Earning a Mandarin Square
David K. Hugus
Mandarin squares are worthy of collection and study not only as textiles of extraordinary quality and artistic merit. They also embody a truly awe-inspiring level of intellectual content. Namely the area of intellectual accomplishment will form my subject here.
Throughout the rule of the Ming (1368-1644) and Ch’ing (1644-1912) dynasties, Chinese bureaucrats in the civil service and military displayed their positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy by means of a square or badge showing their rank. While size and design were subject to modification along with the change in dynasties and onset of various periods in each dynasty, the identifying silk squares maintained general dimensions of about fourteen inches across in the Ming period and twelve inches across in the Ch’ing period. The finely manufactured badges of rank were displayed on the front and back of robes, usually silk, that covered the ornately embroidered vestments worn for formal appearance at court. During the Ming period, badges were worn on loose, free-flowing overcoats called pu-fu. The Ch’ing pu-fu, made from dark-blue or black silk, fit tightly enough to be worn on horseback, in keeping with nomadic tradition.
The squares denoted rank with the representation of a bird or animal. Civil officials wore birds, whereas the military wore animals. Birds symbolized literary education and the art of flight, rising closer to heaven than earth-bound creatures. A fitting allegory for the top posts in the service of the Chinese emperor, whose title declared him as the Son of Heaven! Animals stood for ideas of military leaders’ martial ardor, courage and ferocity.
The Chinese bureaucratic system began to take shape more than two thousand years ago, during the rule of the Chin dynasty (221 B.C.-207 B.C.). The creation of a bureaucratic apparatus freed the emperor from the need to share power with a rival nobility. Under the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), this process became so pronounced as to indicate the need for a system for choosing among the candidates who wished to serve the emperor. While the exact cause of the emergence of the state examination system remains unclear, there is reason to believe it served as a check on the emperor’s fondness for appointing his favorites to powerful offices. The examination process thus encouraged a merit-based orientation within the setting of absolute autocracy. By the time of the T’ang dynasty (618-907), a standard process existed for formally examining applicants.
Golden pheasant, second half of the 19th century
Although the exams understandably covered a wide range of disciplines, they came in time to focus increasingly on literature. By the time mandarin squares were used to denote rank (before this, status was signaled by the size and shape of an official’s hat), the exams included only one subject—literature. But this made them no less challenging! Quite the opposite was true. An aspiring scholar’s preparations to take part in the examinations normally began at age three, if his parents could afford a tutor. He first had to memorize a simple, 25-character poem. On the poem’s basis, he learned the rudiments of writing and use of the writing brush, so as to progress to the more sophisticated memorization of a poem containing a thousand unique characters. Upon this task’s completion, his main work began. He was expected to master and know by heart the Four Books and Five Classics in their entirety—nearly half a million characters in all. Through striving to perform this mammoth task, at about age eight the student might attain formal enrollment in a school.
Unlike schools familiar to us, a classical Chinese school had nothing amusing, fun or pleasant about it. Students were strictly required to study alone and not speak with their classmates. Learning was based on drudgery, discipline and fear. The slightest deviations from fanatical studiousness were punished harshly and swiftly. Prospective officials had to master the subject of submission to the powerful as thoroughly as literary standards.
The schoolteachers tended to be failed candidates from the same exam process. Their work afforded neither respect nor decent wages, so they had no cause to act either conscientiously or benignly. Chinese proverbs held a teacher’s primary virtue to be severity. A young applicant’s dedication was tested on each day of his battle to master and reinforce his knowledge of the material. Qualification for the first exam required the daily memorization of about 200 new characters of text, as well as constant review of everything learned to date.
A student who achieved success at this tense stage could count on taking part in the district exam. He had to report to this exam early in the morning. The teacher identified him and assigned him a numbered seat. This number was used for tracking when the examination packet was submitted. When the students were checked in, the proctor, a civil magistrate, locked the examination hall, which was to remain shut throughout the testing session—a full day, during which the student was expected to write two essays on the themes of quotations from the Four Books and compose a poem with a set subject and rhyme structure. The proctor could not leave the examination hall until the papers were graded: this prevented him from taking bribes or identifying students by seat number. The names of candidates who passed were posted on the door of the district office just after the exam.
The second round was organized in the same way as the first, but required one essay on a theme from the Four Books and another on a theme from the Five Classics, as well as a verse composition. The student worked his way through a series of four similar rounds comprising the first level of examination. Students who passed the district marathon became eligible for the prefectural examination—much the same, but with three rounds instead of four. Afterwards, about half of these students remained to attempt the qualifying exam.
Mandarin duck, 1850s
The qualifying exam was conducted by the provincial director of studies. These officials were personally appointed by the emperor and had direct access to the throne. This gave them a power and authority far greater than their actual rank would suggest. As part of his duties, each director visited every prefecture two times in a three-year period. During these visits, the director supervised qualifying exams. Candidates entered the examination hall by district. A district official identified them. They were searched for bribe money and crib notes. If either were found, the candidate was disqualified and the finder of the contraband was rewarded. The test’s importance occasioned harsher discipline. Infractions of the rules were noted with a special stamp on the student’s paper. Such a mark virtually guaranteed failure.
The stamps used were:
1. Leaving one’s seat. (A candidate was allowed to leave his seat exactly once, either to drink tea or visit the toilet. This required the candidate to turn in and then retrieve his exam booklet. This took so much time that most candidates brought and used their own chamber pots.)
2. Exchanging papers.
3. Dropping a paper.
5. Letting one’s eyes wander and peeking at others’ papers.
6. Changing seats.
7. Disobedience (failure to follow a clerk’s instructions).
8. Violating the regulations.
9. Humming (this often occurred during composition of poetic rhymes and was quite distracting).
10. Incomplete (when a paper was not finished by sunset, this stamp disallowed later additions).
Like the district test, the qualifying exam had four parts, each given on a separate day. Those who passed the final qualifying exam were notified in a message brought by special courier. This was a cause for great jubilation and feasting, as it meant the student had the right to enter an official school to start preparing for true civil service exams.
The true civil service exams were also given at three different levels over a three-year cycle. For many, preparation for these exams proved a lifelong task. The average age upon completion of the final civil service exams was about 35. This meant preparation for the final triumph generally consumed about 32 years. But not everyone achieved success at such an “early” age. Records from one second-level test in the early 1900s show that 16 of those who passed were more than 40 years of age, while one was 62 and another 83 years old.
The first civil service exam was administered by the director of instruction for the province. The candidates tended to number about two thousand. For any exam, about one percent of candidates would pass, moving closer to the ultimate goal of a post in the official bureaucracy. In addition, successful students were recognized as members of the gentry. This gave them the right to erect a red sign over their doors to signify their degree. Their position also exempted them from local corporal punishment and entitled them to government aid for further studies.
The second stage of the civil service exams was known as the provincial exam. Under the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties, the examination process was tightly regulated and administered to combat favoritism. The higher the level, the more stringent the security measures became. The imperially appointed examiners were notified of their selection the day before they were to set out for the examination. This procedure was intended to minimize the possibility of examiners becoming known ahead of time and offered bribes in exchange for favoring certain candidates. The penalty for taking a bribe was beheading.
Up to ten thousand candidates might report for the test. At this level, the tests were longer and more extensive. Three sessions of about three days each were required for completion. The themes assigned for prose and verse compositions measured candidates’ breadth of reading and depth of comprehension.
The examination compound had no other function. It typically consisted of a walled enclosure with a single entrance. The gates opened onto a broad avenue with many lanes branching off to either side. Along one side of each lane were examination cells. These were small, doorless enclosures barely large enough to hold a single person. They had roofs but no furniture other than three boards. One board acted as a shelf, one as a table and one as a seat. When all the candidates and examination officials were present, the compound was sealed, not to be opened for any reason until after the examination’s end. If a candidate died from stress or exposure, his body was wrapped in straw matting and thrown over the wall.
Prior to entrance on the first day of a test session, each candidate was identified and strip-searched for contraband, texts and model answers. Conversation was categorically forbidden. Deaf-mute attendants delivered and collected the questions. The candidate relieved himself either in his cell or publicly, in the alleys.
The grading system was unbelievably complex. The compositions, written in black ink, with the names and descriptions of candidates covered, were distributed among several thousand clerks given only red ink, preventing the introduction of changes to the originals. The clerks copied the original versions, making it impossible for the graders to recognize a candidate’s handwriting. The black and red versions went on to proofreaders who verified the copies’ accuracy. Their corrections were in yellow ink. Next, the proofread copies were separated, with the black version filed for safekeeping and the red sent on for grading. Associate examiners did the first reading, formulating initial recommendations on whether to pass or fail a paper, with comments in blue ink. The chief and deputy examiners usually read only those papers recommended as having sufficient quality to pass; at this stage, only black ink was used.
About one percent of candidates passed. The imperial government in each province showed the victors special recognition. From then on, they wore a special hat knob, kept a flag staff in front of their family residences and hung a tablet over their doors, announcing the home of a literary prizeman.
The final step in the examination process was the metropolitan exam. It was held in much the same way as the provincial exam. Examiners, personally appointed by the emperor, had to retire to the examination on the day of their notification. The compound was secured just as for the provincial exam. Frequently, more than ten thousand candidates were summoned. As before, the procedure was conducted in phases. From this select group, about 300 typically earned a place in the bureaucratic apparatus.
Cranes, mid-18th century
The examination system was not ideal. Submissiveness before authority, learned by young students while memorizing the classics, presumed the sacrifice of individual creativity in favor of the already known and accepted. The system served to single out the best minds among the population and sharpen their interest in attaining the status quo. Concurrently, this minimized the possibility of revolt or discontent. Legitimacy was imparted to the emperor, whoever he might be, through the aura of respect the mandarins bore in the eyes of the populace. In addition, the bureaucracy was rife with corruption, with more than 95 percent of the mandarins’ income stemming from bribes and payoffs.
Yet despite the host of drawbacks, the system of state examinations established in China was the first and most developed in the civilized world. It provided an outlet to seek and achieve success regardless of origin. The equitable treatment shown participants cleared the way for even a poor boy to reach the highest posts of state power. For centuries, education, as the only road to success, formed the exclusive focus for the population in trying to improve their lives. The system also served to identify the most talented representatives of the populace for the privilege of administrative governance in the name of the Son of Heaven, placing his unchecked will under a certain control that obliged him to consider the options, opinions and recommendations of a group somewhat independent of the need for imperial favor. The examinational institution in China remains an example of how even under authoritarian rule the democratic process can emerge and exert influence, illustrating the opportunities to be gained through total commitment and hard, ambitious work. Today, too, the ordinary oriental student’s purposeful fervor, similarly focused on education, has a quality absent in genealogies less marked by reverence for the all-conquering power of knowledge.
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