Saturday, December 03, 2005

Rui Magone on the Chinese Examination System

Professor Rui Magone of the Free University of Berlin came to give a talk at Emory on Tuesday. The title of his talk was "Poetic Justice: Literature in the Civil Examinations of Imperial China." It was a really interesting overview of an incredibly complicated and long-lived institution that shaped Chinese social, political, and cultural life for centuries.

Pre-modern China was governed by an enormous bureaucracy, and in order to become a bureaucrat you had to make it through a torturous hierarchy of examinations. The people with the least ambitions were content with passing local exams; really toughminded and dedicated ones with resources at their disposal could work their way up through regional all the way to the imperial metropolitan exams.

The main focus of the examinations was literature: the Confucian classics, mainly poetry, history, and ethics. For the most part, "practical" knowledge--i.e., knowledge about the actual business of running the government--was not addressed.

This was the focus of Dr. Magone's talk; or as he put it, "the question of why belles-lettres instead of scientific knowledge, dominated the examination discourse of imperial China;" as well as "the paradigm according to which the civil examinations were responsible for the ultimate collapse of the Chinese empire."

The talk was particularly interesting because Dr. Magone told us lots of details about what it was like to actually be a candidate for these examinations. He showed pictures of the kinds of little "cells" that candidates had to sit inside to take the exams; he explained the elaborate procedures for attempting to ensure fairness (the stakes were extremely high for candidates, and cheating and corruption were rampant). He showed us pictures of the actual exam papers, and explained how candidates composed their answers. One person he talked about took the same exam about 10 times, and didn't pass until he was 42.

Keep an eye out for Dr. Magone's book on this subject--he's an excellent speaker, so I imagine he must be a terrific writer too.

Dr. Magone's web page (in German) is here. Also, here is a link to his courses (most of it in German too, but there are pictures), which sound absolutely amazing. He does things like have his students dress up in costumes and go to the local Chinese garden to read classical Chinese literature out loud. In his class "Tour de Chine," he focuses on a different province every time, taking you on a tour through both the geography and history of China at the same time. Wow. I'd love to be a student in a class like that.

It's Kara's birthday today! Weblog Yahantei wishes her a great year!