If you pose this question to people who are familiar with Chinese culture, including many Chinese themselves, chances are they would spontaneously name various culturally developed counties in Jiansu or Zhejiang province, where the sophisticated cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou are situated. Others might point to Henan or Shaanxi province, which are the cradles of Chinese civilisation and both have had a long tradition of learning and scholarship, while some might favour parts of Hebei province, whose leading city, Beijing, was not only the capital of the powerful and prosperous Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties but also reputed for its reservoir of literary talents as its inhabitants. These answers, although consistent with logic or common sense, would nonetheless be off the mark.
Besides these highly cultured and accomplished regions of China, where else could possibly lay claim to such an outstanding literary feat in this land of Laozi, Confucius and Mencius? The correct answer is tiny Xiuning County, in the seemingly insignificant and obscure Anhui Province, a relatively poor and economically backward part of East China, both in history and even in the prospering China of today. Nowadays, Anhui’s main sources of income are derived primarily from tourism, agricultural produces and some light industries. What it lacks in economic and technological resources, mother nature has endowed it with scenic wonders, such as the world-renowned Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) and Jiuhua Mountain, one of the five sacred Buddhist highlands of China, as well as scores of well-preserved ancient towns and villages, with their numerous Yuan, Ming and Qing folk-dwellings, rich and influential people’s mansions, clan halls and artistically decorated commemorative ancient archways. Three of these rare Anhui landmarks, namely Huangshan, Xidi Village and Hongcun Village have all been conferred the coveted World Heritage Sites status by UNESCO, a cultural offshoot of the United Nations. They were the reason my family and I spent a memorable and eye-opening holiday there recently.
To put it in perspective, Xuining County has chalked up a formidable 19 Zhuangyuans in all, a record unmatched by any other Chinese county, big or small. It took them almost 700 years to attain this well-earned accolade, starting from the 13th century Song Dynasty right up to the close of this unique and much emulated examination system in 1905, 6 years before the demise of the Qing Dynasty and the birth of China’s Republic era. To gauge how incredibly difficult it is to attain the title of Zhuangyuan, a candidate must pass the highest of the three levels of triennial Imperial Examinations to become a Jinshi (Finished Scholar, equivalent to present day PhD degree). All successful Jinshis would then be invited to sit the final examination, which would be conducted at the Imperial Palace, presided by the Emperor himself. The candidate who topped this examination would be conferred the title of Zhuangyuan (Premier Scholar). In every century, no more than 33 of them would be created, one in every 3 years. The new Zhuangyuan would forthwith be given a respectable official rank in the Imperial Civil Service, and would be groomed to reach the top civil rank unless he later committed serious blunders or misconduct incompatible with his standing as a gentleman and a Confucian scholar. In rare cases, when the Emperor was so impressed with the learning and talent of the bachelor Zhuangyuan that he would invite him to be one of his sons-in-law, which the overjoyed Premier Scholar would be obliged to accept with deep gratitude and honour. A Zhuanyuan would bring glory not only to his own family, but also reflected honour to all his clansmen.
In selecting a Premier Scholar in the Jinshi and in the ultimate palace examination, the candidates would, during the Sui and Tang dynasties, be tested on “Five Studies”, namely, military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography and, finally, the Confucian classics. The subjects would undergo changes in the subsequent dynasties and a permanent format finally emerged during the Qing Dynasty. The candidates’ names and antecedents would not be known to the board of examiners so as to ensure fairness and to eliminate possibilities of partiality or bias towards any of them.
What are the major factors that had enabled a relatively unknown and insignificant county like Xiuning to achieve the singular honour of having produced the highest number of Zhuangyuans in the country? Chinese historians and cultural experts have pinpointed three contributory factors:
- First, during the turbulent eras of the Western Jin and Tang dynasties, many Northern Chinese, among them were Court officials, scholars, artisans, farmers and merchants, fled their homes and moved southwards to seek a safe haven to start a new life there. Many found the rural and mountainous setting of the remote Anhui province an ideal place for a more peaceful living and were determined to make a success of it in their adopted land. They brought with them the more advanced Central Plains culture, productivity and business acumen. These planted the seeds of their future success not only in the field of education but also in producing enterprising and legendary Anhui merchants, many of whom made their enormous fortunes in the rich cities elsewhere in China but spent their retirement in the grand mansions of their adopted land. Prior to the arrival of these new immigrants, some tenured Northern government officials had, on retirement, opted to make Anhui and Xiuning their permanent homes and had brought with them Confucianism and incorporated it as an integral part of the mountain culture.
- Secondly, the non-Han minority Jin State had conquered all the territories of Song Dynasty in Northern China, and the Song Court and its loyal supporters were compelled to move South and founded its new capital in the culturally vibrant and prosperous Hangzhou, which was then one of the foremost cities and places of learning in the country. Hangzhou, being only 200-odd km from Anhui and Xiuning itself, had also benefitted the latter because of regular exchanges of visits and knowledge between the elites of both territories. Furthermore, not a few retired Hangzhou government officials and scholars, both during the Song and Yuan reigns, were motivated to retire to Anhui, and Xiuning, because of their more tranquil and peaceful environments which were more suited to a quiet life of a retired gentleman and Confucian scholar.
- Finally, many successful Anhui merchants had made excellence in education an overriding goal for their sons to achieve in life and hoped that they would ultimately shine in the Imperial Examinations and bring glory to their families and clans. To this end, they would spare no efforts and financial resources to employ well-known teachers locally and from Hangzhou to come to Xiuning as resident tutors to their own sons and sons of their extended families too. In addition, these generous merchants would also invite promising sons of their village clansmen to enjoy the privilege of such an exclusive education at no cost to their parents, thus spreading opportunities for learning more widely. This mode of education would enable the pupils to imbibe the essence of Confucian education, a prelude to officialdom, and help inculcate their life-long love and affinity for learning and education. It is therefore not surprising that the Xiuning Zhuangyuans comprised a good mixture of the children of both prominent and poor families.
To commemorate and publicise Xiuning’s praiseworthy record of becoming the champion county of Zhuangyuans in China, it has in its Haiyang Town set up an interesting and informative Chinese Zhuangyuan Museum. It gives a very comprehensive history of the centuries old Chinese Imperial Examination System and its evolution over a long period of time. There is also a list of the names and brief biographies of the most prominent as well as the less edifying Premier Scholars among them over different periods of time. This Chinese system, the first in the world, had been copied by several Asian and Western countries when formulating their own public service examination systems, with necessary modifications to suit their particular needs and requirements. This museum is well worth a visit if you are planning a trip to the Yellow Mountain and to the historic towns and villages in Anhui province.
Xiuning County’s abiding love affair with education and learning has continued into the present time. Its students still excel themselves in nationwide school examinations and for admissions into nationally important universities and other tertiary institutions. Their achievements have caught overseas attentions. In early 2008, Britain’s world-famous British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) produced five documentaries on its television network on the life of pupils of schools in China. The three top schools featured were all located within Xiuning County! This county, which has a relatively small population of about 270,000 and a total land area of 2,125 sq km, has consistently punched above its size and weight in vast China, as far as education and scholarship are concerned.
The above article brings to mind another article on the Chinese Imperial Examination system, which I wrote in 1996, and was published in Singapore’s Straits Times, a leading English language national daily. I would like to share it with my readers by reproducing it immediately after this posting.
Lam Pin Foo