Imperial Exams

Poetry and Power


According to Classical Chinese culture, most things (rocks, trees, clouds, or a particular species of butterflies) could be identified by their external patterns   (文) but humans were different—a person's 文 was only observable through their language and cultural cultivation. How did traditional Chinese society choose individuals for greater social and political responsibility based on these unseen qualities?



The Chinese Imperial Examination System, while not perfect, identified the most ambitious and talented men from across the empire, and rewarded them with upward mobility, but often relocated them away from their family seats of power.


The Examination System created a single body of cultural norms—the Imperial Knowledge System—that had to be mastered by all who wanted to serve in an appointed government position. 




Though the Chinese Imperial Knowledge System was dynamic and changed over the centuries, at its core it included such concepts as yin and yang, the eight trigrams, and the five-element theory, all of which revealed deep patterns within natural phenomena. This system classified knowledge from cooking to warfare, from medicine to city planning, yet it was difficult to test one’s grasp of the system through these applications. 



Highly regulated poetic compositions provided an ideal diagnostic for intellectual aptitude and internalization of the ordering principles. Poetry was a platform that could establish a candidate’s readiness to hold power in the Chinese imperium.


How can English speakers use their language to demonstrate their mastery of the Imperial Knowledge System?



When English is limited to only include one-syllable words, it becomes very similar to Classical Chinese. Using this limited vocabulary of about 3,000 words, written English poetry can follow almost all of the same rules and regulations as those followed by ancient Chinese poets. 


Imperial examination cubicles

Imperial examination cubicles, Canton, circa 1875.

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons: