Hidden among the skyscrapers of downtown Hong Kong, the Man Mo Temple plays host to two of Hong Kong's most revered Taoist deities: Man Cheong, a Chinese civil servant from the third century BC and Kuan Ti, a soldier from the second century AD.
These two deities, who are now worshipped respectively as the God of Literature and the God of War, reflect the long tradition in Chinese culture of interrelating educational pursuits with war. In fact, this temple is the oldest in Hong Kong, gracing the island before the British first set foot here in the 1850s. Other Man Mo Temples have also proliferated the Hong Kong landscape, allowing locals to easily send their messages to heaven through the sandalwood smoke of the incense they light.
While many Chinese traditions are becoming obsolete as the influence of western pop culture encroach, Hong Kong's secondary school students have managed to hold on to this relationship between man and mo, the Cantonese expressions for "literature" and "warfare." For these students, however, this relationship has developed even further to the point where students have created a complicated, extended analogy linking terms usually affiliated to warfare with their preparations for the A-level examinations.
As over 100,000 Hong Kong secondary school students prepare for their annual Advanced-level (A-level) examinations, they take on competitive, aggressive personas who fight to outperform their peers when sitting for these assessments. The A-levels are a set of standardized tests, for which students spend the last two years of their secondary school life preparing. They are based on the British testing system, which serves as a powerful reminder of Great Britain's 150-year-long colonial influences on the region.
These tests represent the last in a series of government-administered tests, which are designed to cull the number of teenagers being groomed for positions at universities. The A-levels determine whether a student may matriculate, which university he will attend, and even which major he will be allowed to pursue.
I was first exposed to this connection between education and warfare when a number of my students -- all of whom are freshmen at the Chinese University of Hong Kong -- wrote poems using war analogies when describing their first semester as college students. One student, Bill, submitted a poem entitled "Endless Trials" as a description of his academic life in the fall:
New battleground, new weaponry,
New enemies, new armory,
Many senseless challenges still I must face.
Will peace come or must I all these embrace?
Initially, I did not understand why Bill had made use of such militaristic vocabulary. Soon after I raised this question in class, my students began to flood me with responses. They spouted off catchy phrases, metaphors and even long poems in Cantonese which connected language typically reserved for the fields of battle to their daily academic lives, particularly the previous two years they had just spent preparing for the A-level examinations.
Our discussion of Bill's poem led me to investigate this trend on a deeper level. After sending out an e-mail to my students asking a few questions, I was shocked to discover how outspoken my usually reserved students were on the subject. I could not keep up with the number of messages piling up in my inbox. Messages not only from my students but from classmates who had heard of my inquiry, voiced their opinions and offered their commentary.
One of the most interesting responses included a contemporary version of a famous war poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu. This poem, written in the eighth century ad and entitled the "Ballad of the Army Wagons," famously depicts the hardships which men endured while at war. The opening lines describe their village's commotion and anxiety as the soldiers depart for battle:
Each with bow and arrow at the waist.
Fathers and mothers, wives and children
Rush to bid them farewell.
The modern version's opening portrays similar emotions, except that it replaces the soldiers of Du Fu's poem with young secondary school students readying themselves to take the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE), which establishes whether students may even be allowed to enters Forms Six and Seven and thus begin their preparations for the a-levels. Whereas the Tang dynasty soldiers carried "bow and arrow at the waist," the weapons of choice for these combatants are their paper and pencils.
This modern-day parody follows a similar structure throughout the body of the poem. As the hapless youngsters take their seats, their emotions start to get the best of them:
Our sweat forms a sea in the exam venue,
And people are getting a "U" grade
Even though others are less prepared,
We die on the exam-field,
Only parts of our corpse left.
Exams are a tenacious battle,
And if we get a "U",
We are no better than dogs or fowls.
Our mothers ask how we are doing,
But dare we whine about it?
So many students already died in the mock exam this year.
The schools push us to score well,
But how can we get the "A" grade?
The "U" grade of which they speak denotes an unsatisfactory mark on their examinations. It also signals the end of their advancement toward the A-level examinations. These students typically find jobs, enroll in a vocational school, or continue their studies overseas in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, or Canada.
TAs I read through these emails, I quickly realized how overarching the extent of the analogy actually was. In Cantonese, students equate the word for examination hall (si cheung) with the word for battlefield (jin cheung). This popular saying, Si cheung yue jin cheung or "The examination hall resembles the battlefield," reflects how students perceive the consequences of their A-level examination preparations.
Unlike American high schools where course grades and extracurricular activities also play a prominent role, standardized tests in Hong Kong are the crucible through which students must pass in order to advance in the educational system.
And students know this all too well.
"If we get a bad result, we cannot further our studies. We are dead." Iris, a petite second-year student standing only five-foot two-inches tall, does not look like your average soldier, but she says that she had to "fight down" her peers in order to get a place to study in the English Department. Others share Iris' concern. Since the Asian economy began taking a turn for the worse three years ago, positions in businesses have been much harder to come by. According to Park Ung-Suh, a professor of business administration in Korea, Hong Kong's real growth rate has remained negative into 2001. This means that jobs are scarcer and that businesses are being forced to cut the wages of their employees drastically.
Many of my students do not even understand the idea of a liberal arts education; instead, they see their three years in college as a platform from which they may secure a well-paying job. Without a college degree, students fear they will lose any competitive edge in getting a job whose salary allows them to support themselves and to give money back to their parents.
"[Just as] soldiers are actually forced to go to the battlefield," Gloria, a shy female student with glasses, added, "we are forced to sit for numerous exams so as to get a passport to university."
The competition is so intense that many students refuse to share their studying tips with their classmates. They even refer to others taking the A-levels as their dic yan (enemies), the people who stand in the way of securing a coveted seat at one of Hong Kong's seven major tertiary institutions. Approximately 18% of secondary school graduates procure one of the 14,500 spots allocated for first-year students. And these figures are up from 5% in the 1980s.
"Exams [are] like war," another student adds, "because you need to 'defeat' others to get a better result, and all the others are your enemies. You are all alone."
Students say that getting an "F" grade on the A-level exams is like getting a cheung (gun) while receiving an "A" is like receiving a fo jin (rocket). Besides the fact that these associations resemble the physical shape of the letter, they also suggest the belligerent attitude that Hong Kong students have developed toward grades. The rocket symbol may suggest that one then has the ability to conquer his opponents while the gun symbol may foreshadow the figurative death of the student-warrior.
The latter alludes to a gruesome tendency in Hong Kong for students to take their lives either directly before or after the A-level results are distributed. My students refer jokingly to their A-level preparations as their sei mong ji lui (death journey) and to the date of the actual exam as their sei kei (dying day); it is the culmination of their hard work and the arena in which their futures will be sealed.
Unfortunately, these jokes sometimes hold more truth than educators would like to admit. Each year, police reports identify that these exam pressures do, in fact, contribute to the suicides of several teenagers. Students who cannot handle the pressure choose to end their life instead of suffering through the heavy demands of the assessment process.
As the competition gets more intense, students feel this pressure at a younger and younger age. In October 2001, a seven-year-old boy in the Yuen Long district threw himself from his high-rise apartment building after discovering that he had failed a Chinese dictation exam. The headlines of the South China Morning Post read like an itemized list of casualties in a battle: "Student Plunges to Death Hours Before Results Due," "Student Left Post-Exam Suicide Note," "A 17-Year-Old Student Commits Suicide before the Chinese History Exam."
Nonetheless, family members still invest countless hours making pilgrimages to local temples including, of course, the Man Mo Temples in order to pray for luck and for their children's successful completion of the examinations. They bring all varieties of fruits and meats as offerings to Kuan Ti and Man Cheong. They also bring spring onions, whose Cantonese name chong is pronounced the same way as the first character of the word chong ming, meaning intelligent.
In a culture which promotes the strict observation of educational traditions, it is no wonder that students are encouraged, or even forced, to study diligently and excel in comparison to their peers. "When I prepared my exams," Janet remembers, "I always cried because of the pressure. I felt hopeless and nervous, and I thought that my parents didn't understand what I was going through."
The emotions that these students exhibited at this time reflect a larger issue affecting Hong Kong. A December 2001 issue of The Economist notes that Hong Kong Chinese (along with their Japanese neighbors) are consistently among the most miserable people in all of Asia. One of my students confessed that she could not even remember whether she was happy or not at that period of her life because the "studying and memorization process had already made [her] lose [her] ability to have feelings at all."
While there are no easy solutions to a problem like this, steps should be taken to rectify the methods that are used to assess the relative merits of students in Hong Kong. Personalized testing criteria, which could be monitored in the classroom, could assuage the rigid structure and inherent biases of a centralized exam. In my university courses, I try to fuse western teaching techniques, which stress creative thinking and expression, with their Chinese counterparts. This synthesis gives students the framework from which they can start to develop their own ideas and interests.
To the credit of Hong Kong's Education Commission, they are beginning to take steps in this direction. This commission serves as the governing body, which monitors educational reform in Hong Kong, and it has taken measures to analyze the current effectiveness of education assessment programs in Hong Kong. In 1999, they established a Framework for Education Reform, whose goals were to collect community feedback that might help them in reshaping the objectives of Hong Kong curricula and assessment mechanisms at all levels of education.
The proposed reforms advocate the elimination of the HKCEE exam along with other forms of public assessment, which determine the allotments for secondary school positions. It also calls for the removal of special science and arts tracks in secondary school. Instead, students would only be expected to sit in on one examination upon completion of secondary school, which, along with other more personalized factors, would become a part of the criteria that determined the distribution of university positions.
To quell students' competitive approaches to these tests, the Education Commission report also hopes to establish a more comprehensive set of options for students wishing to pursue higher education. This may lessen the drain of Hong Kong students who opt to go overseas for their educations.
The Commission's web site (www.e-c.edu.hk) billboards slogans meant to reverse the war-like attitudes of primary and secondary school students. They have superimposed Mao-like idioms such as "Assessment for Learning, Not Learning for Assessment" over computer-generated graphics of rainbows and blue skies. These changes, while heading in the right direction, need to be made more concrete if Hong Kong residents are to benefit in the long run. Were they to "minimize the use of quantitative assessments and make more analytical assessments with specific comments," the Commission would ease the torment that Hong Kong students endure, and the war-like language which they use.
For now, I have to keep reminding my student-soldiers that education does not have to be a hostile battle. In The Analects, Confucius constantly reminded his disciples of the inherent goodness of wisdom and benevolence. He also warned them that "a benevolent man is sure to possess courage, but a courageous man does not necessarily possess benevolence." The statement seems to point to why the God of Literature and the God of War are housed together in all of the Man Mo Temples of Hong Kong.
Yet, despite all this, one of the questions that I am asked most frequently by my job-seeking students is whether they can include their A-level and HKCEE scores on their résumés. I just tell them that if they did well on the test, it might be in their best interest. After all, to the victor come the spoils, right?
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