Presentation date& time: April 23 (Friday) 11:00-12:00 Beijing Time via Zoom

  • 11:00-11:05am Opening Introduction

Katherine Robertson (Director, Faculty Affairs, Duke Kunshan University)

Terry NARDIN (Acting Director, Division of Social Sciences, Yale-NUS College)

  • 11:05-11:45am Presentation
  • 11:45-12:00pm Q&A

Title: Fateful Rite of Passage: The National College Entrance Exam and the Myth of Meritocracy in China

Every year some ten million high-school seniors take the National College Entrance Examination in China. For many, the exam, known as the Gaokao, represents the best opportunity to “change fate” (gaibian mingyun) by achieving social mobility. In a society dominated by social connections or guanxi, the Gaokao is widely seen as the “only relatively fair social competition.” But skyrocketing social inequality has produced wide chasms in exam scores and outcomes between different regions and socioeconomic groups. Why do people nevertheless allow themselves to be recruited into the ideology and social practice of exam-based meritocracy? I argue that the Gaokao is a fateful rite of passage: an event that is both consequential (creating or destroying value) and chancy (of undetermined outcome). Fateful events like the Gaokao form trials of merit in which people strive to personify high cultural virtues, which in China include diligence, grit, composure, filial piety (xiao), quality (suzhi), and divine favor or luck. Focusing on this moral dimension of examinations, I compare the Gaokao with China’s imperial-era civil exams (960-1904 CE) and with standardized tests in other countries.

Dr. Zachary Howlett is Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at Yale-NUS College at the National University of Singapore. He is a sociocultural anthropologist who researches education, mobility, and marriage in China. He is the author of Meritocracy and Its Discontents: Anxiety and the National College Entrance Exam in China (Cornell University Press, 2021).