Book Burning and Exam Hell – The Scholars, Part 2

Starting in chapter two, The Scholars is set in the Ming Dynasty, specifically in the reign of Emperor Chenghua (1447-1487). This is over 100 years later than Mian Wang in chapter one. Even though Jingzi Wu was using the Ming Dynasty, which was much more favorable toward scholars with Emperor Hongwu’s more elaborate curriculum, to make veiled criticisms of his own Qing era, certainly all was not paradise even under the Ming. The court of Chenghua was no exception. Here is a brief description of his background by traveler Irving Hultengren in the context of the Ming Tombs where Chenghua was buried. Chenghua’s individual tomb was known as the Maoling Tomb, though this site covers all of the Ming emperors:

The first ten chapters of the novel settles into a rather mundane slice of life centering on various aspirants to the scholarly class. The importance of the imperial exam and the literati class cannot be emphasized enough. Under the Confucian ethos, it was considered the greatest goal for a man to become a scholar after studying the classics for years, learning to live and think in accordance with them, composing beautiful poetry, and writing essays expounding on the meaning of various passages. Typically, merchants in particular were looked down upon in the Confucian worldview, as were military men to a lesser degree.

However, the official place of Confucianism in various countries under China’s influence, such as the mainland itself, Korea, Japan, and even Vietnam, created the first meritocracies in the world, at least in theory. It was held ideally that any man could study and pass the myriad exams given on a regular basis to prove himself worthy of the role of teacher, scholar and state official. In fact, social mobility was a bit more restrictive, mainly because of various prejudices of those selecting the men who passed the exams and because those who could afford to spend the leisure time studying to take exams also was rather restricted.

The characters we meet in this section of the novel include a mix of young children and some men who are well past their prime all hoping to pass their exams and be officially considered scholars; Jin Zhou, Jiu Mei, Mei Xun, Hui Wang, Jin Fan, and Prefect Chu’s sons and grandsons all become central figures. They study vigorously to pass the exams at the prefectural, provincial and metropolitan levels, though passing the prefectural exam seems to be the hardest, and some of the aspirants make attempts for decades before finishing the other levels. For example, Jin Zhou is over sixty when he passes. Until that day, their good fortune is delayed, and they have to eke out a meager existence.

It is a huge shift in fortunes when these men pass, usually going immediately from lives of contempt and poverty to riches and high honors with court appointments. In chapter three, Jin Fan’s father-in-law Butcher Hu normally subjects him to all sorts of abuse, but once Jin Fan finally passes the exam at age fifty-four, Butcher Hu knows he has to straighten up or deal with the karmic consequences. Butcher Hu invokes the punishment of the King of Hell, also known as Yama, as a reason he must stop being so harsh with his son-in-law, and he acknowledges that Jin Fan has reached a higher level of social status merely by taking the exam and passing it. For anyone interested in learning more about the King of Hell, check out this wonderful interactive collection of painted Buddhist hell scrolls illustrating this topic:

In chapter eight, we meet another scholar fitting the ideal of retreat from the world into private study in the person of Chinyu Chu’s elderly father, Prefect Chu. He says of his father’s decision to resign from his post:

My father maintains that officialdom is a stormy sea, which it is hard to endure for long. Moreover, at the time he passed the first examination he already had a small estate which will provide us with a frugal living, while the humble home of our ancestors suffices to keep out wind and rain; and for diversions he has music and gardening, as well as a few favourite haunts where he can while away the time. So in the press of public affairs he has always longed for a life of seclusion; and now he can realize his wish.

This chapter also shows glimpses of how dangerous it could be for scholars to say certain things against the government even in the Ming Dynasty. The first reference is to the rare book Hui Wang left behind with Prefect Chu’s grandson as he fled to safety, Random Notes on Poetry by Chi Kao. A footnote in the text states that this particular book was written by an early Ming Dynasty author who was executed for offending the emperor. Now, this particular book makes Prefect Chu advise his grandson to hide the book, but his grandson makes copies of the book to give out. No explanation is given as to why Prefect Chu was apprehensive about this action beyond a mere mention that he would have prevented it had he found out in time.

Then later in the chapter Minister Lou’s two sons, Chan Lou and Feng Lou, come to visit, and they make critical statements about politics and current leaders. Prefect Chu diplomatically warns them to be careful what they say about such matters. It turns out these two brothers had some grievances which they aired with no regard for the danger, and their elder brother persuaded them to return to the country so they would be less likely to get in trouble for their opinions.

In the context of book banning, book burning and the danger of political opinions, here is an example of one of the many laws from the Ming and Qing dynasties regulating books from 王利器的«元明清三代禁毁小说戏曲史料» (Translation: Historical Data on the Yuan, Ming and Qing’s Forbidden and Destroyed Novels and Chinese Operas, compiled by Liqi Wang [1911-1998]):

A Law Forbidding the Copying and Composing of Musical Comedies

To all musicians copying or composing musical plays: it is not permitted to dress up as past dynastic kings, empresses, concubines, faithful officials, martyrs, early sages or ancestors, or in the likeness of a deity. Violators will get 100 lashes with a rod. Dressing up in this way is considered the same crime according to this law whether done in the homes of officials or in the homes of the people. Such dressing up as other Daoist immortals, righteous men, moral women, filial sons, obedient grandsons, and encouraging people is good and is not prohibited. (An Explanation of Great Ming Law, the 26th scroll, Ceremonial System). [p. 11, my translation]

This series will continue to highlight these laws, but just for the sake of comparison, laws from the Yuan and Ming Dynasties only run for a few pages, while the bulk of Liqi Wang’s book is Qing law.

Some of these same historical concerns over book content can be found echoing in current television policy in Mainland China, as this article from a few years ago explains regarding government complaints of historical inaccuracies and “frivolousness” in “time-travel” shows gaining in popularity:

The new China, same as the old China. Sometimes modern analysts view these developments in a vacuum when they really may have a lot of historical weight. One thing to remember is that in Chinese, the word for novel is and was 小说, which literally means “insignificant speech.” That was referring to all novels in traditional China. In the modern era even as novels became more acceptable, works that would fall into the category of speculative fiction (usually considered fantasy, science fiction, horror, detective/mystery) have often been belittled, and they have not been favored by most authoritarian regimes because these genres don’t hold up well as a form of propaganda. Speculative fiction doesn’t have a fixed message, the audience can take many meanings from it, whereas realism normally does have a fixed message and is amenable to propaganda as a result. Certainly, socialist realism was the preferred style under Stalinism in Soviet Russia.

Speculative fiction can also be rather subversive through its veiled criticism of society. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would be considered fantasy, and the audience can assign any number of metaphorical meanings to the “One Ring to Rule Them All,” anything that would have a similar all-consuming, corrupting power. However, a story about a Wall Street whiz who loses all of his money on a risky stock deal is fairly unambiguous in its message and isn’t likely to be analyzed metaphorically. This illustrates the true danger of books.

Part two of a five part series.

About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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