Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Hang Tu reviews Meritocracy and Its Discontents

Zachary M. Howlett. Meritocracy and Its Discontents: Anxiety and the National College Entrance Exam in China. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2021. 266 pp.

Review by Hang Tu

12 January 2022

We live in an age of meritocracy, when inheritance is morally suspect and individual merit has an alluring aura. From Silicon Valley to the Forbidden City, stories of achievement feed off popular imagination about success. The rewards of life, as the myth goes, must be distributed based on skill and diligence rather than on the lottery of birth. Lobbyists, politicians, and public-relations experts would have us believe that a meritocratically selected elite prevents liberal democracy from falling prey to angry populists. With the reemergence of elite education and the growing income inequality, however, critics warn about the dangers of “hereditary meritocracy” that pays lip service to social mobility while consolidating elite privilege and power (p. 37). If such is the case, then why do ordinary people still believe that they can transform their destinies through virtuosic displays of merit?

Zachary Howlett explores the paradox of meritocracy in China’s standardized college entrance exam, gaokao. Chinese high-school students, parents, and head teachers devote years preparing for this consequential and chancy “final battle,” trusting that gaokao is a fair, objective, and scientific measurement of their individual merit (p. 4). Building on fieldwork conducted in China’s Fujian province, Howlett looks at how those who take the gaokao strive to personify cultural virtues, achieve social recognition, and transcend established social hierarchies in the heat of the final fateful moment. Examinees and their families regard gaokao as an even playing field despite being painfully aware of the great divide in China between those more and less favored in educational opportunity and advancement. Howlett deploys the phrase “fateful rite of passage” to capture the dialectic of consequentiality and chanciness that drives a long series of rituals and trials surrounding gaokao (p. 201). On the one hand, attendees earn social recognition by displaying their superior moral character—diligence, persistence, and self-control—through six years of arduous training. Yet they also resort to magic, popular religious belief, and the notion of luck to come to terms with the uncertain result. Hence, a remarkable combination of agency and chance enables participants to downplay the unfairness of the system and pledge allegiance to the fairness of educational credentialism.

Each of the main chapters focuses on one specific aspect of the exam as a fateful event. The high stakes lie in the ideology of developmentalism. Students see gaokao as highly consequential because it delivers the promise of social mobility: for example, moving from the countryside to the city and acquiring the status and stability associated with urban modernity. However, the highly stratified, score-based hierarchy creates a degree of mobility while controlling and limiting it to avoid large-scale redistribution of social resources. Hence, gaokao champions the rural virtue of diligence as the cornerstone of the exam-oriented system but also pleases the urban middle class by highlighting education for quality reforms. Although the urban-rural divide undermines the fairness of gaokao, people still have an optimistic, if not inflated, view of their examination chances. Head teachers, parents, and relatives constantly encourage students to overcome external constraints and focus on developing the internal or personal factors of success: attitude, composure, and morale.

Overall, Howlett’s book belongs to a collective scholarly endeavor to rethink the legacy of meritocratic examination in contemporary China. In contrast to the May Fourth iconoclasts’ rejection of Confucian meritocracy, eminent historians such as Benjamin Elman have forcefully argued that the imperial civil examinations served as well-oiled educational gyroscopes, which maintained a delicate balance between the imperial court and the literati-gentry elites for more than five hundred years. Recently, proponents of the “China model” have celebrated the efficient selection and promotion of political talent by means of examinations and performance assessments as the key to China’s economic miracle (p. 230). By contrast, Howlett seeks to illuminate the deeply paradoxical character of Chinese meritocracy—as a combination of ideal and ideology, promise and false promise, sincerity and cynicism. Gaokao, in other words, still bears aspirational significance despite the fact that its promise of transformation is deeply flawed and mythical.