Monday, June 18, 2018

Book Excerpt on The T'ang Dynasty

At the funeral of Tai-tsung his successor, Kao-tsung, saw Wu, one of his father's concubines, who pleased him so much that, contrary to law, he took her into his own harem. Raised to the rank of empress and left mother of an infant son, she swayed the sceptre after Kao-tsung's death for twenty-one years. Beginning as regent she made herself absolute.

A system of civil service examinations which had sprung up with the revival of learning under the Hans was now brought to maturity. For good or for evil it has dominated the mind of the Empire for twelve centuries. Now, however, the leaders of thought have begun to suspect that it is out of date. The new education requires new tests; but what is to hinder their incorporation in the old system? To abolish it would be fraught with danger, and to modify it is a delicate task for the government of the present day.

That the scholar should hold himself in readiness to serve the state no less than the soldier was an acknowledged principle. It was reserved for the statesmen of T'ang to make it the mainspring of the government. To them belongs the honour of constructing a system which would stimulate literary culture and skim the cream of the national talent for the use of the state. It had the further merit of occupying the minds of ambitious youth with studies of absorbing interest, thus diverting them from the dangerous path of political conspiracy.

Never was a more effective patronage given to letters. Without founding or endowing schools the state said: “If you acquire the necessary qualifications, we shall see that your exertions are duly rewarded. Look up to those shining heights—see the gates that are open to welcome you, the garlands that wait to crown your triumphant course!”

Annual examinations were held in every country; and the degree of S. T. (Siu-tsai), equivalent to A. B., was conferred on 3 per cent. of the candidates. To fail was no disgrace; to have entered the lists was a title to respect. Once in three years the budding talent of the province convened in its chief city to compete for the second degree. This was H. L. (Hiao Lien, “Filial and Honest”), showing how ethical ideas continued to dominate the literary tribunals. It is now Chu-jin, and denotes nothing but promotion or prize man. The prize, a degree answering to A. M., poetically described as a sprig of the Olea fragrans, was the more coveted as the competitors were all honour men of the first grade, and it was limited to one in a hundred. Its immediate effect is such social distinction that it is said poor bachelors are common, but poor masters are rare.

If the competition stopped here it would be an Olympic game on a grander scale. But there are loftier heights to be climbed. The new-made masters from all the provinces proceed to the imperial capital to try their strength against the assembled scholars of the Empire. Here the prizes are three in a hundred. The successful student comes forth a Literary Doctor—a Tsin-shi, “fit for office.” To all such is assured a footing, high or low, on the official ladder.

But another trial remains by which those who are good at the high leap may at a single bound place themselves very near the top. This final contest takes place in the palace—nominally in the presence of the Emperor, and the questions are actually issued by him. Its object is to select the brightest of the doctors for chairs in the Hanlin Academy—an institution in which the humblest seat is one of exalted dignity. How dazzling the first name on that list! The Chuang Yuen or senior wrangler takes rank with governors and viceroys. An unfading halo rests on the place of his birth. Sometimes in travelling I have seen a triumphal arch proclaiming that “Here was born the laureate of the Empire.” Such an advertisement raises the value of real estate; and good families congregate in a place on which the sun shines so auspiciously. A laureate who lived near me married his daughter to a viceroy, and her daughter became consort to the Emperor Tungchi.

What then are the objections to a regulation which is so democratic that it makes a nobleman of every successful scholar and gives to all the inspiration of equal opportunity? They are, in a word, that it has failed to expand with the growing wants of the people. The old curriculum laid down by Confucius, “Begin with poetry; make etiquette your strong point; and finish off with music,” was not bad for his day, but is utterly inadequate for ours, unless it be for a young ladies seminary. The Sage's chapter on experiment as the source of knowledge—a chapter which might have anticipated the Novum Organum—having been lost, the statesmen of the T'ang period fell into the error of leaving in their scheme no place for original research. This it was that made the mind of China barren of discoveries for twelve centuries. It was like putting a hood on the keen-eyed hawk and permitting him to fly at only such game as pleased his master.

The chief requirement was superficial polish in prose and verse. The themes were taken exclusively from books, the newest of which was at that time over a thousand years old. To broach a theory not found there was fatal; and to raise a question in physical science was preposterous. Had anyone come forward with a new machine he might have been rewarded; but no such inventor ever came because the best minds in the Empire were trained to trot blindfold on a tread-mill in which there was no possibility of progress. Had the mind of the nation been left free and encouraged to exert its force, who can doubt that the country that produced the mariner's compass might have given birth to a Newton or an Edison?

Martin, W. A. P. (William Alexander Parsons). The Awakening of China (pp. 121-124). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

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