Part 239: Gaokao - by TomnRight, I've been a bit busy but if anyone is still interested I'd like to talk a bit about some of the cultural background behind xianxia stories.
Now as I mentioned before, xianxia is actually a very new genre, and is largely written for Chinese youths - as such, despite the historical trappings the stories reflect the values, experiences, desires, fears, and hopes of the Chinese youth and absolutely nothing, NOTHING has as much of an impact on the lives of pre-teens and teenagers in China as the dreaded gaokao. Understanding the gaokao actually explains a lot about why certain xianxia tropes and stories are structured the way they are, so as I go through my overview here, think about the xianxia stories you might have read and see how many bits you can think of that match up to what I'm going to describe (because if I stopped every time to point out a parallel this is going to take all day).
(Note: I did not go through the gaokao myself, but my father went through the Taiwanese gaokao which works similarly, and I've spoken to my mainland friends for some extra clarification.)
So what is the gaokao, exactly? It's the Chinese national state examination system, something like a turbocharged version of the SAT. That in and of itself might not be so bad - it's a hard test, what of it? - except that Chinese colleges look ONLY at the gaokao results when deciding admissions - school grades, extracurriculars, entrance essays, none of that matters, only the gaokao score does. Not only that, but it's not simply the absolute score that matters but the relative score - your result is ranked nationally and compared to everyone else who took the gaokao, so Peking University for instance might only take applicants who score in the top 1% or so, leaving you out in the cold if your score is absolutely high but relatively below the cut.
This matters even more because, simply put, China's educational resources are limited compared to its massive population. It's widely considered that only the top universities have any educational or career worth at all, and going to some no-name provincial university might possibly be better than nothing, but is widely regarded as a failure and will almost certainly preclude you from attaining the glittering heights of Chinese elite society. Employers look closely at which university you came out of, and a poor one acts as a glass ceiling beyond which you're unlikely to progress further (unless you step out of mainstream Chinese society, but that's another issue).
Despite this incredible pressure, parents tend to be broadly in favor of the gaokao because of China's economic inequalities. While opening up the country has been a major boon for the Chinese economy, most of those benefits are clustered in the big cities, while the rural population (i.e. most of China) get by on very little with very few opportunities. A child succeeding in the gaokao is viewed as a merit-based golden ticket to a brighter future - the phrase "a carp leaping over the dragon gate" is a reference to mythological ideas of a carp leaping over a magical gate and transforming into a dragon, but in modern slang it refers to someone from the provinces who scored high on the gaokao and managed to get into a top university.
So for any parent who hopes for a better life for their children (or indeed expects their children to maintain their current level of status and wealth), the only way forward is cramming, cramming, and more cramming. Almost every spare moment from the moment they're capable of academic learning must be devoted to study. Anything that can offer an advantage must be taken - extra meals, nutritionally balanced to provide brain food, after-school tutoring sessions, "study pills" (like Ritalin or Adderall) that might help improve focus and keep kids studying late at night, etc. etc. Students are told that their entire future rides on doing well, and any sort of failure or distraction is to be avoided at all costs lest their taint their chances, and are generally made to feel deeply guilty for any such failures or distraction.
Nor is it only one singular test, either - in the past, there were exams for those going from elementary school to junior high, and from junior high to senior high though I think the elementary to junior test has been dropped lately. These exams determine which school you go to just like the gaokao does for university, and this can have significant impacts on your future as snowballing benefits accrue - getting into a good junior high puts in a position to get into a good senior high, which has advantages for getting a better score on the gaokao to get into a good university, etc. My father had a classmate who managed to score himself into Taipei's top high school - apparently, 98% of his classmates there happened to go on into Taiwan's top university at the time. A good early foundation makes it that much easier to ascend to the highest levels, while failing early makes it that much harder to claw your way back.
Even within schools such competition continues, however. As mentioned, China's educational resources are pretty strained, and local administrators are rewarded for how many high-scoring students they can produce - one teacher straight up told his class that if they did well, he could buy a new car. Since a handful of really top-flight students means more on an administrator's resume than a large number of above-average students, schools often have internal elite programs where those students identified as having the most potential to gain high scores are segregated into their own elite classes and have the bulk of the school's resources assigned to them - everyone else is left to muddle by as best they can with what's left over.
Naturally, despite the common perception that this is a merit-based system, since available educational resources matters a lot students in urban areas tend to do much better than students in rural areas since urban schools have the wealth of the cities to draw upon. The difference between the two can be incredibly stark - look up GIS of "Chinese rural school" to get an idea of the kind of baseline we're looking at. Plus, the top universities are all based on large cities, and often maintain "affiliate" high schools for people hoping for a fast-track into those universities (though in practice such affiliates may or may not live up to the standards of their patron but boy can you get a lot of money from people hoping for an easy ride).
Now with so much riding on the line you might wonder, "Well, what if someone tried to use underhanded means to get ahead on the test?" Well, I've a funny story about that, as it happens. See, a few years ago the central government noticed that a bunch of the students at a certain provincial school all had the exact same scores and answers, and smelled a rat. As such, on the next test they sent in a team of central invigilators to root out cheating, replacing local (and easily bribed) teachers and hunting out whatever methods of cheating they could find. Panicked students texted their parents, and the next thing you know there's a full-blown riot with the invigilators barricaded inside the school while the parents outside chanted "There is no fairness if you don't let us cheat!" - on the basis that everyone ELSE is cheating, so not letting US cheat gives us an unfair disadvantage. Of course, accurate statistics about how common cheating really is are hard to come by, but there certainly is the perception that those with money, connections, and a decent degree of cunning and unscrupulousness can find a way to smooth the path of their children.
Funnily enough, with all this going on what happens AFTER the gaokao is almost an afterthought. This is now less true than it used to be, but Chinese universities were thought of as "hard to get into, but easy to graduate from," in contrast to Western universities which were considered "easy to get into, but hard to graduate from." In general, doing well on the gaokao means you made it, and there are much fewer academic demands placed on you after you get into your university of choice, and those universities that offer a better education start focusing on learning and teaching methods that turn away from the raw rote memorization needed to do well on the gaokao. University will often become more a matter of making connections and banking on your stored prestige...which leads to an interesting effect for those who jumped over the dragon gate. "Exam experts from small towns" often feel rather dislocated once they managed to shake off the dust of their upbringing and enter into the elite environments of top universities because their success came from an obsessive, single-minded focus to preparing for the gaokao. This leaves them unprepared for an environment where constant cramming isn't a path to success anymore, and many find networking difficult as their rural upbringing leaves them out of sync with their more cosmopolitan, urban peers. Given that often their extended family pooled their resources to afford their tuition, this can lead to a strange situation where their family back home imagine them to be doing well in some kind of academic paradise when in truth they're struggling, homesick, unhappy and depressed.
That, then, is the gaokao, pretty much the major defining aspect of the life of a Chinese student and I think the cultural source of a LOT of themes, concepts, and ideas that pop up over and over in xianxia. Once you know what's going on the parallels are hard to miss, and in particular I suspect that tribulation has its roots not so much in ancient mythological ideas as it does with surviving the gaokao. It's also worth noting too that generally, people who end up writing webnovels for a living are probably not those who did well on the gaokao (though exam experts from small towns might be uniquely positioned to write such stories, given a combination of high academic achievement and personal experience of success within the system mixed with just enough personal dissatisfaction that they didn't end up taking the elite route their peers often did). As such, xianxia is undeniably a power fantasy - but in some ways, it's less a power fantasy about being a big strong magic man, and more a power fantasy about doing well in a veiled form of the gaokao plus cool explosions. Or at least, that's my take on it.