Roll up those taxi windows, drag your bags through security… this only comes every ten years. Beijing’s bitter wind welcomed 2270 delegates yesterday to shine their shoes and take their seats in a room booked for the “18th National Congress”. While the U.S. lets out its breath to enjoy another four years under Obama’s leadership, China prepares itself for a new president and premier (7 of the 9 current Politburo Standing Committee members are retiring this year). Xi Jinping, the likely candidate to replace President Hu Jintao, emphasized four main questions to be addressed at this year’s conference, namely: What flag will we wave? What path will we follow? And in what state of mind? To continue advancing towards what kind of goals? (我们党将举什么旗、走什么路、以什么样的精神状态、朝着什么样的目标继续前进) Specific, I know. Citizens wait eagerly to see what solutions the committee generates for problems like insufficient health care, inflated real estate, and the growing gap between the rich and poor. As news stations flash snippets of animated discussions over round mahogany tables, the mysterious lure of the national government grows in the eyes of the people. Local and provincial governments may be corrupt or unfair, but loyalty towards the national government is a tradition that stretches back thousands of years, born from the people’s innocent dependency and undying hope in a power that remains faceless. Just as religion presses followers to have faith in what they cannot see, a government too can round up millions of supporters if only by providing a mirage of hope.
The photograph above depicts a series of stone tablets in Shawan Ancient Village (沙湾古镇) erected during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The 9-foot monuments were placed in the town square to commemorate the high marks of local citizens who participated in the Imperial Examination. With its first debut during the Sui Dynasty around 605, the Chinese Imperial Exam became the primary means by which administrative officials were elected to serve in the state bureaucracy. For those who may have lacked an interest in politics, the exam was also a way to improve one’s status in society— no matter how poor of a background a man came from, his level of intellect as demonstrated by his performance on the examination could win him respect and honor within his local community or even the nation at large. The Imperial Examination witnessed various alterations throughout each dynastic period but remained the primary means for social mobility until its termination in 1905.
By the time of the Ming Dynasty, the tests generally lasted between 24 and 72 hours. Test-takers sat in isolated examination rooms where they re-wrote entire ancient texts and poems from memory. The content of the test initially included the “Six Arts”– arts, music, arithmetic, writing, and knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies in both public and private life— before expanding to include the “5 Studies”— military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography, and the Confucian classics. The examination content did not vary across regions and thus served to reinforce a nationwide consensus on Chinese cultural values and promoted a harmonious, unified empire.
On average, no more than 5% of test takers scored well enough to receive titles of merit. Some men spent their entire lives in preparation only to return home time and again without a trace of recognition. The Chinese Imperial Exam is credited by historians as being the first standardized testing system in the world based solely on merit. The exam has also contributed to China’s consistent emphasis on education, which remains strikingly evident in the unparalleled respect granted to teachers in Chinese society today.