Proscholium Exhibition

11 July 2014

As promised in my last blog entry, I am now presenting the contents of an exhibition in the Proscholium of the Old Library. This was designed for the public, most of whom know nothing about Chinese books or the traditional Chinese examination system. My blog entry is therefore for the record, rather than to inform my readers, who will know all about these things, and more. The Proscholium is the main entrance to the Old Library, and against one of its walls there is a large exhibition case in which temporary displays are mounted. What follows is an account of what this case contained between 22 February and 6 April 2014.






In traditional China the most respectable careers were in government service. For most men the route to this was through the triennial examinations that were held at provincial and national levels.

Success at the provincial level qualified them for the lower ranking posts, and also for candidature in the national examination which was held in the capital. And success here qualified them for the highest positions in the land, with the prospect of lasting fame both for them and their families.

Education was centred on the canonical texts of Confucianism, and in particular, the Four Books and Five Classics. These were essential reading for all who aspired to a post in government, and for most of its history, were the “set books” for the questions in the examination system.

Examinations were held in large complexes such as the one illustrated below. These photographs are of the provincial examination cells in Nanking, and were taken in 1913, ten years after the system had been abolished, so they are already falling into ruin. This was the largest examination complex in imperial China, with over 20,000 cells in use by the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912).






The two examination papers (of a set of three) which are the main focus of this display would have been used in such a setting. The examination lasted for three days, and the entire period, was spent in these cells. Physical discomfort in cramped and insanitary conditions was thus added to the stress of the examination itself. Ichisada Miyazaki’s standard work on the subject, China’s examination hell (1976), describes the examination cell as being “like a prison without bars”.

Provincial examination papers
Nanchang, 1902
Gift of Revd Arnold Foster, September 1910
Sinica 3043/3
Sinica 3043/2



The two papers displayed here are from a set of three which were used for the triennial provincial examination in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, in autumn, 1902. This was the last examination to be held there, as the provincial examinations were abolished in 1903, and the metropolitan examinations in 1904. The format of this examination was rather different from those of earlier times, as in 1901 the system was reformed to reduce the emphasis on the traditional Four Books and Five Classics, so that the requirements of the three papers were as follows:

1. Chinese institutions and politics (5 essays)
2. Western institutions and politics (5 essays)
3. The Four Books (2 essays) and the Five Classics (1 essay)

The seals on the right side of each paper were applied at various stages of the examination process to certify that the paper had been produced and distributed according to the correct procedures.

Commentary on the Spring and autumn annals
Gift of Sir Edmund Trelawney Backhouse, collection received 1913-1922
Backhouse 163


The Spring and autumn annals was one of the Five Classics, and a candidate from a rich family would have editions like this to study from. It is one of the finest in the Bodleian Library’s Chinese collections. It was produced in the mid-Ming dynasty (c.1500), and is a close copy of the edition of the classics originally prepared two or three centuries earlier in the Yuan dynasty for the family academy of a certain “Mr Yue of Xiangtai” 相臺岳氏. Books like this were very expensive, and of very limited circulation.

This is an example of a traditional Chinese block-printed book. The leaves are printed on one side and then folded to form a page with the folded edge at the front, and the covers are then stitched on with thread. So we call such bindings either “doubled-leaf bindings” or “thread bindings”. Almost all pre-modern Chinese books were bound in this way. The fascicles are laid flat, and in this example they are stored in camphorwood boxes to deter insects.

The Four Books
Jianyang, c.1580
Purchased by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1604 with money given by Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland, in 1603
Sinica 2


By contrast, this fagmentary copy of an edition of the Four Books was produced in the late sixteenth century in Jianyang, Fujian province, which was the centre of commercial book production during the second half of the Ming dynasty. It is a cheap edition, and although it was probably circulated widely at the time, this copy is a unique survival. It was brought to Europe by merchants of the Dutch East India Company as a curiosity, sold at auction in Amsterdam, and bought by agents of Sir Thomas Bodley for his new library. Here, it was given its limp vellum binding. Nobody could read Chinese at that time, or could even tell which way up the book was supposed to be, so that Bodley’s inscription is upside down.

The Dutch East India Company merchants bought books like this from overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, and they had no idea what they were buying.

This is a very inferior edition, and could only have been used at the lowest level of the learning and testing process, but it shows how pervasive was the desire to learn the right things and to progress accordingly. This attitude to learning and examinations is nowhere more apparent than in China and other East Asian countries at the present time.

Model answers
Acquired early 17th century
Sinica 20


Further evidence of how popular learning was oriented towards the examination system is this book of model answers, which is of the same provenance as Sinica 2.

As in modern examinations, the questions were often based on the same passages of text, and collections of answers by successful candidates were compiled and published for study and memorising. This was not as difficult as it sounds, as at that time the essays were limited to 500 characters.

The book is open at an essay on a passage from Mencius (one of the Four Books) extolling the virtue of filial piety, the glue which held Chinese society together. It has 431 characters, well within the permitted length. We are told that it was written by Yuan Zongdao 袁宗道, who came first in the metropolitan examination of 1586 (Yuan was a famous scholar who for a time was tutor to the Emperor’s eldest son and heir apparent). The black manuscript circles are the equivalent of our underlining, and show that the text has been well studied.

Elements of international law
Peking, 1864
Acquired 1977
Sinica 2887

s00901 s00899

The second of the two examination papers gives evidence of what had become required reading during the reforms at the very end of the Qing dynasty. It refers specifically to Henry Wheaton’s Elements of international law. This had been translated by the American Protestant missionary W.A.P. Martin and printed and published by the Chinese government in 1864. Wheaton’s work was influential throughout the world, and especially in East Asia, where it introduced the concept of international law for the first time.

We show the first Chinese edition of 1865, which is block-printed. The four fascicles are contained in a wrap-around container, which would then lie flat on the shelf. This was the normal way in which Chinese books were stored. However, candidates for the Nanchang examination of 1902 would probably have used one of the late nineteenth-century editions printed by western typography, which by that time was rapidly replacing the block-print tradition.

As the examinations were the path to fame and fortune, the stakes were high, and there was great temptation to cheat. This could be done in a number of ways: by hiring a surrogate to take the examination, by bribing the officials involved (who risked being caned or even executed if discovered), or by smuggling cribbing materials into the examination cell.

These materials could be written on paper or silk. They could even be written on clothing. There is a well-known example of this in the Gest Library at Princeton University, an undergarment on which the text of specimen essays is written in very small characters. The garment may also have been worn as a talisman.

Opinions vary as to the practicality of using these cribbing materials, as humiliating body-searches were performed when the candidates had entered the examination precincts. Bribery may have helped to circumvent this problem, but unless foreknowledge of the questions had also been obtained, it was a matter of luck as to whether any of the model essays could actually be used.

Silk crib sheet
18th or 19th c.
Gift of Sir Li Ka-shing, 2013
Sinica 6016


A crib sheet in the form of a napkin, containing about two dozen model essays. Each essay is no more than 700 characters in length, which was the maximum permitted by imperial decree in 1778, an increase over the earlier limit of 500. These essays were written in the so-called “eight-legged” form, a complex structure which became compulsory in the fifteenth century, but which was abolished in the reforms of 1901.

This crib sheet is finely written in ink on silk, and would have been very expensive to produce. Its use for cribbing would have been quite feasible, as it would have been very easy to conceal. However, some scholars think that if a candidate knew enough to be able to use such materials, he wouldn’t really need to.

The Four books
19th c.
Acquired late 19th century
Sinica 2103

s01295 s01294

A tiny printed edition of the Four Books. This is the smallest block-printed Chinese book in the Library’s collections. Such editions were known as “sleeve editions” as they were small enough to be hidden in the sleeve of a garment. But it is doubtful whether they would have escaped all but the most perfunctory of searches, and it is also doubtful whether a candidate in the provincial or metropolitan examinations would have needed a copy of these elementary texts. Most likely, editions like this would have been used in local examinations.


One Response to “Proscholium Exhibition”

  1. At least one of your readers (myself !) doesn’nt “know all about these things” and thank you for this very informative blog post !

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