How students cheated in exams to get into China’s imperial civil service

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Tiny book on display in Changsha gives glimpse of the underhand methods used by some trying to enter China’s bureaucracy during Ming and Qing dynasties.

A tiny book used by Chinese students over hundreds of years to cheat in civil service exams has gone on public display, according to a newspaper report.

The miniature version of the classic Confucian texts Four Books and Five Classics was shown at a collectors conference in Changsha in Hunan province, the Changsha Evening News reported.

The book is a little larger than a matchbox and its text the size of a grain of rice.

Long Guisheng, the manager of a Hunan store selling ancient books, told the paper the tiny book was used by students in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) hoping for a leg up in their exams.

Students would bring smaller versions of texts they were supposed to memorise, sewing them into their clothing or the soles of their shoes.

“If cheating was successful, then the probably of getting in would be higher,” Long was quoted as saying.

Civil service examinations were held for 1,300 years in imperial China for those wanting to enter the state bureaucracy and were based on classic texts, such as works by Confucius. The exam system has echoes in today’s notoriously high-pressure gaokao college entrance exams in China.

A similar matchbox-sized “cheat sheet” book was discovered in Qingdao in Shandong province in 2009.

The 160-page text measuring just over 6 cm long and 5 cm wide, containing some 140,000 characters, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Another book found in Hainan province had 32 pages with 32 million characters in it and was valued at about HK$83,000.

Shi Xiaoyan, the vice-president of the China Association of Collectors, told the newspaper prices among collectors for books, drawings and porcelain in China were very high, beyond the reach of most people.

No details were given of who owns the book on display in Changsha or its value.

By Sarah Zheng

SCMP

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