The first section of the Chinese civil service exam tests a candidate’s general knowledge, or changshi (常识). That sounds like it should be easy. It isn’t. When I first started going through older tests I thought myself a fool because of all my errors. As an aspiring historian of China, I should know this stuff. Luckily, it is not just me. Chinese test-takers consider these questions a challenge. In twenty-five questions over about fifteen minutes everything is on the table: history, law, economics, culture, science and any other random subject.
Despite this variety, one type of question seems to dominate: party policy. Here, word choice is important. The questions don’t deal with ideology as such—what Mao or Marx said—but with the more concrete and mundane matters of governance. It is a test of facts, just ones that not many people know.
Here are a sample of questions from the 2011 test. Which of the following facts about the sixth population survey is correct? What of the following facts about opening up and developing the western regions of the country zhaokai xibu (召开西部）is correct? What is the proper order of the following three events in party history? Which of the following statements about the selection of renmin daibiao tuan (人民代表团) is correct? Select the correct statement about the system of Chinese military ranks. According to the National Defense and Mobilization Law, when China faces a threat to its sovereignty, unity and security, which authority is in charge?
Challenging and slightly arcane, few people, even history and political science majors, feel confident answering questions. While they may have been exposed to the answer in a politics class, they likely were not paying close attention. Few people in the generation of exam takers, unlike, say, people age fifty to seventy, watch the nightly news show, Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播), whose main purpose is to spread party policy. The only real way to get up to speed on this type of question are specialized cram books. The school where I took a review class offered a book titled Mastering Chinese Administrative Structures in 15 Days. I didn’t buy it, but I may go back and do so.
A seemingly unconnected series of question surround queries about the party. However, after reflecting on it a bit more, they fall under the broad theme of “scientific development.” The 2011 test asks applicants to identify correct statements concerning the history of manned spaceflight, earthquakes in 20th century China and the history of the Chinese transportation industry. For example, is it true that the maiden flight of the first domestically produced Chinese aircraft took place in Nanchang in the 1950s? I sure don’t know.
One interesting research project might investigate how, if at all, questions on this part of the test reflect changing political slogans. Most of the tests I’ve seen are big on scientific development and the history of technology. Is this a remnant of Hu Jintao’s catchphrase or are they longer trends? Might exams in the Xi Jinping era emphasize disciplinary issues and the history of corrupt officials in China?
The most random class of questions relate to daily life, richang shenghuo (日常生活) and really deserve to be translated in full. Which of the following is true about daily life: A) In order to make repair work as convenient as possible, most nuts and bolts are in the shape of a hexagon. B) In gas stations, the reason you can’t use a cell phone is because it produces radio wave sparks (not quite sure to translate shepin huohua 射频火花）that easily produce explosions. C) The reason stoplights are red is because this color has the longest wavelength. D) If you discover a gas leak in your house you should use immediately call the police.
I can never figure out exactly what this part of the test is supposed to be testing. It is really the only section where you can get completed stumped. Most other sections include questions—choose the right word to fill to complete the sentence, logic puzzles and summarizing paragraphs—where deduction can get you quite far. This strategy is not as effective on the general knowledge section because if you don’t know anything about Chinese transportation history or how the renmin daibiao tuan 人民代表团 are selected it is hard to winnow down answers.
My week-long prep course for the exam did not actually include any review for this section. Intrigued by its absence, I asked the teachers and administrators why our class ignored an entire part of the test. Their explanation ran as follows: the course focuses on sections of the test that provide the most readily available opportunities to improve results. If a student never learned or long ago forgot basic logic, imparting these principles in a day-long session is a better use of time than covering any of the number of random fields that might appear on the general knowledge section. The same goes for quadratic equations. One teacher in particular urged students not to study for this part of the exam at all beyond looking at a book outlining the basics of China’s government structures. Anything beyond that is a waste of time. You could spend a year reviewing for the general knowledge section, as some of his former students had, and still only end up getting ten to fifteen questions right on this section. No matter how thorough and diverse a study plan you set up, the chances are high that oddball questions will spoil any sustained review. After all, most study plans won’t help students know whether the maiden flight of the first domestically produced Chinese aircraft took place in Nanchang in the 1950s.