Exam regime that outlived dynasties

A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China
April 5, 2002

Mao Zedong was well aware of the power that the defunct imperial examinations still exerted over the popular imagination of his subjects. Unnerved once by the eloquence of a Confucian opponent at a public debate in the early 50s, he could muster nothing beyond screaming "you stink!". Considerably more empathetic and a good deal longer than Mao's notorious outburst, Benjamin Elman's monumental book is a nuanced revision of the intellectual, political and social partnerships that a core institution of Chinese history signified over many centuries. Chinese rulers held tests of court officials' literary skill and scriptural knowledge as early as the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220), and these qualifications stood for centuries as the leading outward signs - the cultural emblems - of an administrator's fitness to undertake all tasks of government anywhere. Later authorities elaborated these tests to become successive tiers of selection from village level all the way up to the daunting precincts of central government and the imperial throne. Early entrants to examinations were few, but their numbers grew steadily. By 1700, perhaps half a million men held the lowest level of examination degree, and millions more engaged in the seasonal cycles of examination life in the hope of winning degrees.

Success depended on memorising extensive tracts of China's scriptural canon and gaining expertise in belles lettres as well as numerous styles of philosophical and political argument. The process kept men busy from infancy onwards, but a degree brought immediate benefits to the new degree-holder and his family. Families rose and sank because of the "examination market". Yet the examinations also "confirmed social stability even when most candidates failed to gain political office".

Elman devotes his chapters to the routines of examination life; the literacy that examinations required; the psychological stresses that candidates reported; the literary genres that the examinations prescribed; the assessment standards that examiners used; the scholarly methodologies that impinged on the examinations' content; and, finally, the last attempts to reform the system before its ultimate abandonment in 1904.

This study complements several others that have concentrated on the examination life of earlier centuries, that is c. AD600-1300. Elman's attraction to the later period - namely, the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (also Ch'ing, 1644-1911) dynasties - is welcome redress to a common prejudice that examinations were a vibrant phenomenon only in early imperial China before their later ossification in the transition to modernity. Elman argues with conviction that the cultural and political patterns of later examinations distinguished them sharply from those conducted throughout the seven centuries before the Mongol Yuan dynasty (19-1368). And, contrary to the "lost years" image that Yuan examinations usually earn - examinations were suspended under Mongol rule until 1313 - Elman reinterprets this period as a pivotal intellectual shift. Its protagonists triumphed in asserting the neo-Confucian learning of the late Song philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200), as an exclusive orthodoxy to support education and examinations for the rest of Chinese examination history. Elman's interest extends also to later scholarly movements, including Chinese science and its relevance to the examinations' content, even though he challenges what he sees as exaggerations of the epistemological relevance of European scientific theory in 16th-century China.

These discussions are central to Elman's foremost engagement with the intellectual heritage of examinations. Indeed, his history is as much intellectual as cultural. Among its many original contributions are his highly polished translations of long examination essays, where he adopts an unfashionable and illuminating sympathy for the style and rhetorical depth of this now-disregarded genre. But he also justifies his project as a "cultural history" with discussions that include his conception of examination compounds as "cultural prisons", a tour of the mantic arts that would-be degree-holders co-opted in their search for success, and even a survey of late Ming and Qing publishing projects that described and illustrated obsessive dreams of success.

Elman admires the feats by which Chinese governments kept examinations going throughout almost every degree of thick and thin. Only on a few occasions of almost apocalyptic crisis-management - involving discontent and mobilisation on a massive geographical scale - did governments cancel examinations. So much was at stake in the subtle relations between government and the various regional elites who supplied its personnel that cancelling examinations was a tricky option. Examination recruitment was a tap far easier to open than to close.

This is a critical history in which many Chinese voices tell the story. Despite what observers all too often misconceive as China's virtually timeless bureaucratic autocracy, Chinese expressions of doubt and protest questioned directly the desirability of examinations no less than the excessively examination-oriented education that they fostered. The examinations' detractors attempted reforms of the syllabus, debated the merits of literary style versus intellectual content, and, less frequently, even advocated outright abolition. By the time of the last examinations in 1904, a movement for reform advocated the overdue adoption of new forms of knowledge and training from western nations and Japan.

Many readers of Elman's study will be the field's insiders, but non-specialists will gain immeasurably from the author's lucid prose in a text that is comprehensively supported by translations of all Chinese and Japanese sources. This new account of examinations relates not only conditions in imperial China, but offers much to explain the dynamics of China during the past century.

Oliver Moore is lecturer in Chinese art history, University of Leiden, The Netherlands.

A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China

Author - Benjamin A. Elman
ISBN - 0 520 21509 5
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £52.00
Pages - 847

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