Episode 1 The Year of Golden Pig – starts as mocks begin for the world’s most dreaded exam the Gao Kao. Pass with flying colors and your future’s bright, Fail and you’re a peasant for life. 17 year old star student Wu Yufei bears a heavy burden her school expects her to finish top of the entire Province of more than half a million students. Her mother gives up work purely to cook and care for her daughter in this crucial year. All the little children at the local charity primary school are boarders selected from the poor mountain villages surrounding town. Leaving families behind is tough, but it gives them a shot at a better life. Recruitment time approaches, but who will the headmistress pick this term? The town’s Middle School students are going on a school trip. With exams looming, one of them invokes an old Chinese saying, “Only happiness learned from suffering is true happiness”. But when the class bursts into singing the latest pop hit, for a few minutes at least, the pressure is off and they’re like teenagers the world over.
Episode 2 Young Pioneers – In a country where it’s rare to have a sibling, the pressure on school age children is immense and never more so than at exam time. It’s May and the heat of summer is setting in. The senior students face the all important Gao Kao exams. Their results can mean the difference between poverty and prosperity for their entire extended family. The bustling town falls quiet, even building sites are closed down, so that everyone can concentrate on exam success. Meanwhile at Ping Min Primary School eight year old Cheng Chao is looking forward to becoming a Young Communist Pioneer. China’s one child policy sets Cheng Chao apart from his classmates he’s one of only five pupils at the school who have an elder brother, something his parents risked everything for. We meet Wu Lin, whose concern about the future of her country sees her researching the polluted river near her school while striving to win an English speech contest in the process. Son of migrant worker parents Wang Jianwen is over the moon when a broken arm leads to a surprise from the city. Wang Lingqi is too cool for school and is more interested in hanging out with his girlfriend, but he knows if he doesn’t knuckle down he’ll end up working in his Dad’s motorcycle component factory, missing out on fulfilling his dream to be a designer in the city.
Episode 3 Hard Beginnings – For eighteen year old Wu Yufei, a new life awaits at one of the most prestigious universities in China. But, before she can start her studies, Wu Yufei must endure seventeen days of compulsory military training. It’s also a hard beginning for the infants at Ping Ming Primary School. Each child has been hand picked to receive free education at the charity run boarding school. But learning to live without your parents when you’re only seven years old isn’t easy. And for the students enrolling at the county’s best school, the new term represents the start of a rigorous daily schedule which starts at 5.30am and doesn’t finish until 9.40pm, in preparation for the pressures of the National College Entrance Exam.
Episode 4 Olympic Fever – China’s first ever Olympic Games are on the near horizon. Xiuning county may be 1000 miles from Beijing, but that hasn’t stopped Olympic fever reaching its schools. It’s Autumn and with the heat of summer and exams behind them, it’s time for the students to hit the sports field. With 3400 students, Haiyang Middle school is the largest school in the county. For the deputy head teacher, sports day is a mammoth undertaking, while School Radio DJ Zha Yujie sees it as the highlight of the year. She takes to the stage to support her friends as they tackle the events of the track & field. At Ping Min primary school they’re holding their first ever sports day. Young champion Dai Deli is the fastest runner in school and determined to take gold, but, as always, there are lessons to be learned all round.
Episode 5 Loved Ones – It’s a month of preparations as fireworks are bought, dumplings cooked, decorations hung, and Liu Xiang’s family even kill their pig to roast the meat. Super student Wu Yufei comes home from university for the first time and Haiyang Middle School hold a great celebratory talent contest. It is also a popular time for weddings and several teachers from Xiuning Middle School get hitched, revealing the schools matchmaking policy. In Xiuning, preparations for the festival are all but complete, with many eagerly awaiting the return home of relatives from jobs in the cities. More often than not, it is the only time in the year when the family can be together. But this year the people of Anhui and southern china are faced with another problem. Treacherous snow and ice storms and the worst weather in 50 years sink the province into a deep freeze and travel becomes impossible. As the days tick by and the stranded crowds at the railway stations grow ever bigger and food prices double by the day the government begins to worry. And for many pupils, the treasured promise of seeing their parents again begins to look less than certain.