This year, Liang Shi, a 56-year-old from China’s Sichuan Province scored 424 out of a possible 750 points on China’s notoriously challenging college entrance exam. The grade was 34 points shy of the minimum required to be considered for entry into a university.
What makes this failure unique is that it’s the 27th time Liang has failed the exam. He has sat for the exam dozens of times since 1983.
According to Chinese media outlet Tianmu News, Liang said, “I used to say ‘I just don’t believe I won’t make it,’ but now I’m torn,” adding that he wondered if he would ever achieve his dream of higher education.
It’s estimated that nearly 13 million students sat for the exam known as gaokao (高考), this year alone. According to Chinese government data, in 2021, only 41.6 percent of exam candidates were accepted into universities or colleges.
The famously difficult exam measures a student’s ability in subjects including mathematics and English as well as another science or humanities subject of the students’ choice.
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For many, particularly for those from poor families, the exam is considered a make-or-break opportunity in a country where having a degree is essential in order to obtain a good job.
The exam has been a mainstay of the Chinese academic world since the 1950s and was only suspended during the Cultural Revolution.
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Liang’s first attempt at the exam was when he was just 16. He continued to sit for the exam every year until 1992, working odd jobs to sustain himself.
After 1992 he was considered too old to sit for the exam and was no longer eligible to try.
Also in 1992, following the bankruptcy of the factory he worked in, Liang launched a timber wholesale business, which took off earning him 1 million yuan within the first year of operation. He then started a construction material business which also did well, making him further millions.
In 2001, his dream of becoming an “intellectual” was given new hope after the Chinese government removed the age limit for the gaokao.
Liang said his motivation to sit for the exam, despite failure after failure, changed over the years from a desire to change his fate to being unwilling to give up.
In 2014, he told Chinese The Paper, “I think it’s such a pity if you don’t go to college, your life won’t be complete without higher education.”
He has earned the title of the “No. 1 Gaokao holdout,” and says he abstained from things like drinking and playing mahjong to prepare for the test.
After 27 attempts, Liang says he is starting to get discouraged.
“I have been contemplating whether I should continue,” he told Tianmu News, adding that, “Maybe I do need to reflect on myself.”
Liang told another news outlet, “I might give up. If I do attend it next year, I will give up my last name Liang if I fail.”