has better environment and some just not lucky because other things like family, financial, that make them impossible to discover themself.

    As a well-known education institution, their goal is to discover those potential talented people, not using “talent” people to make the institution famous or getting nobel prize!

  11. Usdating says:

    There’s some great tips there, just blogged about it too!

  12. AlleyCat says:

    I think VoC would say Albert Einstein was a jew, and E=mc2 a political statement.
    Ah, who cares about time and space. If it’s not Chinese, it obviously has no merit.

  13. Voice of China says:

    Haha love the sarcasm… This has to be your best post yet.

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