How a university exam in 1977 changed China and created a legendary generation

How a university exam in 1977 changed China and created a legendary generation


Forty years ago, China restored an important entrance exam to the university after an interval of more than a decade when the country was plunged into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

More than five million people took the exam in hopes of securing a place at the university. Yuwen Wu of the BBC describes what it was like to be one of these people.

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On December 10, 1977, I took the bus to No. 35 High School in the Western City district of Beijing, to do something that young Chinese people had not done in more than 12 years.

I applied for the first entrance exam to the university since 1965.

There was a subdued but evident enthusiasm and expectations in the cold winter air, because it was the first time in years that we had our destiny in our hands.

In my pocket was a chocolate bar from my father. It was his way of supporting me. I had never tasted chocolate.

Mao Zedong
Copyright of the AFP image
Image captionMao’s shadow is still hovering in the country and it has been difficult to break with his policies.

During the Culture Revolution, normal learning in schools and universities was interrupted, teachers and intellectuals were humiliated and beaten publicly; some committed suicide.

It was not a good time for those who valued a formal education.

Year of change

Most people associate 1978 with the beginning of reform and opening up in China, but it was in 1977 when the impetus for change began to gather momentum and the examination was enormously symbolic.

In February of that year, I got a job as an English teacher in a primary school in Beijing.

I had just spent three years in a language school that prepared teachers and I considered myself fortunate to be able to stay in the city instead of being sent to the countryside, like my four brothers and most of my classmates.

Students in 1977
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES image
Image captionSome 5.7 million people participated in the 1977 exam, with an admission rate of only 4.8%.

Of course I always wanted to go to university, but when I realized that this was not possible all the time and that maybe it was never going to be possible, I dedicated myself to work.

I was instructed to teach English to 200 third grade students, 10 years old, divided into four major classes.

A week later I learned all their names, I tried to instill in them the love of English, and I received a lot of support from other teachers.

I even gave a master class for the whole school and it seemed that I was going to become an excellent teacher.

One warm autumn day in 1977, when I had just returned from a month in the field with the students, my mother told me, in a very enthusiastic tone, that the government had decided to reinstate the winter university entrance exam that winter. , and maybe you could introduce me.

Historical decision

I could not believe what I was hearing. “Is it real or is it a bad joke? Can I finally have the opportunity to study at the university?”

It turned out that Deng Xiaoping, purged by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution and rehabilitated as Deputy Prime Minister in 1977, had decided to address education as his priority .

And he called a meeting in August 1977 to discuss the possibility of restoring college entrance exams.

Many were in favor, others were not sure. The main obstacle was that President Mao supported the selection of university students from workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ circles and there was little time to prepare for change.

Mao Zedong
Copyright of the AFP image
Image captionMao’s Cultural Revolution was a great threat to students who wanted to enter the university.

But Deng made this historic decision to start the new system that year, which caused a wave of enthusiasm throughout the country, including the school where I worked.

Eight young teachers wanted to take the exam.

Our director told us that he supported us but that he could not give us days off to prepare for the exam.

So we continued teaching normally even though we could skip meetings.

What followed were many long nights studying for the exam while we prepared the classes for the next day.

But I was very excited and I did not feel tired at all.

My mother sat with me until late at night, weaving in silence and testing my knowledge of history.

Deng Xiaoping
Copyright of the FILES image
Image captionDeng Xiaoping decided to make education his priority.

With the advice of my father I applied to study English at Peking University.


I remember taking the Chinese exam on the first day, which included a composition that asked what we had done in that historical year.

This gave me many advantages: I had played a new job, teaching English to 200 children.

We also did an English and math exam.

After passing the written exam I took the oral exam at Peking University, followed by a medical review and a long wait for the final results.

These arrived quite dramatically.

Red Guards in 1966
Copyright of the AFP image
Image captionUnder Mao, students were chosen for their good political behavior rather than open competition.

On the last Saturday of the winter vacation in February 1978, all staff members, including the eight who took the test, were asked to make preparations for the new school year while the principal was going to collect the results on our behalf. .

If it was good news, that would be our last day at school. If they were bad, we would return the following Monday to continue teaching there.

The generation of 77

  • Exams to enter university were suspended in 1966 when Mao’s Cultural Revolution spread throughout the country. The students were mobilized to participate in the revolution so the studies were interrupted.
  • Since 1968, millions of young people were sent to the countryside to be re-educated as “peasants”.
  • Starting in 1970, universities and colleges began to receive students again, including workers, peasants and soldiers, who were mainly recommended for their good political behavior and not with open competition.
  • Some 5.7 million people participated in the exams to enter university in 1977 and 273,000 obtained a place. It was an admission rate of 4.8%, the lowest in history.
  • The admission rates currently for the university exam, the gaokao, are significantly lower but what is at stake is still very important.

The news arrived before noon. Five of us obtained places in different universities. Me at Peking University. Everything was something surreal.

The director hurriedly organized a farewell meeting and each one gave us a gift notebook.

A few days later, I registered at Peking University. And the rest is history.

It is us known as the Generation of 77, although we began our degrees in 1978.

If you mention this term to people of a certain age, they immediately associate you with experience and hard work, with a strong sense of responsibility and good luck.

“You got on the first train,” they say.

Yuwen Wu
Image captionBy 1982 Yuwen Wu, here on campus, was already a teacher at Peking University.

I am very proud to be a member of the Generation of ’77 and to have witnessed a historical event in the recent history of China.

Examinations in that year marked the beginning of the opening and reform of China and the Generation of 77 became the vertical column of the Chinese transformation for the next four decades.

There were professors, scientists, lawyers, doctors, writers and leaders in various fields, among them the current Chinese premier Li Keqiang, who studied law and economics in my alma mater, Peking University.

It was clear that this generation would be the elite responsible for removing the country from a period of darkness .

There has been enormous economic progress, but there are also many voices that question the march of political change.

I fulfilled my dream of a university education and it is indisputable that China took an enormous step towards correcting the failures of the Cultural Revolution.

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