Here is an existential question of high-school philosophy: If everyone is equally nerdy, does that mean no one is a nerd? In The People's Republic of China, you might add the following corollary: Is collective nerdiness the way forward?
As twilight descends in Beijing on a Saturday in March, an informal meeting of nerds commences outside the Second High School Attached to Beijing Normal University. Class has ended for the day, and the streetside air is noxious and smothering—Beijingers sometimes euphemistically call it "big fog," when in fact it's actually unrelenting, overwhelming smog. The bespectacled quartet of teens—Bob, Daniel, Julia, and Janice (whose glasses don't have lenses in them)—hurriedly try to figure out what they're going to do next.
One student suggests a quick trip to the bookstore to pick up some extra practice books for the all-important college-entrance exams, which are four months away. "So late already!" Julia says, glancing at the time on her mobile phone. "We can just buy them online."
Instead, after grabbing a quick dinner together, they head to a McDonald's across the street from the school. They each order a cup of tea, and then pull out their reading-comprehension books to study quietly for another hour, before heading home to study some more.
It's like this pretty much every day, minus the outing to McDonald's, for Bob, Daniel, Julia, Janice, and all the other seniors at Second High, one of the best high schools in all of China. These students' lives are remarkably devoid of choice and of what might be classified in American high-school culture as "fun." Classes are picked for them. Dating is forbidden. Fashion is largely irrelevant: The blue-and-white Second High uniform is a unisex polyester track suit so devoid of shape and visual interest that it negates almost everything attractive about the wearer. For many years, long hair, perms, and hair dye were banned, though it could be a sign of China's baby-step liberalization that girls may now grow out their locks. "Before, they didn't. That was a violation of our human hair rights!" says Yang Keyang, a senior with long braids whose English names include Coppelia, Pealina, Coco, and Rosalind. (English names being one of the few areas of total liberty for the students, she chose those—all of them.)
The point of all this rigor: to remove every possible distraction as the students prepare for the gaokao, the national college-entrance exams, which are seen as the gateway to success in life. For seniors at Second High, the pressure is extreme. If all goes as planned, its students will eventually join the elite that is driving China's political and economic resurgence. They will become thought leaders, Communist Party officials, power brokers, billionaires—and, just maybe, reformists.
Over the past year, I followed a group of seniors as they prepped for the gaokao and the next stage of their young lives. What are their teenage dreams? What gives them angst? How do they express themselves, or not? What hopes do they have, for themselves and for their country? I also wanted to hear from their parents. How are the real Tiger Mothers and Fathers—with a strong helping hand from the peculiar species one might call the Tiger Teacher—grooming a new generation of Chinese leaders?
I was an exchange student at Second High in the late 1990s, part of an effort to escape my own nerdy existence in California. The experience was strangely liberating. The uniforms provided blessed relief from the unbearable early-morning pressure of having to decide which clothes to pick out from the pile on my bedroom floor. If there were cliques among my Chinese counterparts, I never noticed them. Nor was there sexual tension—I could not understand what they had done with their teenage hormones. My librarian back home had once derided my bookish ways by quoting Mark Twain to me: "I have never let schooling interfere with my education." Get out of here! was her warning. Go forth and socialize.
Chinese students are taught the precise opposite, which became clear on the very first page of my classical Chinese textbook. There, I found a story about the renowned poet Li Bai. For unclear reasons—boredom? frustration? finances?—the young Li drops out of school. Then one day, he encounters an old lady on the road. He asks her why she is methodically grinding a seemingly pointless rod of metal. She explains that she's sharpening it into a needle, an object that is useful. It inspires him to do the same—to his brain. As legend has it, he returns to school, and 1,200 years later, he is still the most famous poet in China.
For Second High seniors, schooling—and the entire sharpening process—is devoted to prep for the gaokao, which this year took place on June 7 and 8. The word gaokao, literally "high test," is mercifully short for Putong Gaodeng Xuexiao Zhaosheng Quanguo Tongyi Kaoshi—the Standardized Higher-Education Student-Admissions National United Examination. The grandiosity of the name speaks to the exam's 1,400-year history; by comparison, the SAT, introduced in 1901, is a rank newbie.
When the gaokao's predecessor debuted during the Sui Dynasty, which reunified China during the sixth century, the imperial government's top goal was stability. It sought to secure power and maintain unity, and toward that end, it needed hardworking, literate local hands who could govern occasionally restive, politically volatile populations. (How times don't change!) So the mandarins developed a test to scout for bureaucratic talent.
The earliest tests involved sitting in one room for two or three days straight, writing an expository essay about Confucian philosophy and governance. Today's gaokao is more comprehensive; students are tested on Chinese, English, math, science (if they're on the science track) and history, geography, and government (if they're not). But the graders don't value creative essays. They want the one answer deemed correct by the exam's authors. "The gaokao rewards a special type of student: very strong memory; very strong logical and analytical ability; little imagination; little desire to question authority," says Jiang Xueqin, a Yale-educated school administrator in Beijing. "That person does well on the gaokao—as well as on the SAT, by the way."
That person also has the best chance to enter China's university system, since the gaokao is the sole gateway. The exam is seen as so important that every June, the newspapers fill with gaokao-related stories and announcements, from restrictions on building construction to reduce noise on testing days, to tales of kind policemen who whisk tardy students to their exam sites. Attempts have been made to upend the system; a public university, South University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, went renegade, announcing that it would evaluate applicants by criteria other than test scores. The Chinese government responded by announcing that it would deny official diplomas to students admitted on that basis.
"There is no more fair way to do it," insists Bob Zhao Tianshu, a soft-spoken Second High senior who likes the band the Eagles. Bob, whose mother is a teacher and whose father is a literary-theory professor, acknowledges, "It doesn't let us study what we are interested in, or put to use what we are really good at." But, he says, "it evens the playing field."
This is only partly true. Bob and his classmates got into Second High by scoring well on an entrance exam, and most of them are children of the intelligentsia. Also, China's government discourages migration from the provinces to the nation's biggest cities, so quotas ensure that the best colleges, such as Tsinghua and Peking universities in Beijing and Fudan in Shanghai, draw disproportionately from the surrounding urban populations. About a decade ago, after reports that Beijing students got into elite institutions despite scoring lower than students from other parts of China, authorities stopped giving the same gaokao nationwide. If you live in Beijing, you are 30 times more likely to get into Tsinghua than if you live in Shandong Province, which is akin to saying that a Bostonian would be 30 times more likely to get into Harvard than a kid from Vermont.
When I persuaded Bob in February to interrupt his gaokao prep to talk with me, he was five months into what had become a daily routine. He rises before dawn to be at school by 7:30 a.m., six days a week. After school lets out at 5 p.m.—3:30 p.m. on Saturdays—he studies at least five hours more. "Last summer, we did karaoke. Last November, we went to see Harry Potter 7," he tells me. "The next time we really hang out will be after the exam. The pressure has gotten higher and higher."
Later, perhaps sensing that this is not typical teenage life elsewhere—even for nerds—he turns defensive. "Grades are really important, but they don't mean everything," he says. "We develop our own interests and enjoy ourselves in our daily lives." He offers no details.
The Second High regimen is designed to help its seniors excel on the gaokao. For all three years of high school, a student shares a classroom with the same 29 classmates. When the bell rings to mark the end of a period, the teachers, not the students, change classrooms. During lunch, most students study. Nap time is 15 minutes after lunch every day. During senior year, there are no electives; the school chooses each student's courses.
Even extracurricular activities are scripted by the teachers. Coppelia/ Pealina/ Coco/ Rosalind Yang, who joined the Chinese Culture Club, scrunches her nose as she describes the activities: "The first year, it was more lectures by professors. The second year, it was making tea. We made a magazine about Chinese culture, and we wore Han Dynasty outfits. We took one trip to a museum."
This all seems to echo, on an institutional and almost parodic level, the spirit of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. When it came out earlier this year, the parenting memoir by a Chinese-American overachiever was widely read by parents in the Beijing elite and even more widely discussed among the students. It fairly depicted the ambition that Chinese parents have for their children, says Linda Zheng Ninghua, an English teacher at Second High who lived in the U.S. for a year. "In America, one of my friends encouraged her child to be a zookeeper because the child said he wanted to be a zookeeper," Zheng says incredulously. "The parents were proud!"
One sweltering day in June, I visit Daniel Zhou and his parents at their apartment. It's in a typical old Beijing high-rise, with an elevator lady who pushes the buttons for you. Daniel's mom, Wang Yongyan, a kindergarten teacher, repeatedly apologizes for the clutter, though the apartment is quite neat. Daniel's room has few accoutrements other than a globe, his guitar, a wall map of the world, and lots of schoolbooks; as we walk in, he says hello to his two box turtles, Smart and Stupid.
As we munch on cool slices of watermelon, Wang says she found Chua "a little extreme—to not even let them go to the bathroom! You should respect children's humanity, give them human rights. She should follow children's innate interests." But Daniel's father, Zhou Long, a textbook publisher who's an award-winning Communist Party member, concedes that the parenting style in Chua's book does prevail in China. He says that his wife dreams of having her grandchildren reared abroad, to escape the Tiger Mother mentality. The biggest opponent of this plan? Daniel. He dramatically declares that if he goes abroad, it will just be a detour: "I want to, and I must, and I will go back to do something for my own country."
Indeed, the biggest difference between Chua's parenting and Tiger-style child-rearing among these Beijing families has to do with service to the nation. In Chua's book, this seems nearly irrelevant. For the families I spoke with—and especially the students—it's a top priority. "My mom and dad want me to be an ambassador," says Daniel, whose cross-cultural passions include affection for Hannah Montana and Taiwanese pop idol Wang Leehom. In college, he plans to major in Norwegian. "My dad," he explains, "loves northern Europe."
Coppelia/Pealina/Coco/Rosalind—whose father is a financial investor—says her career goal is to improve the quality of education in the countryside. "I want to go to towns and report on how unequal the educational opportunities are," she says. To do that, it's generally held that she must excel on the gaokao to trigger a time-honored career domino effect: secure a place at a good university, join the Communist Party, get into the ranks of the government bureaucracy. Chinese Communist bliss.
Sophie Bai Yang, a sweet-faced, savvy 17-year-old with a predilection for girlish dresses and stuffed animals, told her parents for years that she wanted to join the People's Liberation Army. During two summers, she attended a military camp, and her parents—mom Dai Pu is a former nurse, while dad Bai Nan is a surgeon—keep a photo of her in fatigues atop the family piano. "I'm not afraid of her having to chiku," Dai says, using a Chinese phrase that means "to suffer" but translates literally as "to eat bitterness." "Freedom is important, and there is no freedom in the military. Also, once you're in, there's no way to get out."
Sophie shows off her patriotism to me, often revising her critical thoughts mid-conversation. At one point, I mention the Cultural Revolution, when kids her age were beating their teachers to death. She rolls her eyes. "We're not used to talking about it in public places; there's no need to. If you do, there's a question of what kind of ulterior motives you might have," she says, looking me in the eye. "Of course the negatives are minimized and the positives are exaggerated. It's the same in every country."
Later, we discuss the traits of a "good" citizen. Like many of her peers, Sophie grew up eating dinner with a side dish of TV news from CCTV, the state-run broadcaster. (A popular joke about CCTV is that the first 10 minutes of the news focus on Chinese officials being very busy; the second 10 are about how Chinese people are very happy; the last 10 report how foreigners have tragic lives.) She musters the patriotism she's rehearsed in school: "You shouldn't collaborate with the enemy," she says, and then laughs, because it occurs to her that some might consider me the enemy. Other guidelines: "You shouldn't circulate false reports." And obviously: "If anyone discriminates or has some bias against your country, you should correct them."
Appropriately, perhaps, Sophie's nonmilitary fallback would be a career in human resources. In China, where so much in business and politics is based on guanxi—connections—the HR department is one of the most powerful perches in any organization. It attracts some of the most ambitious and cunning students.
As the school year wears on, some students begin to show cracks in their composure, and frustration bubbles up. Bob Zhao finds solace in a budding romance with Julia Zhao Rouhan. This involves little more than text messages and occasionally holding hands, but Julia still denies everything about the romance. Sophie has been the go-between for the two; when I ask if they have kissed, she looks at me horrified: "Absolutely not! We tend to think that only bad kids do that."
Even if the good kids did it, they know better than to talk about it. Such is the squeamishness about high-school love—zaolian, or "premature affection"—that the government rarely allows it to be depicted on TV. Also, many of the students have heard the tale of their unlucky classmate Zhang Qingxue, whose dad works for the phone company. Midway through her junior year, Zhang recalls, her father presented her with a 16-foot-long roll of her mobile-phone records. He angrily confronted her about one text message, from a boy, that read, "Wo ai ni." I love you. "He was really mad," she tells me. So she pretended to break up with the boy.
While most of the other students I spend time with consistently declare their approved loves—for their nation; their lives; and, of course, their unassailably fair gaokao system—Shirley Qian repeatedly criticizes the exam to me. An already twitchy 18-year-old now battling insomnia and increasingly frayed nerves, she tells me one day that she feels "very bored, extremely exhausted, and stressed out. I hate the gaokao." Later, she says, "If you don't take the gaokao, you can become a taxi driver. I want to be a famous professor of...I don't know what. But I want to teach people you don't have to study that way." She changes tack. "My parents always thought I would get into Tsinghua without a problem. But now..." She interrupts herself with a hysterical cackle. "Sorry, I can't control my fury."
A better word than fury would be fear. "My friends all laugh at me. They'll be in high society, but I'll be a common person," she says sadly. "After the gaokao, I will learn how to drive a taxi."
Such complaints don't surprise Jiang, the Yalie school administrator, who is experimenting with ways to soften the focus on the gaokao. "The best and brightest in the education system are educated in a way that doesn't permit them to contribute to society," he says. Zhang Xiaolu, a teacher and gaokao grader in Nanjing, adds, "A lot of teachers tell students after they graduate from high school: 'Please forget everything you have just learned.' Because the teachers know that what they have taught is useless. A standardized test means standardized thought. I tell students, 'It stuffs your heads so that you have no time to think about other things.' This is the policy of keeping people in ignorance."
The number of test-takers has fallen; 9.3 million people sat for the 2011 gaokao, down from 10.5 million in 2008. That's due partly to the dearth of jobs for college graduates who did not attend top-tier universities. And more students are going abroad. "Urban students especially take the SAT instead," says Zhang. "People are finding more paths."
A few prominent Chinese have become icons for those who argue that the gaokao should not be the sole route to success. Writer and businessman Luo Yonghao never took it; ironically, he later made his fortune on a chain of TOEFL and GRE test-prep centers. Perhaps the most famous example is Han Han, a high-school dropout who is the modern paragon of the Chinese renaissance man—a race-car driver, novelist, singer, and the most widely read blogger in the world.
But there are a lot more Shirley Qians than Han Hans, and the former are supposed to keep criticisms to themselves. One day, while I'm visiting Second High, Shirley asks me for help with an English passage in her test-prep material. It's a nonsensical, grammatically dubious story about two brothers hiking up a hill, carrying luggage. "It's not logical," she says. She's right. It's unclear where the characters are going, why and how they feel about it. But then I spot a sentence that crystallizes for me the point of the passage: "Not a word of unhappiness escaped from his lips." Curiously, Shirley abruptly stops complaining to me about the gaokao after that.
This year, the Beijing gaokao scores are posted online at noon two weeks after the test. Peggy Zhu Zhu, the daughter of an elite-unit policeman who has worked in Tibet, surprises everyone by getting a stellar 676 out of 750—the best score at Second High as well as in all of Beijing. She gives interviews to a dozen journalists in the following week, all with the requisite false modesty drilled into the Chinese from birth. "My luck was good. The test is not that important, and many of my classmates have the same ability," she says. "So there's not a lot of celebration."
Bob scored a solid 648, while his girlfriend, Julia, got a 602. (Their summer plan: to read Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude together, an idea that originated from Bob's literary-prof dad.) Daniel beat Julia by two points, with a 604, while Janice got a 616. Coppelia/Pealina/Coco/Rosalind posted a 635. Shirley's worries were not unwarranted: Her score was just 573, good enough for college but not a top-tier one.
Over at Sophie's apartment, her mother fumbles with the password. Sophie is poised at the computer, waiting. "Will you hurry up? I can't stand it. I can't stand it!" she says, her voice trembling. "I want a 660. This is killing me." Within a few keystrokes, she learns she has fallen short, but not by much: 641. "It should be enough to get into Tsinghua."
Within seconds, her mom is working the phones, calling other parents to ask about classmates' scores. Not cool. "Can you just stop, Mom?" Sophie says. "My mom is annoying. She's always asking about my friends' grades. It's rude."
I ask in Mandarin how she feels about her own score. She responds in playfully accented English, "Goo-dah." But less than a minute after learning her score, Sophie and her mother have lasered in on her relatively poor result on the English section of the exam. Originally, Sophie had intended to spend her summer doing what she hadn't done for the previous three years: kicking back. Her family and Peggy's were going to Tibet for 10 days, and after that, nothing.
But in the end, there might not be time for that. "My English is too bad," Sophie says with a sigh. "I should keep studying this summer."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.