Originally posted Oct 26, 2013
China began the practice of selecting government officials through the imperial civil service exam in the early seventh century. This system lasted more or less continuously for 1,400 years. During much of that history, the exam tested candidates on their ability, among other things, to memorize insane quantities of classical texts. The stakes were daunting: success opened the door to lucrative, high-status public office; but after years of expensive test prep, the average candidate had a maybe five percent chance of passing the grueling provincial level exam.
Under these conditions, its hardly surprising that cheating flourished. In the face of strict policing and the threat of draconian punishments, dishonest examinees over the centuries tried almost every conceivable technique of trickery and fraud. The results were sometimes amazingly elaborate:
The sheer volume of knowledge required to succeed in the Imperial examinations elevated cheating to something of an art form in China. Miniature books were devised to be concealed in the palm of a hand; shirts had important passages from the Confucian Classics sewn, in miniscule lettering, to their insides; fans were constructed with pass-notes on their obverse. Other duplicities included hiring veteran scholars to sit the exams in ones stead, and the simple expedient of copying a neighbour in the exam hall. At certain times, bribery of examiners was commonplace.
– Justin Crozier, “A unique experiment.” From the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding’s China in Focus magazine (2002)
In 2009, Chinese researchers discovered two tiny booklets dating from the Qing Dynasty designed to be smuggled into exam halls. One of them, slightly larger than a matchbox, contains 32 million characters of text.
It was amusing to see similar items on display in the museum under the Tengwang Pavilion in Nanchang. The labels aren’t very descriptive, but you get the idea:
Fortunately, China has put all that nonsense behind it. The imperial exam system was abolished in 1905. Today, instead of a rigorous, high-stakes national exam that holds the key to lucrative and prestigious government jobs, China has, well, a rigorous, high-stakes national exam that holds the key to social mobility.* And instead of miniature books and garments covered with hundreds of thousands of characters, the more unscrupulous exam-takers of today use wireless earpieces and pen scanners.