Who makes those essay questions? Chinese celebrities and the gaokao

Another year, another gaokao. This past weekend millions of Chinese teenagers took the test that will determine if, and where, they attend university. Every year after the test and before the results come out, the Chinese media falls back on several reliable story arcs. Students denied entrance to the test because they arrived late (they will have to wait another year); rumors about students who finished the test with a large chunk of time to spare and are likely to be top-scorers. One particularly interesting type of story digs up how Chinese celebrities did on the college entrance exam. They range from not to bad, like singer Wang Fei’s ex-husband Li Yapeng, to pretty poor, like the English marks of actress Li Bingbing.

Of course, the essay questions draw a lot of attention. Shanghaiist recently did the yeomen’s work of providing translations from a number provincial and municipal exams in order to give English-speaking audiences a sense of “just how damn cryptic they are.” This might judgment might be bit overstated.

A number of this year’s question have surprisingly pedestrian origins, connecting with what celebrities have done, said and posted on weibo over the last several months. In fact, a lot of the Chinese-language discussion about last weekend’s gaokao teased out these links.

Beijing’s essay topic was all about old rules (老规矩): “In the old days, there were many old rules and codes of conduct, like speaking in a quiet and gentle voice, greeting elder people on sight, and standing or sitting straight up.” Though the question references netizens, saying that it had been a topic of much discussion, many reports quickly linked the essay prompt with a weibo post from the Tianjin cross-talk artist Guo Degang. Guo’s original post from last October was shared over 74,000 times and received 22,0000 comments.

Anhui province asked students to respond to the following prompt: “The artists say that the actors are allowed to change the screenplay, but the directors say that they are not.” Though that sounds like a timeless quotation, though it originated from the recent remarks of Chinese actress Song Dandan in March. Song, who currently plays the mother in approximately one in three Chinese television dramas, started a debate about the role of actors by saying that filming a movie or series is not simply filming a script and later taking to weibo to further elucidate her views.

The essay topics in Sichuan and Guandong appear to be taken from weibo messages posted just days before the exam. This last-minute selection might make sense. In a course I took in preparation for the Chinese civil service exam, the instructor noted that essay topics for that test are generally decided later than you might initially think, first to ensue secrecy and second to see what types of social issues emerge in public discourse. No one wants to ask a question about old news.  In certain provinces and municipalities, similar thinking about the gaokao essay question might apply.

The question from Sichuan, asking test-takers to reflect on the statement  “The world belongs to you only after you stand up,” looks a whole lot like a weibo post the author, race-car driver and social critic Han Han made on June 2nd. On June 7th Han Han posted Sichuan’s essay topic with the implication that the province took the topics from his post (yati 押题). Guandong asked students to write about how “in the era of digital technology, there are tons of photos which record every seconds of our lives. They can be uploaded to share online and they never get fate or yellow. However, as the speed of people reviewing these photos goes up, these memories are not that “precious” anymore.” Besides being a pretty depressing thought, that topic looked awfully similar to a weibo posted by Hong Kong actor and singer Wallace Chung on June 1.

In a murky process like selecting question for the Gaokao, it is hard to prove that the topics come directly from these posts but the circumstantial evidence looks pretty convincing. The similarities might be coincidences or they may not. In the latter case, an interesting conclusion emerges. In a year with no shortage of stories about migrations from the open and public platform of Weibo to the private and closed platform of Wechat as well as about a crackdown on Weibo’s Big Vs, verified accounts of public figures, it was still these Big Vs who might have supplied inspiration for the gaokao topics.

As Da Shan wrote cogently last year regarding a Sinica podcast on Weibo, most people on platform want to talk with their friends, follow celebrity gossip and are not too concerned with the overtly political outpost of weibo that much English-language media tends to cover. Sometimes, though, very non-political figures, like Song Dandan, say interesting things that lead to larger discussions and even appear on the gaokao. That middle ground of weibo—not the overtly political and not the just celebrity gossip—perhaps deserves more attention.

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