The Chinese imperial civil service exam was all about essay writing. No multiple choice questions. No logic games. No puzzles. Just putting brush to paper. The essay section of the current civil service exam system (shenlun 申论), though of course very different, retains a similar focus on the act itself: all essays are handwritten. This approach is one part traditionalist to two parts practical. With up to 1.5 million aspirants taking the exam at one time, securing the use of the that many computers at exam centers across the country would be a logistical challenge.
The essay portion of the test continues to evolve with the civil service exam itself. Essay question in the 1990s and early 2000s first asked applicants to write a gongwen, a kind of official government document meant for public consumption. That kind of question is now rare. Instead, in the past few years, prompts asks future bureaucrats to analyze, summarize, interpret and synthesize a number of documents that differ depending on whether the candidate applied for a position at the provincial level (sheng 省 ) of city level (shi 市). The intended audience of these prompts is not the public but other government functionaries.
Straightforward enough, but my classmates in the review course had a bit of trouble with it. Humanities majors to a person (though we had one women studying traffic safety), they said they did not do much writing.
The average scores on the exam confirms this initial impression. Four shorter questions with required responses between 150-400 characters ask the applicant to summarize, analyze, critique an argument, propose a solution to a problem or write a short letter or propaganda piece in the role of a government official. Responses are worth ten to twenty points each. One longer essay question between eight hundred and one thousand characters is worth 40 points. As the teacher at my review class repeatedly warned, the average total score on the essay section is only 30-40 out of 100 points. A score of 50 is great and anything around or above 60, paired with a decent result on the multiple choice, will likely get you to the interview stage.
The review class instructor argued that the root cause of these low scores link to the applicant’s misunderstanding of how the questions are formulated. With so many pressing problems and important issues in Chinese society and only two sets of essay prompts—one for applications to central government positions at the provincial level and one at the municipality level—their selection is a process of compromise. As my teacher explained, every summer several representatives from different ministries and departments along with academics gather to discuss the content of the essay materials, usually about eight documents running ten pages in length, and the questions to ask based on these resources. As our teacher assured us, the key to success on the essay section was to probe for explicit and implicit themes that united the materials. For example, a series of sources about French attempts to block, or at lest lessen, the influence of Hollywood movies is an allegory about preserving China’s own cultural heritage. Writing an essay about France is an efficient way to flunk this section of the exam.
Thinking about how the questions are formulated, though, only gets the applicant halfway: they also need to think about how the tests are scored. It’s a unenviable job, reading through hundreds and perhaps thousands of essays on the same subject. The bureau or organization looking to hire deputizes several people to mark the essays of people who applied for that work unit. Sometimes academics fill this role. Armed with a standard response for each question, they work quickly and viciously. They deduct for diverging from the standard answer, holes in logic, faulty ideas, flimsy policy proposals and, of course, poor handwriting. According to my teacher, essays receive only about two minutes of attention, with both markers having to agree on a score. With a nameless and faceless bureaucrat scoring an unending series of papers, the trick is give the standard answer but write something that makes you unique.
Most interesting and surprising to me was that time and again the teacher told students to avoid stock phrases, especially at the end of an essay, like “We should carry out this proposal to make our society more harmonious and together build a more beautiful socialist tomorrow.” Anyone can say that. You don’t want to sound too much like Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping giving a National Day address. After all, you are just applying to be a low-level functionary. You have to know your place.
Of course, that is not to say these essays discourage bureaucratic thinking and writing, devoid of meaning and content. In some cases it is just the opposite. When asked to propose a solution to a current societal problem, for example, traffic management, the instructor stressed how important it was to really think like a government official. In the past, questions like this asked applicants to propose a number of solutions and their supposed superior would select the policy to be implemented. Now, the question is phrased more narrowly, saying that the policy you propose will be adopted. This puts a heavier burden on the applicant. The response can’t just spit out ideas, it has to pay attention to proper procedure. When confronted with a problem what is the first thing the government does? Undertake a survey (diaochao 调查 ), of course! Next? Why certainly it is to hold a meeting on the subject, (kaihui 开会). After detailing your proposed solution you need to have a plan to spread the message (xuanchuan 宣传). Pro forma answers like these combined with a acute eye for how you your bureau interacts with other theoretical work units in the prompt can lead to a high score. The goal is to prove to other bureaucrats that you can think, write and act like they do.
It is not easy, but an above average score does a candidate a lot of good. As my teacher reminded us on the last day to motivate our review after the class ended, those who do well on the essay section receive great rewards： 得申论者得天下.
This is all a bit abstract. I’ll provide some more concrete examples later.