Zhang Dai on Civil Service Exams (And South Korea Today)

014311445X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_As I continue reading the book I mentioned the other day, Jonathan Spence’s Return to Dragon Mountain, I keep running across little passages that scream out to be shared, along with a little commentary. Here’s one, comprising the observations of Zhang Dai and his contemporary Ai regarding the horrors of the Imperial examination system, the civil service exams that we Westerners, when we’ve heard about it, sometimes know as the “Mandarinate” exams (emphasis below is mine, not Spence’s):

Ai wrote of the endless discomforts and indignities that he endured in the examination halls, joining the shivering crowds of young men at dawn, signing in at the entrance gate, shuffling forward with brush and inkstone in one hand and a coverlet in the other, enduring the cold hands of proctors giving the candidates body searches to check that they were not smuggling in written material with which to cheat on their answers. Then came the chore of finding the right booth and a miserable plank bench, sweating through the dust and mounting heat as the summer day advanced, desperately shielding their answer papers with their clothing if a sudden rain broke through the frail roof. Even finding a time and place to urinate was hard, and the enclosure stank from the hundreds of sweating bodies crammed together in the exam compound. One saving grace was that the proctors paraded past the candidates’ seats calling out the topic aloud for those whose eyes–like those of Ai himself–were too weak or weary to read the question papers; for those hard of hearing, other proctors wrote the questions in large characters on display boards. Once the exams were finished, wrote Ai, the students had to endure the uncertainties of erratic grading before being informed of their rankings and their scores. If they failed, they knew they faced the same dreary prospect all over again. “People looked like wives or slaves,” Ai noted, “deprived of all their dignity.”

Zhang Dai added his own glosses to Ai’s account. The formalized answer system known as “the eight-legged essays,” he wrote, had been imposed by the Ming rulers to “torment scholars and discourage ambitious men.” Any small slip in style or content led to demerits or failure. Even the finest of scholars would “find no use for their arsenal of talents and knowledge” unless they joined the pack, “submissive in manner, limited in scope, stale in words, poor in attire, with internal feeling rotted away.” The result was damaging to the county as a whole. Those who passed were “either old men waiting for death, or naïve youth who understood nothing.” And yet, curiously, both Ai and Zhang felt that there was something useful in the system despite all its pressures and shortcomings: the studying and the stress did create strong bonds between teachers and students; a life of leisure was not the only significant way to spend the time; hardship could lead to greater things.

While it can only be said with major caveats1 I think it’d be hard for anyone who knows anything about the major exam systems in Korea–both the University Entrance Exam system, and the Civil Service Exams that regulate entry into South Korea’s government bureaucracy (including work as a teacher in its primary and secondary level classrooms)–to miss the parallels, not just in terms of the deleterious effects of the system, but also in terms of the bizarre justifications offered despite them. For while efforts were made a few years ago to try move away from the Civil Service Exam system here, they didn’t really go very far: people protested, especially those who’d been studying for the next exam after sinking years of their lives into pointless study for earlier exams. (Well, there’s a whole industry of exam-preparations service providers predicated upon it, too, so don’t expect any changes anytime soon.)

The net result? The system is still very much in effect, and more and more young people are signing up for the exams that will leave them, too, “submissive in manner, limited in scope, stale in words, poor in attire, with internal feeling rotted away.” Worse, that University Entrance Exam is pretty much inflicted on every young person of even mediocre intellectual promise: every promising young mind (and many unpromising ones) must endure it each year.

But of course, school teachers are technically civil servants here too: they went through the emotional and psychological wringer of the Civil Service Exam themselves in order to become teachers, which is to say they were hired through a system that preferentially selects for a relative lack of imagination, overwhelming risk aversion, a traumatized sense of failure, and prolonged experiences of social isolation, extreme self-abnegation, and willingness to endure the explicitly depressive effects of exam preparations, often repeatedly for years on end.

There are not just cultural but also economic reasons — tied to the widening wealth gap, apparently — which explain why people are willing to endure all this, and in fact are doing so in increasing numbers. But if you think those are precisely the traits needed in your country’s educators, then congratulations: now you know the best way to hire them. But be warned: you might find there are side effects you hadn’t anticipated.

  1. Such as that the Imperial examination system was actually imitated worldwide in the 19th century, to positive effect in that it added a degree of meritocracy to bureaucracies; that Europe’s premodern systems for deciding on who landed in office were certainly even less meritocratic; that there are at least some advances that have been made in Korea in terms of ostensible impartiality in grading, and so on…

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