All Under Heaven – Chapter 25

A violent wind and rain storm was on the horizon.
When Zhao Su and the others arrived in front of the examination hall, there was already a mass of people queuing up. Many people had already arrived before yinshi. Some people came alone, others were accompanied by their servants. Everyone was there for the exam and huddled together with much difficulty. The atmosphere was stressful, it was hard to avoid looking all around and whispering to one another. The scene was noisy and in disarray for a moment, until the official in charge had to make the crowd quieten down.

All the examinees were waiting in the courtyard to go up and sign their name and their place of birth one by one, this was the only way of identifying oneself, in case you asked another person to take the exam for you.
However, during this time period there wasn’t any technology such as photography, so there was still a loophole. So the court could only carry out more severe punishments after the exam if this situation should arise. The rule was that if a person was caught cheating, the person would receive eighty lashings of the cane. If two people cooperate to commit the crime, then it was capital punishment for both, which achieved higher level of intimidation.

Zhao Rong was jabbering on and on next to Zhao Su: “Shaoye, I heard that there have been deaths in the examination cells1Click here to see what the examination cells look like before, because there wasn’t enough air and water. And there’s also a lack of light, the conditions are almost unbearable, I hope you are able to endure it.”
Zhao Su’s lips twitched: “Where did you hear all these absurdities?”

Zhao Rong scratched his head: “The last few days I was hanging around the restaurants, trying to help you get some news about the metropolitan examinations, when I accidentally overhead. You probably don’t know either but this time the Chief Examining Officers are people you know well.”

Chen Zhu butted in curiously: “Who?”

“The two Chief Examining Officers are Gao Gong da-ren and Chen Yiqin da-ren.” Zhao Rong gloated a bit: “Shaoye, you know Gao da-ren and Chen da-ren very well, so perhaps they’ll look kindly on you.”

Zhao Su’s face dropped: “Zhao Rong, who on earth taught you to say such nonsense?”

Zhao Rong had never seen his own master this angry, he was stunned for a while: “Shaoye, I was just saying…”

“I have not seen the two officials in question since before the Lunar New Year, I didn’t even know that they had become the Chief Examining Officers, plus, the answer sheet doesn’t have a name on it, so before the rankings are out, no one will have see the name on the paper. What you’re saying, if it was heard by others, would not only drag me through the mud, but also the names of the two officials and then what would happen then, so you were just speaking without thinking?”

Seeing that Zhao Rong still looked a bit confused, he added in a more serious tone: ‘Disaster emanates from careless talk. Do you understand this? If this happens again, don’t serve me anymore.”

Zhao Rong hung his head in shame: “Shaoye, I’m sorry.”

Chen Zhu quickly added: “Zhao Rong didn’t do this out of spite, calm down Shaoyong!”

Zhao Su shook his head, he didn’t want to frighten Zhao Rong, but this kid was too hot-tempered and needed a telling off. He was afraid that in the future, Zhao Rong really would be impetuous enough to stir up some sort of trouble.

The person in front of him suddenly turned around, laughing out loud: “I was wondering who was lecturing their servant, turns out it’s Shaoyong.”
Zhao Su lifted his head, it was Wang Xijue.

“It’s hard to believe that a youngster like Shaoyong speaks with such maturity and propriety.”

Wang Xijue winked at him: “Coming back to what was said before, do you really know the two Chief Examining Officers?”

Zhao Su was not in a good mood: “Knowing is knowing, but how could these two esteemed officials do something like this, Yuan Yu-xiong2Wang Xijue’s courtesy name, don’t listen to my pageboy spouting nonsense.”

“Of course I know that.” Wang Yijue came closer to them and said “I don’t know if you guys have heard?”

“Heard what?”

“The original Chief Examining Officer in charge of this year’s metropolitan exam was the Director of the Ministry of Rites, Yuan Weide, but a few days ago he suddenly fell ill, so he was replaced by Gao da-ren, but I heard that Gao da-ren’s knowledge is also outstanding……”

The speaker spoke casually but the listener listened with much attention. Zhao Su felt a thought flashed across in his mind, but it was so quick that he could not hold on to it.

Not long after, it was their turn, Zhao Su wrote down his name. There were already quite a few people there waiting to be body searched in case someone took any materials in to cheat.

The body search was very thorough. Although there were no modern day detection instruments, your luggage was taken out for inspection. Even your brush must be checked for any screw caps that could be hollow and could slip a paper inside. The inkstone also had to be inspected in case it had hidden compartments. In addition to places such as the buns in your hair, lining of the shoes, and inner pockets of clothing were also searched.

All in all, the whole body was basically transparent, and it was almost impossible to bring a cheat sheet into the exam.

Of course, almost impossible is not the same as completely impossible.
With such an exam, once your name is on the ranking list, you’re immediately like a carp jumping through dragon gate3鲤鱼跳龙门 in Chinese mythology, Longmen (lit. The Dragon Gate) is located at the top of a waterfall cascading from a legendary mountain. The legend states that while many carp swim upstream against the river’s strong current, few are capable or brave enough for the final leap over the waterfall. If a carp successfully makes the jump, it is transformed into a powerful dragon. And this story is often used as a euphemism for passing the Imperial Exam, from then on your status can only rise.

For this kind of high return, there are still many people who are willing to take high risks.

It’s impossible to put things on the soles of your shoes, but you could sew things in the middle of the soles. You weren’t able to stuff your hair buns with something but you could roll the cheat sheet into a thin strip and place it in the hollow part of a special hairpin.

You have taken precautionary measures, I have a wall ladder, there was always a loophole to be found.

Of course, the Inspecting Officials are not newbies. They have experienced countless battles and have sharp eyes. When Zhao Su and the others were lining up, they saw with their own eyes, a person who was found with a cheat sheet on their person was then dragged out there and then. Just like that, their future was up in flames.

After the body search, Zhao Su was handed a sign, on it was written cell number 159.

Due to the large number of examinees, in order to facilitate management, the cell numbers were divided into batches according to the sequence of the first eight characters of the 《Thousand Character Classic》4千字文 – an ancient children’s book that contains exactly 1000 unique characters. It was used for children to recognise and learn the characters, “Heaven is dark, earth golden; the cosmos is vast and diffuse.”5天地玄黄,宇宙洪荒 Full translation here . Each batch had two hundred cells and a cell number was randomly given out to the examinee. The one that Zhao Su received was already in the last of the batches.
Rumour has it that, the cells in the last batch did not have good lighting, even during the day, it was necessary to light a lamp, so all the previous examinees believed that these cells had bad feng shui, so the majority of the examinees who were assigned this batch of cells were not able to do well in the exam.

So the unlucky Zhao Su holding his unlucky sign followed the people in front into Gongyuan Court, winding around, and finally found his own cell.

At first glance, the light was dim, it indeed was cold and humid. It has been in disrepair for a long time, and moss was growing on the walls. Those who knew, knew immediately it was a cell in Gongyuan Court, and those who didn’t knew thought it was a haunted house.

Each cell was equipped with a bed, so that candidates could rest during the three days. But when Zhao Su entered, there was a musty smell that attacked his nostrils. Obviously this quilt had not seen the light of day for a long time, maybe it had not been used since his predecessor three years ago.

After the exams, the quilts were covered up, put into storage and then taken out again for the next exam.

The facts have proved that Zhao Rong’s crow beak6When you have a crow beak it means you say something bad that comes to pass was indeed very accurate. Zhao Su couldn’t help but be glad that he wasn’t a severe clean freak. He shook the quilt then put it aside, he then picked up the match and lit the charcoal basin.   

When the examinees entered, everyone was given a set of equipment: three candles and one charcoal basin. As for brushes, ink and food and drink, this had to be taken care of themselves.

Because the front of the cells is open, there is no way to block out the cold winter wind. One charcoal basin is not enough to keep warm. Therefore, during the three days, there are often people who can’t go on as they get sick and need to be escorted out. As a result, the test paper was not finished, so of course, it was all for nothing.

Before coming in, Zhao Su had already made sure to find out exactly how the environment would be and made advanced preparations.

He was afraid of falling ill on his way to the Capital, so he bought some common medicines from Shen Lexing before he left, including peppermint oil.

The peppermint oil from Hui Chun Tang’s Shen family was famous, and this time it finally became handy. During the three days, when he felt he was losing his concentration, he’d put some peppermint oil on his temples which would refresh him and wake him up instantly.   

He also brought some rations and broth.

There was no hot water provided here, so wealthy examinees would bring in soups and tonics such as ginseng soup, but ordinary examinees like Zhao Su could only boil a large pot of water to bring in.
As for rations, most people brought steamed buns and sesame cakes, because these can be stored, and were not easily crushed or broken apart, but there is way to heat up the food there. After a day, the food had already started to turn stale and was hard to put in one’s mouth.

At this time, everyone had to drink cold water, nibble on the hard dry food, and just try to swallow it down. Zhao Su didn’t want to torture himself too much, so he asked Zhao Rong to prepare a three-layer food box for both him and Chen Zhu.

The first layer was fried noodles. Since the weather is very cold, it can be stored for more than two days without any problem.

The second layer was just some snacks, such as donkey rolls, yellow pease pudding, this layer was particularly full. These foods can easily be bought in the streets and alleys of the capital, plus they were relatively soft and easy to swallow compared to the hard stale steamed buns.

The third layer was spiced beef strips. Zhao Su asked Zhao Rong to buy a lot of beef and cut it up into smaller pieces. This could be eaten with water or with the fried noodles. It was something that could last the three days and also something that filled them up.   

Many examinees came here to make a name for themselves in the rankings, and didn’t care about everything else, but this was not the case for Zhao Su. He thought that he must at least have enough to eat and have warm clothes to wear to have the strength to write the papers, so he put a lot of effort into organising what he brought in to eat. At first, Chen Zhu didn’t take it seriously, but after the first day of examination, whilst many people were gnawing on the steamed buns that were about to snap their teeth off, he happily ate the fried noodles whilst lamenting Zhao Su’s foresight.

After Zhao Su settled down in his cell with his belongings, he watched the other examinees take their place one after another. There was an official guarding each cell to prevent the examinees from cheating or to keep an eye on them if they were feeling unwell.

There are two Chief Examining Officers and seventeen Associate Examining Officers for the Metropolitan Exam.

These officers would patrol the examination hall from time to time, there were as many as two to three thousand candidates. Basically speaking, it was very difficult to cheat in the examination, so there were quite a few people who tried to bribe the examiner. Of course, this was after the exam.

At this moment, Zhao Su was sitting there, watching the examiner give out the test papers to the examinees in each of the cells, and his calm mood began to become tense.   

When he was initially preparing to embark on the road of imperial examination, he also thought that the examination content was on the Four Books and Five Classics, but later found out that he was wrong.
In fact, there are three separate exams, one a day.

The first day of the exam was Confucian Classics Argumentation7经义 Jingyi, which was actually two questions.

One question comes from the Four Books8The Four books are: Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects and Mencius, and one question comes from the Five Classics9The Five Classics are: Book of Songs, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, Book of Changes (aka I Ching), and Spring and Autumn Annals.

The first question is the same for all candidates, but for the second question, candidates can choose which book in the Five Classics they want to be tested on. For example, if Zhao Su chose the 《Book of Changes》 before signing up, then his second question would be based on 《Book of Changes》. Chen Zhu chose 《Book of Songs》, so his second question was related to《Book of Songs.》

There are also two questions on the second day. The theme of the first question was from the 《Analects》, which was a compulsory question for all examinees. There is also a choice for the second question here. Candidates could choose one of the three: “Imperial Edict”, “Imperial Mandate”, and “Memorial”.10诏 – Imperial Edict, 诰 – Imperial Mandate, 表 – Memorial – so basically this part is testing how well they can write official documents and their administrative ability.

The third day, there was just one essay to be written. 11This session apparently examines the candidates views on major issues such as current affairs
This system in which candidates choose the direction of examination questions is a bit similar to the liberal arts and sciences exams of the modern day Gaokao. Everyone chooses whether they wish to take the biology or the chemistry exam.

It has to be said that the imperial examination system of this time was among the best in the world, allowing students of all different backgrounds to have the opportunity to become government officials and even a chance to help govern the country. At this time, Europe was still using a hereditary system.

Although the imperial court stipulated that the three examinations were equally important, and the final results were taken in a comprehensive manner. For decades, due to the limited energy of the examiners, the focus was usually only based on how well you did on the first one.

As long as your first exam was amazing, even if you were mediocre later, you could still get a good ranking.

The sound of drums upstairs in Mingyuan Tower12Mingyuan Tower is the main building in the Examination Hall (Gongyuan). It is a three-storey wooden tower. Standing on the top of the tower, one has an overview of the whole examination hall. It served as the command post for the examiners during the imperial examinations. meant that the first exam had officially started.

Zhao Su’s nervous mood reached its peak when he received the exam paper.

Since the test questions were sealed, they were sealed in advance before the examinees got them. Like other candidates, he tore the seal and spread it out on the table.

Sweeping over the examination paper, two questions were written neatly on the two papers.

The first question, the gentleman does not serve as vessel13君子不器 From the Analects of Confucius. According to the translation, Confucius meant specialist when he said “vessel”, as every vessel is designed for a specific purpose only. He meant that the gentleman is someone who has committed to the mastery of more than one skill, and is not a specialist..

The second question, As nature’s movement is ever vigorous, so must a gentleman ceaselessly strive along.14天行健,君子以自强不息 from the Book of Changes – The world keeps on turning so people should follow the example of heaven and earth and always strive forward.

Zhao Su’s breathing was stagnant, and his heartbeat slowed by a beat.
The second question was the self-selected one. He chose the 《Book of Changes》, so the content of the 《Book of Changes》 is naturally on the exam paper.

What shocked him was the first question.

The so-called inside information that Zhao Rong mysteriously spent two taels of silver from the restaurant that day was indeed the gentleman does not serve as vessel.

Although, for hundreds of years, the scope of the exam questions could only be found within these books, and the questions had been used over and over again, but it is definitely not the case that you can pick out a sentence at will and find the exam question of this year’s exam, this couldn’t be a coincidence.

Zhao Su’s hand squeezed tightly, almost grabbing the paper underneath.

At that moment, a lot of thoughts flashed through his mind.

First of all, Zhao Rong managed to buy the exam questions so freely, indicating that the information was not kept particularly secret, meaning that many people may also have obtained it. This is the reason why he scoffed at the beginning, but who would have expected that such so-called gossip on the street would actually be real?

Secondly, how come the two Chief Examining Officers of this year’s Metropolitan Exam were Gao Gong and Chen Yiqin, it couldn’t be coincidental both officials were from the Prince of Yu manor?

And what was the connection between these two things?

Could it be said that Gao Gong and others were embezzling money by selling the exam questions?

Zhao Su quickly rejected this idea. First of all, Gao Gong and the others didn’t seem like the type and even if they did do it, they would not use such a stupid method. Once they were discovered, they would easily be implicated.

So, who had leaked the exam questions?
Questions popped up one after another, his eyes fell on the exam questions, he closed his eyes, and after a long while, his mood slowly calmed down.

After all, he is just an ordinary examinee. No matter how big a conspiracy is involved, it has nothing to do with him, and it is not something he can interfere with, so he should concentrate on answering questions.

Lao Liu, who was in charge of guarding cell number 159, turned his head and glanced at Zhao Su.

The examinee in this room behind him sighed and frowned from time to time when he got the papers, making it clear that he was having trouble writing an answer.

He remembered that three years ago he had even seen a man who went crazy and was dragged out on the spot. After a while, the guard lost interest in Zhao Su.

There are too many people like this, who were probably destined to fail the rankings again.

Everyone had an examination paper in front of them.

Some were frustrated, some were biting the tops of their brushes and thinking, whilst others were secretly happy.

In any case, Gongyuan Court at this time was silent, and even the Guards who were patrolling deliberately eased their steps.

No one would have thought a violent wind and rain storm was on the horizon.

1 thought on “All Under Heaven – Chapter 25”

  1. I think this is my first time reading something about the imperial examinations’ enviroment and… gods, was it so poor? Other novels I read only mention the examinations roughly and it was a little sad to read that they could succumb for those unequal conditions, even though they struggle to overcome stress.

    Fighting, our Xiao Susu! 😭


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