Scholar by a Waterfall
Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), late 12th–early 13th
Ma Yuan (Chinese, active ca. 1190–1225)
Album leaf: ink and color on silk;
Signed: “Servitor, Ma Yuan”
Metropolitan Museum of Art
“[T]his album leaf [shows] a gentleman
in a gardenlike setting, the jagged rhythms of the pine tree and
garden contrast with the quiet mood of the scholar, who gazes pensively
into the bubbling rapids of the cascade. ...”
more about this painting at the Metropolitan Museum website.
The Song period saw the full flowering of
one of the most distinctive features of Chinese civilization — the
scholar-official class certified through highly competitive .
Most scholars came from the landholding class, but they acquired prestige from their learning and political clout by serving in office. In
a society in which most people were illiterate, scholar-officials stood
out by virtue of their reading and writing skills. Their encouraged them to aspire for government service, but also to speak up
when they thought others were pursuing the wrong course, making them .
on the Crop Loans Measure, By Wang Anshi
Against the New Laws, By Cheng Hao
Since the , it had been possible to become a government official by passing a series of written examinations. It was only in the Song, however, that the examination system came to be considered the normal ladder to success.
From the point of view of the early Song emperors, the purpose of the
civil service examinations was to draw men with literary educations into
the government to counter the dominance of military men. So long as the
system identified men who would make good officials, it did not matter
much if some talented people were missed.
From the point of view of those taking the examinations, however, They wanted to be assured that everyone was given an equal chance and the examiners did not favor those they knew. To increase their confidence in the objectivity of the examiners, the Song government decided to replace candidates’ names with numbers and had clerks recopy each exam so that the handwriting could not be recognized.
Scholars in and out of the government regularly debated what should be asked on the examinations, but everyone agreed that one element should be Candidates were usually asked to discuss policy issues, but the examinations tested general education more than knowledge of government laws and regulations.
Candidates even had to write poetry in specified forms.
To prepare for
the examinations, men would memorize the Confucian
classics in order
to be able to recognize even the most obscure passages.
In Song times that the number of men entering
each competition grew steadily, from fewer than 30,000 early in the
dynasty, to about 400,000 by the dynasty’s end. Because the number of
available posts did not change, a candidate’s chances of passing
plummeted, reaching as low as one in 333 in some prefectures.
Men often took the examinations several times, and were on average a little over 30 when they succeeded. The great majority of those who devoted years to preparing for the exams, however, never became officials.
• “Tu Yen,” in A Compilation of Anecdotes of Sung
translated by Chu Djang and Jane C. Djang (St. John’s University
Press, 1989), 265-73.