An education in the countryside

Updated: 2012-07-09 07:57

By He Na (China Daily)

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Guo Fang, a world history researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was the 1977 arts champion in the Beijing gaokao.

When China's former leader Deng Xiaoping made the decision to resume the gaokao in late 1977, following its suspension during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Guo Fang was working in the fields in North China's Shanxi province. Home was a settlement so remote that any news from the outside world was out of date before it reached the villagers' ears.

If his father had not been seriously ill in Beijing, Guo would not have been granted special permission to return to the capital and would definitely have missed the examination that was to change his life.

In July 1966, the gaokao had been officially canceled and replaced by a new admissions policy, one that recommended workers, farmers and soldiers for college places. During the next 10 years, the Down to the Countryside Movement, initiated by former chairman Mao Zedong, saw both senior and junior secondary school graduates, or "intellectual youths", move to the countryside to work the land.

Guo was among them. He spent almost 10 years toiling in the wastelands of Northeast China's Heilongjiang province, on the grasslands of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region and in villages in Shanxi province.

However, the cancellation of the examination and his heavy workload failed to deter Guo, who firmly believed that education could change lives and whose enthusiasm for study never faded.

"A good mentor benefits the lives of his students. I truly believe those words. Thanks to the good teachers at my junior and senior schools, their classes were clearly engraved on my mind," Guo said.

"I wrote what I had learned at school on scraps of paper to make sure I wouldn't forget anything. More important, by using that method I was able to avoid being found out by the farm leaders. I would have been strictly punished otherwise," he said. "When I was on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, I got a small radio, which helped me review English and ancient Chinese poetry."

Guo had only 25 days to prepare for the exam and having left school 12 years before, he lacked study materials. He walked into the exam hall without having seen a single sample question, but he didn't find the test difficult and finished it easily. He said that, unlike today's students who study hard with a view to obtaining a good job and future riches, for "intellectual youths" like him, study was a prime reason for existence. "So in some senses, you could say we were ready for the gaokao at anytime," he said.

Two months after the examination, he received an admissions letter from Peking University. The enrollment number 1 was written on the top left-hand side of the envelope.

Around 6 million people attempted the gaokao in 1977, but only 270,000 earned the chance to realize their university dreams. Despite being hailed as a champion and being recruited by one of the top universities, Guo said his enjoyment was fleeting. That was partly because of his father's recent death, but also because he'd experienced so much hardship during his years in the countryside. Perhaps the most important factor, though, was that people simply didn't celebrate success at the gaokao as vociferously as they do today. Even his mother was unable to express much joy because the death of her husband had hit her hard and anyway, she was used to Guo coming top of the class.

"The day I got the admission letter passed quietly as usual. I was very happy, but the moment did not last long, because I was quickly absorbed by concerns about things such as tuition fees," he admitted.

Moreover, there was no financial reward for passing out top of the class. "I clearly remember the day I registered at Peking University. With no money and poor clothing, I was just like a beggar," he said.

(China Daily 07/09/2012 page6)