Every year when the National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) takes place, the nation holds it breath. Over consecutive days in June, cities across China fall silent and parents pray that their children succeed in the "gao kao", the only way in to the country's universities.
This year, however, candidate numbers slipped by 3.8 per cent, the first fall in seven years. Of 8.34 million high-school graduates, 840,000 declined to sit the exam. Attempts to explain why have raised difficult questions about China's education system.
The NCEE was abolished in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution began and "intellectual youths" were sent to be "re-educated" by toiling on farms or in factories. After the death of Mao Zedong in 1979, the gao kao was restored, and it has changed the lives of millions.
So why are young people abandoning it? The Ministry of Education has cited the "decreasing number of those who are the right age for the NCEE" to explain the decline in interest, but others see things differently.
The gao kao is a high-stakes exam that places a premium on rote learning. Fear of failure has always been high, but now there are alternatives. Some young people are trying their luck in foreign exams with the aim of studying abroad.
It has been reported that in Guangdong Province alone, about ten international college-entrance exams have been opened to local students. In 2008, more than 10,000 Chinese high-school students sat American college entrance exams. The most popular are the SAT and the ACT, which are needed to apply to US universities. British A levels are also popular.
Chinese primary and secondary education has long been criticised for being too focused on the gao kao, for relying on teaching methods that discourage creative thinking, and for overburdening pupils.
Sun Baohong, deputy director of the Institute for Youth Research at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the Wenhui Daily newspaper that demand for international exams showed that China should diversify its educational model.
Other observers believe that the decline raises questions about the decreasing value of degrees.
According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the unemployment rate among 2008's 5.59 million university graduates was more than 12 per cent at the end of the year - about three times the official unemployment rate.
This appears to have been a crucial factor for the thousands of rural students who have forgone the gao kao. According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, more than 10,000 high-school students in Chongqing, many from peasant families, did not sit the NCEE. Even if rural candidates can overcome the huge gap in education compared with their urban peers and win a university place, they now seem deterred by the prospect of rising tuition fees, unemployment or low salaries post-graduation.
Wen Jiabao, China's Premier, has said that when he was at university in the early 1960s, "young people from the countryside accounted for 80 per cent or more of the class - but that is different now".
In most aspects of life - health, education and wealth - rural areas are falling farther behind the cities. Lin Weiping, a high-school teacher in Sichuan, has noted that the rising number of rural youth giving up on university could harm Chinese society.