Every day during her final year, 17-year-old Shi Wan woke at 5:30am to an alarm booming through the dormitory at Hengshui High School. Shi would fold her quilt, grab her notebooks and race outside for the mandatory 5.40am run. On good days she got to the track at 5.34am, leaving six minutes to recite a chapter on politics, brush up on yesterday's maths or review a few pages of English vocabulary. Soon, though, the studious quiet would be shattered by the war cry of some 5,000 students jogging in formation and chanting slogans. 'We will win the entrance exam! I want to go to Peking University!'
Shi, now aged 20, is a graduate of one of China's 'super high schools', or memorisation boot camps, where students study non-stop for the notorious national university-entrance examination, the gaokao. It is difficult to overstate the significance of the exam for the nine million students who sit it over two or three days each June, since it forms the sole criterion for the relatively few admissions to Chinese universities.
Gaokao introduced a measure of meritocracy into China's sprawling education system, offering students with few social or economic advantages places at the most prestigious institutions. In rural China a top gaokao score can lift the fortune of an entire family, promising a life beyond the fields for generations to come.
It is of little surprise, then, that in poor provinces students are signing up to super high schools in droves. Of all the schools in Hebei province, Hengshui High pupils have won the most places at China's top universities for 15 consecutive years. 'My parents are working class, a family background of no repute,' Shi says. 'Working hard to get into Hengshui High School and a good university seemed to be the only way for me to change my fate.'
But when Shi received her gaokao result in 2013 her hopes were shattered. With a score of 579 out of a possible (though never attained) 750, she was accepted only by Hebei University, her fifth choice. Shi re-enrolled in Hengshui as a 'repeat' student, one of those so desperate to improve their score they pay 10,000 yuan (£1,000, the school's annual fee) to go through the gaokao again. 'What [repeat] students fear the most is that the final result is worse than the original,' Shi says. 'The fear is the driving force.'
In Chinese media Hengshui High is often compared to a prison camp, a reputation attained after the school affixed iron bars to its windows and balconies. Pupils there are subjected to a relentless cycle of lessons, revision and tests until deep into the evening; mealtimes are hurried and breaks are spent with books. Entertainment consists of 20 minutes of televised news each day. Flirting, another distraction, is forbidden.
Hengshui's methods may be extreme, but the pressure on students all over China is severe. During the gaokao year it is common for mothers to stop working to devote themselves to their child's needs.
Sun Xi says that it would be difficult to develop another system any time soon – 'after all, there are so many people in China'. In 2011 Sun received the highest gaokao score in the humanities stream in Jiangsu province, win a place at the esteemed Fudan University in Shanghai. 'Back when I was burdened by test papers, I would have roared, "China's high-school education is a piece of shit!"' she says. 'But when I calm down and think about it, the knowledge deep in my mind was amassed at high school, wasn't it?'
Few can deny that the gaokao has turned Chinese pupils into some of the world's most forbidding test-takers. Shanghai High School students have topped the triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) league table for the past two cycles, suggesting that in maths 15-year-olds in the city are three years ahead of their English peers. The results so impressed the British government that dozens of Shanghai teachers were recruited to work in England's primary schools, part of an program e to boost maths performance.
Xiong Bingqi, the vice president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, thinks that the system has insidious consequences for Chinese society. Since 'one exam determines one's life', the gaokao results in 'a test-oriented education, which is bad for mental and physical health as well as the development of individuality or other interests'.
To succeed students must memorise dense chunks of information and essay templates. Some argue the system robs them of the chance to develop their analytical thinking. 'The fact that students with high levels of education have little ability to innovate has already had a deep influence on society,' Xiong says. Many wealthy families simply opt out of the system, placing their children in private international schools or sending them to boarding schools abroad.
For students who lack the means to study overseas, unyielding graft remains the only path to a better life. In the end, Shi Wan's backbreaking repeat year paid off. In June 2014 she received a new gaokao score of 625, enough to enrol in the top-tier Shandong University. 'It was the hardest I've worked in my life, but it taught me a lot,' she says. 'I believe I can conquer any difficulty in the future.'