“I have my dreams and aspirations. They can only be realized through a college entrance exam. I must get into the college of my choice.” Chen Zhibo looks younger than his 17 years. As he speaks, his face is open and yet also vaguely tense. As he enters his senior year of high school, he’s feeling pressure to succeed. The gaokao, or the national exam in China, is taken by 10 million students each year, most competing for spots in Beijing’s top two universities, Tsinghua and Beida. The test will determine his future—and the future of his parents.
Zhibo attends the Bashu Middle School #2, on the Yangtze River in Szechwan province. It’s just outside Chonqing, a city with 30 million inhabitants and the usual urban advantages, but Zhibo and his classmates have spent precious little time exploring any of it. Instead, they have focused almost entirely on their studies, determined to succeed. Zhibo’s father sees him as a young warrior, preparing for battle. It’s less clear how Zhibo sees himself.
Such uncertainty makes for the unusual fascination of China Prep, this week’s episode of Wide Angle. Zhibo and the other high school seniors at the film’s center are almost painfully dutiful and selfless. All only children—owing to China’s One-Child Policy—they are expected to look after their parents and, in some cases, their grandparents, adults who have invested time, money, and energy into them (some parents, the film shows, rent apartments near the high school for the final year, so they can ensure their children will focus on studies, by seeing to their cooking and chores). Though the kids appear never to question this prospect, it can be daunting, especially for those whose parents are poor.
Still, Zhibo, who was recruited by Bashu, has high hopes. “My dream,” he says, “is to become a businessman like Bill Gates, because he makes a lot of money and can give large amounts to charity.” The film’s subjects tend to maintain this sort of altruistic mien, pledging to “make contributions to society,” and occasionally revealing their own desires. Gao Mengjia, who wears braces, rummages through her book bag, and jogs on campus each morning, sees herself as a financier (which means, she says, she’ll need “capital and a mind like Warren Buffett”), and yet, she sighs, “My dream is to find a little world of my own.”
Throughout the film, which begins on the first day of classes and ends with the exam, senior year students stay focused. On the first day of classes in that final year, the students’ appointed mentor, Ms. Guo, lays down a few rules. “The key,” she says, “is to be aggressive.” Students must be on time for school (the day begins at 7:10am and can run until 10:30pm), waking at 5:30am in order to eat a regular breakfast of eggs and dumplings. They take classes in relaxation techniques (massaging their temples) and are prohibited from socializing (no internet access, no sofas, no makeup for girls, and, during winter, no hear—students attend classes wearing parkas and gloves). They must study assiduously. Only 40 percent of them will go on to the university of their choice.
The film’s interviewees embody a range of backgrounds. The son of farmers and a math genius on a scholarship, Jiacheng feels sad that his mother worries about embarrassing him (because of her lack of education and rough manner). Grateful for their sacrifices, he says he will spend his first paychecks on furniture for his family and new clothes for his parents. Zhang Lie’s father is a politician (himself an early beneficiary of this post-Cultural Revolution system, a farmer who scored well on the very first national exam), and she has been raised in a privileged household. Popular in school (she’s been elected class president), she hopes to join the Communist Party when she graduates. “After you have joined,” she recites, “It’ll be easier to realize your ideals or make better contributions in China.”
Peng Kun espouses different abstractions. Introduced playing the violin, her short hair flopping as she concentrates, she is also a child of privilege. She is also determinedly social, she says spends her vacation “catching up with her friends.” Believing that the system is flawed (parents’ expectations, she says, “are too high because they only have one child”), she does her best to resist, subtly. “Teachers may think we’re quiet on the surface, but in reality,” she says, “we do our own things and have our own strategy.” Peng Kun is resolved to be “creative and energetic” (the film shows her dorm room, including her bunk bed under a tent of gauze and a window painted with flowers and the word “happy,” in English). Following a description of how she tricks a teacher into thinking she’s studying when she’s really reading a novel, Peng Kun adds, “You can say Chinese students have many little tricks up their sleeves. If you’re too direct, like Western students, not only will you get all the attention from the teachers, but you’ll get pressure from your parents.”
Such pressure can be costly. As the exam nears, the headmaster holds a session for teachers concerning the signs of depression and possible suicide “China’s suicide rate,” the film notes vaguely, “is among the world’s highest”). The teachers’ expressions are intent as they sit at students’ desks and take notes, mirroring their charges. (Teachers are also promised pay raises based on percentages of students who make it to university.)
The teachers’ likeness to their charges underscores that the system is deeply entrenched. It also reminds you that China Prep can only show so much. Like every documentary, it engages in a delicate dance with its subjects, its contrivances and revelations alike dependent on their self-performances. Above all, it’s clear that the students at Bashu Middle School #2 know what’s expected of them. “You must rely on yourself to find your freedom,” says Zhang Lie. How you define “freedom” is less clear.