1636 The China Venture – Snippet 07

“However, it remained common for the recommendations to be limited to young men of certain families, and thus it was difficult to satisfy the needs of the empire by recommendation alone.

“Hence, the system of examination was instituted, and is now dominant. However, the examination tests only the literary ability of the candidate, and not the candidate’s morality or common sense, and thus those who are malevolent or doltish may be given preference.

“In the marketplace, storytellers speak of divine intervention on behalf of candidates whose conduct was exemplary, or against those who behaved repugnantly. They speak of examiners who receive dreams in which Yama tells them to reconsider a particular paper, and of candidates who suffer from nightmares caused by the spirits of those they have oppressed.

“But Censor Mao wrote that in practice, of those chosen by recommendation, only one out of ten is unworthy of reappointment, while of those selected by examination, nine out of ten are disappointments.

“In each prefect and district, let each official be given a quota of men to recommend as filial, scrupulous and just, and then let these be given a special examination. “

Yizhi set down his pen and read through his answers. Satisfied, he handed in his final exam booklet and left the compound.

Year of the Rooster, Ninth Month (October 3-November 1, 1633)

Outside the Nanjing Examination Compound

It was noon on Announcement Day. A giant board had been placed outside the Great Gate, and a large sheet of white paper attached to it. At the top of the paper, two auspicious animals had been drawn, a tiger on the left and a dragon on the right. Below these illustrations, the examiners would soon write the names of those who had passed the exam.

Yizhi was not surprised that it had taken more than a month to grade the papers. First, to avoid the chance that an examiner might recognize the handwriting on a paper, the candidates’ submissions–the black copies–were sent to copyists with only the seat number and the answers visible; the information identifying the candidate was sealed. The copyists made duplicates in vermilion ink and these were given with the originals to the proofreaders, who wrote in yellow ink. Both versions were given to the custodian, who passed only the vermilion copies to the assistant examiners, and placed his seal on the originals. The assistant examiners wrote their comments–mostly negative–in blue ink. The recommended papers were passed up to the associate examiners and, to resolve the highest rankings, the chief examiner. They wrote their evaluations in black ink.

After the examiners had made the lists of candidates who had passed, identified only by seat number, the vermilion copies of those candidates’ papers were compared, in the presence of inspectors, with the black originals. If all was in order, the seal on the cover information was broken.

According to an impeccable source–a courtesan who had entertained the chief examiner a few nights earlier–of the seven thousand or so candidates who had come to the Nanjing examination, only ninety could be given a passing grade, that being this year’s quota for Nan-chihli Province. Only that lucky few could call themselves juren, “recommended men,” and only they were eligible to take the metropolitan examination in Beijing. Nowadays, to become an official of even the ninth rank, you needed to pass the metropolitan exam, thereby becoming a jinshi, a “presented scholar.”

There would also be a list published of eighteen runners-up. These were thereby qualified as kung-sheng, that is, as a tribute student. They were exempt from the annual qualifying exams, they could take classes at the national university in Nanjing or Beijing, and they would receive an annual stipend of eight taels of silver. It was a nice consolation prize.

Perhaps two thousand candidates were waiting expectantly for the results. Presumably, the others were so sure that they had failed that they didn’t think it worth waiting in the cool autumn air to have their negative expectations confirmed.

There was a blare of trumpets, and the chief examiner emerged from the depths of the compound, followed by the deputy and associate examiners, and some clerks and guards. Yizhi, standing close to the front of the crowd that greeted them with a roar, could see how they all blinked their eyes, blinded by the sun. Yizhi knew that all of the examiners had been locked up within the compound from the day that the first session papers were handed in, on the tenth day of last month, until this very moment.

With a flourish, the Chief Examiner wrote the name of the sixth ranked passing candidate, leaving space for inserting the first five later. A herald standing beside the poster shouted out the lucky fellow’s name, county and district, lest the assembled crowd bowl over the officials in a mad rush to see who was listed. Then the top-ranking deputy examiner put down the name of the seventh-ranked man, and so on through the day, as each examiner participated in order of rank.

Yizhi knew that the odds were against his passing on this, his first provincial examination, but nonetheless he fidgeted like a monkey on a leash. Vendors worked through the crowd, selling food, drink and good luck charms. Yizhi couldn’t help but wonder what the point of the last would be, now that all the exam papers had been graded, but the charms did sell.

Yizhi waited, minute after minute, hour after hour. Once, a fellow standing a few yards away started jumping and screaming with joy, and Yizhi couldn’t help but hope that this neighbor’s good fortune would prove contagious.

At last, all but the five top candidates had been announced. Now, indeed, Yizhi’s hopes were threadbare, but he waited anyway. Escorted by guards and aides, the Provincial Governor arrived and exchanged greetings with the Chief Examiner. The two of them then read off the names of the candidates with the five highest scores.

Yizhi’s name was not among them. He had failed.