I wrote this essay as a final paper in a history class entitled "18th Century China through Literature." The class was largely based on the novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, which was thankfully presented to us as the English text translated by Hawkes and Minford. (Our professor gave us example passages in other translations, which completely lacked the awesome sense of reality present in, I'm told, the Chinese version, and the Hawkes and Minford version as well.) In the spirit of Node your homework, I present it to the masses. However, as this five part novel is a true behemoth, I rather doubt many of you have read this beautiful book. If you have not read this book, I apologize, and hope that you will go out and find a copy for yourself, as I found reading the novel to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. If you have no desire to read the books, Glowing Fish has noded a good portion of the characters and ideas within the novel, and following the links will get you through the essay.
Throughout the novel The Story of the Stone, the protagonist (Bao Yu) struggles to get through the arduous studying needed for passing the civil examinations. His father, Jia Zheng, is already an accomplished scholar in a long line of scholars in the family, and alternately exhorts, wheedles, and scolds Bao Yu in the effort of ensuring that the line of scholars is not broken. While in the end Bao Yu manages to exemplarily pass the examinations, I would be led to believe that this would not have been possible save for his illumination and wakefulness granted by his magical jade. In the end, with Bao Yu’s change in career paths, all the work put in by both Bao Yu and his father turn out to naught; however, it is interesting to go past what the novel gives us and search out if it would have been possible for Bao Yu to have made it as a Government Official.
We see very early on that financial sponsorship of some sort is almost required for a successful scholar to become a government official, in the case of Jia Yu Cun. While early on it appears that Bao Yu would have no trouble obtaining the necessary funds to properly take the examinations, towards the end, it becomes clearly apparent that this further expense might actually sink the family’s finances. Thankfully, as the Jia family was centered in the city of Beijing, they probably would not have to raise nearly as much funds to send Bao Yu to the examinations. Even so, with the formidable family manager Wang Xi-Feng out of commission, and having experienced years of poor financial management, there is very little question that the family would need to go a bit more into their already mounting debt in order to send Bao Yu to the examinations. Elman comments, "Once approved for admission, candidates had to prepare their own stock of writing paraphernalia, to purchase blank writing paper stamped with an official seal, and to take the necessary precautions for food provisions and toilet facilities..."(*, pp 180) Given that the examinations could take well up to 8 days (Three sessions of day and night examinations of two days each, with a break of a day in between(*, pp 187)), it wasn’t necessarily cheap to take the examinations.
The examinations were fraught with another problem, not clearly touched upon by the novel. Cao Xueqin makes it very clear that corruption and favoritism could occur within the classroom; the novel also seems to support the idea that Bao Yu never was faced with such corruption at the actual examination level. Elman comments: "Competition separated candidates from each other, but corruption and cheating brought them together, especially when examiner favoritism or unfairness was manifest to some."(*, pp 202) Elman also exhibits a cheating device called a 'cheating shirt' (*, pp 186), which an examinee might wear under all his clothing; this shirt would have the entire text of the classics written in tiny characters all over it. Given Bao Yu’s seeming lack of ability towards the beginning of the book, and his increasing stupor towards the end, it seemed well nigh on impossible that he would ever have been able to pass the examinations on his own merits. Thankfully, his jade wanted to show the world just what it could do, earning him praise from the emperor and finally from his family as well.
From my reading of the Elman text, it is extremely surprising that the conditions of the examination cells were not given any light within the novel. I would have thought that Bao Yu certainly would have taken issue with were the atrocious conditions in which examinations were taken: today’s standardized examinations are taken in practically heavenly conditions as compared to the civil examinations of the time. To prevent cheating, bodily searches were performed upon the examinees: "The infamous rough body searches were a rude awakening to the vexing sanitary and surveillance conditions inside ... Some candidates in each dynasty were so appalled by the dehumanizing conditions that they immediately left for home." (*, pp 184) Several diagrams within the Elman text show the small size of the examination cells, which look to be much smaller than modern jail cells. Examinees could be further handicapped by having their cell too close to the public toilet, "The end cells were usually close to the public latrines, where the stench was often unbearable." (*, pp 181) Had Bao Yu not earned his illumination and his sudden desire to do well on the examinations, it seems highly unlikely that if Bao Yu did make it to the examination cells in the first place, he would have been hard-pressed to stay; in comparison, the stiff desks that modern examinations are taken in seem to be far more congenial to test taking.
Within the Elman text, there is commentary on a painting showing a figure in literary garb within meditation, "Ch’en has floated to the other world and received its blessing for success in this world. Again, there is no mention of the years of hard work, memorization, and essay writing that any young boy from a family of means would have endured." (*, pp 344-345) The grueling study that Bao Yu despised so much was the only way for him to possibly get ahead in his world; his knowledge of the Confucian five classics and four books was essential to passing the examinations, as the bulk of the examination was based on these subjects. Another portion of the examination was devoted to policy questions, which would earlier have probably show Bao Yu to be entirely lacking in common sense. As Bao Yu had such trouble with the Confucian texts, it would seem that he would have needed to place even more time at studying policy. (Somehow, I would rather accept applicants based on their interpretations of policy rather than their exposition on Confucian texts, but that’s just me.) Also, his behavior within the novel seems to indicate that he would be almost as entirely unsuitable to managing people as his father is. While Bao Yu seems slightly better at dealing with people than his father, his general lack of pragmatism would greatly hurt him in this portion of the exam. His ability at composition is also quite lacking, which comes to light when the crab-flower club is making poems: "Except Bao Yu’s, of course. He goes to the bottom of the list, as usual." (+, volume II, chapter 50, pp 495) Bao Yu does show a bit of promise: "Jia Zheng studied the first two 'legs', and observed that in this case the Preceptor paid the young essayist the compliment of a total suspension of the corrective brush." (+, volume IV, appendix II, pp 389) However, his criticism of the octopartite form (echoing some of his contemporaries ) shows that he was far from wanting to learn the various particulars of the form.
Had Bao Yu passed the first set of exams, he would have been placed in a local governmental post. His distant relative Jia Yu Cun did very well for himself as an official; at first, he was untainted as far as his service to the state was concerned, but quickly turned to corruption, in the coincidental case of Xue Pan. Now, his career is very advanced; in his area, he is well-known and telling him off will cause rebuke; his fame, however, is not a boon to him. Regarding a matter where Jia Yu Cun manages to present fans as a gift to a friend, "[Jia Yu Cun] soon thought of a way. He made out that Stony owed the government some money, had him hauled of to the yamen, and when he got there, told him they would have to distrain on his property to pay off the debt." (+, volume II, chapter 48, pp 455) With Jia Yu Cun’s and Jia Zheng’s experience with corruption during his post in the South, it seems inevitable that Bao Yu would have likewise become embroiled with similar issues; his habit of playing hooky, general disdain for studying, and socially inappropriate choice of friends (and high sense of duty to them) all seem to point to the high probability of Bao Yu not succeeding as a governmental official while holding a sense of integrity intact. There are numerous instances in which the family sends money to make sure that cases get decided in the way that they wish for; however, there does seem to be a few times in which even money cannot do anything. In the case of Xue Pan, he is repeatedly denied his freedom even though his family sends countless taels to the magistrates, as it seems that their sense of duty high exceeds their greed. Thus, it is perhaps possible that Bao Yu could survive for a while without succumbing to the rampant corruption. However, we get a sense that Bao Yu already knows that it is only through a corruption of the self that a government official can expect to be successful; at a point, he is rebuked for not studying hard enough for his exams, and it is noted: "The exception was Dai-Yu, who ... had never once spoken to him about the need to 'get on with the world' or 'make a name for oneself.' This was one of the reasons why he so much respected her."(+, volume II, chapter 36, pp 195)
Even had the family not taken such a hard tumble, I am hard-pressed to imagine Bao Yu as a successful government official. His lackadaisical attitude towards studying, combined with his need for cleanliness and refinement, indicates to me that his ability to pass through examinations would be very little without his enlightenment; the length of time it took for him to realize how to not constantly offend Dai-Yu is far too long for him to be able to deal effectively with people in any official position. All said, it seems to be a waste of Jia Zheng’s time and resources to push Bao Yu so hard, and looking at how well Jia Zheng manages to bungle affairs as an official himself, it seems like he shouldn’t have such high expectations of his son. In all, it is quite the blessing indeed that Bao Yu turned out to be the mystical jade, and was allowed to transcend this mortal plane.
1. Elman, Benjamin A. A cultural history of civil examinations in late imperial China. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2000.
Denoted by asterisks in the essay.
2. Jordan, David. “The Canonical Books of Confucianism” UCSD. 09/13/03 http://weber.ucsd.edu/~dkjordan/chin/hbcanonru-u.html
3. Cao Xue Qin and Gao E, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford. The Story of the Stone. Volumes I – V. Penguin books, 1977.
Denoted by plus signs in the essay.