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Education Bookcast

Dec 21, 2020

Chinese culture has the concept of the "four great inventions" (四大發明) - inventions from ancient China that are points of pride in Chinese history, and symbolic of Chinese technical and scientific sophistication. The inventions in question are the compass, gunpowder, the printing press, and paper. One could say that there is one "invention" that is conspicuously absent.

During the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD), the emperor was concerned that the aristocracy held too much power, in particular by occupying all of the positions in the government bureaucracy. In a shrewd political move, the emperor decided to start holding examinations, open to all males regardless of class, to recruit for positions in the civil service. At first regarded with contempt by the aristocrats, they were eventually won over, and after some decades started sending their own boys to be educated in order to pass the government exams. The Chinese civil service examination system (科舉) was born.

The system persisted in China for over a millenium, with the final exams held at the start of the 20th century, just prior to the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the end of imperial China. However, the system was to have a lasting influence outside of the country. In the 19th century, the British East India Company, inspired by the Chinese system, set up its own examinations to make employment decisions. Before long, written examinations were taken up by Oxford and Cambridge universities, and from there spread to the rest of Europe and the world. So China's fifth great invention was the written examination, and its societal influence can still be felt around the world.

Ichisada Miyazaki was a Japanese historian of China. In his book, he goes through the nature of the system in great detail - what examinations had to be taken where and how; how boys prepared for them; the arms race between cheaters and government anti-cheating and anti-corruption measures; what the societal implications were; and how it shaped Chinese culture. It is clear that the importance of the system for Chinese history is profound, and many argue that it still exists in modified form in the Chinese university entrance examination, the Gaokao (高考), and in the furious educational competition that still exists within China. China's Examination Hell gives us an important perspective on why China is the way it is today.

Enjoy the episode.