This is a story about one of the greatest civilizations on Earth. It rose to power and dominated a continent for almost a millennium.
Its decline was swift and complicated. By the dawn of the 20th Century, it was a shell of its former self…
and it was all, at least partly, due to standardized testing.
China has had standardized testing longer than any other society on the planet. For an almost unbroken string of 1,300 years, the imperial examination system attracted candidates from all over the country, studying and hoping for a chance to rise to positions of power and influence in the imperial government.
Along with gunpowder, paper, the compass and the printing press, a civil service based on meritocratic competitive exams is one of China’s great contributions to the world. The abuse and corruption of that system, unfortunately, helped signal its downfall in the late 19th-early 20th century.
Although earlier attempts were made in the 3rd Century BCE, the Chinese government began their famous examination system in the Sui Dynasty, around 605 CE. Under the T’ang period (618-907), the exam system would spread across China, prompting a cottage industry of schools and tutors designed to prepare candidates for the tests.
The examination system, at least until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), consisted of a comprehensive examination of the “Five Studies” (military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture, and geography) as well as the Four Books and Five Classics, a set of philosophical works written by Confucius and some of his disciples.
There were multiple levels of exams based on the position one sought in the government. Each degree level demanded a more complex understanding of the content material. At the district level, the exam focused on knowledge of the Classics and composing poetry using proscribed forms. At the provincial level, the exam expanded to also test the breadth of knowledge of the content material. At the highest level, the national examination or palace exams, the candidates were required to apply the Confucian classics to analysis of contemporary political problems, along with all the tests needed in the previous levels.
Candidates would often take 24 to 72 hours to complete the exam. They were locked in bare, isolated rooms or in cubicles with other candidates. They had to bring their papers, brushes, ink, food, and other materials for the duration of the test. In the room were two slabs of wood, that could be put together as a bed, or aligned at different heights to create a desk and chair. To prevent bias in scoring, all candidates identified their work with a number instead of their name. After the exam was completed, another person would rewrite the examination before evaluation, so that the candidate’s handwriting couldn’t be recognized.
More or less, the exams were open to all male candidates in China, regardless of social position. In truth, however, the preparations for the exam, as well as the exams themselves, were time-consuming and expensive. Often a village would funnel all their resources so that one lucky boy can prepare for exams and rise to high office. Yet the system remained remarkably free of social or geographic bias, according to Justin Crozier in a 2002 article for China in Focus magazine:
“During the Qing period, over a third of jinshi (national) degree holders came from families with little or no educational background. Nor was the system biased towards the inhabitants of the capital. Degrees were awarded to scholars from throughout China; indeed the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang boasted the greatest number of jinshi graduates.”
Furthermore, the exams’ emphasis on uniform standards of content and skills formed a unifying force that united China, a country with dozens of ethnic groups. No matter where the candidate came from, they had to learn the same Confucian classics and content knowledge, and helped spread the Mandarin Chinese dialect—the dialect used in examinations—towards its status as the standard for Chinese language today.
Yet with any system, the examination system would decay and decline—and its decline can serve a lesson to those who cling to standardized tests as the only standard in measuring student progress.
That decline came with an essay.
Around 1370, the so-called “eight-legged essay” developed in the tutoring houses and academies of exam preparation. 700 characters long, this essay form had 8 specifically proscribed sections that demanded an extreme rote knowledge of the Confucian classics and certain idioms and figurative language used in Confucius’ time. By this time, the other subjects needed for the exams were largely abandoned in favor of an extremely intense knowledge of only the Confucian texts. Each text averaged over 400,000 characters that had to be carefully memorized and interpreted.
By the 1500s, the eight-legged essay became the standard for imperial examinations throughout the empire. Scholars at the time praised its rigor, structure and ease of scoring, since essays of the same format could be scored uniformly. Thanks to the change in format, the best examination papers were published at the behest of the emperor, who wanted to give candidates anchor papers of what was considered exemplary work. So along with the exams came the first exam guides, first published in 1587.
This push towards memorizing texts led to various methods to cheat on the test, as well as multiple methods to thwart cheaters. Crozier mentions that:
“The sheer volume of knowledge required to succeed in the Imperial examinations elevated cheating to something of an art form in China. Miniature books were devised to be concealed in the palm of a hand; shirts had important passages from the Confucian Classics sewn, in miniscule lettering, to their insides; fans were constructed with pass-notes on their obverse.”
Other forms of corruption would also proliferate. Proctors were often bribed for various reasons: to give the benefit of the doubt on an essay, or simply to have the candidate skip the early degrees to go straight to the national exams. Imposters, usually exam-takers themselves, would often take tests in others’ stead.
The biggest disadvantage of the new system, however, was also seen as an asset: its uniformity.
The emphasis on the Confucian texts and proscribed methods such as the eight-legged essay produced government officials with no practical knowledge of government service or political problems. The rote method of learning the classics meant that the deep morals of the Confucian philosophy were lost on candidates who memorized the texts in order to pass the exams, yet used their government posts to corrupt their office and enrich themselves at the expense of the people.
As the Western universities moved towards natural and social sciences in the 19th century, the Chinese system seemed outdated and obsolete. Western powers would exert more influence on China through pressuring increasingly corrupt and incompetent government leaders—leaders whose only qualification was the completion of an essay they probably memorized.
By 1850, the examinations would indirectly lead to the second-most bloody conflict in world history. Hong Xiuquan had failed the provincial examinations in four attempts. The stress of the exams forced Hong into bed, where he had a mental breakdown and claimed he was the younger brother of Jesus sworn to overthrow the imperial government. Hong’s movement would create a rival kingdom in southern China and result in the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war that lasted 14 years and cost over 20 million lives.
Attempts were made to reform the exams in 1898, but it was too late. The Chinese empire officially ended the examinations in 1905, only to be finally overthrown by nationalist warlords in 1911.
The imperial examination system is an important historical example of the triumphs and limitations of standardized testing. The Chinese system, in its original inception, tested candidates in a basket of knowledge that was applied to political and social problems, thereby creating a civil service based on merit, not on personal connections. It was open to all levels of Chinese society, and it provided a unifying spirit to a vast empire of disparate peoples.
Yet the system’s greatest strength, its uniformity, would lead to its downfall. The overemphasis on a simplified—albeit still complex—answer form and the de-emphasis of critical thinking at the expense of rote knowledge created an artificial test. It became an exam that created industries and crimes designed not to find the best candidates, but rather to do best on the exam.
It led to corruption, foreign influence, stagnation, rebellion, death and disaster.
The Chinese imperial examination system is truly a warning from history.
What Osama Bin Laden Teaches Us
Osama bin Laden in 1997. Image via Wikipedia
For once, my students united behind a common enemy. It was just too bad that it was an enemy that was already dead.
With a student body that already has violent tendencies, Monday morning brought the murderous rage of my class into full froth. Even if I could start spouting about Verdun, the Lusitania or the killing fields in the Somme, it wouldn’t make a dent in kids that had nothing but Osama bin Laden on their mind.
World War I would have to wait as class after class wanted to simply share their thoughts—or dispense their dubious knowledge—about the action that killed the elusive Al-Qaeda founder. Many had doubts as to his killing. Some were spreading neighborhood gossip that it was all an act. Others were quick to continue the path of destruction to Pakistan: after all, he was under their very noses.
Still others felt it was all just a distraction from their state tests in reading this week. It took some convincing to assure them that President Obama did want them to graduate and would not consciously disrupt their studies (at least I think so).
Yet now that we’re a few days removed from bin Laden’s demise, the rage and celebration can finally settle down to the more unpleasant task of figuring out what this all means.
In analyzing the situation, and the better answers of my students (which weren’t that many) I found some useful lessons from the death of the world’s most notorious terrorist:
Everyone eventually gets what they deserve.
It’s pretty cut and dry: the bombing of innocents in New York, the Pentagon, embassies and installations abroad. The inspiration of weak-minded ideologues to do likewise. The determination to bring down our way of life at any cost—while offering a rather crappy alternative. This balloonhead was just begging for an ass-whupping, even if it was a decade too late. Let’s just hope those 72 virgins have faces like rabid camels and raging cases of the clap (although Osama may not mind the camel-faces).
Plan twice, Cut once.
You really have to hand it to Obama here. He could’ve just sent some drones in August and smashed the place to bits. Yet he knew the world wouldn’t be convinced with a crater: he needed to produce a furry, smelly body. The operation was meticulously planned and rehearsed, with the President on hand to observe the entire process. The whole business was quick, even with a snafu with a downed chopper, with no US casualties—a feat so precise it would’ve caused a NASA mission controller to tear open his pocket protector in frustration.
Never let them see you coming.
Obama’s code of silence on this would’ve made Lucky Luciano grin. The whole operation only worked if everyone kept their mouth shut: especially in two places that always seem to blab—the CIA and the Pentagon. Few people were in the loop, and even less countries knew until the very last minute. Furthermore, Obama finally caught on to the shady dealings of a certain so-called ally, which leads to:
Don’t try to be all things to all people.
The one big loser in all this is the government of Pakistan, which wound up with serious egg on its face as Bin Laden was found within an hour’s drive of the capital. Pakistan is like the new kid in school who tries to be everyone’s friend on the first day, but usually ends up as the smelly kid on the bus who farts and blames someone else.
For twenty years now, Pakistan has cozied up to whoever was in their best interest at that particular moment, be it a Taliban who terrorized its people using Pakistani weapons and intelligence, or China in finding a new ally in the next war over Kashmir, or the United States in offering support for the Afghan conflict while whistling away the home-grown Islamic extremism and terrorist breeding happening at their doorstep.
In the end, Pakistan is left with no real friends: just a neighbor who wants to take over (Afghanistan), two bully-boys who use it in their petty schoolyard fights with other countries (China, Russia), and a snarling neighbor who just wants to obliterate Pakistan off the map (India, be it with nukes or cricket bats). Even the United States, who will tough it out with anyone no matter how useless, is re-assessing its situation. It might be better for Obama to leave Pakistan to the angry Pashtuns, ravenous Asiatic hordes and software-engineering batsmen. Then we can actually make sense of a massive clusterfuck of a region.
Just because you cut out the cancer does not mean you’re cured.
Remember guys like Black September, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, even Hezbollah and Hamas? They’ve been at the Islamic terrorism racket for a heck of a lot longer than Al-Qaeda. Even with a demoralized, rudderless Al-Qaeda, radical Islam will not go away. The terror it often breeds, likewise, will not go away. Furthermore, expect attacks from those seeking revenge for bin Laden’s death—although hopefully without his generous credit line.
By the way, you don’t have to be a radical Muslim or even a plain old everyday Muslim to engage in terror: just ask the Khmer Rouge, the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof group, the IRA, the UVF, the Ku Klux Klan and various guerrilla groups around the world that on a daily basis have engaged (and continue to engage, in some respects) in acts so brutal it would make the Ayatollah soil his robes—which could be an improvement.
Make sure you’re covered on the back end.
Something very important happened while we spent billions chasing bin Laden: China became a superpower. It already produced most of our consumer goods, bought a huge hunk of our debt and is even attempting to phase out the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Other countries, like Russia, Brazil and India, look to create a new bloc with this newly aggressive dragon.
Many Americans see no harm in this. I am not one of them.
US businesses love China, because it’s a source of cheap labor and high profits. European businesses love China as a counterbalance to the United States. Same with Russia, India and the like.
However, to truly get a sense of what it will be like under a Chinese superpower, just ask Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia: places that know all too well the ugly face of Chinese power.
Say what you will about American hegemony, it is comparatively soft compared to what potentially awaits those countries in Asia that fall under China’s orbit. The United States conquered the world with cheap cigarettes, bad movies and hydrogenated fast food.
Yet those simple pleasures were also balanced by the power of ideas, of beliefs and ethics that shape what it is to be American—even if we rarely practice what we preach. See how long conversations about democracy, human rights, the rule of law, individual opportunity and political discourse last in a Chinese satellite state that values profit and forced consensus over anything else.
What makes China terrifying is not its ideology, but its lack of ideology.
In the push to progress China to superpower status, the Chinese government has embraced capitalism better than us capitalists ever have. They will do business with anyone, no matter how loathsome, as long as they’re in the black. It’s an avarice that would make even J. P. Morgan cringe. When a money relationship is not backed by ideas or ethics, friends can become enemies in the blink of an eye.
In reconnoitering our military positions overseas, the United States should look at China for what it is: a rival that must be dealt with, not an idol that should be fawned over.
The death of bin Laden has left more questions than answers. Yet the United States has a unique opportunity to reshape itself into the superpower we all hoped it should be.
Our financial house must be put in order, and significant cuts should be shared equally, not just in the 20% of the budget deemed politically expedient.
Our commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan should be re-evaluated and, when needed, troops should be re-deployed to where they can do the most good.
Most importantly, we must realize the world that arose while the War on Terror waged. The real enemy of the United States is not in Tora Bora, nor in some madrassa in Kandahar or a mosque in Tehran. It is an ascendant rival that for all its perceived economic benefits stands in direct opposition to everything we stand for.
The United States cannot be sucked into another game as an ordinary superpower. We have to stand for something—or possibly lose everything.
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