The story of a 33-year-old man who has taken China's gruelling university entrance examination 13 times in an attempt to get into the prestigious Tsinghua University has sparked heated discussion on the internet.
Tang Shangjun, from southwestern Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, sat for the test, known as gaokao on the mainland, for the 13th time this year, The Paper reported.
Although his gaokao scores have improved over time, giving him hope that he was close to qualifying, this year his score dropped significantly from previous attempts, leaving him only qualified for an opening at Guangxi University, the report said.
Tang said studying at Guangxi University would be a makeshift arrangement. He still plans to try again next year for a place at Tsinghua University, one of the best universities in China.
"I am quite stressed," Tang was quoted as saying. "I hope next year's gaokao is the last one for me to take."
Besides Guangxi University, he has previously been admitted by two other top schools. But he withdrew, determined to obtain a place at Tsinghua, which was ranked as the 17th in the world and 3rd in Asia in the QS World University Rankings 2022.
In China, the notorious gaokao test is vital for a person's future career prospects. In many people's eyes, it is a life-changing event since it provides the only chance for students from less privileged families to gain a placement at a top university.
Tang was born into a peasant family in Shangsi county of Guangxi. In 2009, when he took gaokao for the first time, he said he couldn't solve most of the problems in the maths component, and his score was so poor that he was only eligible for low ranking universities.
He didn't apply for any of them, instead choosing to go back to high school and retake the gaokao. For the next seven years, he prepared for the test, took it, failed and prepared again, all the while he kept this secret from his family as he feared they would not approve.
Tang only revealed what he had been doing to his parents in 2016 when he achieved a high enough score to be accepted by the China University of Political Science and Law, a high ranking university. His parents said they didn't blame him for the cover-up. They said they were proud of his persistence.
But Tang quit this university as he said he had a Tsinghua dream which was rekindled after he heard that a high school in Nanning offered people with gaokao scores as high as Tang's 100,000 yuan (S$21,000) if they went to study there and sit the gaokao the following year.
The high school also offered him a 2,000 yuan (US$312) monthly allowance and promised to give him 600,000 yuan (US$93,000) if he was admitted to Tsinghua or Peking University.
Tang studied at this school for two years, took gaokao twice, but still didn't make it to Tsinghua.
He later transferred to another high school that offered similar incentives for those who retook the gaokao.
During this time he worked as a tutor during summer holidays and sometimes as a food courier. For the past two years he has traded stocks and funds, earning tens of thousands of yuan, the report said.
Tang said he didn't regret preparing for gaokao for so many years.
"But sometimes I thought if I could have had a full-time job, my family wouldn't be this poor. Now I have nothing and it's difficult for me to do anything," he said.
Tang's story has been viewed 190 million times on Weibo, with over 6,000 comments left on the platform.
"What's the definition of an ordinary person's life? I think we should respect his choice. We are not in the position to comment whether it's worthwhile or not for him to do that," wrote one person.
But some people don't agree. "Didn't he know that the time and opportunities in our life are limited?" one person asked.
"He can study at a university first and then apply for the graduate school of Tsinghua University after the bachelor's degree study. Or he can work and in the meanwhile prepare for the entrance test of Tsinghua's graduate school," another one suggested.
Xiong Bingqi, director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, called on the public to regard Tang's experience as a negative case.
"Middle schools have been instilling students' a viewpoint that entering prestigious universities equals success in life. Students are told that after they are admitted by top universities, they don't need to study or work hard for good and all," Xiong told the South China Morning Post.
"We should be alerted that parents or school teachers will use Tang's story as reference to pressure students to study harder and harder," said the expert.
Tang did not immediately reply to the Post's request for comment.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post .
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