From June to August, the small town of Maotanchang in Eastern China is a ghost town. Come the end of August, the town swells from 5,000 residents to more than 50,000. Nearly 10,000 of those are students studying for China’s notoriously difficult college entrance exam, known as the “gaokao," Want China Times reports.
The Gaokao exam, or “high test” in Mandarin, is a grueling standardized test that all Chinese students must take if they plan on going to college. The Gaokao lasts for nine hours over the course of two days and tests students in math, science, English, physics, chemistry, geography, history and Chinese.
The test is considered so grueling that, according to GlobalPost, many students hook themselves up to IV bags of amino acids to fuel marathon study sessions and exam sites ban nearly anything that could be used for cheating. Because the exam is nearly the sole factor in college application decisions and the test is only given once a year, the pressure on students in enormous.
"The gaokao is about the most pressure-packed examination in the world given the numbers, the repercussions, and the stress involved,"Ari Wolfe, an English teacher in Guangzhou who tutors students for the exam, told Time in 2007.
Often, students that don’t receive elite scores will go to special schools after graduating high school to study for the Gaokao for the entire year. That’s where Maotanchang comes in.
Maotanchang Middle School and its sister school, Jin'an Middle School, are “cram schools” that specialize in preparing students for the Gaokao. Classes are so large that teachers use loudspeakers to address students and students undergo nonstop lectures and practice exams every day from 6:10 a.m. to 10:50 p.m., with only two short 30 minute meal breaks and one hour of relaxation time. Teachers have even suggested having scheduled bathroom times for even more efficient classes.
Maotanchang has become famous in recent weeks because of a China Youth Daily article that called the town “China’s Largest Gaokao Factory” and “Gaokao Holy Land.”
It became a trending topic on Sina Weibo, China’s microblogging service, according to Foreign Policy. Many alumni of the high school chimed in with their personal experiences of the town, many of which were not positive.
Page 2 of 2 - A former student going by @FORTHECITY posted, "I remember a classmate of ours sneaking online [instead of studying]; he was sent back to his hometown in a police car with sirens blazing."
With 80% of students at the two high schools achieving the required grade to enter college, it appears that whatever Maotanchang is doing is working.
The hype around the success rates has only driven enrollment to the “magic” schools, which have become the economic heart of the town.
The influx of 50,000 people every year (including 20,000 middle school students and 10,000 parents) has raised the town's fiscal revenue to nearly $2.45 million, four times the neighboring town of Dongehkou.
"The entire town lives on the two schools," Yang Huajun, office director of the local government, told Want China Times. "For us, these two schools are not only the core of Maotanchang, but also the engine which can stimulate the local economy."
The hotel, restaurant, and real estate economies have boomed due to the influx of students every year. Many residents of the town rent their homes out to parents for $1,300 to $3,300 a year, which is exorbitant for a small mountain town in China.
The “cram schools” have become so integral to the town’s economy that Mayor Han Huaiguo called the relationship between the schools and the town to be that of “family.”
“Any of the schools' needs, are the town's needs as well,” said Hauiguo, according to Want China Times.
While the town may be championing their success and parents eager to send their children there, one former student had sobering words, Foreign Policy reports.
The former student wrote on Sina Weibo, "You only see the high passage rate, but you don't see how much we have given up to go to university. You scratch the surface, but you don't see how much scolding and physical punishment there is from teachers or how many students commit suicide under pressure."