In case it’s not already obvious, “The Test Machine” is a commentary on the Chinese gaokao system, a massive, detail-oriented test that decides one’s admission into college. Here’s a recent story about it.
A note: The word failed at the end of this section is 淘汰, a term that more literally means something like “left behind” or “die out”. It has a sort of Social Darwinist implication that’s incredibly useful when you’re trying to convey the idea of life as a competition. My Chinese coursebooks, of course, tended to talk more about old-fashioned ideas that were 被淘汰的, but this story uses it quite often to describe people being systemically left out of society as a result of their own supposed inadequacies.
More notes: There’s a bit here about Planck and black body radiation. All these words are right, but I’m probably parsing them wrong, since I know very little about scientific theory, and have forgotten what little I once knew.
There’s also a reference to “mao” and “kuai”. The kuai is one Chinese “dollar”, officially known as a renminbi (also known as a “yuan”, about six RMB to a USD), and there are ten mao (officially called “jiao”) in a kuai. A third unit, called “fen” (a hundredth of a kuai) exists, but is almost never seen in the wild.
Rats in the Sewers
When Hu arrived at the testing facility, the door had already acquired a small cadre of followers. And his new partner, Mai Ya, was not an endearing supervisor.
“You’re late…in 1900 Planck developed the quantum radiation hypothesis…” Mai Ya was forever studying the encyclopedia, and hoped feverishly to someday ascend to Borough A.
“Someone died on the street this morning. Right in front of me.” Old Hu thought suddenly that he was as weary of all this as the test-takers.
“The Planck constant is therefore equal to the black body radiation capacity distribution formula…”
Hu glanced at Mai Ya, and remembered the science fiction storybook that Zhao had left. Everyone thinks a little differently, he supposed.
From beyond the entrance of the test hall came a sound of surprise, and Old Hu ran to the fence to look. On the ground twenty feet below, people were scrambling, running, and then he saw that the covers to the sewer had been flipped open, and out they were crawling, threadbare denizens of Borough C, pawing at the things of the citizens of Borough B.
The police bots gave chase immediately, and the band from C retreated underground. The sound of the cheers afterward bored down, down as if in pursuit…
“Let’s get started,” said Hu to Mai Ya, who was still whispering a recitation.
“We’ve started, we’ve started…everyone pay attention! When your number comes up, don’t even try any kind of interference machine or cheating—all it’ll do is lose you your citizenship, and you’ll be exiled to the farms in the western mountains to become fodder for their animals. All right…when your number is called, come up with me…”
The Thinking of Bricks
The testers went in one by one, and entered the machine. Those who passed from Borough B to Borough B returned.
Generally speaking, the bulk of the citizens from B were able to pass, and to be demoted to C because of poor study habits was, in the end, a rare occurrence; to ascend to A was again rarer. But all it took was a demotion, and to worm your way back up again was hard indeed, when one no longer had the time to look at books.
Hu enjoyed games, and would often seek out the Forty-Sixth Street chess masters for a game of go, then proceed to play the Nineteenth Street go masters at chess, or something of that sort. Last week he had won a ping-pong match against a bridge champion who, quite displeased, shouted: “You cheater! The ball obeys you but not me—there must be something wrong with it. The board isn’t fair—let’s play a game of cards, and see who wins that.”
“You’re a champion, what kind of talk is that? If we play cards and you win, can’t I say that the cards listen to you and not me, that the cards aren’t fair? Is it not like that?” Hu countered.
“Yes, what you say makes sense…but then again, I just don’t believe that after ninety years of honing my bridge technique, I can’t win a game of ping-pong!” The old man was quite earnest. The people of Y City were all earnest, and besides the knowledge of an immense number of books, their bricklike minds were empty.
They even did their calculations mindlessly.
It was like a computer. If you ran the CPU at full capacity executing some garbage code, even the most powerful processor crawled at a snail’s pace.
The Y City citizens were snails, carrying a full set of encyclopedias on their backs.
Besides The Test, What Way Out Do People Have?
The wisdom of the machine was endless, and not only did it decide in which city you belonged, it told you what you would do.
Hu had never wanted to be a test machine operator, but he had not chosen it, just as the bakery proprietress sold her water at two mao a bottle and the water bureau sold theirs at five kuai. You couldn’t say that the bureau’s was expensive, because this was what Borough A had decreed. A decided everything, and if you wanted a say it it you had better get to A, and to get to A you had to pass the test machine, and the test machine, well that was A’s design.
It was an endless cycle: The tests turned the people into bricks, and the bricks drew up plans to manufacture themselves again.
The door opened, and today’s seventh tester entered the hall. It was a girl—this was probably her first test, her eighteenth year. Her face was panic-stricken, in comparison with the older test-takers’ mechanical and insensate looks, but there was also, on it, a little anger. Perhaps she would ascend to the gates of Borough A, and Hu was not sure why he felt a rise of passion: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be sick. It will all be over in a minute. Come on, take off your shoes and stand in front, right, put your hands in place, okay, close your eyes…”
Hu flipped the master switch. The test machine gently extended its electromagnetic feelers, firmly fixing the girl in place, sliding a helmet over her head. After struggling slightly, the girl obediently allowed it to slide in place…
Her bowels loosened. The stupid girl hadn’t outfitted herself with any sanitary pads—maybe her whole family had gone to Borough C, and there had been no one to give her the basic instructions…The first test was really a nightmare. The test machine’s feelers went into your body, and drew out your thoughts, squeezed out your ways of thinking. If your brain offered up any dissatisfied opinion towards Borough A, you were done for sure.
She didn’t need to stay the full ten minutes. The red light flashed, and the machine spat out her report: Failed.