September 21, 2011

Chinese Imperial Examination Hall in Jianshui

My grandmother used to tell us stories about scholars going to the capital (siong ging ko di) to sit for the Imperial Exams. Tiing Chor Nguong (Foochow) Zhuàngyuán (状元/狀元), lit. exemplar of the state, jìnshì who ranked #1 first class (in the palace examination) at the Imperial Examination was the  dream of our Chinese male ancestors.

And I was then the young girl who was always asking why weren't girls allowed to sit for the examinations or why women were not made Prime Ministers but yet there were empresses like Wu Tzer Tien!!

And I am ever grateful that my grandmother told such wonderful tales about our ancestors.  I strongly believe that it is through such tales from  wise grandmothers and other older relatives that we the Overseas Chinese learn to value education and crave for top rankings in examinations.

Today we continue to see this kind of old values in Chinese films and perhaps those who can still read Chinese continue to read about these exams in our Chinese legends.

Not in my wildest dream actually would I one day be able to sit in an Imperial Examination Hall  in  China and role play a scholar  of the ancient days...But my gender is all wrong. No women were in the olden  days allowed to sit for the Imperial Exams. Bright girls were tutored by scholars at home but they never received any certificates. There were no costumes for me to rent and take a photo.....sigh....

Civil service examination are examinations implemented in various countries for admission to the civil service. They are intended as a method to achieve an effective, rational public administration on a merit system.
The most ancient example of such exams were the imperial examinations of ancient China.(Wikipedia)

Painting from Wikipedia of Chinese scholar (with Phoenix embroidery) of the First Ranking.
The fundamental justification for the Chinese Imperial Exams was that appointees to civil service positions were not to be chosen through special or inherited privilege, but through an individual's own abilities. For centuries, the might of China was established militarily, often by emperors from humble origins who had toppled existing dynasties. However, once in control, these emperors soon realized that the actual governance of China would require the administrative services of thousands of bureaucrats. The civil service examination was thus a means for creating such a body of men, and it became a meritocratic strategy that was emulated by France and Britain in the nineteenth century when these countries began needing public servants for their far-flung imperial outpost.

The Chinese civil service exams began around the sixth century; by 115 CE a set curriculum had already become established for the so-called First Generation of exam takers. They were tested for their proficiency in the so-called Six Arts which included music, archery and horsemanship, arithmetic, writing and knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies of both public and private life. Between 200BCE-200CE, the curriculum had expanded to the Five Studies. The and examinations included military strategies, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography in addition to the Confucian Classics.

By 1370 CE the scope and rigor of these exams were evident: t here were examinations lasting twenty-four and even seventy-two hours conducted in spare, isolated examination rooms.
Our trip to Jianshui gave me the opportunity to visit an examination hall and experience for myself what it was like to sit for an imperial exams in China all those years ago.

There were generally three levels of exams given at the local, provincial and national levels. District exams included testing the candidate on his knowledge of the classics, the ability compose poetry on given subjects using set poetic forms and calligraphy. At the provincial level examinations candidates were tested on the breadth of their studies in the Classics, and these examinations often last up to seventy-two hours. A candidate who passed the provincial level exam was termed juren meaning recommended man. Those who had attained the juren status were eligible for the national level exams. Passing that level of exams then raised an individual to the highest level possible--that of jinshi or the so-calledpresented scholar.

At the national level exams, candidates were examined on the ability to analyze contemporary political problems in addition to the usual examinations based on the Classics. There were also additional highly prestigious special exams that were held occasionally by imperial decree. The less prestigious exams were those that were held to exam candidates in law, calligraphy, state ritual and military skills.

The success rates of these exams were extremely small: During the Tang Dynasty the passing rate was about two percent. The personal suffering that individuals underwent both in the preparation and in the taking of these exams has become part of Chinese lore. Candidates were known to repeatedly fail exams. Some committed suicide because of the disgrace that these failures brought to their families. Others continued taking exams even as very old, grey-haired men. For those who rose through the ranks by passing these exams and being selected for administrative positions, it meant that their clans or families also rose in social prestige and wealth.

The meritocratic nature of these exams has been noted in Chinese history: During the Ming Dynasty nearly half, about 47 percent, of those who passed the highest level examinations were from families with no official connections.

It was not possible at all for any girl to sit for the Imperial Examination. I am glad that I have been born into a family where girls are educated like the boys...and we girls can go as far as we can to a certain degree.

One of the characters decorating the facade of the Examination Hall.
Ceramic ware on display in the Hall.
Costumes for the court examiners and adjudicators as well as supervisors and students. These could be rented for photo taking.
Three ladies of the 21st century taking their seats. Three on a bench. An official would have made sure that there was no cheating. It must have been nerve wrecking to take such an examination.  But I really think all (men and women) should have been given a chance to win top marks.
Pretty tourist guides for the centre.
the main door way to the learning centre.
Confucian School of Learning in Jianshui

Confucian teaching continues to be admired and organised. In Miri there is a big school near the Columbia Hospital. Many educationists also appreciate the methodology within Confucian teaching. Perhaps it is the Confucian way of teaching which has helped so many to be good scholars and mathematicians. Discipline of the mind is a fundamental value in Confucian learning in my own experience. I would agree that the younger generation of the Chinese should do some research on this topic and may help to open doors to better understanding of the Asian mind and how our brains work in modern days.

Note : The Chinese Imperial examination system had important influences on the Northcote-Trevelyan Report and hence on the reform of the Civil Service in British India and later in the United Kingdom.(Wikipedia)


Anonymous said...

i noticed that in the picture with the 3 "students",the floor is probably the same as it was during the olden days - waaa.....Sarawakiana,you felt their "presence" ?

-Ah Ngao

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Ah Ngao..the floor looks very old but I am not sure of it vintage...I felt a bit chilly there....""they"" were certainly around....

Anonymous said...

The subject of Chinese Imperial Civil Service Exams came up in a recent conversation with a colleague here in Atlanta, Georgia and another colleague in Beijing. I recalled seeing your blog post on this topic some weeks ago and revisited it - also sharing the link with my friends. Thank you for so beautifully bringing this important aspect of Chinese culture and history to life in your writing and photos!

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