This past weekend, the bureau in charge of the civil service exam released a new an outline of basic exam procedures. Though most information remained exactly the same from last year, there was one important change: the essay portion of the test will now be a full three hours, thirty minutes longer than last year’s section. This modification triggered a storm of speculation among aspiring government officials. Does giving applicants more time imply the shenlun (申论） section will now be more difficult and complex? Easy to enter a dense and uncertain web of rumor about the changes, it is better to focus on the essay materials themselves and how these amplify the abstract but important changes in China that often relate in one way or another to the introduction of the market economy. Perhaps the extra thirty minutes is only meant to encourage the candidates to reflect more carefully on some of these issues.
Though keen to address these societal problems, the materials and questions do not touch on anything too sensitive. In the past several years there were materials about food safety but not about leadership struggles in the communist party, about the erosion of social morals but nothing about outright corruption. At a meeting to discuss changes in the exam at Zhonggong jiaoyu, one of the big test prep companies, several teachers guessed this year’s materials might deal with the rule of law, new media or online shopping.
The best way to get a feel for the section is to look at material for one question in depth.
Applicants applying to municipal posts in central government organizations in 2012, for example, the local bureau of the National Statistics Department in Nanjing, had to write an essay of 800-1000 characters on the following prompt: make__________shine (让—————大放异彩). The first challenge, then, is to figure out what exactly to put in the blank. The only way to do that is by finding the common themes of the ten documents, a combination of new reports, personal stories, speeches by Communist Party leaders and compilations of statistics.
The first document describes the successful restoration of the largest muslim quarter in Beijing, Niujie, between 1997 and 2004. The next shifts scope to tell the the story of movie projectionist Wang who, since 1976 has been screening films in the countryside to help bring the the outside world to local villages. The third document, the minutes from a meeting concerning building basic culture, contains reports from local cunguan (村官）, recent college-graduates who work in local villages for two years, on how they overcame challenges in getting local residents to use the village library to read more books and newspapers. The next document, and also the most amusing, tells to story of Xiao Jia, who always paid more attention to developing her English than her Chinese. After completing a M.A. degree and joining a state-owned company, her boss often criticized her for her lackluster Chinese writing ability. She does not regret studying English, but she thinks she have paid more attention to Chinese language (作为中国人，我门一定要重视学好汉语). The following document, an interview with an academic, picks up on the theme, lamenting the westernization (yanghua 洋化) of Chinese language. The academic voices the familiar complaint that most people can no longer read classical Chinese and also decries online slang that combines Chinese and English (i.e. 玩儿的很high; Hold得住).
The materials shift perspective and then discuss France. It begins with an anecdote about a French politician being criticized for using English to give a speech at an international meeting and then proceeds to detail efforts by the French government and French companies to protect and promote the nation’s culture.
The final document is a list of facts put together by an official in a cultural bureau. Some relate to the American entertainment industry and its position of global dominance while others describe how more and more people across the world are interested in Chinese history and language.
So, confronted with all these materials, what are applicants supposed to put in the blank and make shine? Chinese culture, of course. However, a good answer on this essay, as we went over in my review class, must strike a balanced approach. The model answer starts by saying that Chinese culture must absorb outside influences while maintaining its core characteristics when confronted by external challenges, Hollywood movies, and internal ones, internet slang that uses too much English. It ended by saying that the responsibility of preserving and promoting Chinese culture rested not only with the government but with individuals and enterprises.
This conclusion may seem like a bit of empty rhetoric, an opinion to voice without the aid of any documentary materials. In that way, the essay portion of the exam is the best reflection of what a job as a government official will actually be like: compiling and writing reports as well as composing and giving speeches whose message often seems a little hollow.