1636 The China Venture – Snippet 06

Chapter 4

The second examination session began early the morning of the eleventh day. By now, the routine was a familiar one to Yizhi, This time, the questions related to the Five Classics. These were the Classic of Poetry, the Book of Documents, the Book of Rites, the I Ching, and the Spring and Autumn Annals.

Candidates were expected to specialize in one of the Five Classics; Yizhi’s choice was the I Ching, the Book of Changes. It was actually a family tradition; his great-grandfather Xuejian, his grandfather Dazhen, and his father Kongzhao had all written commentaries on the I Ching.

Yizhi also had to quote, from memory, from the beginning of his answer to the question asked in the first session. This was to confirm that he was the same person who had taken the first part, but it made no sense to Yizhi. If a candidate had found someone to take the first exam in his place, wouldn’t the substitute just come the second time, too? But the rules were the rules….


By the time the third and last session began, on the thirteenth day, Yizhi was feeling like a horse asked to race too soon after its last competition. But this round was the one that Yizhi had looked forward to the most; this was the essay on government policy. Yizhi was an active member of the Fushe, the Restoration Society, which was a combination of a poetry appreciation club and a political action group.

Yizhi read the first of the five policy essay topics:

In the Records of the Grand Historian, Simba Qian observed that ever since people have existed, their rules have followed the movements of the sun and the moon, the planets and the stars. To bring order to the empire, nothing is more important than to promulgate a calendar that explains these movements.

The orbits in the sky appear to be both regular and irregular. Regular, in that a method of computation may be used reliably for centuries, and irregularly, in that the computations eventually stray from what is observed. Of those who have discoursed on the calendar from antiquity to the present, some say that there can be a theory by which the seeming irregularities may be explained, and others that these are irreducibles, and thus that the formulation of the calendar must be empirical.

Why, Yizhi wondered, had the examiners put this topic on the test? Doubtless, the chief examiner was involved somehow in the calendar controversy, the struggle among the Confucian, Muslim and Jesuit branches of the Astronomical Bureau for primacy. But what answer was the chief examiner looking for? Did he favor theory or empiricism?

Yizhi mulled over the question further, then started writing.

“The Sage-King Yao directed his ministers Hsi and Ho to study the movements of the celestial bodies. Let us first assume that we rely on theory alone to predict these movements.

“If a snowflake be large enough to be seen with the naked eye, it can be seen to have six branches, as the learned Han Ying observed in the Western Han Dynasty. But if one studies the branches more closely, it is evident that they differ in detail from one snowflake to the next. Thus, at one level, snowflakes are regular, and at another, they are irregular.

“The same is true of the Heavens. There are repeating patterns, which is a form of regularity, but the cycles are not identical, which is a form of irregularity. Regularities may combine in a complex manner to produce a seeming of irregularity, and the limitations of man and his instruments may make it impossible to distinguish this seeming from a true, divinely ordained irregularity.

“Moreover, we must ask, is Heaven infinite or finite? If it be finite, then the whole of Heaven can be comprehended by the mind of Man, which is contrary to all the ancient teachings. Hence, Heaven must be infinite. If it be infinite, then the layers of regularity must also be infinite. Since Man cannot comprehend the infinite, the mind of Man cannot supply a theory which alone explains the movements of the infinite.

“But can the calendar be formulated only empirically? No, because then only the irregularities would be seen, and one could only make a calendar of what has already been seen, and not what is yet to come.

“So the calendar must be constructed like a piece of pottery, with the theory as the basic form, and the empirical corrections as the ornamentation.”

There, thought Yizhi. I hope that will satisfy both camps.

The next three policy topics were lengthy and written in a way that made clear the answer that the officials wanted, and Yizhi gave it to them. All he had to do, really, was regurgitate the question without the question mark, turning it into an answer.

The final one was trickier, however. It began by asking for a history of literary examination in China. That was innocuous. But then it asked the candidate to address the balance of “eight-legged” literary essays with policy essays, and even more provocatively, whether examination should be the sole method of selecting officials.

Was this an attempt to send a message to the court, by passing candidates who advocate reform? Or was this a trick, an attempt to provoke reform-minded individuals into revealing themselves, so they could be sidetracked?

He decided that it was too late to try to decide how to proceed. As he composed himself to sleep, he brooded about the examination. What it tested primarily, he acknowledged, was the ability to memorize ancient writings, to structure one’s writing according to the stultifying requirements of the eight-legged essay format, and to draw Chinese characters elegantly. His thoughts turned to his childhood, when he listened to his father Kongzhao, then a district magistrate in Fujian, talk to Xiong Mingyu about the “Western Learning” brought by Matteo Ricci and the other Jesuit priests. That was when Yizhi was just nine years old. Ricci was dead by then, but his legacy lived on.

He couldn’t help but wonder how Ricci had acquired his own learning. Did the Europeans have schools and examinations? Did they have to memorize the writings of Euclid and Aristotle as the Chinese do those of Confucius and Mencius?

The next morning, he started writing his answer to the fifth policy question:

“It was once customary to select candidates for office by a process of recommendation. In order to prevent abuse, it was understood that if the candidate was appointed and did not perform well, that not only the candidate but also the recommending official might be demoted.