Two generations of China’s “gaokao”


Wen Dongsheng returned to China seven months ago having lived in the United Kingdom for 17 years, and has just about adapted to his new life as the head of a leading college.

Leaving his post as a full professor at the University of Leeds and his stable life in the U.K., Wen, 42, is now dean of the college of aeronautic and engineering at Beihang University in Beijing.


Wen returned as part of China’s influential Thousand Talents program which, from December 2008 has set out to attract highly skilled people from overseas.

Despite his almost perfect resume and life overseas, Wen, a thermal physicist, is happiest when he talks about his formative years striving for a great ambition.

Born in south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Wen spent his childhood in a village and helped his parents on the farm after school.

Wen said,”I was not the top student, but my grades were good, usually among the top ten percent.”

Wen attributes his success to the English word “grit.”

“When I set myself a goal, I always try my best to reach it,” he said.

His first vital goal was the gaokao, China’a annual college entrance exam, in 1993.

“I passed the exam with high grades and was admitted to Beihang University, which made me famous in my county overnight,” he recalled.

In the 1990s, gaokao was seen as the only way for poverty-stricken students to change their fate. From a backward county to a renowned university in the capital, Wen set his next goal.

As a young boy he was addicted to planes, so he chose aircraft design as his major, even though he did not know what he would learn nor what kind of work he would find after graduation.

After gaokao, Wen and most of his classmates were shocked to discover how backward China’s aerospace industry was at that time. After graduation, many students were assigned to work in factories in less-developed provinces such as northwest China’s Shaanxi.

In view of a not-so-promising future, Wen decided to sit the entrance exams of the postgraduate school of Tsinghua University, which of course he passed, and he studied thermal engineering for three years.

His research attracted the attention of a lecturer at Oxford University and he was invited to read for a DPhil with a full scholarship. He completed his work in less than three years.

In 2006, Wen became a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and was promoted to reader at the university in 2009, when only 34 years old. In the U.K., the average age of being appointed to a readership is 45. He took up the chair professorship at the University of Leeds four years later.

Wen sees the gaokao as having provided him with the chance to leave his rural backwater and go global.


Wen was profoundly influenced by his father Wen Qingcheng, now in his 70s.

In 1977, Wen Qingcheng, a village teacher at that time, took the college entrance exam, the first after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

“He did very well in the exam but he chose the nearest junior college to our hometown, for he had three children to raise at that time,” his son said.

After graduation, Wen Qingcheng worked at a high school in Guanyang County in Guangxi and became head of the school. But his hunger for higher education was far from satisfied, and at 40, the father sat another gaokao in 1987, ten years after his first.

He was admitted by Guangxi Normal University with excellent grades. Eight years later, he took up a teaching post at the university.

From village teacher to a university lecturer, Wen Qingcheng was a legend to many locals, but he was still not satisfied.

In 1997, ten years after his second gaokao, Wen Qingcheng, now 50 years old, took a postgraduate course at Guangxi Normal University. It is never too late to learn. Wen also started learning English the same year. He was then appointed professor in the university.

Wen Qingcheng said gaokao is a fair opportunity offered by the county to allow everyone to changed their fate.

“In the old days, Dad may never have had a chance to study in a top university,” Wen Dongsheng said.

So Wen inherited both his father’s love of knowledge and his persistence.


Wen Dongsheng believes the gaokao is no longer the only chance for Chinese students, but it is after gaokao, helping students fulfil their potential during their college years, that concerns Wen most since his return.

On May 23, the school of general engineering was established at Beihang University, driven forward by Wen Jr., now dean of the school.

“I want to build a school with an international environment to teach to international standards. In this school, students do not need to choose a specific major, which will encourage creativity and original thinking. They will learn from excellent lectures from around the world,” Wen said.

After this year’s gaokao, 60 high school graduates from across the nation will be admitted to Wen’s school of general engineering.

Wen expects those ambitious Chinese students to build a better future for the world.

By Hou Qiang


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