30 Absolutely Insane Questions from China's Gaokao

By Bridget O'Donnell, June 6, 2023

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Each year in the beginning of June, millions of students take the gaokao, China’s National College Entrance Examination. This week, more than 10 million will take the exam across China.

The lone criterion for admission into Chinese universities, the gaokao is a high-stakes exam on which students’ entire future depends.

Scored on a scale of 750 points with questions varying from province to province, the gaokao generally includes tests of Chinese literature, mathematics and a foreign language (in most cases English).

READ MORE: Could You Pass the Gaokao?

Lasting 10 hours over two or three days of grueling multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank and essay questions, the exam is something students spend 12 years studying for in hopes of getting admission to their university of choice.

gaokao-sleep-in-classroom.jpgImage via 飞鸟蜀黍/weibo

Just how difficult are the essays and fill-in-the-blank questions? We’ve compiled some real questions that have appeared on previous tests.

(Click here to try out some multiple choice questions featured on recent exams).


Test takers are usually given two types of essays – “big” (700-800 words) and “micro” (150 words). Answers are then graded by an evaluator.

Recent essays have come under fire for “perplexing” prompts. Students taking the gaokao in Hunan in 2013 were baffled by the following topic: “It flies upward, and a voice asks if it is tired. It says ‘No’.”

Another prompt on the same test said: “A father is cutting articles out of a newspaper while his child embraces him and says, ‘I’m willing to accompany you just like this.’”

“This is insane,” a netizen wrote of the bizarre questions. “Can somebody please tell me what these two topics are supposed to mean?”

Those aren’t the only incredibly complex essay questions. Here are a few from recent years...

1. Relationships

During your time in high school, there must be something you cannot forget, be it a heated argument with your classmates or the inspiration from others.

Some agency has carried out a research on the relationships between classmates in schools. The result shows that 60% of the students find the relationships consent, while 36% of them consider it OK, and 4% thinks the relationship is unsatisfied. The reason of the intense relationship can be over self-awareness, personality clashes or competition. 

Another 72% of the students are quite confident about creating a harmonious atmosphere.

Choose your own angle and style to write an article with the given material. Do not digress from the material.

– 2013 National Gaokao

2. “How Would Thomas Edison react to the mobile phone?”

Material composition. The conversation between two scientists. How would Thomas Alva Edison react to the mobile phone if he came to the 21st century? No less than 800 words, choose your own title.

– 2013 Beijing Gaokao

3. Donation

Write a composition on “donation”.

A person became a billionaire from scratch. He was generous and has devoted himself to charity. He then knew that there were three poor families that lived very hard lives. He felt sympathy for the families and decided to donate for them. One family was very grateful and accepted his donation. Another family hesitated but accepted at last and declared that they would pay him back. The last family thanked him for his generosity but declined it as they thought it was an alm.

– 2013 Guangdong Gaokao

gaokao-get-ready.jpgImage via 信息时报/Weibo

4. George Bernard Shaw

Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say “Why not?” – George Bernard Shaw. Write an essay on how you think of the words of Bernard Shaw.

The essay should be within 800 words.

2013 Anhui Gaokao

5. “The more important thing”

The more important thing.

People are always busy doing things that they think are important, but it seems there is always something more important in the world. Write an essay on your opinion on the topic. 

– 2013 Shanghai Gaokao

6. “Live a balanced life”

Choose a topic on “Live a balanced life”.

–  2013 Sichuan Gaokao

7. Sand and pearl

Sand and pearl.

A young man was depressed as his career stagnated. He met an old man by the seashore. The old man grabbed a handful of sands and threw them on the seashore, then asked him, “Can you find them?” The young men said no. Then the old man threw a pearl on seashore, and asked him the same question again. The young man said yes. Then he had an epiphany: one should be something different before he got recognition.

– 2013 Liaoning Gaokao

8. “The subtle philosophy of the round and square”

The containers for milk are always square boxes; containers for mineral water are always round bottles; round wine bottle are usually placed in square boxes. Write a composition on the subtle philosophy of the round and square.

–  2013 Hubei Gaokaogaokao-in-the-gym.jpgImage via zwk是你呀/Weibo

9. Micro Essays

Choose one question to answer in 150 words or less:

a) Review a Chinese classic

b) Write a poem on “circle”

c) Comment on uncivilized behavior in Beijing

Beijing Gaokao, year unknown

10. Heroes and passion

Write an essay on either of the topics in no fewer than 700 words:

a) There are numerous heroes in Chinese history who set examples. Please write an essay with the title “If I were given a chance to spend a day with my hero.” Select a hero and imagine spending a day with him/her.

b) For what object you have a “passion deep in the soul?” You can choose a plant, an animal or a utensil to write about.

– Beijing Gaokao, year unknown

11. Glamor

Please write an essay on the following:

Who do you think is the most glamorous person? A biotechnologist who led his company in international research, an ordinary welder who gained international fame through his work, or a photographer complimented widely for a series of photos?

– National Gaokao, year unknown

12. Social outcry

After a girl failed to dissuade her father from making phone calls while driving on a highway, she called the police. The police came and educated her father. A huge social outcry followed. Please write a letter based on the given information to the daughter, the father or the police officer, in no fewer than 800 words.

– National Gaokao, year unknown

gaokao-the-test.jpgImage via 万花瞳视频/Weibo

13. Balancing toughness and softness

Everybody has tough and soft spots in his/her heart. Whether you can reach an inner harmony depends on how you balance the toughness and softness. Please choose an angle and write an essay on this topic in 800 words or more.

– Shanghai Gaokao, year unknown

14. Wisdom vs. Honesty

An honest person may not be smart, yet a smart person may not have true wisdom. Please write an essay in no fewer than 800 words on this topic.

– Sichuan Gaokao, year unknown

15. The Little Boy on the Bus

After getting on a bus, a little boy asked the bus driver to wait for his mother. A minute passed and the mother didn’t show up. Passengers complained loudly and the boy was brought to tears. When the mother finally caught up with the bus, everybody went silent -- she is disabled. Write an essay in 800 words or more based on the given information.

– Chongqing Gaokao, year unknown

gaokao-empty-classroom.jpgImage via guo鲸鱼/Weibo

16. Paths

Please write an essay based on three sentences given:

a) Originally there was no path in this world, but after many who have walked upon it, a path came into being.

b) Even if you choose a wrong way to go, it’s a meaningful one anyway.

c) There’s no path in the world that you can’t walk upon; there are only people who dare not step on it.

– Fujian Gaokao, year unknown

17. Freedom

You are free because you may choose how to cross the desert; you are not free because you must cross the desert either way. Write an 800-word essay on this.

– Gaokao year unknown


1. Math

To understand the academic performance of 1,000 students, the systematic sampling method is adopted to choose 40 samples. What should the sampling interval be?

– Gaokao year unknown

2. Math

A tetrahedron’s edge length is √2 and its four points are on a sphere, so what is the sphere’s area?

– Gaokao year unknown

3. Math

Given f (x) = sinx - (2sqrt(3))(sin^2(pi/2)):

A) Find f(x)’s smallest positive revolution

B) Find f(x)’s smallest value, given that the period is [0,2pi/3]

– Gaokao year unknown

4. Math

Math question

As illustrated in the figure above,in the frame xOy, we have a line l :x-y-2=0 and a parabola C:y²=2px(p>0) 

I) If l passes through the focus of the parabola C,find the equation of the parabola.

II) Given that there are two different points P and Q that is symmetrical about line l

1) Prove that the coordinates of the middle point of the line segment PQ is (2-p,-p)

2) Find the range of p.

– 2016 Jiangsu Gaokao

5. Math


Given an ellipse x²/9+y²/5=1 whose vertices are A and B and right focus F.Suppose that line TA and line TB which pass through T(t,m) intersect the ellipse at M(x₁,y₁) and N(x₂,y₂) individually.(m>0,y₁>0,y₂<0)

1) Moving point P satisfies equation PF²-PB²=4,find the track of P.

2) Assume that x₁=2,x₂=1/3,find the cooordinates of T

3) Assume that t=9,prove that line MN must passes through a definite point on the x axis(whose coordinates are independant of m)

– 2010 Jiangsu Gaokao

6. Math

Assume a positive sequence {an},whose sum of the first n terms is Sn, given that 2an=a₁+a₃,sequence{√Sn} is an Arithmetic Sequence with a common difference d.

1) Find the general formula of the sequence {an}(in n and d)

2) Assume c ∈R,for any positive integrals m,n and k that satisfy m+n=3k and m≠n,exists equality Sm+Sn>cSk

– 2010 Jiangsu Gaokao

7. Math

Assume sequence {an} that satisfies |an-a(n+1)/2|≤1,n∈N+

1) Prove that|an|≥2^(n-1)(|a₁|-2)(n∈N*)

2) If |an|≤(3/2)^n,n∈N*, prove that |an|≤2,n∈N* 

– 2016 Zhejiang Gaokao

8. Chemistry

Chemistry question

Under the agency of catalyst, NH3 reacts with O2, so the chemical equation of I should be __________.

– Gaokao year unknown

9. English

Walking will be banned on escalators as part of a trial designed to reduce congestion(拥堵) at some of the country’s busiest stations.

In the first move of its kind, all travelers will be forced to stand on both sides of escalators on the London Underground as part of a plan to increase capacity(容量) at the height of the rush hour.

A six-month trial will be introduced at Holborn station from mid-April, eliminating the rule of standing on the right and walking on the left. The move, imitating a similar structure in Far eastern cities such as Hong Kong, is designed to increase the number of people using long escalators at the busiest times. It could be expanded across the Tube network in coming years.

According to London Underground, only 40% of travelers walk the full length of long escalators, leaving the majority at the bottom as they wait to get on to the “standing “side.

A three-week trial at Holborn last year found that the number of people using escalators at any time of could be raised by almost a third. Peter McNaught, operations director at London Underground, said: “It may not seem right that you can go quicker by standing still, but our experiments at Holborn have proved that it can be true. This new six-month trial will help us find out if we can influence customers to stand on both sides in the long term.”

Holborn has one of the longest sets of escalators on the Underground network at 23.4 high. Tube bosses claim that capacity was limited because so few people wanted to walk up—meaning only one side was used at all times. Research has shown that it is more effective use of escalators over 18.5 to ban walking.

The previous trial found that escalators at the station normally carried 2,500 people between 8:30am and 9:30am on a typical day, rising to 3,250 during the researching period.

In the new trial, which will be launched from April 18, one of three “up” escalators will be standing only, with a second banning walking at peak times. A third will remain a mix of walking and standing.

(Note: Answering the questions the questions or complete the statements in NO MORE THAN TEN WORDS.)

1. What is the existing problem with standing on the right and walking on the left?
2. What did last year’s three-week trial at Holborn station prove?
3.The research suggests that walking should be forbidden on escalators that are at least _________ in height.
4. In the new trail, in addition to one escalator banning walking in rush hours, the other “up” escalators will be used for_________________.

– 2016 Shanghai Gaokao

10. English

Fill in the correct words to use in the blanks.

Stress: Good or Bad?

Stress used to be an almost unknown word, but now that we are used to talking about it, I have found that people are beginning to get stressed about being stressed.

In recent years, stress (1)______(regard) as a cause of a whole range of medical problems, from high blood pressure to mental illness. But like so many other things, it is only too much stress (2)______ does you harm. It is time you considered that if there were no stress in your life, you would achieve a little. If you are stuck at home with no stress, then your level of performance will be low. Up to a certain point, the more stress you are under, the (3)__ ___(good) your performance will be. Beyond a certain point, though , further stress will only lead to exhaustion, illness and finally a breakdown. You can tell when you are over the top and on the downward slope, by asking yourself (4)_______ number of questions. Do you, for instance, feel that too much is being expected of (5)______, and yet find it impossible to say no? Do you find yourself getting impatient of (6) _____(annoy) with people over unimportant things?... If the answer to all those questions is yes, you had better (7)______(control) your stress, as you probably are under more stress than is good for you.

To some extent you can control the amount of stress in your life. Doctors have worked out a chart showing how much stress is involved in various events. Getting married is 50, pregnancy 40, moving house 20, Christmas 12, etc. If the total stress in your life is over 150, you are twice as likely (8)_______ (get) ill.

– 2016 Shanghai Gaokao

11. English

Directions: Complete the following passage by using the words in the box. Each word can only be used once. Note that there is one word more than you need.

Golden Rules of Good Design

What makes good design? Over the years, designers and artists have been trying to __ the essentials of good design. They have found that some sayings can help people understand the ideas of good design. There are four as follows.

Less is more. This saying is associated with the German-born architect Mies van der Rohe. In his Modernist view, beauty lies in simplicity and elegance, and the aim of the designer is to create solutions to problems through the most efficient means. Design should avoid unnecessary ___.

More is not a bore. The American-born architect Robert Venturi concluded that if simplicity is done badly, the result is ___ design. Post-Modernist designers began to ___ with decoration and color again. Product design was heavily influenced by this view and can be seen in kitchen ___ such as ovens and kettles.

Fitness for purpose. Successful product design takes into consideration a product’s function, purpose, shape, form, color, and so on. The most important result for the user is that the product does what is ___. For example, think of a(n) ___ desk lamp. It needs to be constructed from materials that will stand the heat of the lamp and regular adjustments by the user. It also needs to be stable. Most importantly, it needs to ___ light where it is needed.

From follows emotion. This phrase is associated with the German designer Hartmut Esslinger. He believes design must take into ___ the sensory side of our nature—sight, smell, touch and taste. These are as important as rational(理性的). When choosing everyday products such as toothpaste, we appreciate a cool-looking device that allows us to easily ___ the toothpaste onto our brush.

A. account
B. adjustable
C. appliances
D. capture
E. decorations
F. direct
G. experiment
H. intended  
I. operated
J. soulless  
K. squeeze 

– 2016 Shanghai Gaokao

12. History

After a lesson, a student learning the ancient Roman law system wants to know whether slaves, as the laws state, were “excluded from laws [and] do not have any rights.” In reading a few sources during his research, he recorded the following notes:

① Slavery refers to a person who is not a free person in Roman society and is legally regarded as a matter; a person may become a slave by identity at birth and subject to criminal punishment or captured in war; slaves can be liberated and become free. [1]
② The release of slaves was an important part of Roman law.
③ The Laws of the Twelve Tables contained all the relevant provisions. [2]
④ This indicates that there was a slavery phenomenon.

From the end of the Republican period to the Imperial System, the release of slaves became more common with the expansion of the Roman Empire. In the Epistle of the Empire Justice, there were records about the release of a large number of slaves. [3]

Historians say: “A common view in Roman Law is that although slavery is a legitimate social system, it contradicts ‘nature,’ and there are ancient Roman jurists that said from civil law’s point of view, slaves are nothing, but according to the natural law this is not true because all people are equal.” [4]


[1] Roman Law Dictionary
[2] Laws of the Twelve Tables, Fifth Table, Section 8, Article XI
[3] Letters of Pliny the Younger on the release of slaves
[4] Kovalov’s Ancient Roman History 

Based on this information, answer the following questions:

1. Which of the above “sources” are historical data (as opposed to second-hand historical data)?
2. In the student’s notes (points ①,②,③ and ④), which are factual statements? And which statements are the students’ own evaluations? (4 points)
3. Please help this student explain the reasons for the prevalence of the Roman Empire. (4 points)

– 2016 Shanghai Gaokao

13. Geography

Climate formation in North America is closely related to its natural geography. Study the picture below to answer the question.

Climate question

Based on a comprehensive analysis of the three categories of natural geography elements (A, B and C, pictured above), name and describe the three types of climate formations [in North America].

– 2016 Shanghai Gaokao

Completely worn down by all those questions yet? Time to throw out those exam papers!

gaokao-papers.jpgImage via Satme_girl/Weibo

Question Sources: People’s Daily, CNN, Teen Vogue, Quora, That’s, Baidu

[Cover image via 南方都市报/Weibo]

This article was originally published on Thatsmags.com on June 8, 2017. It has been updated and republished on July 6, 2023.

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