Knowledge and the Imperial Exams
Bill Long 8/6/11
A Questioning Approach to the Chinese Imperial Exams
The purpose of this essay is not to tell you all that we know about this amazing examination system, which persisted for nearly 1300 years, between 600 and 1900, as the primary means by which candidates for the Chinese civil service were identified. Some of what we know, of course, will be indicated along the way. But my larger goal, in keeping with many of the essays I have written recently, is to explore how a better system of online knowledge availability for all learners would work for such a topic as this. As I said in another essay, the goal of each page of text or topic studied is to create enough links of quality information (summaries of scholarship, probing questions, interviews with knowledgeable people, pictures, overviews of the topic, exposition of aspects of the issue, links to related topics, etc.) so that a veritable disertation of knowledge is easily available for every subject and every page of text.
Such is not the case now for this topic. In fact, online information about these exams is remarkably sparse, considering their central role in Chinese history. An overview of the history can be found here. Most interesting for me was a page describing the "eight-legged essay," the heart of the exam, in which the candidate was expected to arrange his knowledge. But what is available online is too summary, vague and even contradictory to be of much help. Even Endymion Wilkinson's 1100-page book Chinese History: A Manual only has one page--yes one page--on the exams. Let me show the way that I would arrange and make available knowledge about this examination in my "knowledge-oriented" online universe.
Starting with Terminology
1. It might be helpful to begin with terminology. Wilkinson's one page, mentioned above, gets us started. He breaks down the nature of the examination process during the Qing Dynasty, dividing it into the local or state exams, the provincial exams, the methropolitan exam and, finally, the palace exam. While the first was given annually, the other three were triennial productions. Terminology describing those who took the exam, passed it, and scored at the top is introduced. Thus, I would begin in the very world of the students--and learn all the words.
Moving to Structure and Content
2. But Wilkinson's chart begs questions. When did this system become formalized? The Wikipedia article, only minimally helpful, confuses rather than helps when it talks about exams of various kinds of competency--not just literary. When were these other things tested--such as horsemanship, calligraphy, knowledge of rituals, etc? We need a fairly strict understanding of the evolution of the exams, both in terms of content and form. We don't have this at all online and what we have tends to confuse. Thus, at the outset, we really don't know much of what we are talking about..do we?
3. Then we are told that the candidates had betwen 24 and 72 hours to complete their exams. Well, this is quite a span of time. Which is it or, better said, which exams took how long? Was it continuous? A few hours a day? Did the provincial/state exams require less time than the palace exam? Was the same material "covered" on the local exams as the "central exam?" If so, how are we to define that material? The best I could discover was that the focus of these exams was on nine texts: the Four Books and the Five Classics.
4. Once we know the subject matter, we need to know two other things right away. What were the questions like? Was it one "big" question or were there several? What forms did the questions take? Who came up with them? I read on one page that answers from previous exams were available for study, much like past SAT questions are avaialble to students today. I read, however, that questions were available "from the previous century"--only good if the exams really didn't change much at all.
5. Then we would have to know in detail the shape of student answers. We have the "eight parts" in which they were to be written, but it would be good to know much, much more. What was the relative weight given to recitation of precise words from the classic texts? Ingenuity in putting these words together in euphonious and pleasing combination? Literary ability beyond merely interpretation of the texts? Do we have any surviving exemplars of outstanding answers? mediocre? poor?
6. What do we have by way of exam results beyond this? When I was in Beijing last summer, I made a special trip to the Confucian Temple where on dozens of steles were inscribed the names of more than 15,000 people who passed the palace examination in the Ming/Qing periods. Now that is truly impressive. Any "dissertation" amount of information would have a video about this Temple, with an explanation of the examination process.
7. What was considered an adequate answer? How would the best scholars of ancient Chinese classics in our day do on such an exam? Would any consent to have such an exam administered to them? I would love to have several leading academics or students of Chinese classics tell us precisely what these questions consisted of and how they would go about answering the questions.
8. We learn that the passage rate was low--I have seen figures from 1-5%--and so there were far more disappointed young people, and middle-aged people, running around than there were successful candidates. I have also read that some of the best poetry from the past 1400 years in Chinese history comes from the pens of those disappointed because they failed the exams. We need to have ready access to these poems, biographies of the poets, interpretations/expositions of the poetry. And, while we are on the subject of disappointed candidates, do we know of those who sold their services to tutor candidates? Were their handbooks to help them? What was their method? Are there reports that discuss the anxiety, the parental expectations, the amount expended on tutors for these exams, a sense of the importance that passing the examination would bring? Several years ago, when I was in Israel, in a Palestinian/Muslim area, I noted that on a few doors in the village were signs indicating that the person had made the Pilgrimage to Mecca. He was a "haggi/hajji" and was highly revered in the community. Did those who passed the exams "hang around" in subsequent years and "cover" the event for the ancient Chinese equivalent of TV--much like fomer winners or high placers from the National Spelling Bee are now commentators, interpreting all things spelling to a nation agog? Of course not...but certainly the zhuangyuan, or the "# 1" in the Palace Exams, probably had lots of opportunities for discoursing about his knowledge.
9. Because the examinations centered on mastery of the nine classic texts, care should be given to understand how these texts were to be mastered. Every reading of a text, especially a classic text, is an interpretation. What was the interpretive "grid" taught to the prospective candidates? Was memorization encouraged? Required? Expected? Was it good enough just to get the "gist" of things, or was the most precise and focused knowledge the only thing that was acceptable?
The goal of my "disertation-oriented" knowledge page on the Chinese imperial examinations, then, would probe these and probably loads of other topics. One would have to look at the social history of the exams, especially in the 19th century, when Chinese inability to industrialize and its susceptibility to British invasion in the 1840s brought the most profound self-criticism, much of it focusing on the sacred texts and the examination process. Finally, we would have to ask the questions of what the role of sacred text mastery is to us in our busy world of the 21st century. I would love to enter into that debate/discussion.
The result of my method of knowledge creation and dissemination (mostly the latter) would be, using the insight of Dorothy Sayers with respect to the help that Latin brings to the learner of Western things, that the knowlege available under my system should cut the time, from 50-75%, it currently takes to learn things thoroughly. That is, if it takes 10,000 hours now to be a master (the current "buzz" out there), in my system and with the kind of detailed and helpful, exhaustive and comprehensive knowledge freely avaialable on the Net, a person could do in 2500-5000 hours what currently takes 10,000. There are intellectual shortcuts out there, friends. Most of what we do now to make mastery happens is wasted time and effort. My method would make this all available to the eager student--and, in fact, a much broader range of knowledge available. Would that this new world could emerge.