Zachary M. Howlett, "Meritocracy and Its Discontents: Anxiety and the National College Entrance Exam in China" (Cornell UP, 2021)


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Every year millions of high school seniors in China take the gaokao, China’s standardized college entrance exam. Students, parents, and head teachers all devote years, sweat, and tears to this consequential and chancy exam — even though the ideal of the gaokao as a fair, objective, and scientific measure of individual merit is known to be something of a myth.

Why examinees and their families continue to believe in the relative fairness of the gaokao is what Zachary Howlett’s book, Meritocracy and Its Discontents: Anxiety and the National College Entrance Exam in China (Cornell University Press, 2021), seeks to explore. Based on fieldwork conducted in China’s Fujian province, this rich and engaging book looks at what it means for individuals and communities to believe in both the gaokao and the myth of meritocracy that it engenders. Accessible to both experts and those entirely unfamiliar with the gaokao, this book offers a fresh perspective on the role of examinations in the lives of individuals and in their communities, as well as a useful comparative tool, that of ‘fateful rites of passage,’ for future work. It is also filled with stories of examination candidates, their hopes, dreams, and the lengths that they (and their teachers and parents) go to in order to succeed, all of which should be of interest to anyone who has ever experienced a fateful right of passage of their own.

Sarah Bramao-Ramos is a PhD candidate in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard. She works on Manchu language books and is interested in anything with a kesike. She can be reached at

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