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Chinese examinations

The Confucian system of public examinations is first introduced in the Han dynasty, in the 2nd century BC. Precautions are taken to avoid anything resembling cheating. If candidates have prepared any particular question in advance, they are frustrated by a colourful ritual which they must engage in just before sitting the examination.

All the questions are pasted on a wall. Each student shoots an arrow. He must answer whichever question his arrow hits.


Over the next few centuries the examinations sometimes lose their rigour. But from the Song dynasty onwards (10th century AD) the system is firmly in place which will last into the 20th century.

The exams are nerve-racking affairs. Candidates arrive at dawn, bringing enough food to last them through the session; cold rice and cakes are the normal fare. They are locked in (no question of slipping in late), and each sits in a separate kiosk with a low sloping roof (no chance of glancing at a neighbour's efforts). To ensure that no candidate's handwriting is recognized by an examiner, the answers are copied out by scribes before being marked.


The examiners are also under stringent control. They are locked up together, sometimes for weeks, and are allowed no contact with the outside world until the final marks have been agreed.

The candidates with the best results are the most likely to succeed in the civil service. It suits the examiners (themselves civil servants) to further the careers of those they have marked highest, thus giving proof of their own perspicacity. Whenever a past examiner finds himself in a new position of power, he receives a sheaf of congratulatory poems from his top candidates - reminding him of their undying admiration and present addresses.


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