by Zhou Yan
BEIJING, June 7 (Xinhua) -- Who cares if Portugal scored a last-minute goal to win a World Cup warm up match? The only big news in China this Saturday is "Gaokao", the national college admission exam.
A total of 9.39 million high school graduates are taking the two-day exam to compete for 6.98 million places at universities and colleges nationwide.
Despite the high matriculation ratio, the test is tough for candidates, teachers and parents alike. People widely believe the fate of these youngsters, after 12 years of schooling, relies largely on their test result.
The result of the standardized test, which covers math, Chinese, English, natural and social sciences, will decide whether a student goes to college, or back to school for another year, or tries to find a job.
The annual event invariably hits the headlines. Reporters were seen outside exam sites early on Saturday morning hoping to find new angles. A week before the exam, web users widely mocked the press, saying they were certain to produce such cliches as "sick teenager insists on taking the test", or "student who oversleeps arrives at the last minute accompanied by a police escort".
To prevent the latter situation, some parents go so far as to book hotel rooms near exam sites weeks in advance, with the fanciful notion that their children can sleep for extra hours and take a nap after lunch.
In Beijing, all exam sites and areas within a radius of 500 meters are guarded by armed police and are off-limits to pedestrians and vehicles.Many examinees were welcomed with a red carpet, a pat on the shoulder or a hug from their teachers before the exam starts. Anxious parents prefer to stay close, sitting on the ground fanning themselves or gasping under parasols to fend off the scorching sun.
News photos show parents at exam sites kneeling on the ground and burning incense or sacrificial yellow papers as a good luck offering to whatever gods they worship.
All across China, it is more than just the family who swirl around the matriculation test. The whole of society seems mobilized to make sure every student can give it their best shot.
Construction sites have been told to stop working and be quiet.
Retirees who enjoy dancing outdoors to loud music are widely lambasted for "creating chaos that disrupts study and rest".
Earlier this week, the debate escalated in several cities including Beijing and Lanzhou over who should compromise and authorities were forced to intervene.
"I rode my bike to the exam site all by myself, with 2 yuan for lunch and a bottle of water," recalls Sun Jiyan, 41, who took the test in Beijing in 1992. "I bought two pancakes for lunch, not too bad for a meal in those days."
For Sun and his peers, everyone is paying too much attention to the test. "Admission is so easy nowadays. I don't see why people make such a fuss," said Sun.
When he took the test in 1992, he remembers that only one out of 10 students would make the grade. Today it is three out of four.
Sun feels the national fervor over matriculation represents a collective nostalgia. "The annual event easily triggers parents' and grandparents' memories of the 'good' old days."
Gan Fubao, 67, stood out in the 1977 exam. It was the year the test was resumed after the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and 5.7 million candidates competed for just 270,000 places.
Gan had graduated from high school 11 years before he sat the test, but book knowledge and a stroke of luck helped him stand out. The former factory worker entered university and upon graduation secured a job at the local government in Nanchang, capital of east China's Jiangxi Province.
To commemorate the test that changed his fate, Gan has collected all the 36 matriculation test papers from 1978 till today.
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