Very few would question whether applying to university is a stressful process. For many Chinese students, that process is taken to a whole new level—and applying to art school is no exception.
Every year, thousands of Chinese art students travel to the nearest major city for practical exams, part of the application process to get into university art programs. They sit alongside their peers in sprawling hotel conference rooms or athletic facilities, with pencils and paints in tow. Over the course of a full day, or more, they must complete a specified set of art assignments, which will determine their future academic and career opportunities. And the odds aren’t in their favor.
A report by Daxue Consulting in Hong Kong discovered that the China Academy of Art receives around 80,000 applicants per year, and enrolls just 1,600. The Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing averages over 40,000 applicants per year, 13,000 of whom are invited to sit for their exam; the school only accepts between 700 and 800 national students each year. Given the numbers, it’s no wonder that schools go to relatively extreme measures to ensure that judges of the exam cannot be swayed or bribed. In the end, it’s up to the students to ace this practical art exam. But what does that even entail?
The Central Academy of Fine Arts administers its exams each year at five test sites—Beijing, Qingdao, Zhengzhou, Chengdu, and Shenzhen. Students come prepared with art materials that are listed prior to the exam, based on whichever degree they’re applying for. Those pursuing a career in design or architecture, for example, have a full day’s worth of testing ahead of them. Fine arts students sit two days of exams—with six hours for drawing, three hours for color theory, and a final three for sketching.
“It’s an unforgettable experience and I don’t want to participate in it again,” said Yu Lilong, a graduate student who studies creative product design at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. “The standards are very professional, and it’s incredibly hard. When I applied, I had to do a charcoal drawing of a man’s face, a color still-life painting of flowers and fruits, and a sketch.”
The tests do not cater to any individual styles, nor do they necessarily work in favor of students who want to pursue unconventional approaches to artmaking. In a given exam, for instance, all students will draw the same still life, from a photograph or a setup that sits in the front of the room. In another, students may be given the description of a rare animal and are then asked to draw it, based on the information they received. While some prompts ask that you showcase your technical skills, others are looking for creative expression and individuality—but a lot of the actual scoring depends on the judges.
The China Central Academy of Fine Arts selects five to eleven judges each year ahead of its exams for its three art programs. Prior to the exam, the judges are sent to a secret location in an undisclosed Beijing hotel. Upon arrival, they forfeit phones, laptops, and all tools for external communication, which won’t be returned until the judging is complete.
Once the exams are finished at the five testing sites, representatives from the university collect the applicants’ artworks and attach a border to each to hide any signatures or markings that would identify the artist, and assign them a number. The artworks are then put into suitcases and entrusted to one or two people per site, flown to Beijing, and delivered to the judges in their hotel.