Many people said the questions in the Chinese subject in the inaugural Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) examination were much too difficult. A colleague then asked me to read the two articles in the examination paper on reading and comprehension to see if I agree. One article was written some 2,500 years ago, in the classical style, about the importance of rewards and punishments in the rule of law. The other was a modern prose written in 2008, about events in Communist mainland China.
Because of personal interest and fairly extensive reading, I believe my ability in reading Chinese is significantly above average among the population of Hong Kong. I found the classical article clear and concise overall, but quite difficult to understand fully in all details. The modern one was mediocre in writing quality and almost equally hard to understand, but for different reasons.
I could understand what the classical article was saying. But I was not 100% sure about the meaning of certain words and expressions, because they had become uncommon today. Many of the 18-year old students would find them quite hard, particularly when they were under pressure in the examination.
The supposedly modern article, on the other hand, was simply not very good. It covered several events spanning half a century, stretching from the 1950s to the 2000s. Yet it failed to make very clear when each event took place. There were also many cliches: poor living conditions in Hong Kong, bias against mainlanders, sufferings of new immigrants, people living on old pig farms, spiritual emptiness of life in Hong Kong, etc. It turned out it was written by someone who worked for a pro-communist newspaper - sad but no surprises there, this being post-1997 Hong Kong. I could understand very well what the author was trying to say, because of my age and personal interest in modern China. But I can imagine an 18-year old having difficulty understanding events such as the return of many overseas Chinese to China after the Second World War, their disillusionment from the Cultural Revolution, reasons for their crossing back and forth on the LoWu Bridge between Hong Kong and China, etc.
What is the point of making today’s 18-year olds learn to read poorly-written articles full of cliches, and hard-to-understand 2,500 year old articles which bear little resemblance to reading materials relevant to today’s society?
What do they think they are doing at the Examination Authority? Is this simply another example of “examination for examination’s sake? Is this why (I heard) that a student can get a pass in certain subjects in the open examinations in Hong Kong with less than 20% of the answers correct - because the questions are set so be unreasonably difficult?