EXAMS IN 19TH CENTURY CHINA
In 1899, Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “A high official called a provincial Literary Chancellor, (Hsiao Yüan), is despatched from Peking to the provinces, to hold periodical examinations once in three or twice in five years. Upon the occasion of an emperor’s ascending the throne, his marriage, the birth of an heir, etc., there are extra examinations bestowed as a favour (ên k‘o). When the village scholar is able to produce an essay, and to write a poem that will pass the scrutiny of this formidable Literary Chancellor, he may hope to become a hsiu-ts‘ai or graduate. In order to fit him for this ordeal, which is regarded by outsiders with awe, and is anticipated by the young candidate himself with mingled hope and terror, it is necessary that he should run the gauntlet of a long series of preliminary test examinations. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]
“Some months before the visit of the Chancellor is to take place, of which notice is communicated to the Governor of the Province, and from him to the District Magistrates, preparations are made by the latter officer for the first examination, which is held before him, and in the District city. It is part of the duty of some of the numerous staff of this official to disseminate the notice of such an impending examination. In any Western country, this would be accomplished by the insertion of a brief advertisement in the official newspaper of the District, or County. In China, where there are no newspapers,1 the message must be orally delivered. The high schools in which pupils are trained with special reference to such examinations, are visited, and the day of the examination notified. Literary graduates within the district, who must be examined with reference to passing a higher grade, are also informed of the date. A small sum, the equivalent of fifteen or twenty cents, is expected by the yamên messengers as a solace for the “bitterness” which they have suffered in distributing the notices. Notwithstanding this clumsy method of circulating the notifications, it is rare that any one concerned fails to receive the message.
“Those who intend to be examined, make their way to the city, a day or two in advance of the time fixed, that they may rent quarters for the half month which they will be obliged to spend there. If the student chance to have friends in the city, he may avoid the expense of renting a place, and if his home should be near the city, he may be able to return thither at intervals, and thus lessen the expenditure; for all these trifles are important to the poor scholar, who has abundant need of money. As many scholars combine to rent one room or one house, the cost to each is not great, perhaps the equivalent of one or two dollars. Each candidate must furnish himself with provisions for half a month. In some district cities there are special examination buildings, capable by crowding, of seating 600 or 800 persons. In other cities, where these buildings have either never been built, or have been allowed to go to ruin, the examination is conducted in the Confucian temple, or at the yamên of the District Magistrate.
“The only fee required for the examination is that paid for registration, which amounts to about twenty cents. Not the name of the candidate only, but those of his father and grandfather are to be recorded, to make it sure that no one legally1 disqualified is admitted. The paper upon which the examination essays and poems are written is of a special kind, sold only at the yamên, and at a cost for each examination equivalent to about ten cents, or fifty cents for the whole five examinations, but the candidate must pay three-fifths of this amount for the first supply, whether he is admitted to a further examination or not. If he is, he becomes entitled to a rebate of this amount on his subsequent purchases.
“Whether to be examined or not is not always optional in China. A father was determined that his son should study for a degree, which the son was very unwilling to do, yielding however to compulsion. He was so successful that at the age of nineteen he became a Bachelor, only to find that his father’s ambition was far from satisfied, and that he now required him to go on and work for the next degree of Selected Man. Perceiving that there was no hope of escaping this discouraging task, the youth hung himself, and was examined no more!
Preparing for Exams in a 19th century Village High School
Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“When it is definitely decided that a pupil is to study for the examinations, he enters a high school, which differs in many respects from the ones which he has hitherto attended. The teacher must be a man of more than average attainments, or he can neither gain nor hold such a place. His salary is much greater than that given by the ordinary school. The pupils are much harder worked, being compelled to spend almost all their waking hours in the study of model examination essays. These are to be committed to memory by the score and even by the hundred, as a result of which process the mind of the student gradually becomes so saturated with the materials of which they are composed, that he will always be able to take advantage of the accumulations of his patient memorizing in weaving his own compositions in the examination hall. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
“During the preceding years of study he has already committed to memory the most important parts of the literature of his native land. He is now intimately familiar with the orthodox explanations of the same. He has been gradually but thoroughly inducted into the mystery of tones and rhymes, the art of constructing poetry, and the weaving of antithetical couplets, beginning with the announcement that the heaven is high, balanced by the proposition that the earth is thick, and proceeding to the intricate and well-nigh inscrutable laws by which relation and correlation, thesis and antithesis are governed. He has now to learn by carefully graded stages the art of employing all his preceding learning in the production of the1 essay, which will hereafter constitute the warp and the woof of his intellectual fabric. In future he will eat, drink, write, talk, and sleep essays, essays, essays.
“Measured by Chinese standards, the construction of a perfect essay is one of the noblest achievements of which the human mind is capable. The man who knows all that has been preserved of the wisdom of the ancients, and who can at a moment’s notice dash off essays of a symmetrical construction, lofty in sentiment, elevated in style, and displaying a wide acquaintance not only with the theme, but also with cognate subjects, such a man is fit not only to stand before kings, but before the very Son of Heaven himself.
Week-Long Exam Period in 19th Century China
Smith wrote: “On the first day of the examination, two themes are given out at daylight, by which time every candidate must be in the place assigned him, and from there he must not stir. The themes are each taken from the Four Books, and the essay is not expected to exceed 600 characters. By nine or ten o’clock the stamp of the examiner is affixed to the last character written in the essay, preventing further additions if it should not be1 finished, and the essays are gathered up. About eleven o’clock, the third theme is given out. This is an exercise in poetry, the subject of which may be taken from the Book of Odes, or from some standard poet. The poem is to be composed of not more than sixty characters, five in each line. A rapid writer and composer, may be able to hand in his paper by three or four in the afternoon, and many others will require much longer. The limit of time may be fixed at midnight, or possibly at daylight the next morning. The physical condition of a scholar who has been pinned to his seat for four and twenty hours, struggling to produce an essay and poem which shall be regarded by the severest critic as ideal, can be but faintly imagined by the Occidental reader. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
“The next two days being devoted to the inspection of the wilderness of essays and poems, the product of this first trial, the unhappy competitors have leisure for much needed rest and sleep. On the morning of the fourth day, the “boards are hung,” that is, the list of those whose essays have passed, is exposed. If the whole number of candidates should be 500—an extremely moderate estimate for a reasonably populous district—the proportion of those whose hopes are at once wrecked may be half. Only those whose names are posted after the first trial can enter the succeeding one. If the subordinates of the magistrate perceive that a great many names are thrown out, they may come kneeling before the magistrate, knocking their heads, and begging that he will kindly allow a few more names to pass. If he happens to be in good humour at the moment, he may grant their request, which is not in the smallest degree prompted by any interest in the affairs of the disappointed candidates, but on the important principle, that the fewer the sheep, the smaller will be the crop of wool.
“On the fifth or sixth day, those who have been selected from the whole number examined, again file into the examination hall, and are seated according to their newly-acquired rank for the second test. Three themes are again propounded, the first from the Four Books, the second from one of the Five Classics, the third a poetical one, in a manner similar to the first examination. A day or two is allowed for the inspection of these essays, when the boards are again hung, and the result is to drop out perhaps one-half of the competitors.
“At the third examination the themes, which are given out somewhat later than in the previous trials, are two in number, one from the Four Books, the other poetical. About noon of this day, the magistrate has a meal of vermicelli, rice, etc., sent to the candidates. By four in the afternoon the hall is empty. After the interval of another day the boards are again hung, indicating that all but perhaps fifty are excluded from further competition.
“The fourth examination begins at a later hour than the third, and while the number of the themes may be larger than before—all of them from the Four Books—time is not allowed for the completion of any of them. In addition to the classical themes, a philosophical one may be given. Besides this, there are poetical themes, to be treated in a way different from those in the preceding examinations, and much more difficult, as the lines of poetry are subject also to the rules governing the composition of antithetical couplets.
“The metre, whether five characters to a line, or seven, (the1 only varieties to choose from), is left to the option of the candidate, who, if he be a fine scholar and a rapid penman, may treat the same theme in both ways. A meal is served as at the preceding trial, and by five or six o’clock, the hall is empty. After the interval of another day, the fourth board is hung, and the number who have survived this examination is found to be a small one—perhaps twenty or thirty.
“A day later the final examination occurs. The theme is from the Four Books, and may be treated fully or partially according to the examiner’s orders at the moment. A poem is required in the five-character metre, and also a transcript of some section of the “Sacred Edicts” of the Emperor Yung Chêng. The design of the latter is to furnish a specimen of the candidate’s handwriting, in case it should be afterward needed for comparison. A meal is furnished as before, and by the middle of the afternoon the hall is cleared. The next day the board is again hung, announcing the names who have finally passed. The number is a fixed one, and it is relatively lowest where the population is most dense. In two contiguous districts, for example, which furnish on an average 500 or 600 candidates, the number of those who can pass is limited, in the one case to twenty and in the other to seventeen. In another district where there are often 2,000 candidates, only thirty can pass. It thus appears that the chances of success for the average candidate, are extremely tenuous.
District and Prefecture Exams in 19th Century China
Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “Every candidate for a degree, is required to have a “surety.” These are selected from graduates of former years, who have advanced one step beyond that of hsiu-ts‘ai, to that of ling-shêng hsiu-ts‘ai. The total number of sureties is not necessarily large, perhaps four from each district, and many of them may be totally unacquainted with the persons for whom they become thus responsible. The nature of this responsibility is twofold, first to guarantee that the persons who enter under a particular name, really bear that name, and second that during the examination they will not violate any of the established1 rules. If a false name is shown to have been entered, or if a violation of the rules occurs, the ling-shêng would be held responsible, and would be likely to lose his own rank as a graduate. Each candidate is required to furnish not only a surety, but also an alternate surety, and in consideration of a present of from ten cents to five or six dollars, the ling-shêngs are quite willing to guarantee as many candidates as apply. They must be paid in advance, or they will prevent the candidate from entering the examination hall. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
“The preliminary examinations in the District city, having been thus completed, are followed about a month later by similar ones in the Prefectural city, before the Prefect, (chih-fu). Here are gathered candidates from all the districts within the jurisdiction of the Fu city, districts ranging in number according to density of population, from two or three, to twelve or more. Those who have failed to pass the District examinations are not on that account disqualified from appearing at the Prefectural examinations, which, like the former, are intended to act as a process of sifting, in preparation for the final and decisive trial before the Literary Chancellor. The details of the Prefectural examinations are similar to those already described, and the time required is about the same. The number of candidates in a thickly-settled Prefecture, will often amount to more than 10,000. As no ordinary examination building will accommodate so many at once, they are examined in relays. The examinations are conducted by the Prefect, but it by no means follows that those who have been first in the District examinations will be so now. The order changes, indeed, from day to day, but those who are constantly toward the head of the list, are regarded as certain to pass the Chancellor’s examination.
Higher Level Exams in 19th Century China
Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: ““Those who have already attained the degree of hsiu-ts‘ai, are examined by themselves for promotion. The expense of obtaining sureties is confined to the last two sets of examinations. The final trial before the Literary Chancellor is conducted with far greater care and caution than the preliminary ones before the local officials. The candidates having been duly guaranteed and entered, are assigned to seats, distinguished by the characters in the Millenary Classic, which as already mentioned, affords a convenient system of notation, being familiar, and having no repeated characters. The students are closely packed together, fifteen or twenty at each table. The first table is termed “Heaven” after the first character in the Millenary Classic, and its occupants are denoted as “heaven one,” “heaven two,” etc. Each candidate notes his designation; for in the final lists of those who have passed, no names are used, but only the description of the seat as above described. Every student is carefully searched as he enters the hall, to ascertain whether he has about him any books or papers which might aid him in his task. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
The examination begins at an extremely early hour, the theme being given out by sunrise. This theme is written on a large wooden tablet, and is carried about to all parts of the room, that each candidate may see it distinctly. It is also read out, in a loud voice. By nine or ten o’clock another subject is announced from the Four Books and a poetical theme in five-metre rhythm. A rapid writer and composer might finish his work by one or two o’clock in the afternoon. As in other examinations, those who have completed their tasks are allowed to leave the hall at fixed times, and in detachments. By five or six p. m. the time is up, and the fatal stamp is affixed to the last character, whatever the stage of the composition. During the whole of this examination, no one is allowed1 on any pretext whatever to move from his position. If one should be taken deathly sick, he reports to the superintendent of his section, and requests permission to be taken out, but in this case he cannot return. A student who should merely rise in his seat and look around, would be beaten a hundred blows on his hand, like a schoolboy (as indeed he is supposed to be), would be compelled to kneel during the whole of the examination, and at the close would be ejected in disgrace, losing the opportunity for examination until another year.
“Some years ago the examination hall of the city of Chi-nan Fu, the capital of Shan-tung, was in a very bad condition. The Chancellor held the summer examinations at that city, because the situation is near to hills, and to water, and thus was supposed to be a little cooler than others. At one of these examinations, a violent rain came on, and the roof of the building leaked like a sieve. Many of the poor candidates were wet to the skin, their essays and poems being likewise in soak, yet there they were obliged to remain, riveted to their seats. The unhealthy season caused much sickness, and many of the candidates suffered severely, seven or eight dying of cholera while the examinations were in progress. That this is not an exceptional state of things, is evident from the fact that it has since been repeated. In the autumn examinations for 1888, at this same place, it was reported that over one hundred persons died in the quarters, either of cholera or of some epidemic closely resembling it. Of these, some were servants, some copyists, some students, and a few officials. On the same occasion one of the main examination buildings fell in, as a result of which several persons were said to have been killed. The utterly demoralizing effect of such occurrences is obvious.
Posting of Results of 19th Century Chinese Exams
Smith wrote: “On the second or third day after the examinations the boards are hung, and the number of those successful appears. Yet to make the choice doubly sure, and to guard against fraud and accidents, still another examination is added, which is final and decisive. In addition to the twenty or thirty who have passed,1 half as many more names are taken of those next highest, making perhaps thirty or forty candidates, between whom the final choice will lie. At this examination a theme from the Four Books is again announced, on which only a fragment, the beginning, middle or end of an essay, is to be produced, under the immediate eye of the Chancellor himself. The number of those examined being so limited, it is easy to supervise them strictly, and changes in the previous order are sure to occur. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
“When the results of this examination are posted, the persons who have finally passed, and whose talents are definitely adjudged to be “flourishing,” are for the first time known. Those who have failed at any stage of the trial may return to their homes, but those who have “entered school” must remain at the Prefectural city, to escort the Chancellor upon his way to the next city where he is to hold examinations.
“The expenses of the Chancellor’s examination, to those who fail to pass, are the same as those of the preceding ones. But for those who have “entered” there are other and most miscellaneous expenses, illustrating the Chinese aphorism that it is the sick man who must furnish the perspiration. The fee to the ling-shêng who is surety, has been already mentioned. There are also other fees or gratuities, the amount of which will depend upon the circumstances of the student, but all of which must be paid. The underlings who transact the business of the examination receive presents to the amount of several dollars, the “board-hangers” must be rewarded with a few hundred cash, etc., etc.
“As soon as the candidate is known to have “entered,” a strip of red paper is prepared, announcing this fact, and a messenger is posted off to the graduate’s home. For this service, a fee of several thousand cash is expected. Large proclamations, called “Joyful Announcements,” are prepared by establishments where characters are cut on blocks, and sold to successful competitors, at the rate of three or four cents apiece. A poor scholar may not be able to afford these luxuries,2 but those who can afford it buy great numbers of them, sending them in every direction to friends and relatives, who take care to have them properly posted. On receipt of these notifications, it is customary for the friends of the fortunate family to pay a visit of congratulation, at which they must be handsomely entertained at a feast. Each one brings with him a present in money, varying according to his circumstances, and his relations to the family of the graduate. If the newmade Bachelor has a wide circle of relatives and friends, especially if some of them happen to be occupying official positions, he will not improbably receive enough in gifts of this sort, to reimburse himself for the costs attending his examinations, and in exceptional instances, his congratulatory presents may greatly exceed the total of his expenses.
“The style of these notices is the same, a blank being left for the name and rank of the graduate which is inserted in writing. It is a very common practice in some regions to announce that the person concerned, “entered as first on the list,” though as a matter of fact he may have been one of the last. This is considered a very easy and desirable way to get a name, though no one is deceived by the fraud, for when a dead wall is covered by scores of these announcements, each recording the entry of some one as the “first name,” it is obvious that the phrase is merely employed for display.
The writer is acquainted with a man who at his examination for the first degree, stood last in a list of seventeen, at the trial next before the final one. But in that test he was dropped one number, missing his degree by this narrow margin. His grief and rage were so excessive as to unbalance his mind, and for the greater part of his life he has been a heavy burden on his wife, doing absolutely nothing either for her support or for his own.
Degrees in 19th Century China
In 1899, Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “It would naturally be supposed that the result of competition so severe and so protracted as that for the degree of hsiu-ts‘ai, would be certified in the most careful manner, such as by a diploma bearing the seal of the Chancellor. There is, however, nothing of the kind. The essays of the successful candidates are supposed to be forwarded to the Board of Rites in Peking, where it is to be hoped they eventually grow mouldy and disappear, else the capital might be buried beneath the enormous mass. But the individual whose talent is at last flourishing, has of that fact no tangible evidence whatever. When it becomes desirable to investigate the claim of a hsiu-ts‘ai, he is2 asked in what year he graduated, the name of the examiner, the several themes propounded, etc. It will be difficult to manufacture plausible replies, which will not give some clew to their falsity. In one case of this sort within the writer’s knowledge, a man who had been examined, but who did not pass, on being questioned gave the name, the subjects, etc., which belonged to his own brother, who really was a graduate. The man himself, as afterward appeared, was in prison at the very time when he professed to have graduated. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
“This absence of credentials for a degree so much coveted, makes it easy for scholars of shrewdness, and real ability, to pass themselves off in districts remote from their own, as having attained to a rank which they have not in reality reached.
“A graduate is allowed to wear a plain brass button on his cap, which he prefers to the pewter one given him on graduating. In case of violations of law, the Magistrate of the District in which the offender lives, may have his button taken away, and the graduate reduced to the level of any other person. As long, however, as he continues to be a graduate, he cannot be beaten like other Chinese, except on the palm of the hand. If a Magistrate were to violate the rights of any graduate, the act would raise a tornado about his head, before which he would be glad to retreat, for the whole body of graduates would rise like a swarm of hornets to resent the insult.
“The financial exigencies of the past generation or two have led to the open sale of literary degrees, a practice resorted to on a great scale by the Chinese Government, whenever there is any unusual pressure for funds, such as the repair of the disasters caused by the change in the Yellow River. It is often quite possible to buy the degree of hsiu-ts‘ai, for about $100, and the purchaser is provided with a certificate, being in this respect on a better footing than the graduate. But subscription degrees are regarded with merited contempt, and their sale great as it has been, does not appear to have seriously affected2 the regular examinations, by diminishing the number of contestants.
Buying Exam Essays in 19th Century China
Smith wrote: “There are three common ways of providing oneself with examination essays without undergoing the labour of composing them. Of these the first is known as the “box plan,” (hsiang-tzŭ), and it is not so much cramming, as padding. The Four Books and Five Classics seem at first sight to afford an almost unbounded field for subjects of essays, and as the Chancellor does not announce his themes until he enters the hall, it is hopeless to attempt to ascertain them in advance. But the shrewd Celestial has an empirical, if not a scientific acquaintance with the doctrine of chances and of averages. He knows that in the course of years, the same themes recur, and that essays which were composed long before he was born are just as good in the present year as they ever were. The “padding” method consists in lining one’s clothing with an immense number of essays, the characters of which are of that minute kind known as “fly-eye,” scarcely legible without a magnifying glass. Upon this scale, it is easy to reduce an essay with 300 characters to a compass of extreme insignificance, and a moderately “padded” scholar might be provided with 8,000 or 10,000 such essays. Sometimes they are concealed in the baskets in which the students bring their provisions to the hall. By dint of a complete index, the student who is padded, can readily ascertain whether he is provided with an essay upon the passage desired, and though the withdrawal of an essay from a pack might seem a more difficult feat, it is easily done by the judicious expenditure of a fee to the guards both at the door and within the hall. A variation of the padding method is to have essays written all over the lining of the inner jackets, which are made of white silk for this purpose. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
“A second and very common way of obtaining essays without2 writing them, is by purchase. In furtherance of this plan, there is a special system of machinery, which (with appropriate financial lubrication) may be easily set in motion.
“The purchase of an essay is one of those acts which in China can by no possibility be concealed. “There is no hedge that excludes the wind,” and the close proximity of so many witnesses would, in any case, render the transaction in a manner a public one. Why then do not those scholars who are honestly toiling for a degree, agree to expose the frauds by which every one of them is so seriously wronged? It is not, indeed, an unknown circumstance for a scholar to cry out, so as to attract the attention of the examiners, when he witnesses the transfer of essays, but it is not apparently a common act. The custom of selling essays, like other abuses in China, is too universal and too ancient to be broken up, without the steady coöperation of many forces, for which it is hopeless to look. The Chinese dread to give offence by any such burst of indignation as would be, for an Occidental, irrepressible. And so things go on in the old way. As to the morality of the affair, if the consideration of it ever occurs to any one, it is hard to make that appear culpable in a poor scholar, which is legitimate for the emperor.
Fake Degrees in 19th Century China
Smith wrote: “The proportion of students who obtain their degrees unfairly must be large, but there is no means of ascertaining the facts, even approximately. No two examinations are alike, and in all of them much depends upon the temper and vigilance of the presiding officer. In one district in which the writer lived, there was an examination in which so many persons obtained their degrees by fraud, that even the patience of the most patient of peoples was exhausted. Some defeated candidate wrote a complaint of the wrong, and tossed it into the examination hall where it was brought to the attention of the Chancellor, who had all the successful candidates examined on their essays, an examination which eleven out of fifteen were unable to pass, having bought their essays, and the result was their 2summary disgrace. Since this occurrence, much greater care has been exercised at this particular examination than was formerly the rule. In another district a candidate known to the writer succeeded in passing the first of the two examinations before the Chancellor, but the second was too much for him. His essay and poem were adjudged bad, and he was beaten a hundred blows on the hand. It was then the custom to publish the names of those who passed the best examination on the first trial before the Chancellor, as already having attained a degree. This notice had already been sent to the home of the candidate, who now had the exquisite mortification of having his name erased, when the prize was already within his grasp. The subordinates in the yamên of the Chancellor kneeled to his Excellency, and implored him to overlook the amazing stupidity of this candidate, which the great man was kind enough to do, and thus a degree was wrested even from fate itself. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
“At all varieties of examinations, there are present many persons who act as essay brokers and as middle-men between those who have essays to sell, and those who wish to buy. It is supposed that both the seller of the essay and the purchaser will be among those examined, but the practical difficulty arises from the uncertainty whether their respective seats in the hall, which cannot be known in advance, will be within reach of each other. As any two persons are very liable to be so far apart that communication will be impossible, it is usual for the essay broker to introduce a number of essay vendors to each intending purchaser, so that the chances of effecting a transfer between any two of them may be increased. To bind the bargain, before the essay is composed, a brief but explicit contract is signed by the purchaser in the hall. The terms are arranged on a sliding scale, called “first two and after two,” “first five and after five,” etc. This signifies that it is agreed that the person who furnishes the essay shall receive in any event a first payment of 20,000 cash, or 50,000 cash, as the case may be, and should the purchaser win a degree, there is to be an after2 payment of 200,000 cash, or 500,000 cash, according to the terms. These payments are enforced by the brokers, who must be well acquainted with the financial circumstances of the several parties. These obligations, like gambling debts, cannot of course be legally prosecuted, but the Chinese have in all such cases simple ways of enforcing payment, such as raising a disturbance in an annoying and public way.
“The reputation of having bought an examination essay is not one which any candidate wishes to have made public authentically, however notorious the fact may be, but the reputation of having bought an essay and of having declined payment, would be intolerable. Some essay vendors frequent examinations for a long series of years, with no view to obtaining a degree for themselves, but in order to reap more substantial benefits from their scholarship than a degree is likely to confer. If they have once taken a degree themselves, they can only carry on this trade by assuming the name of some candidate, to whom a fee must be paid for the privilege of personating him. Graduates of the rank of Selected Men also carry on this business, sometimes in a double way, taking a degree for the person whom they personate, and also having leisure to write essays for sale, after their own are finished, thus killing two birds with one stone. In either case, it is necessary to bribe the ling-shêng who is the guarantee of the identity of the undergraduate.
“The third method of obtaining the essays of other persons, is called “transmission” (ch‘uan ti). This can only be accomplished by the coöperation of the inspectors (hsün ch‘ang) who, like all other mortals, are supposed to be perfectly open to considerations of temporal advantage, if only arguments of sufficient strength are employed. As soon as the Chancellor’s theme is announced, it is copied, and at a preconcerted signal thrown over the wall of the examination premises to persons waiting for it. Several scholars outside may have been previously engaged to write essays for different persons within the hall. When the essays are finished they are carefully done up,2 and at a signal, such as a call for a dog or for a cat, are thrown over the wall to the watchman, who has been previously paid to receive them. The inspector, also liberally fed, ascertains from a private mark on each essay, for whom it is intended, and while pacing back and forth through the hall, contrives to deliver them, without being seen by the Chancellor. In one case, six persons were known to have received their degrees, on the merits of essays which were brought into the hall after being thrown over the wall in a single bundle. Sometimes essays are concealed in the body of a harmless-looking bread-cake, which is tossed carelessly from one candidate to another when the lunches are eaten, with the connivance, no doubt, of the inspectors. The District Magistrates sometimes post the Secretaries at the corners of the examination hall, where it is easy to see all that goes on. But much more often, it is probable, that the Magistrate takes little interest in such details.
Measures Against Cheating in 19th Century China
Smith wrote:“In some examinations, the Chancellors are very strict, and forbid any of the watchmen to enter the hall at all, which, of course, checkmates the plan last described. Such instances are much more than offset by others, in which the Chancellor does not remain through the examination himself, but entrusts the conduct of affairs to his Secretaries. These functionaries are then at liberty to furnish essays to candidates who can afford to pay the heavy price necessary. In such cases, while ostensibly examining the essays, the Secretaries find it easy to throw one of their own under a stool, or in some place from which it may be readily captured by the purchaser. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
“In a case reported in the Peking Gazette some years since, a bold vendor of essays succeeded in getting his paper conveyed to the individual for whom it was intended, by hooking it on the garments of the venerable Chancellor himself, who thus unconsciously became the bearer of the very documents which he was endeavouring to suppress! The candidates at the Chancellor’s examination are generally seated in such proximity, that including those on each side, most of the students are within2 easy reach of ten or fifteen other persons. This renders the transfer of papers an easy matter. In the second of these trials, when the number is reduced to a mere handful, the students are often seated just as compactly as before.
“A scholar with whom the writer is acquainted, once found himself near a poor fellow, who was utterly at a loss how to treat the theme from Mencius, “Like climbing a tree to catch a fish.” A verbal arrangement was hastily made for the purchase of an essay, but the usual written agreement was omitted. The essay was indited in the lawless style of chirography known as the “grass character,” and handed to the purchaser to be copied. Here an untoward accident occurred, for the man who bought the essay mistook two characters, when he copied out the paper, for two others which they much resembled, thus ruining the chances of success. The poor scholar begged off from the amount which he had agreed to pay, (which was about ten dollars) on the plea of poverty. The angry essay-seller then raised a kind of mob of students, went to the lodgings of his debtor and made an uproar, the result of which was to extract from the latter about a dollar and a half, which was all that could be got! The preceptor of the man who sold the essay, who was himself one of the candidates at this examination, claimed, with many others, that the essay which was sold, as represented by the author, must certainly have resulted in a degree for the poor scholar if he had not blundered in inditing false characters.
“Should an examiner overlook a wrong character, and the fact be afterward made public, he might be degraded for his carelessness. A case of this sort was reported a few years ago in the Peking Gazette. At the triennial examination for the Han-lin, in the year 1871, after the essays had been submitted to the Han-lin examiners, the nine most meritorious ones were selected, and were sent in to the Empress Dowager—the Emperor being under age—to have the award formally confirmed. The work of greatest merit was placed uppermost, but the old2 lady, who had an imperial will of her own, was anxious to thwart the decision of the learned pundits; and, as chance would have it, the sunlight fell upon the chosen manuscript, and she discovered a flaw, a thinness in the paper, indicating a place in the composition where one character had been erased and another substituted. The Empress rated the examiners for allowing such “slovenly work” to pass, and proclaimed another man, whose name was Hsiang, as victor. This individual hailed from the province of Kuang-tung—a province which had produced a Senior Wrangler but once in 250 years. On his return to his native province the successful scholar was received by the local authorities with the highest possible honours. All the families owning his surname who could afford to do so paid enormous sums to be permitted to come and worship at his ancestral hall, for by this means they established a pseudo claim to relationship, and were allowed to place tablets over the entrances of their own halls inscribed with the title Chuang Yüan, or Senior Wrangler. The superstitious Cantonese believed that the sunbeam which revealed the fatal flaw was a messenger sent from heaven!
Exams Taken by Scholars in 19th Century China
In 1899, Arthur H. Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The fact that a man has taken the degree of hsiu-ts‘ai, does not release him from the necessity of studying. On the contrary, this is called “entering school,” and the graduate is required to present himself at each triennial examination, to compete for the next step in the scale of honours, that of ling-shêng hsiu-ts‘ai. The number of graduates who can attain the rank of ling-shêng in any one year is limited. In a district which graduates seventeen hsiu-ts‘ai, there may be but one or two ling-shêng graduates passed at a time. There are, however, extra examinations, as already explained, in case of the accession of an Emperor, etc., and when a vacancy in the fixed number takes place through death, an additional candidate is allowed to pass to fill the place. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
A hsiu-ts‘ai is not allowed to decline the examination merely on account of the improbability of his passing it; on the contrary, every graduate is required to compete as often as examinations occur. This is the theory, but as a matter of fact, the payment of about a dollar and a half to the underlings of the Superintendent of Instruction for the District will enable the candidate to have an entry opposite his name, signifying that he is “incapacitated by illness,” or is “not at home.” But after the graduate has been examined ten times, and has persistently failed to show any capacity for further advance, he is excused from examination thereafter, and his name is dropped. At these examinations the candidates are divided into four classes according to the respective merits of their essays. If any candidate fails to get into the first three classes, he is regarded as having forfeited his title to the grade of hsiu-ts‘ai, and he loses his rank as such, unless the Chancellor can be prevailed upon to excuse his “rotten scholarship,” and give the unfortunate student another trial. Hence the proverb, “The hsiu-ts‘ai dreads the fourth class.” The ling-shêng is entitled to a small allowance of about $10 a year, from the Government, to assist him in the prosecution of his studies, though the amount can hardly be regarded as proportioned to the difficulty of attaining the rank which alone is entitled to receive this meagre help.
“The ling-shêng graduates are required to compete at the triennial examinations, for the next step, which is that of kung-shêng. Only one candidate can enter this rank at one examination unless there should be a special vacancy. There are five varieties of kung-shêng, according to the time at which and the conditions under which they have graduated. These scholars do not, like the ling-shêng, act as bondsmen for undergraduates, nor do they like them, have an allowance. They are permitted to wear a semi-official robe, and are addressed by a title of respect, but in a pecuniary point of view their honours are empty ones, unless they secure the place of Superintendent of Instruction, which must, however, be in some district other than their own. The kung-shêng and the hsiu-ts‘ai are at opposite ends of one division of the long 3educational road. The former is regarded as a schoolboy, and the latter is for the first time a man, and need be examined no more, unless he chooses to compete for the rank of Selected Man, (chü-jên) an examination which has intricacies and perils of its own. “The hsiu-ts‘ai,” says the proverb, “must have talent, but the chü-jên must have fate,” that is, no amount of talent, by itself, will suffice to win this higher rank, unless the fates are on one’s side, a proposition which we are prepared to believe, from what has already been seen of the lower grades of scholarship.
Reforming the Exam System
Smith wrote: “Differing by millenniums from the system just described is that recently decreed after successful agitation by a few reformers. During the summer of 1898 His Majesty Kuang Hsü, Emperor of China, issued several Edicts which abolished the “eight-legged examination essay” as an avenue to the attainment of literary degrees, and introduced in their place what was termed Practical Chinese Literature, and Western Learning, which were to be combined in Provincial and County Academies. Existing3 institutions were to be remodelled after a more or less definite pattern set in Peking. All except official temples (that is, those where offerings or services were required from the Magistrates) were to be surrendered as seats of the New Learning. Reports were demanded from Provincial Governors as to the present status of these temples, and the future prospects for income from them. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
“These Edicts potentially revolutionized the intellectual life of China. They were received very differently in different parts of the empire, but there is no reason to doubt that they would have been widely welcomed by an influential minority of the literati of China, who had in various ways come to realize the futility of the present instruction for the needs of to-day. The immediate effect was to bring Western Learning into universal demand. Scholars who had never deigned to recognize the existence of foreigners, were now glad to become their pupils and purchasers of their text-books on a large scale. For a few weeks examination themes were strongly tinctured with Western topics, and those who were able to show any familiarity with those branches of learning were almost sure of a degree. Correct answers to simple mathematical, geographical, or astronomical questions are said to have rendered success certain, and it is even alleged that a candidate in one place took his honours by writing out and commenting upon the Ten Commandments, which he represented as The Western Code of Laws.
“Toward the close of September, 1898, the Empress Dowager seized the reins, suppressed her nephew, and nearly all reforms, educational and political, were extinguished. A new Imperial University in Peking survived the storm, but almost all of the extended and beneficent program of His Majesty was relegated to the Greek Kalends. It is only a question of time when the pendulum shall swing back, but every well-wisher of China hopes that it may not be delayed until the national existence of the Chinese shall have been lost.
Text Sources: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894, The Project Gutenberg
Last updated August 2022