The moment their lives changed

Former students recall their experiences when the college entrance exam resumed after their studies had been interrupted by political upheaval.

As a new batch of students prepares to head to university in September, a group of former students gathered at Shanghai Jiao Tong University recently to recall the moment their lives changed around 40 years ago.

They were among the first students admitted to university via gaokao, the college entrance exam, after the system had been suspended for 11 years due to the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).

Between 1966 and 1969, universities in China did not enroll new students while from 1970 to 1976, they only accepted applicants deemed to be “politically correct.”

Dong Jun

Alumni of Shanghai Jiao Tong University pass by a retrospective exhibition to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the resumption of gaokao.

Most of young people were sent to the countryside to do manual labor.

Many believed they would be stuck there forever but after the cultural revolution ended, the government decided to resume the college entrance exam in 1977.

More than 5.7 million people took part in gaokao that year. But as the decision was made in October while the exam took place in December and the universities only offered about 273,000 places, many took gaokao again the next year, when 402,000 were admitted from 6.1 million test takers.

More than 2,800 were enrolled at Shanghai Jiao Tong via the two exams, with the male to female ratio 7:1 and ages from 15 to 32.

Lin Weiqiu, now 72, was the oldest of his classmates majoring in material science.

He was working at a local shipyard when he heard about gaokao was being resumed, and had a 1-year-old daughter. 

“I graduated from high school in 1968 and began to work in the shipyard,” he said. “I had always been upset during the 10 years when thinking about having no opportunity to enter a university for higher education.”

He decided to quit his stable job and take gaokao in a bid to realize his dream.

“Otherwise, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” he said. “After having lost the opportunity once, people of my generation were eager for knowledge and higher education.”

He had to work during the day but stayed up late into the night to review what he had learned in high school. The shipyard also organized classes after work for him and others who wanted to take the exam.

“Preparation was not easy as I was working in the machinery maintenance department and it was a strenuous job,” said Lin. “Fortunately, I made it eventually.”

For many people like Lin, university life was challenging because they were married and had children.

Yang Meiping

Yu Honghua (left), Lin Weiqiu (center) and Tang Jianxin are among the 2,800-plus students who were enrolled at Shanghai Jiao Tong in 1977 and 1978 after the central government decided to resume the college entrance exam in 1977.  

“My wife agreed I should take the exam but she did not believe I could succeed,” he said. “But when I did succeed, she also encouraged me to cherish the opportunity.”

He lived on campus but had to ride a bike back home frequently to look after his family.

“But everybody studied very hard,” said Lin. “We got up around 6am, attended classes, and studied at night till the lights were turned off at 10pm. Every night, the classrooms and libraries were full of students.”

The university was excited to see a new generation of students. Presidents, deans and renowned professors worked all out to teach courses.

Lin said his studies at the university broadened his vision, enriched his knowledge and was helpful for his career development later.

He later worked in a power machine company and retired as its deputy Party secretary.

For Yu Honghua, 65, from Heilongjiang Province, the resumption of gaokao changed his life to an even greater extent. 

He was a village school teacher after his studies were interrupted after high school. After graduating from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, he worked in China’s sixth machinery industry department, which is in charge of the ship industry.

“Without the resumption of gaokao, I probably would have stayed in the village all my life,” said Yu.

Huang Yuangeng went further.

He was working in a medicine warehouse in his hometown of Nancang in Jiangxi Province before gaokao in 1977.

He graduated from high school in 1974 and his mother, an educator, had encouraged him to continue learning English and advanced math at night school.

Thus it was easy for him to pass gaokao and he entered Shanghai Jiao Tong to study computing.

At that time, there were no computers in Chinese universities. Huang and his classmates had to string magnetic cores and punch on paper cards for programming.

But fortunately, Shanghai Jiao Tong became one of the few Chinese universities to go overseas in 1978. A delegation of 12 professors left Shanghai for America in October that year, before China and the United States had officially established diplomatic relations, to survey higher education there. They visited 20 cities, 27 universities and 14 research institutes and factories in 47 days, connecting with over 600 American friends and alumni.

At that time, computers were popularly used in teaching and research in America, but Shanghai Jiao Tong did not have a real one.

The delegation met with Wang An, an alumnus of Jiao Tong who ran a computer company in Boston, and bought three computers from him for US$50,000, which was then a preferential price.

The three computers were put in an air-conditioned room and students took turns to use them for half an hour each at a time. 

“We had very few opportunities to touch the computers, but we were also lucky as we were the first to see and use real computers in China,” said Huang.

Huang was later selected to study in America under a national government program sponsored by loans from the World Bank.

Huang obtained a doctorate degree in computer at the University of Maryland and worked for IBM after he graduated.

He returned to China in 1997 to start up his own company and is now CEO of Bizconf Telecom Co and has set up a scholarship at Shanghai Jiao Tong University to benefit outstanding students.

“We were unlucky to experience the suspension of gaokao, but we were also lucky to see the resumption of gaokao. It was the turning point of my life, it changed my fate,” he said.

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