Among the millions of fresh-faced high schoolers sitting the nation's dreaded "gaokao" college entrance exam on Wednesday, Liang Shi sticks out like a sore thumb – a grey-haired, self-made millionaire stubbornly taking the test for the 27th time.
Liang, 56, is no fool. He worked his way up from a menial job on a factory floor to establishing his own successful construction materials business. But one dream has always eluded him: getting a high-enough score on the notoriously gruelling gaokao to study at the top-tier Sichuan University.
To compete with the millions of high school seniors taking the exam this year, Liang said he has been living "the life of an ascetic monk" for the past few months, rising just after dawn to furiously study textbooks for 12 hours a day.
This year’s gaokao has seen a record of nearly 13 million students registered.
Testing high school students on their Chinese, English, mathematics and other science or humanities subjects of their choice, the exams are critical to landing coveted spots at China's top universities.
Exams can last up to four days, depending on the province, taking between 60 to 150 minutes per subject. The maximum score is 750, with over 600 required for a place at the country's top-tier universities – for years a ticket to personal and professional success in China.
"It's an uncomfortable thought that I didn't manage to get a college education," Liang told AFP news agency. "I really want to go to university and become an intellectual."
Over the past four decades, the Sichuan native has taken the gaokao 26 times but has consistently failed to get the required result to send him to his chosen university. "They call me 'the gaokao holdout'," he said, proudly owning a mocking nickname given to him by local media.
Liang took the exam for the first time in 1983, when he was only 16. He kept trying to boost his score for the next decade – until he had to give up in 1992, as the test at that time was restricted to single people aged under 25.
As soon as those limits were lifted in 2001, Liang's desire for a prestigious college education was rekindled. He has since taken the gaokao another 16 times, including every year since 2010 – even when zero-Covid restrictions made taking the exam more challenging.
Asked how he would celebrate once the test is over, he said he was planning to make up for lost fun.
"I'm going to play mahjong with my friends for three days and three nights." (AFP)