WHEN China's university entrance exams were restored in 1977 after the 10-year frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, Cui Weiping was a cotton farmer in a bleak eastern village.
"It was a profound turning point in my life," said the 51-year-old, now a professor at the Beijing Film Academy.
Underground reading on the farm helped make her one of the 220,000 lucky ones - out of a staggering backlog of 5.7 million candidates - to get through that year's hastily held exams.
"We would get up to jog and study so early that the stars were still in the sky," Professor Cui said of her university life. "Everybody wanted to win the lost time back." This week, a record 10 million Chinese youngsters sat the two-day National University Entrance Exam. They are vying for half the number of university places.
The entrance exam, or gaokao, is credited as the backbone of China's remarkable growth in the 30 years since it was restored, despite mounting criticism that it encourages rote learning and puts too much pressure on teenagers.
The annual rite, during which the whole nation holds its breath, has turned people's lives around. For students such as Lai Yumei, gaokao is the best chance to climb the social ladder in an increasingly stratified country with widening rich-poor and urban-rural gaps.
She is from a mountain village in the southern province of Jiangxi. Her father died when she was young, leaving her mother to raise her and her brother on earnings from a plot of rice.
"Relatives and neighbours told me to study hard and getting into a university is the way out," said Lai, 22. She studied 13 hours a day in her last year of high school preparing for the exams, spending less than three yuan (45 cents) a day on food to save money.
She is now a student at the medical school of the prestigious Peking University, in Beijing. But that way out is only for the lucky few. A study by Yang Dongping, an education expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology, found the chance of a rural child making it to university was one-third of that of an urban peer, as the best teachers and educational resources are concentrated in the cities.
In Cui Weiping's day, university was just a dream for urban youth, who were sent into the countryside by Mao Zedong to learn from the peasants. After high school, she spent three years farming.
Mao stopped the university entrance exams in 1966, saying the education system was dominated by the exploiting class. When universities resumed partial recruitment in 1970, only workers, farmers and soldiers were eligible. A year after Mao died in 1976, the exam was restored.
"It reaffirmed the dignity of knowledge and education, something that is merely common sense but that had been denied in a radical way," Yang said.