Jun 12, 2021 09:30 AM

Weekend Long Read: What We Can Learn From This Year’s Gaokao Essay Topics

Students keep studying Monday as they wait to take the National College Entrance Examination in Xingtai, North China’s Hebei Province. Photo: VCG
Students keep studying Monday as they wait to take the National College Entrance Examination in Xingtai, North China’s Hebei Province. Photo: VCG

The “gaokao,” is the most important annual exam for tens of millions of students in China. For each gaokao — officially the National College Entrance Exam —the essay topics are what usually attract the most attention, and spark the most heated discussions.

The essay component of the exam is intended to test students’ comprehensive language abilities, but it also acts as a mirror, reflecting social trends back to the public. The topics are all of public concern — things that everyone has an opinion on.

There are nine essay topics on this year’s gaokao — two from the National Test I & II, two on the National New Curriculum Standard Test I & II, two on the Beijing test and one each on the Tianjin, Shanghai and Zhejiang tests. Notably, all the prompts call for argumentative essays. The student’s essays are to be philosophical arguments prompted by students’ interpretation of the thought-provoking and abstract topics.

Lofty and demanding as the prompts are, essay responses need to be laid out logically. In the past, essay topics regarding specific social phenomena were popular. But this year the focus has changed. The new gaokao strategy aims to test students’ faculties for logic, reasoning and linguistic expression. Argumentative writing draws more attention to foundational Chinese language skills and critical thinking techniques.

This year’s topics can be roughly divided into two types.

The first type calls on examinees to interpret a topic directly according to two different aspects. For example, the Shanghai test requires examinees to adopt different perspectives as they explore the idea “only through the precipitation of time can people come to recognize a thing’s value;” the Zhejiang test asks examinees to think about whether “gain and loss” is an end point, a starting point or the process; and the National New Curriculum Standard Volume I asks for an argument on the “strengthening and weakening” effects of physical exercise. This type of topic demands examinees to reflect on one topic from different perspectives, emphasizing a thing’s “multifaceted nature.”

As for the second type, in-depth arguments should be developed by analyzing beyond the superficial. This year, some essay prompts asked for deep explorations on various themes — possibilities and opportunities, ideals, the process of becoming a person (understood through the Chinese character for “person”), the right time to be alive, what maturity looks like, and the path of life.

Among the composition topics, I think the one in the National New Curriculum Standard Test II leaves students the biggest room to demonstrate how well they write.


An essay topic from this year’s gaokao asks students to write an essay based on the cartoon above.

The prompt material includes a four-frame cartoon of Chinese calligraphy. In the first frame, a “pie” stroke — the first stroke of the Chinese character for “person” (人) — starts with an inconspicuous twist to the upper-left, then turns back downward-left. The second frame shows the first part of a “na” stroke, which forms part of the right side of the “person” character, moving straight to the lower-right. In the third frame, for the second part of the na, the brush first pauses, then makes a detour, inclining slightly up and right.

The comic might illustrate a person’s process of growth: studying, cultivating oneself, growing up and maturing, making progress, step by step. Another possible interpretation of the comic is a symbol of different attitudes one adopts throughout life: The beginning of the pie stroke represents down-to-earth efforts; the start of the na stroke is upright and imposing; the end of it expresses an indomitable spirit in the face of all challenges. By cultivating all these attitudes, one can become a truly respectable person.

Facing such a topic, all students can find something to write about. But in fact, this topic is actually a response to the widespread social concern of “tangpingism” (literally the phenomenon of “lying flat”). It implies that despite temporary difficulties and stagnation, individuals still have the chance to stand out so long as they continue to work hard; likewise, social development will never halt so long as all its members keep pressing forward.

The other topics are also intended to trigger students’ positive thinking from a social perspective. Topics might be diverse and profound. The major problem with the gaokao essay topics today is that there is little difference between students’ scores. Since all students fully prepare using the same methods and anticipating the same potential topics — and are guided by their teachers to develop general argumentative essay skills — their scores tend to be quite close. It is too difficult for the tests to demonstrate their actual language and on-the-spot organizational skills.

China’s 2021 gaokao essay topics

(Compiled by Caixin Global)

Writing essays is part of the annual gaokao. Scores are tremendously important to students. Here are nine essay topics for Chinese high school students seeking to get into university in 2021.

National Test I

This year marks the centennial of the founding of the Communist Party of China. The revolutionary and advanced socialist cultures forged during the people’s great struggle, united and led by the Chinese Communist Party, run deep in our blood and our souls. We celebrate China’s Youth Day (May 4), the Communist Party’s Birthday (July 1), Army Day (Aug. 1) and National Day (Oct. 1); we sing “March of the Volunteers” and “Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China;” we read “Serve the People,” “Snow to the Tune of Qin Yuan Chun,” “Lotus Creek” and “Red Rock;” we admire revolutionary martyrs like Li Dazhao, Xia Minghan, Fang Zhimin and Yang Jingyu; and we learn from such models as Lei Feng, Jiao Yulu, Qian Xuesen and Huang Danian. These inspirational works and figures have continuously offered encouragement and nurtured our hearts. We have sunshine in our hearts and power under our feet. Our future will become part of the new journey of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. We exist in an era of great promise ... Please integrate the prompt content to write an essay on the theme “Great Possibilities and Seizing Opportunities.”

National Test II

The ancients often used metaphors to illustrate the pursuit of ideals, incorporating foundation, method, path, goal and the relations between them. Yang Xiong, a Chinese philosopher in the Han Dynasty, likened self-cultivation to a bow, a correct mind to an arrow, and an ideal to a target; when everything is ready, one is sure to hit one’s mark. The metaphor means that those who continue to cultivate themselves, work on their minds, set goals and put it all into practice will be able to make their ideals into reality.

The above content is meant to inspire contemporary youth to pursue their dreams. Please write an essay in response reflecting on your own development.

National New Curriculum Standard Test I

In April 1917, Mao Zedong published the article “The Research of Sports” in the Chinese literary magazine New Youth, in which he discussed the effect of sports and pointed out that people’s bodies will change every day. No matter what limitations a person possesses by birth, they can grow to be wise. If those who are born strong abuse their strength, even they will eventually become weak; the weak, meanwhile, will become strong over time if they exercise frequently and make up for their shortcomings. Therefore, “those who are born strong should not be complacent, and those who are born weak should not sink to despair. Although I was born weak, Heaven may temper me to be strong. Fate is unknowable.”

The above content is enlightening and instructive. Please compose a reflection on your thoughts and feelings integrating the above prompt content.

National New Curriculum Standard Test II

Note: Trace over the characters printed in red using black ink to learn to write with a brush

Once you have grasped the content and implication of the cartoon, please compose a reflection on your thoughts, understanding and evaluation, identification and acceptance as a youth in the new era.

Beijing Test

Choose one of the following two topics:

(1) Everyone lives in a specific time, and everyone’s life path will vary in that specific time. In the same period, some people lament that they were born at the wrong time, others are satisfied with their current situations, and some feel that they were born at just the right moment, cherishing opportunities and making the most of their time.

Please write an argumentative essay with the title “A Discussion on the Right Time to Be Alive.”

(2) Fruits fall when they are ripe; birds grow wings strong enough to fly. These are the natural signs of creatures reaching maturity. However, for us humans, true maturity is more than mere physical growth ...

Please write a narrative entitled “This Is What Maturity Looks Like.”

Tianjin Test

If time is a one-way street, then days of remembrance are the most striking signposts flanking that road. They tell us how we got from where we’ve been to where we are today. Time never stops, days of remembrance never fade. Through remembrance, simple numbers on a calendar become rich footprints through time, constantly reminding us to carry our original aspirations as we march toward the future.

What is your understanding of this passage?

Shanghai test

Some believe that only through the gradual precipitation of time can a thing’s value truly be recognized; but others believe this is not always the case. What do you think?

Zhejiang test

Some regard gain and loss as the end point; some regard gain and loss as the starting point; others still regard gains and losses as a process.

What experience and thoughts do you have about gain and loss?

The author of the opening essay is deputy director of the Center for Cultural Resources, and a professor in the Chinese Language and Literature Department of Peking University.

Contact editor Michael Bellart (

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