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"Why Are My Eyes Always Filled With Tears...?" & Other Exam Questions

By Tang Xiangyang, a translator in the EO's English department

The questions in the national college entrance examination, or gaokao, have got more and more interesting since I sat the tests in 2003.

In Guangdong province, students this morning had to write about the era they would like most to live in; in Jiangsu, they had to reflect on the relationship about worry and love. The question echoed a poet who wrote “Why are my eyes always filled with tears? Because I love my motherland so deeply”; in Jiangxi, candidates had to choose between two tongue-twisting proverbs: “don’t think about what you don’t have, think about what you already have” and “don’t think about what you have now; think about what you don’t have.”

I’m not sure how those young students think about these subjects. They look simple since all students are free to choose any angle and write about anything they like and, in fact, the questions are more like starting points, rather than specifications.

However, they are tough questions for me and I don’t think I’m alone.

If I had been sitting the exam today, I would have tried to squeeze in a well-known quotation from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Dickens was comparing France in the aftermath of the 1789 revolution with Britain around sixty years later, the time that he was writing, but the novel’s opening sentence could also be applied to China in 2012, when the country’s economic success is accompanied by unprecedented social problems.

What should the examiners in Guangdong - the epicenter of China’s transformation - be expecting?

Do young students enjoy living in a world where milk is poisoned, cooking oil is taken from the gutter, pills are made from used shoes and it’s not just the magic mushrooms that are hazardous? If not, what era would they prefer? One from the past, when the air was clean and the water was harmless, or one from the future, which assumes that we can resolve the problems of today?

What about the examiners in Jiangsu?

How will their students resolve the tension between anxiety and patriotism? Perhaps they’ll decide that people can’t simultaneously love their country and worry about their health and safety.

Finally how would the Jiangxi pupils have deciphered their tongue-twisters? They had to balance their pride at China’s economic achievements with their uneasiness at the damaged environment and toxic food.

The authors of the questions are too harsh. Even an adult would struggle to answer those questions “correctly”. They might excel in an intelligence test, but it could be embarrassing if those exam candidates happen to know about the real world and show any inclination to put that knowledge into words.

Links and Sources
China Economic Net 2012年全国高考各地作文题目公布



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