In the autumn of 1977, as relative calm returned to China after the decade-long chaos of the Cultural Revolution, An Ping was laboring in the countryside where she had been sent, like millions of other young people from the cities, to learn from the peasants.
For two years An, an army general's daughter, fed pigs and chickens and tended crops on a commune outside Beijing, while living in unheated dormitories and going hungry.
Though Mao Zedong (
"For the first time I felt life was not worth it," said An, who was 19 then. "If you had asked me to go on living this kind of life, I would rather die."
Then, in late October 1977, village authorities relayed the news that China would hold its first nationwide university entrance examination since 1965, shortly before academic pursuits were subordinated to political struggle. In acknowledgment of more than a decade of missed opportunity, candidates ranging in age from 13 to 37 were allowed to take the exam.
For An and a whole generation consigned to the countryside, it was the first chance to escape what seemed like a life sentence of tedium and hardship.
A pent-up reservoir of talent and ambition was released as 5.7 million people took the two-day exam in November and December 1977, in what may have been the most competitive scholastic test in modern Chinese history.
The 4.7 percent of test-takers who won admission to universities -- 273,000 people -- became known as the class of 1977, widely regarded in China as the best and brightest of their time.
By comparison, 58 percent of the 9 million exam-takers last year won admission to universities, as educational opportunities have greatly expanded.
Now, three decades later, the powerful combination of intellect and determination has taken many in this elite group to the top in such fields as politics, education, art and business.
Last October, one successful applicant who had gone on to study law and economics at Peking University, Li Keqiang (李克強), was brought into the Chinese Communist Party's decision-making Politburo Standing Committee, where he is being watched as a possible successor to President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶).
"They were a very bright bunch and they knew it," said Robin Munro, research director for the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, who was a British exchange student at Peking University in 1978, when those freshmen arrived. "They were the first students in 10 years let into university on merit -- and they were going places."
But back in 1977, most had only a few desperate weeks to prepare for the examination that would change their lives. The timing was especially daunting for those who had been cut off from schooling for years. All over China, students found themselves scrambling to find textbooks, seeking out former tutors and straining to recall half-forgotten formulas.
An, who now works in New York as the director of public relations for Committee of 100, a Chinese-American advocacy group, exaggerated the seriousness of a back injury and took a month's medical leave, which she devoted to studying.