The gaokao, the college admissions test, is just over a month away. At the beginning of June, in an annual rite of early summer, parents will stand anxiously outside school gates as their children take, or retake, an exam that will determine if—and where—they will attend university.
By the end of the month, the results will be out and the top-ranked students in each city or province will become local celebrities. Interviewed by local television stations and newspapers, they will say predictably humble things, thanking their parents and teachers as well as explaining the study methods that helped them get such a high score.
Soon, though, media attention will drift to other stories and although they will retain some measure of fame—a picture prominently displayed at their high school—these students will still have figure out exactly what they want to do with their life. A top score ensures a place at a prestigious university in the student’s department of choice but not much more.
The gaokao takes an important term from the imperial civil service exam: zhuangyuan (状元). The zhuangyuan was the first-ranked candidate at pinnacle of the exam system, the Palace Exam (dianshi 殿试). Today the term refers to the top-ranked student in each city or province in the two tracks of the gaokao: the humanities (wenke 文科) or the sciences (like 理科).
In Chinese history, being named a zhuangyuan was the culmination of study, hard work and luck. Beginning from an early age students pored over and memorized books, practiced the stringent art of essay writing (baguwen 八股文) and eventually began the slow and rarely smooth ascent through the different levels of the exam system, from the local level, shengyuan (生員) , to the provincial level juren (舉人) and the capital exam jinshi (進士) and finally the palace exam where the zhuangyaun was crowned. Passing the capital exam and becoming a jinshi was an incredible accomplishment.
The exam system, an institution run by and meant to staff the bureaucracy, was replete with regulations and rituals. One of them was particularly interesting. On the 60th anniversary of a person obtaining a jinshi degree, a special banquet was held in his honor. As Jeffery Wasserstrom reminds us, a 60th anniversary, a cycle of the Chinese calendar, holds tremendous significance.
However, this special banquet to honor an official on the 60th anniversary of obtaining a jinshi degree was held only a handful of times in the Qing dynasty. Think about all the things that had to go right. First, the official had to obtain the degree at a relatively early age, a tremendous task in itself. Then, jinshi degree in hand, the official had stay out of trouble and have a blemish free career; The Number One Historical Archives of China in Beijing are full of cases of magistrates and other officials getting removed from their posts for many types of malfeasance. Finally, even if an official won the jinshi degree at a relatively young age, say 30, and had a stellar career, he still had to live a long life.
Wu Zhenyu (1892-1870), a jinshi degree winner in 1814 and the compiler of Yangjiqi conglu (養吉齊叢錄), an interesting collection of facts about the Qing dynasty bureaucracy, finds that in the over two hundred year history of the dynasty up to that point, less than ten people had been given the 60th anniversary banquet.*
Looking at the list of names, and the offices they went on hold, it is hard not to think of promise unfulfilled. Getting a jinshi degree at a young age, these officials likely had high expectations for their futures. Of course, some of them rose in the bureaucracy; three of them eventually held the lofty rank of daxueshi (大学士) . Others never moved beyond mid-level bureaucrats and one was never more than a local magistrate. Success on Imperial Service exam, especially at a young age, did not guarantee a successful career. In the Qing Dynasty there was such a thing as peaking too young.
There are plenty of places to turn to for in-depth studies on the evolution of the exam system, from the early work of Ho Ping-ti to the more recent volumes by Benjamin Elman. The general trend in how people study the exam system is a move from statistics to stories, from how many people achieved the degree and where they were from to what it felt like to prepare and take the exam as well as the joy or sorrow that followed after learning the results.
Just as looking at the group of jinshi degree holders honored with the 60th anniversary banquet reveals disappoint and perhaps unfulfilled promise, there is likely a great book to be written on the zhuangyuan of the gaokao since the test was reinstated after the Reform and Opening period. The focus here should be stories, not statistics. There will undoubtedly be a number of zhuangyuan who went on to great achievements but others whose later accomplishments did not live up to their early success. Both of these stories are important because they touch on hopes fulfilled and unfulfilled in modern China.
*養吉齊叢錄，中華書局，2005. The 9th 卷 is all about the Imperial Civil Service Exam.