While in Shanghai 上海 recently, I visited the “education” section of a large book store, particularly the “essay composition for middle school” 初中、作文 . I was looking for a handy guide to improve my abysmal writing skills. In the past I had made some progress using a book aimed at older elementary school children that focused on correct use of characters and phrases. Moving on to the middle school section seemed therefore a good fit and I found a two-part guide that will hopefully turn out to be useful. But contrary to what the 4-m shelf full of books on the topic suggested, it was pretty hard to find books giving actual advice. Most were nothing more than essay collections that should serve as an example to students struggling with the standardized exams.
Their titles went along the lines of 得奖作文 (prize-winning essays) or 满分作文 (essays awarded full points). Supposedly these essays were written by actual middle schoolers who then went on to ace their exams and enter a good high school that would hopefully send them on their way to go to a good university. It’s exactly what parents were hoping for their own child. (Because, let’s face it, extracurricular study books are rarely purchased by middle schoolers themselves.) The only piece of “advice” in these collections are the “discussions by famous teachers” 名师评论 at the end of each essay. Though “discussion” is maybe a strong word for 4-5 lines of text after a two page essay. The teachers (one per essay, though sometimes several per collection) simply point out the obvious things each student did well in their essays.
The present is not the first time in Chinese history that a grueling series of texts including the art of essay writing were considered a make-or-break moment in a person’s career. From about Tang 唐 (618-907) times up until 1905 the Imperial Examinations 科舉 were held with the goal of selecting capable men for official posts. There is a nice museum in Nanjing 南京 dedicated to these, which I was also able to visit. They start with the history of examinations and how it replaced the previous practice of recommendations, where sage rulers found capable ministers more by chance than design. As examples they cite King Wen 文 finding Jiang Ziya 姜子牙 “fishing for a sage ruler” at Pan River (as described in Fengshen yanyi 封神演義), Liu Bei visiting Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 at his grass hut (of Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 fame) and the Han 漢 emperor Guangwu 光武 seeking Zhuo Mao 卓茂 and Yan Guang 嚴光 (does anybody know a work of literature describing this one?).
As with contemporary entrance exams from kindergarten to university, the Imperial Examinations also were not a one-and-done thing; rather, there were exams at different levels, which in Ming 明 (1386-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) times meant Apprentice Exams 童識, Provincial Exams 鄉試, Metropolitan Exams 會試 and Palace Exams 殿試. Those successful in the latter were given the title jinshi 進士 and could look forward to starting a profitable and prestigious career as state officials. The museum describes in great detail the struggles of examination candidates, the grueling days of examination in small cells, the multiple attempts at cheating, as well as the elation of successful candidates, the immediate change of their status and the grand reception back in their hometowns.
What the museum omits, are the dejection and despair of those who failed – maybe even repeatedly – and had to look for alternative ways to secure financial income and face the disappointment of their relatives while keeping up the motivation to study for their next attempt. These people are the questionable “heroes” of Wu Jingzi’s 吳敬梓 (1701-1754) novel Rulin waishi 儒林外史 (The Scholars). They are highly educated scholars whose life plans have been put on hold, for some temporarily, for some probably forever. Stuck in at state of in-between, they mingle with rich patrons – sometimes established officials, but sometimes also “uneducated” merchants 商 – a class of people traditionally seen as antithesis to the refined Confucian scholar 儒. But merchants have since found out that money can buy education and so they hire failed examination candidates to be their children’s teachers.
Such is the case with Zhou Jin 周進, the first scholar introduced in the novel. He is rather bitter about his situation in life, but like so many teachers today, dealing with the parents seems to be more exhausting than handling the students themselves. From Zhou Jin, the story passes on to others through chance encounters, much like it does in Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳. But where those martial haohan 好漢 recognized each other by their uprightness and openness, the scholars in Rulin waishi often chase after personal profit, in the form of good marital connections, commissioned work and occasional shady business. At one point, a scholar named Xiao Jinxuan 蕭金鉉 secures a job with a book printer that guarantees him a salary and a place to live while compiling a book of essays. Book publisher had found ways to profit of the education craze associated with the Imperial Examinations and started to publish collections of successful examination essays as a point of reference for prospective candidates. For increased benefit, they included a commentary, which in this case was commissioned to Xiao Jinxuan. Which brings us back to the bookshop in Shanghai, selling 满分作文 with commentaries to desperate parents.
However, maybe those who unfortunately missed their goals would do good to remember that examination success is not the only way to fame: sometimes a change to their plans may send them down another career path. Celebrated authors Wu Jingzi and Wu Cheng’en 吳承恩 (ca. 1500-1582, of Xiyouji 西遊記-fame) repeatedly failed in their attempts at the imperial examinations before they turned toward writing. An official career would probably not have left them enough leisure to write carefully crafted novels. Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640-1715) on the other hand, only passed in his 70s and spend most of his life as a teacher and private tutor in a family with a substantial library. Without this library he might never have had access to the story collections upon which his masterpiece Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異 is based.
I know this probably isn’t too much consolation to parents of middle school kids in Shanghai, but I hope for the sake of their children that they remember that life doesn’t end because you miss an exam. And not ending up with the career path you envisioned doesn’t automatically mean you won’t have any success at all. So if life throws you off track, follow the example of The Scholars: gather a couple of good friends, have a couple of glasses, find a nice spot and throw a poetry contest.
Wu Jingzi, The Scholars, translated by Yang Hsien-i and Gladys Yang.
Pu Songling, Strange Tales from Liaozhai, translated by Sidney L Sondergard (This seems to be the only complete translation to date; translations of some selected stories are variously available.)