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Examination 1977: The exam that changed China forever

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Just over 40 years ago, Professor Shuang Liu worked on an assembly line in a factory in north-eastern China. Her entire job entailed just one task: tightening screws on electrical devices.

Key points:

  • About 5.7 million candidates took the landmark 1977 university entrance exam
  • The exam was reinstated after a 11-year hiatus
  • A huge backlog of candidates aged in their teens up to their 30s sat the exam
  • Only about 273,000 people were admitted, around 4.8 per cent

She's now 58 and an associate professor at the University of Queensland's School of Communication and Arts. But back then, she saw no future other than the one laid out in front of her.

"Is this what the rest of my life will be like?" she quietly asked a worker next to her.

The woman replied that she had been doing the job for about 30 years.

But in October 1977, Chinese authorities relayed life-changing news: a national college entrance exam would be reinstated after more than a decade-long hiatus during which the country was plunged into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution where academics and intellectuals were publicly humiliated and shunned.

'Gaokao' reinstatement draws millions to the board

In addition to recent high-school graduates, a backlog of people aged from their teens up to their 30s — who were deprived of the opportunity since it was withdrawn in 1965 — were also allowed to sit the exam that would transform the country.

A list of names in Chinese characters.

About 5.7 million candidates took the landmark exam, known as 'gaokao' in China, in December 1977 and only about 273,000 people — or 4.8 per cent — were admitted.

They, along with a second round of admissions from exams in the summer of 1978, are now famously known as the class of 1977 even though the degrees started the following year.

Professor Liu was among the 1977 cohort, widely seen as some of the brightest and most determined people of their time due to the fierce competition to secure a university place.

It was an incredible turn of fate for many educated urban youth in China who would have otherwise been sent to or remained in the countryside to be re-educated by farmers and workers as a part of Chairman Mao's campaign.

During the Cultural Revolution — a 10-year period between 1966 and 1976 — millions of people, including landlords and intellectuals, were subjected to public humiliations and "struggle sessions".

The pivotal 1977 exam marked the return of intellectuals and academics to China after they were removed from their positions and sent to the country.

A generation studies desperately to change its fate

Despite the repetitious work at the factory and earning 18 yuan a month ($3.50), Professor Liu considered herself "lucky" at the time because she was spared from being sent out to a farm in the countryside.

Black and white photo of Shuang Liu

Anecdotally, in a family with two children, only one was required to go to the countryside while the other was allowed to remain in the city.

Professor Liu said her parents decided to keep her in the north-eastern Heilongjiang province because she was nine years older than her sister and they didn't know what would happen in the future.

She also thought herself fortunate because her parents, both university graduates and English teachers, supported her risky decision to quit her job to study full-time for the gaokao.

"It was really a gamble," she said.

"It was very hard to obtain a [screw turning] job like mine during those days, [and I was] taking up something that was very risky and very uncertain."

Having spent large parts of her high school years studying farming in the countryside, Professor Liu said she graduated in 1976 with a whole stack of books that she had never studied.

"I dug them out from somewhere, dusted off the dirt and then studied… for as long as I could stay awake," she said.

Professor Liu said the exam was her only chance to "move up" and get educated.

Graduates of 1977 'a remarkable group of people'

A black and white photo of Shuang Liu standing in front of Heilongjiang University.

Professor Richard Rigby, executive director of Australian National University's China Institute, said there was "a sense of desperation and the urgency" felt by a huge backlog of very smart young Chinese to get out of where they'd been sent and back into the education system.

"I guess many of them would see it as a life and death thing — the one opportunity," Professor Rigby said.

"The people who did succeed were outstanding … a notably high proportion of people who subsequently went on to do brilliant things, whether it was science, business, writing history or novels, were in that particular cohort."

They were also a remarkable group of people because they endured the experiences of the Cultural Revolution, he added.

Professor Shuang Liu in her office at the University of Queensland.

For many Chinese-Australians, even younger generations like myself, the generation who took the exam in 1977 and subsequent years are associated with hard work and having experienced hardships during the revolution.

Textbooks cost a month's salary, students study day-to-night

For example, my mother, Helen Zhang, who was also in the class of 1977, recalled the days where food was rationed with coupons and a set of self-education textbooks cost about a month's salary.

A black and white photo of Helen Zhang holding a flower.

As a child my mother grew up in Shanghai and lived with her parents and younger sister in a two-storey Shikumen (townhouse-type) property with four other families.

My grandparents had already prepared her linen and suitcase for her relocation to a rural area when she heard from her relative there would be university entrance exams for the first time in more than a decade.

She recalled that her final year in high school was extended by about six months because the gaokao was reinstated.

But attending class at school during the prolonged semester was only a privilege for one-third of her grade, with the bottom 180 students sent home to study by themselves after an impromptu fate-deciding exam.

She was one of the relatively clever ones, and "studied desperately" in the lead up to her exam in the summer of 1978.

Her parents were unwilling to pay some 30 yuan ($5.80) for the textbooks, leaving her with no choice but to make the most of her classes and homework from school.

She said she knew she wasn't smart enough to be admitted to a univeristy, but might have a chance getting into a college or technical school, which is comparable to TAFE in Australia.

She woke up at dawn every day to recite passages, formulas and the periodic table on the terrace in order to not disturb her parents and younger sister.

After returning from school and doing chores, she studied late into the night using a small desk lamp or a torch on a loft my grandfather built as living quarters for my mum and aunt.

My mum and grandparents were ecstatic when they learnt she was admitted into a light industrial sewing machine school, and my grandfather celebrated by giving out sweets to all the neighbours.

She ended up working in a factory that produced sewing machine needles, doing quality control, for about seven years and eventually migrated to Sydney with her own family in 1995.

Little to mark 50th anniversary of China's Cultural Revolution

A country changed forever as Cultural Revolution ends

The momentum of change kept building after the 1977 exam, with former vice premier Deng Xiaoping announcing the open-door policy the following year.

It opened up the country to foreign direct investment and drove the economic transformation of modern China.

It also allowed students to do further study in foreign countries such as the United States and Australia.

Helen Zhang poses for a photo.

Professor Rigby said it was "impossible to overrate the importance" of the exam in terms of the change of direction in China, and even more so, individual lives affected by the decision.

"Effectively, it was the end of the Cultural Revolution in the world of education," he said.

Chairman Mao's rustication program, where educated youth were sent to the countryside, officially ended in 1980.

Professor Liu was admitted to the English Department at Heilongjiang University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Language.

"When I went there, I realised I was among the youngest of my classmates and there were people who spent eight years working as a farmer in the countryside already," she said.

She went on to do her Master's Degree and PhD before eventually migrating to Queensland in 2001, adding that most of her classmates from university also moved overseas.

Looking back, she said she wasn't "totally unhappy" with life in the factory because that was the life for most people.

However, if the 1977 exam did not happen, the lives of millions and the face of China would have been very different today.

Instead of being an famed academic with a PhD in Australia, at her age of 58, Professor Liu says she would likely already been forced to retire — or "sent home" — as numerous state-owned factories like where she worked were shut down.

Original Article

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