The Civil Service Examination System of Imperial China served as a qualification system for scholars who wanted to become officials in the Chinese government. Many young men spent their entire lives studying the Four Books, the Five Classics, and memorizing Chinese characters in order to attempt to pass these examinations. The book, China's Examination Hell, written by Ichisada Miyazaki and translated by Conrad Schirokauer, describes the lengthy, and often rigorous process of taking Civil Service Examinations.
The book begins by giving an account of how a young boy prepares for the examinations, learning his first Chinese characters at the age of three. Girls could not take the Civil Service Examinations, and from birth were treated in a way such that they would learn to be submissive. Boys began their formal education at age seven. From that point on, they spent every moment memorizing the Four Books, which included the Analects, Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Five Classics, which included the Book of Changes, the Book of Documents, the Book of Poetry, the Book of Rites, and the Tso Chuan. Young men had the opportunity to take their first Civil Service Examination around the age of fourteen or fifteen, and particularly bright males would most likely continue taking different levels of examinations for the rest of their lives.
Also described in the book are the hardships endured by both the candidates for examination and the examiners themselves. The test-taking compounds were not very conductive to rational thinking, as each man was assigned a small, door-less cubicle in which he had to spend three days and two nights at a time. The examiners, by the end of an examination session, had thousands of papers needing to be graded. As a result, even the smallest mistake, such as a stain on the paper or a misprinted character would lead to failure of the examination. The book describes in detail how the Chinese...
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