TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) tests one’s English proficiency, while the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) tests one’s verbal, analytical and quantitative skills. To be enrolled in a North American university, foreign students need to attain a threshold score, determined by each university, on both the TOEFL and GRE. When Beijing opened its first TOEFL testing centre in 1981, only 285 students sat for the exam. By the late 1980s, Beijing alone had seventeen testing centres that could test 35,000 people per year, but even with this new capacity, students still have to line up overnight just to get an application form. The TOEFL craze has been sustained into the 1990s. Its importance to Chinese students can be seen from a recent survey, which revealed that 45.5 per cent of the students in five major Beijing universities have taken or are preparing to take TOEFL and GRE. Preparation schools for TOEFL and GRE tests have also mushroomed. The most famous is the New East (Xindongfang). These training programmes have so inflated the scores that the tests are no longer a good measure of Chinese students’ real proficiency, and it has been a headache for North American universities.
TOEFL has also great political significance. During the 1989 Democracy Movement, students who were preparing for TOEFL were much less likely to participate in the demonstrations. In the 1990s, Beijing students could pass the test with much higher scores than Shanghai and Guangzhou students because the southern students were distracted by, and attracted to, careers in their booming local economies.
During the 1999 anti-US demonstrations which followed the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Beijing students followed many kinds of anti-US slogans but not slogans such as ‘Down with TOEFL’ and ‘Down with Xindongfang’. The attraction of studying in America has created a safety valve for the Chinese government and in the meantime has also made it difficult for truly anti-US feelings to take root in the hearts of young Chinese. The Chinese translation of TOEFL is tuofu, literally ‘thanks to good fortune’. The translation is telling.
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Orleans, Leo A. (1988). Chinese Students in America: Policies, Issues, and Numbers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Rosen, Stanley (1991). ‘The Role of Chinese Students at Home and Abroad as a Factor in Sino-American Relations’. In William T.Tow (ed.), Building Sino-American Relations. New York: Paragon House, 162–202.
Zhao, Dingxin (1996). ‘Foreign Study as a Safety-Valve: The Experience of China’s University Students Going Abroad in the Eighties’. Higher Education 31:145–63.
——(2002). ‘The 1999 Anti-US Demonstrations and the Nature of Student Nationalism in China Today’. Problems of Post-Communism 49 (November/December): 16–28.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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