1636 The China Venture – Snippet 02

Chapter 1

Year of the Rooster, Eighth Month (September 3-October 2, 1633)

First Day (September 3)

Southern Capital (Nanjing)

“Hurry!” cried Fang Yizhi. “I want to get to the government reception station before it closes!”

“I am hurrying,” said his servant, Xudong. “My legs are shorter than yours. How much further?”

Fang Yizhi, unlike his servant, had spent a couple of years in Nanjing previously, and therefore knew the way. “Four more blocks. Straight ahead.”

Fang Yizhi was something of a prodigy. By age fourteen, he had memorized the Four Books and the Five Classics, all 431,286 characters of them. He had sailed through the district, prefectural and qualifying examinations; it was time, everyone he knew said, for him to attempt the provincial examination.

He wore the uniform of a sheng-yuan, a dark blue robe with a black border, and a “sparrow top” cap with a “gold flower,” a gold foil ornament attached to a piece of red paper. While he held no actual office, any sheng-yuan was considered, for purpose of social precedence, to belong to the ninth and lowest rank of the civil service.

They had put off leaving Yizhi’s family until the last possible moment, as his first son, Zhongde, had been born in the fourth month of the year before. Finally, his father, his wife and his aunt had combined forces and shooed him out the door and down the road from Tongcheng to the nearest port, Zongyang.

Fortunately, by imperial edict, they had the right to fly a banner reading “Applicant for the Imperially Decreed Provincial Examination of Nan-Zhili Province.” Consequently, they were waved through all the customs stations and thus made good time down the Yangtze River to Nanjing.

Xudong, some years older than Fang Yizhi, had served Fang Yizhi’s father, going with him to Beijing in 1628 when the father had been appointed Director of the Bureau of Operations. Fang Yizhi, in the meantime, had traveled, to Nanjing, Hangzhou, and elsewhere. When Fang Yizhi’s grandfather died in 1631, the father resigned his office, returned to their hometown of Tongcheng, and observed the twenty-seven months of mourning dictated by the Code for the death of a father.

When the time came for Fang Yizhi to journey to Nanjing to take the provincial examinations, his father had insisted that Yizhi take old Xudong with him. Even now, Yizhi wasn’t sure whether this was for Yizhi’s benefit or Xudong’s.

“You run ahead if you wish, young master. I’ll be there in my own time.”  

Fang Yizhi quickened his pace. Arriving at the station, there was a candidate ahead of him in line. By the time the clerk in charge was ready to interview Yizhi, his breathing had slowed backed to normal.

The clerk looked tired. “Credentials, please.”

Fang Yizhi handed them over. First, there was the declaration, signed by a magistrate of Tongcheng as guarantor, listing Yizhi’s lineage and attesting that for the past three generations, Yizhi’s family had not engaged in a base occupation, and that he was not in mourning for a parent or grandparent. Yizhi had been lucky that it had been his grandfather, not his father, who had died in 1631. That would have barred Yizhi from taking this sitting of the provincial examination, and it was given only once every three years. For the death of a grandfather, the required mourning period was only twelve months.

Next, Yizhi produced the certificate from his county, signed by the provincial director of studies and countersigned by the chief instructor at the county school, verifying that his score on the qualifying examination had been high enough that he was within the quota of candidates that his county was allowed to send on to the provincial level.

He heard a polite cough behind him; it was old Xudong. Yizhi was happy to see that Xudong had stopped at one of the shops outside the station and bought the necessary writing stock. As Yizhi had previously ordered, Xudong had gotten a large stack of scratch paper, and also three booklets of white answer sheets, each with twenty-two red lines. Each line would hold twenty-five characters. Each booklet would be used at one of the three exam sessions.

Fang Yizhi sat down to fill out the identifying information on the cover. Name and age were easy, of course: Fang Yizhi, twenty-two years old. But what, he wondered, should he put down as his identifying physical characteristics?

“Brown eyes, black hair,” he wrote. “Pale complexion. No beard.”

“Put down ‘very long legs,” sir.”

“Xudong, please don’t look over my shoulder.” Then he sighed and wrote, “Tall.”

Yizhi handed the folders over to the clerk, who gave him a receipt. Yizhi would not see the answer booklets again until the day of the exam.

Eighth Day (September 10, 1633)

“Boom!” The sharp report of a cannon being fired overwrote the vague murmur of people and carts in the street outside Yizhi’s lodging. Here in Nanjing, with its great walls and large garrison, there was no reason to fear that it heralded a bandit attack or a pirate raid. It was the midnight cannon, the first call to proceed to the examination compound. Yizhi had tried to sleep as best he could the day before, because he knew that he wouldn’t get much sleep this day.

He was just finished dressing when the second call came, two shots in quick succession. Half-an-hour had passed. He left his lodging, Xudong trudging behind him, carrying Yizhi’s writing materials, chamber pot, food, padded sleeping quilt, oilcloth screen, candles and other necessities.

They passed the Old Court, as the locals called the brothel facing the Jiangnan Examination Hall, and crossed the Qinhuai Canal separating the two. Even at this hour, there were a few pleasure boats out, and Yizhi could hear the strumming of a zither. They passed through three stone gates, arriving at last at the Great Gate, the actual entrance to the compound.

Here, in the great courtyard fronting the gate, the candidates were gathered, grouped by home district. Yizhi, being from Tongcheng, had been told to line up with the third group, marked by a pole from which three lanterns were hung.

The size of the crowd was already considerable. Here in Nanjing, there were perhaps five or ten thousand candidates.

Boom, boom, boom. It was now one in the morning, and the Great Gate slowly opened. There was no surge of candidates toward it, because the roll call was still in progress. With time to kill, Yizhi spoke to some of the other members of his group. As he expected, most of them were of the gentry class. Of the remainder, almost all came from merchant families. In theory, a farmer or artisan could take the examination, but few could afford the time taken away from earning a living for the years necessary to master the examination topics.

At last, every member of group three had been verified, and a minor official led them through the gate.

Just in front of the gate, Xudong passed the bundles to Yizhi; servants were not allowed inside the compound. “Good luck, sir!”