Chinese Imperial Exams
Bill Long 8/7/11
Scoring High--The Words and Pictures
I wrote an essay yesterday regarding the tons of questions I would like to ask and have answered on a "dissertation length" web page about the Imperial Examinations. Today I would like to bore more closely in on what we know regarding those who did best on the tests. As with much of the Chinese language, the words used to describe the most successful candidates have a richness and vividness to them.
Though more than 95% of candidates failed the palace exams, the highest level of triennial imperial exams, some made it all the way. They were known as jin(4) shi (4), an "advanced scholar." Endymion Wilkinson tells us, hwoever, that these were popularly known as lao(3) hu(3) ban(1) or the "tiger class." The Chinese characters are: ???. This language reminds me of the recent bestseller, the Tiger Mom, where Yale University professor Amy Chua details the demanding nature of her parenting method. But I can see using the phrase "tiger class" to describe a number of experiences where a "class" of people has successfully achieved what no one else, really, can do.
The highest-placing scholars in the imperial exams, the ? ? , or the dian(4) shi (4), were called as follows: first place winners were the ??, zhuang(4) yuan(2) which literally means "first certificate." Second place winners (presumably there was just one every three years), were called ??, or bang(3) yan(3) which has been difficult to render. Literally it means "the eye of list of exam candidates," where bang(3) means "list. For example, ??? , or bang(3) xuan(3) min(2) means a "list of eligible voters." The Wikipedia article tries to explain this as "eyes positioned alongside" the top-ranked scholar, but the website previously mentioned suggests that it is to be contrasted with the highest scorers. Those are the "heads" while these are the "eyes." Who knows which is right; perhaps, indeed, there was some evolution in the terminology and things didn't just easily "fit" into 'one, two, three' as we would have it.
Those who placed third were called tan(4) hua(1) (I haven't easily found the "tan" symbol in my typewriter. Dictionaries I have used don't have a difference between the traditional and simplified form of it, but websites I have read give a complex character for it that I can't read). In any case, it is the character for "searching out" or "exploring," and can be rendered, "Agent exploring the flower." Perhaps it originated in the Tang Dynasty "Tan Hua Yan" (banquet) in which, at examination time, two of the scholars were asked to show others around the garden of the "tan hua"--a plant, as will be evident in the next essay, and that this then grew into the name for those who placed third on the exam.
In any case, the three of these were known as the "three great aces," ???, or san(1) ding(3) jia(1), where both ding and jia are fraught with classical meaning.
A Word Picture to Wrap it Up
There is some confusion in the online sources regarding the kind of ceremony memorializing the victory of the zhuang(4) yuan(2). One site says that there was a giant statue of "ao(2)," the legendary green sea turtle, whose legs had been cut off so that it would hold up the sky, along the steps of the imperial palace, and that the zhuang(4) yuan(2) would get to stand alongside of that statue. Another site, which also goes into great detail on the kinds of amulets acquired by families to try to assure success for their sons in the exams, speaks of the fact that a picture of ao(2) was on the floor of the imperial palace, and so, in fact, the zhuang(4) yuan(2) got to stand atop of it. The four-word Chinese idiom can be translated either way "to have stood alone at Ao's head" or "to have stood alone on Ao's head" (????) or "du(2) zhan(4) ao(2) tou(2)."
As I think of it, I believe the phrase, "to stand alone on Ao's head" might even be more appropriate to use of someone who has made a tremendous accomplishment. After all, there were only 33 or 34 per century that rose to this level. We have the Nobel Prize in our day; but there are about 5 -10 people who win that every year. Thus, to be a zhuang(4) yuan(2), to stand atop Ao's head, would be the honor of a lifetime. I wonder if there was something more deeply symbolic about it than simply standing in a particular place. Might it suggest that the person on his head was acting like a divinity (as in this medallion) or that, in some way, he stood linking heaven and earth? Perhaps the aware, then, was not simply a recognition of achievement but was expressing a hope for the person's future. This, indeed, was one of the brightest, most accomplished, men in all of China.
I was going to wrap it up with something more about the tan(4) hua(1), but I will save that for another essay.