The main street of Maotanchang, a secluded town in the furrowed hills of eastern China’s Anhui province, was nearly deserted. A man dozed on a motorized rickshaw, while two old women with hoes shuffled toward the rice paddies outside town. It was 11:44 on a Sunday morning last spring, and the row of shops selling food, tea and books by the pound stood empty. Even the town’s sacred tree lured no supplicants; beneath its broad limbs, a single bundle of incense smoldered on a pile of ash.
One minute later, at precisely 11:45, the stillness was shattered. Thousands of teenagers swarmed out of the towering front gate of Maotanchang High School. Many of them wore identical black-and-white Windbreakers emblazoned with the slogan, in English, “I believe it, I can do it.” It was lunchtime at one of China’s most secretive “cram schools” — a memorization factory where 20,000 students, or four times the town’s official population, train round the clock for China’s national college-entrance examination, known as the gaokao. The grueling test, which is administered every June over two or three days (depending on the province), is the lone criterion for admission to Chinese universities. For the students at Maotanchang, most of whom come from rural areas, it offers the promise of a life beyond the fields and the factories, of families’ fortunes transformed by hard work and high scores.