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August 14th, 2008
China Prep
Video: Full Episode

China Prep follows five Chinese students through their final high-pressure year at an elite high school in Sichuan Province. Eighteen hundred students vie for spots in Beijing’s top two universities. Last year only 59 made it.

Studying seven days a week, the students’ lives are regimented almost every minute of the day as they prepare for the end-of-year exam that can determine their fate. For many students from poor or rural backgrounds, a strong performance on the test is the only way to climb the social ladder and excel without connections. Competition is fierce and the majority of high school seniors will be relegated to vocational schools.

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  • The Pookums

    I agree that the commentator definitely has anti-Chinese sentiments, or else is just trying, sadly, to boost his ratings. Throughout the “interview,” he is trying to bait the Harvard professor into saying things that would strike fear, unreasonably, into the heart of some (ill-informed) American/western viewers. For example, he claims that not all countries care to be number one, suggesting that the US is too “above-it-all” and yet, tries to get the savvy interviewee to say that she feels China will compete aggressively and eventually dominate the US. If he weren’t so worried about the US being number 1, why would he have baited the professor with this question? Wide Angle is a (mostly) intelligent show with intelligent viewers. Don’t treat us as if we are stupid. Please.

  • beijene

    I have lived in China and worked with development of social education here and in other countries for 25 years. Unfortunately, the video is not available (blocked?), so I am basing my comments on the the others’ comments above and my own life experience here and in other countries. I am also a teacher, and do recognize the challenge of getting a good education here. But what is a good education? My adult students tell me they learn no skills in university. They believe one has to lie and cheat to get ahead in business, but the thinking ones abhor it. I agree with many of the comments quoted here. But I also know there are professors of leading Normal teacher training universities in Beijing, Jinan and other cities who are concerned about the standards for education in China and actively are working towards its improvement. They recognize there is a need to educate/teach more than facts and information; more than what the teacher knows, and the books know, and more than testing the students to see how well they have been stuffed with second hand knowledge. What about the whole person? Values, ethics, morals.. this is a great concern in China on the part of many educators. But patience is needed. I like the old American Indian adage, which I quote here, recognizing and welcoming comments if I don’t quote accurately: don’t judge me until “you have quoted a 1000 miles in my moccasins.” Not only does China have a long way to go to upgrade its educational standards… where is there a system that can claim it has opened minds to think creatively, that gives equal emphasis on creating new minds, ideas,that helps its graduates excel in moral and ethical values, in a world where competition is king, survival of the fittest is the standard, and money and personal power rules all?

  • DnShr

    i could not imagine living a life like this, considering the suicide rate is one of the highest in the world. It reminds me of New York Public high schools only much worse, being 1,800 students in the senior class alone and there are only “2 top colleges” that students try for, i do not think I could make it in this type of world.

  • Madosn

    It makes me really worried that this kinda thing can happen in China. I feel so bad for students that don’t get that chance to even go to high school go or if they are late bloomers. That’s Because I’m a late bloomer and its not fair that they don’t get a chance to go to college and get the fair education that everyone else can have. But there is also a good side to this because if there are students that don’t want a education they don’t even go to high school. Because here in our schools we see students that don’t even want to learn but yet teachers have to waste their time on them. So in china its kinda better that they can only focus only on students willing to learn.

  • Nicole

    The movie was very interesting. I was surprised how hard Chinese students work. One student at Bashu Prep school said she studied for 16 hours a day. I can’t imagine studying that much. I was also surprised that students didn’t participate in sports and extra curricular activities. In America to get into a good college you have to be more than just a good student. You have to be well rounded. In the interview with Vanessa Fong, a professor at Harvard University explained that in China a test you take at the age of 14 determines whether you will go to college. This seems very scary because a test you take that young can determine your whole future. She also said there were no second chances. In America there are so many opportunities. College is not the only chance to be successful. Another interesting thing from the movie is that in China creativity and art are not valued. In America creativity gives you so many opportunities. In China I would not be able to take media and art classes.

  • Priscila

    This video is intense. I am amazed that at the end, only two of the students that they are profiling makes it into the top two universities in China. To me, they all seem fairly intelligent and very determined. These Chinese students study so much that it almost makes the rest of the world look like slackers. Although I like how they live in the dorms at their high school, I can’t imagine being a teenager without having any extra curricular activities, such as sports, music, art, and such. The video portrays the students as if they have little to no time to hang out with their friends and family. Based on the video, I would look at the lifestyle that those students have and find it rather depressing. There actually is a part in the video where one of the guys mentions that he knows a student who is suffering with depression and has to go through therapy. In my opinion, I wouldn’t put so much pressure on myself to the point where I crack just so I can have a better chance at getting into a top university. There is more to life than books, you know.

  • Britt

    This video was really good and crazy. It shocking and very different to see how intense and important is in other countries. I feel that in the US we take what we have for granted where as in China, they focus on what they need to do. This video shows why China is developing so quickly in everything because they take school work so seriously. The school is very hardworking and is really determined to be the best, like the students who attend. One thing I didn’t like was when they spoke about how the kids at the school weren’t involved in extracurricular activities. I think doing those things could help you as well as learning in the books. Taking ONE test when your 14 shouldn’t determine what happens in your future. That’s one thing I don’t believe in. People should be given chances to prove what they can do as many times as they want, and not have it forced on them. I really enjoyed the video and it really explains why China is developing so well.

  • Teresa

    I think that this video is extremely interesting, it shows how different other countries can be. Me living in America I can already see a difference in how China is more competitive and willing to do whatever it takes to be the best. Every student there or their parents have probably sacrificed something and it just shows how important their education is to them. It makes me also realize how in other places in the world not everyone really cares about school and usually just slip on by taking the easy route out. These students show how dedicated they are to having a successful life. I do feel that there are other aspects of life that you need to learn about during school such as art and culture. Electives to me seem very important because there are other jobs in the world that don’t require just book smarts. I overall enjoyed this video because you really got to understand how the students live their lives and how they really feel about their school life. It’s nice to see how other people in the world live then just my country, and this video provided that.

  • Erik

    That’s incredible. They weren’t joking when they said they will be the hardest working people in China. They have to do so much just to have a shot at having a succesful life. It seems to me like too much for one person to handle. They are pretty much allowed no free time, no sports, nothing. These people seem to be the best of the best, but it all comes down to grades and/or money. I felt bad for the kid who’s parents lived on teh farm, he said his mother was embarrassed to go out with him into public. It is such a sad existence for students, they focus all their time and resources on school, no time even for family. Bashu prep is “make it or brake it” to the extreme. That one girl had her mindset so when she wakes up in the morning she is so happy and ready to go to school. Now most people I know dread waking up any earlier than 7:30, but then again, none of us have those eye massagers.

  • Mengmeng

    This school is in my hometown in China- it did pressure kids but it doesn’t define their lives completely! It gives them an opportunity to go work hard and dedicate themselves to something to achieve something. As someone who didn’t achieve the highest score, I still got into a good university in China and am currently in graduate school in the US.

  • Keith

    I think that the attitude towards education and life in general portrayed in the video is disgusting. The fact that people are brainwashed into thinking that their only worth in life is to become financially successful is terrible. The country of China is basically trying to breed a race of super-humans when it comes to academics, the problem is they forgot the human part. It all comes down to the idea that the government still controls everything even though the country is no longer communist officially. The government is totalitarian, the schools are totalitarian, the way people think is totalitarian. The mind set that is established in the people growing up in this environment is an all or nothing philosophy, which is so harmful to the pursuit of happiness in life. They are taught to see the world in black and white, failure and success. In reality life has so much more to offer, not only the shades of gray in between, but also all the colors and hues that make life worth living and existence bearable. Children are taught that the best thing they can be is a rich but overworked business executive with no time or desire for creativity or emotion. This is simply not true. Creativity and emotion are what make us human, they are what make the beating of our hearts more than just a countdown to our deaths. Life is short and happiness is fleeting, you might as well actually live while you’re here. The main problem lies in that the government forces a culture that doesn’t value the actual valuable thing in life on the people living there.

  • Asa

    So far i have not finished the video, but from what i’ve seen it has been very scary. These students give a good image of out competition. It also seems as if school defines who these children are. ill finish the video on monday

  • Asa

    It’s not as scary as it seems considering they are showing us one of the top high schools in the country

  • storion

    I just happend to see this video when I poked around on the internet. I took the same test 13 years ago and I was surprised to see how these people in the video looked at everthing in the world. I think they may exaggerate the situation. 13 years ago the acceptance rate of colleges and universities is even lower than now, but I didn’t feel that much pressure when I was senior in my high school. I gotta say my high school is the top 1 in my hometown, Harbin, a city which is mentioned as “close to Russia” in the video. I really had a good life there: class ended at 4:00pm, you could play basketball and computer games after class and you didn’t need to live in the cramped dorm everyday. As a graduate from Tsinghua University and PhD in the US, I don’t think the education system in China is that bad as a lot of people criticize and complain about. I have seen a lot of talented people in my college and it seems that they are not ruined or brainwashed by this “ordeal”. So this is just another type of education system in a different culture from western one. You can see the same thing in Korea and Japan. Just take it easy, you Americans.:-)

  • Aaron

    For some reason I cannot view this video and I really want to see it. Can anyone please tell me where else I can see it, Thanks

  • fries

    hahaha, I’ve heard about running backwards in China, but this is the first time I’ve seen it.

  • fries

    The government is not totalitarian, and much of how it does influence the gaokao is through the lack of a social safety net in China. If you land a good enough job, you don’t have to worry about your own healthcare (maybe paying to get into the ER) and retirement and that of your parents.

    Much of the pressure to succeed comes from the culture and from self-interest. What I know here is pretty superficial, but I think the test-taking thing goes back to the history of Confucian civil service exams that were comparably grueling and egalitarian. Those tests mattered for hundreds of years. One difference is there was a chance to study again and retake the test if you didn’t score high enough. The test, or at least the way of taking tests, carried over into some other Asian countries like Vietnam and Japan. I remember reading about Ho Chi Minh and how his father was a mandarin, but he didn’t pass the exam on his first try. And David Halberstam’s The Reckoning (about Nissan and Ford through the 1980s), I read about either a Nissan engineer or a top government bureaucrat in Japan who spent six months cramming for his country’s test to get into a top college.

    The other cultural pressure that seems to mix poorly with this test-taking tradition is the way some parents in this documentary think helicopter parenting is the only kind of parenting. Li Mengjia, the girl whose parents cook her breakfast and do her chores, hilariously is told by her dad not to burn too much energy in the morning, after she said she went running for five minutes. The student whose parents rented a hotel near the exam site coughs, and his dad suggests lozenges, his mom tells him to drink some water, as if his parents still don’t remember that he turned 18. Even the girl whose father is a military official, and who we hear is more independent than her classmates, tells us that her parents worry about every little detail, including whether she has enough blankets when she sleeps.

    Something to bear in mind is that young migrant workers who head to the cities face similar pressures. Many of them send money they earn back to their parents in the countryside. There’s another Wide Angle episode, To Have and Have Not, that spends some time on their situation.

  • fries

    I get the impression there’s a widespread underlying belief in China that learning can be done through sheer willpower. The high pressure rote learning in this documentary reminded me of what I read in Factory Girls, a recent book that deals specifically with young female migrant workers in Dongguan. The author gives a good description of other forms education in China can take. English classes are popular, and they highlight the problem with Chinese style rote learning more than any other subject, because you can’t memorize the conversational use of a foreign language. There’s a businessman detailed in Factory Girls who invented a machine to teach English. You sit in front of one for hours as it flashes random words. Or in classes taught by a human, students are reluctant to actually use the language in front of their classmates, for fear of making a mistake. When a teacher asked students to summarize a passage, one girl recited the whole thing verbatim. A guy attempted the same feat, but as soon as he made a mistake, he was unable to go on. (In public school, English is described as being taught in a similar way, by rote from a textbook, by a teacher who is not a native speaker.)

    However, in contrast to the gaokao students at Bashu, the English, vocational, and etiquette classes taken by migrant workers in Dongguan come from a much more individual and self-reliant mentality. The students work by day and pay for their evening classes themselves; they do this in order to gain qualifications for a promotion, a better job in another factory, or a clerical job; their parents could be hours or days away. And the students who are not so afraid to make mistakes will make money by teaching their own courses to older white collar workers, even if their own English seems terribly ungrammatical.

    James Fallows did some entries on his blog (, all in May 2009) on the gaokao and education in China, very relevant further reading with comments from students and Western teachers in China.

    One reader also notes the memorization approach to learning (and teaching):

    “As an example, I work at a medical university with over 100 foreign students. A few of the students told me that they were attending a lecture one time, given by a Chinese student, in English. They noticed very quickly that they were able to read exactly what the student was saying as she said it from their textbook because she had memorized, word for word, her entire lecture. Another example can be seen with students who take the post-graduate entrance examination and memorize, again word for word, all the essays that will be tested in the exam.”


  • Nancy

    I went through the same thing in my ‘home’ country. I got into the top high school there but it was hell. I hated it. All I did was study, study & more study. And that was just high school. So my parents decided to send me to America. It’s so much better here. I now have a life. :P

  • Charlie

    Who can help me on the subtitle please? I cannot understand some of the words. For example, the second sentense: “China’s top high school students cram for ??? decide”. What does the word of ??? stands for? Thanks!

  • figo

    i love them all~
    my love,friends,teachers,classmates~

  • California Student

    As a student of The Preuss School UCSD (located on the University of California in San Diego, Campus), I see many similarities and differences between my high school and the one displayed in the documentary. My school also requires an entrance application, but it revolves around the students passion to attend a 4-year University and the teacher recommendations that were submitted.

    In order to apply, the student has to be low-income, which also means they[we] are all mostly considered minorities in the country.

    All of our classes are either Advanced/Honors or AP, excluding the “Wheel” courses (we determine which course we’d like to take as an elective). Although the work load is heavy, we manage to cope with the stress and the homework because of the school’s positive atmosphere and the commitment on the part of the teachers.

    One of them, who teaches AP Government and AP U.S History, just got recognized as a California Teacher of the Year.

    Most of us have great relationships with our teachers, and have a “social life” outside of school, but we also understand the importance of receiving a higher education.

    We have first hand knowledge of the struggles of the lower-class in America, with unequal education at the top, and that drives us harder than most of our counter-parts to succeed and work hard.

    More public schools should look into adopting a similar curriculuum (charter, with one track for every student[college prep]). Traditional and conventional American education is no longer admissible, especially with the rising competition in the global community.

    Great Documentary, hope to see more in the future. :]]]

  • lou sassel

    This is the worst video ever produced, it shows nothing on the true life of an average student but only those who are at the top of the class. Horrible video i hope you reconsider the posting of this and carry your cameras to another city that is not full of ….. BS

  • Soo

    Where can I get this video???
    I really want to see…

  • Veron

    I’m so sorry about that can’t this video. Please, help me.. can see the video again.

  • shahr

    Dear Veron,

    Thank you for your interest in WIDE ANGLE’s China Prep. I’m sorry that the video wouldn’t play for you. It sounds as though you might be based outside of the United States. Unfortunately, we cannot stream this video outside of the U.S.

  • American Student

    In the United States, students have to do the exact same thing for the SAT in their junior year. Only students wanting to go to college take the exam. But we get second chances though.

  • AMRE

    Life for students looks very hard in China. I can believe that they have to study so much and that the everyday life is monotonized by studying, eating and sleeping. They have to work very hard to get their success. I think about my own life here in U. S. and it seems very easy and light compared to theirs. If I were to compare myself with a Chinese kid I may result to be a lazy and non-hard working teen even if here in the U. S. I am one.

  • zhuliang

    for a skyrocketing changing country , from merely nothing to a second largest economy, china’s education has been through a lot. even though there might be flawed, but remember ,in a growing high-skilled workforce ,we need talents in large numbers , the documentary may sound like riduculous in some westerners ‘ eyes ,but don’t forget , china is growing very fast , things are changing very fast , more educated kids are gonna make a difference, and drives china further , and bear in mind ,more talents who are cultivated in those IVY league are coming back to china ,ivy league’s gonna do big for china’s development . a college student from china

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