The Leaving Exams were cancelled in Ireland this year but in China ten million students sat for the Gaokao, the local equivalent, early this week.
Irish students might think the Leaving puts a lot of pressure on them (and their parents) but it nothing to what the Gaokao means in China. Students there study day and night for five years to prepare for this exam which will decide their future and their parents leave no stone unturned in effort to see their child succeeds.
Those efforts include appeals to the spirts of Einstein, Newton and Confucius. At exam time fruit, flowers, food and written prayers are offered to their statues, often located in public places.
At this moment in Chinese history, when the government is engaged in what it hopes to be the ultimate program to exterminate all forms of religion, this expression of public religious belief must be a disappointment.
The students’ parents were born around 1970 but they still display the Chinese confidence in the afterlife and the ability of the deceased to influence the present.
It is interesting that they appeal not to those who succeeded in business or media but to those famous for their learning. Their ‘saints’ are those who changed our understanding of what it is to be human (like Confucius) or our knowledge of the world around us (like Newton and Einstein).
It is this refusal to see religion and science as opposed but rather as two partners in the search for truth that distinguishes the Chinese even today.