AS A TEENAGE schoolgirl, Tang Sisi has mixed feelings about the snowstorm that hit her village in the poor western province of Gansu on March 16th. On the downside, the snow burned out the village’s electrical transformer, cutting her access to online classes that have replaced normal lessons since covid-19 closed schools across China weeks ago. On the upside, when the internet dropped just after Chinese class, Sisi’s first lesson of the day, she could abandon her usual place of study—a rough wooden chair and desk in an outdoor courtyard, placed to catch the signal from a neighbour’s Wi-Fi—and shelter from the storm.
Sisi, whose father is a village official and whose mother is a migrant worker, cannot afford to miss many classes. Like millions of Chinese teenagers she is preparing for an examination for entrance to senior secondary school. It is known as the zhongkao, and sends students down one of two tracks. A vocational track involves three years studying a trade at a technical school. An academic track starts at senior high school and, for the most studious, ends with a four-year degree course at university.
Put bluntly, those who do well at the zhongkao have a shot at becoming doctors, bank managers, government officials or teachers—Sisi’s own ambition is to teach English. Teenagers who do badly must either enter the labour market or study for vocational diplomas of varying quality. The zhongkao may not be as famous as the gaokao, the terrifying university entrance exam that has inspired books, documentaries and feature films. But the zhongkao shapes more lives. In one sign of the exam’s hold on parental imaginations, Chinese social media erupted in heated debate when Hubei province, seat of the virus outbreak, announced that the children of medical workers would be granted ten bonus points on their zhongkao scores.