The world's largest education system has one of the lowest participation rates in higher education.
In 1996, just under half the two million Chinese senior secondary school students who sat the national entrance exam gained a place in the national university system, which has a participation rate of about 4 per cent.
Competition for places is fierce, and the stakes high. This year's exam will be held on three days in early July. In preparation, millions of Chinese teenagers are devoting every waking hour to the desperate struggle to land a coveted university place.
Today's situation is a far cry from that of the 1960s, the decade of the Cultural Revolution, when secondary school students were taught to aspire to a simple rural life rather than the ivory pagodas of academe. Back then, those who succeeded in entering university did so on the basis of their class and political backgrounds. Today the only thing that matters is academic merit.
School students Wang Jin in Beijing and Zhang Yu in Harbina know that because of a demographic bulge their chances of getting to university are no better than one in three.
When he was 15, Wang Jin chose to enter the arts stream to study Chinese, English, mathematics, history and politics. Zhang Yu took the science route, and he now studies physics and chemistry in addition to Chinese, English and mathematics.
Both start classes at 7:30am, and school finishes at about 5pm -but revision does not end until about 11pm. For the past six months, this has been the pattern for both of the youngsters. Now, with less than four months to go to the exam, the pressure is rising.
"I feel that I have learned a lot in this past year," says Wang Jin, "especially about analysis rather than memorisation. But, the 15th Communist Party Congress in September caused us a lot of problems with our politics class -we have been told to forget some of the things we learned earlier."
Zhang Yu sees learning in a different light: "Education should emphasise abilities, not only memorisation," he complains.
It is not just the students who are under pressure. Schools, too, are keenly conscious of the need for their students to perform well.
A key school with a poor record in the national exam could find itself downgraded to an ordinary school.
To prevent such an outcome and improve their results, some schools are illegally screening out children by discouraging those who look likely to fail from sitting the national examination.
Wang Jin's mother thinks the pressure on these children is too great. "The system is too cruel," she says. However, she goes on to add, "It is completely fair." Like many parents, she acknowledges that the national university entrance examination is one of the few areas of Chinese life in which family and personal connections have absolutely no influence.
Both Wang Jin and Zhang Yu agree that the pressure of studying is easier to bear in light of the knowledge that all of the students across the country are suffering equally. They keep themselves going with lots of tea and an hour's sleep at lunchtime.
In previous centuries, when men wore their hair in pigtails, a common revision technique was to tie one's hair to a ceiling beam to prevent oneself from nodding off. Teachers still exhort that spirit of perseverance from their pupils, although pupils nowadays are more likely to take vitamin pills or use dubious much-hyped products such as the "Golden Brain" pill in order to try to keep themselves going.
Zhang Yu, who comes from a newly wealthy family, believes that everyone who has the ability should be given the chance to study at university.
For him, failure will mean trying to get a place to study abroad, perhaps in Australia or the United Kingdom. "It is not because I do not have the ability," he says. "There just are not enough chances in this country."