1636 The China Venture – Snippet 03

Yizhi had barely shouldered the burden before he had to set it down again. Four soldiers surrounded Yizhi, searching him for contraband. After they searched his person, they examined his belongings with equal thoroughness, even slitting open dumplings in the hope of finding something. A soldier who found even a piece of paper with writing on it, however innocuous, would receive a reward of three ounces of silver. At last, they waved him on to an inspector, who grudgingly issued him an entry certificate.

At the next gate, there was a second inspection. If any illegal items were found here, the inspector who had passed Yizhi at the first checkpoint would be punished. Next came the Dragon Gate, the entrance to the actual examination area. This opened onto a broad avenue, stretching far to the right and left, with numerous watchtowers.

From that avenue, lanes led to the actual examination cells. Each lane was marked, in order, with a character from the sixth century Primer of One Thousand Characters. That, of course, was the very first poem Yizhi and his fellow candidates had read as children; “Heaven and Earth, Dark and Yellow….” it began.

A soldier led a group of twenty candidates, including Yizhi, to their lane, and pointed out the large earthenware jars of fresh water that stood to one side of the entrance. Here, the candidates would collect drinking water (or water to put out a fire, if a candidate working at night by candlelight fell asleep and set fire to his cell).

Their guide then motioned them to their cells, each of which was numbered. Here, they would stay until the tenth day, the end of the first of three examination sessions. As Yizhi walked down his lane, the smell of the public latrine, at the far end of the lane, became stronger. Yizhi was thankful that his cell was no more than halfway down.

Yizhi looked over his cell, which was unprepossessing. It had brick walls, a wood roof, and a packed dirt floor. The only furniture in the room were three boards; there were holes in the walls for inserting the boards so one would serve as his seat; the second as his desk; and a third as a shelf on which to place his ink stone, ink, brushes, water pitcher, and so forth. The cell was even smaller than the house that Yizhi had rented when he last stayed in Nanjing–that one Yizhi had nicknamed “Room for my Knees” as, when he sat on the bed with his legs hanging over the edge, his knees nearly touched the wall. The cell had no door, but Yizhi could hang a curtain across it, if he wished.

Yizhi sighed, laid his bedding on the seat board, and tried to fall asleep. It wasn’t easy, as his body was longer than the seat board. He tried drawing his legs up, but it was disconcerting to have either his knees or his feet hanging over the edge. At last he lay down on the floor on the cell’s diagonal, using two staggered boards to create a base of sorts. He couldn’t help but wonder whether finding a way to get a good night’s sleep was part of the test.

Shortly before sunrise, he was awakened. “Papers!” demanded the man who had just entered the cell.

Yizhi handed over his entry certificate and county credentials. “Are there more candidates than usual this year?” he asked politely.

“Speak only to answer my questions,” snapped the clerk. Outside the examination compound, he would bow his head if Yizhi, a shengyuan, passed, but here he had authority over Yizhi.

The clerk pulled out Yizhi’s answer books, and carefully compared the information on the entry certificate to that on the books. He stamped the answer books with the symbol tui–checked–without this mark, Yizhi couldn’t turn in his answers.

Yizhi reached out for the answer books but the clerk pulled them abruptly out of his reach. Instead, he handed Yizhi another form. “Sign this receipt!” he barked.

Yizhi did so, and handed the signed receipt over. And at least received the precious answer books.

Now Yizhi had to await the arrival of an assistant examiner with the actual questions for this session. He found himself arranging and rearranging his writing instruments. The physical effort, however small, was a welcome distraction.

The assistant examiner arrived, pushing aside the curtain Yizhi had hung. “So, does the prisoner have any last words before the sentence is carried out?” he joked.

Yizhi wasn’t amused, but knew better than to complain. He took the problem sheet, and looked it over. It bore several questions, as well as the seal of the assistant examiner. The questions were, of course, on the Four Books: the Analects of Confucius, the Mengzi of Mencius, Zisi’s Doctrine of the Mean, and Confucius and Zengzi’s Great Learning. He also had to compose a poem of a particular kind.

“You have until the tenth day,” the official reminded him.

Yizhi roughed out his answers to the first two questions, then set his papers aside to get some sleep. He was abruptly awakened by the sound of screaming. He stumbled blearily to the door of his cell, and pulled back the screen. He looked up and down the lane, but saw no sign of anyone in trouble, so he went back to sleep.


The next morning, a guard came by to check Yizhi’s entry permit again. The administration wanted to make sure that no substitution had been made in the course of the night.

This guard checked the description on the entry permit closely, and then wished Yizhi well.

“Wait,” said Yizhi. “What was that disturbance last night?”

“Oh, that,” said the guard. “One of the candidates was visited by the ghost of some girl he had wronged. When we came into his cell, he was screaming, ‘Forgive me! Forgive me!'”

“Really? Did any of you see the ghost?”

“Not I. But you know the saying, ‘In the examination hall, wrongs will be righted; those aggrieved will take revenge.’ “

“Was he kicked out of the examination for bad moral character?”

“No,” said the guard. “The gates are not opened until the tenth day. Why, if the spirit had frightened him to death, we would have had to toss his body over the wall.” He spat into a corner. “But given his state of mind, he will surely spill ink on his paper, or smudge his writing, or write a character sloppily; that will disqualify him.”

After the guard left, Yizhi wondered what to make of the incident. Had the man seen a ghost? Or was he just troubled by a guilty conscience? Well, thinking about the matter any further wasn’t going to get Yizhi any closer to finishing his answer. He reviewed what he had written on the scratch paper, and then wrote out fair copies in his answer booklet, taking his time. He, at least, would not have any writing mishaps!

Yizhi slept soundly on the ninth day, his sleep unmarred by ghostly visitations (real or imaginary), and he turned in his answers early on the tenth day.