Are You a Dark Horse?

By Austin Dean

On the first Saturday of June over nine million Chinese teenagers (and their parents) had something in common with the owners of the racehorse American Pharoah. Namely, all were among the most stressed out people in the world.

What was the cause of the stress for the group in Asia? Because years of preparation, worry and sleepless nights were about to come to an end, as Chinese high school students did their final cramming for the gaokao (college entrance exam). Their scores on this will determine if and where they go to university. The rest of their high school careers—grades and extracurricular activities—don’t count in admissions decisions. It is all about the test.

The owners of American Pharoah were anxious due to hoping their steed would become the first horse in more than three decades to win the elusive Triple Crown. They worried—unnecessarily as it turned out—that a “dark horse” would emerge to prevent that feat. Students in China hoped to end up a different kind of “dark horse,” or heima.

For the past few weeks these students have endured another kind of stress: waiting for the results to come out.

When the scores are released each year, a handful of students become stars. The top-scoring students in each city and province are anointed as zhuangyuan, a term carried over from the imperial civil service examination system. Earning this title today assures a place in one of China’s top universities. These young zhuangyuan become celebrities for a news cycle as reporters flock to their schools and homes to learn the secrets of their success (the students always say it was due to their parents and teachers). Students and parents can also cash in on zhuangyuan status. Go to the education section of any Xinhua bookstore, which usually covers an entire floor, and you will see books with title like Zhuangyuan Tell You 76 Study Techniques and Diaries of the Father of a Zhuangyuan.

However, in some ways the success of the zhuangyuan is expected. It is not as though people who get that title had been performing poorly in high school. Also, by definition, there can only be a limited number of zhuangyuan. The number of possible heima, by contrast, is unlimited.

In the context of the Chinese college entrance exam a “dark horse” is an unremarkable student who suddenly makes a breakthrough in the final few months before the entrance exam, raising scores as well as the prospects of admission to a better university. But books and articles offering advice tell students and parents that “dark horses” don’t just happen, they can be made.

Becoming a heima is part belief and part test-taking tactics. The book You are a Dark Horse tells students to focus on eight ideas. Some are abstract like confidence (zixin) and attitude (xintai), while others are more practical like method (fangfa) and efficiency (xiaolu). As one piece of advice reminds test-takers, you have to have the right attitude if you want to become a heima. Every morning and every evening a student should repeat this phrase: “I am excellent, I am very successful, I am happy.” When students sit down to study or review, they should first relax and remind themselves: “I am happy because I am developing my excellence.”

Beyond mantras, a key part of the heima genre is the personal anecdote. Each year you can find a steady stream of examples of students who see sudden jumps in their scores in the last few months before the exam and got into a better university than they had imagined. If other people can do it, so can you.

The books and articles offering advice on how to think like and become a zhuangyuan or a heima are part of a larger genre of “Success Studies” (chenggong xue). From translations of old works by the likes of Dale Carnegie to new stories of Chinese entrepreneurs like Jack Ma and guides for getting into and attending university abroad, this genre is inescapable. One of the genre’s early Chinese classics is Harvard Girl, which details the parenting strategies of a mainland couple whose child was admitted to Harvard. It was the original Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

There is a big market in China for these books, as everyone strives to be a “success.” These works are usually featured prominently on the first floor and near the entrance of Chinese bookstores. In the United States, we usually call this genre “self-help” but the nomenclature in Chinese starts with a more positive framework: you aren’t someone who needs to be helped, just someone who needs to be shown the path to success. It is a small but significant difference.

There are two problems with works describing the road to zhuangyuan or heima status and the success studies more generally, one predictable and the other abstract. First, the entire genre is filled with clichés and abstractions devoid of meaning. More seriously, these works solidify a narrow definition of success: go to a good university and get a secure white-collar job. It reinforces the importance of the college entrance exam and buttresses the social expectations that put such a burden on young people in China.

Two years ago, Beijing Daxue (whose official English language name is still “Peking University”), the Harvard of China, invited an alumnus back to campus to give a speech. He had entered the Chinese language department as a zhuangyuan and after graduation became a butcher. In the first line of his talk he said that his alma mater “lost face” (diulian) because of his profession. He should have done something more with his education. This remark set off a torrent of debate online about whether what he had said was true. He was hardly the only student from an elite school who for whatever reason ended up in a profession that did not require a college degree. Are these people a success?

Even Xi Jinping has weighed in on the topic. In the days preceding the gaokao, an article that Xi wrote more than ten years ago made the rounds of Chinese websites. Xi, then Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province, said that if students tested well they should be pleased, but if they didn’t pass the test they should not be sad or pessimistic (beiguan) about it. Going to university, he stressed, doesn’t determine whether a person will be successful later in life.

That might be a hard message for teenagers (and their parents) to accept after putting so much time and effort into prepping for this month’s test. For now, everyone waits to see if they will become a zhuangyuan, a heima or one of the legions of the disappointed. But they won’t have to wait much longer because scores come out this week.

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