China Might Add PE to the Gaokao and Everyone Hates It

Lawmakers are ready to get physical, and may even impose mandatory swimming lessons

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12:56 PM HKT, Thu May 28, 2020 2 mins read

Last week, a group of over 100 Chinese political advisors proposed to include physical education (PE) in the gaokao. The national college entrance exams are notoriously stressful, taking place over two full days.

The advisors suggested that PE would promote health education for middle and high school students, and also alleviate academic pressures. Many high schools already include PE tests in their admissions process. The proposition comes amidst a wider push to include more physical education in schools — another proposal wants to make swimming lessons mandatory in schools across the country.


“China’s traditional idea of talent cultivation puts more emphasis on mental education than physical education, and so schools are squeezing the PE class time to save for those major classes, or even ignoring the compulsory ‘one-hour exercise time’ required by the Ministry of Education,” said Wu Zhiming, one of the proposal authors.

The idea is that if PE were on the gaokao, students may be motivated to spend more of their free time exercising. Wu also explained that getting schools to prioritize PE as much as academics could lessen rates of obesity and myopia among students.


Many netizens on Weibo, however, opposed the proposal, feeling that PE would only increase gaokao stress.

“I remember when I was in high school, the primary purpose of PE class was to relieve pressure…If PE is being tested, will the pressure be too much?” one user wondered.

“High school students do homework until past 11:00 PM everyday. People talk about giving them less homework, but test scores are still important. If everyone else is studying, don’t you have to study too? If you don’t study you’ll fall behind. We should have more PE, but if it’s suddenly part of the gaokao, it will absolutely increase the burden…” another wrote.


Commenters generally recognized the value of PE, but believed the proposal was overreaching.

“I’m an athlete, but I don’t support this. In order to make contributions to society, you need to be healthy. That’s why PE is important. But don’t let PE become a threshold that blocks saplings from growing,” one user said.

Last July, the Central Committee and State Council released new guidelines for education reform which emphasized all-around development for students — including strengthening physical education.

Yang Deqin, deputy to the National People’s Congress, also recently proposed that swimming be a mandatory part of education among primary and secondary schools.


Just a couple generations ago, China had no swimming pools or lessons, and the percentage of the population that can swim is dangerously low — one figure on the tropical island of Hainan puts the number of teens who can swim at just 21%, while another report from rural Hebei province puts the number at 10%.

The plan may actually be sorely needed — in 2016, drowning was the leading cause of death among children under the age of 14 in China, topping traffic accidents and illnesses.

This year’s gaokao has been postponed from June to July because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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