By Wu Jingzi.
The Scholars (儒林外史; Rúlín Wàishǐ) is a satire on the imperial examinations system which was used as a means of selecting officials. It was possible to rise to positions of great prominence in the government, but it was also possible to spend a lifetime in the examinations system and never advance beyond the first exam. This was the fate of Pu Songling, author of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Wu Jingzi, who came from a family which had produced many successful candidates, suffered the same fate, failing the provincial examination time and again. This was the spur for The Scholars.
The book is like a series of short stories which are often only related to each other because a character from one part is mentioned in another. Eventually, it settles on Du Shaoqing and his circle in Nanjing as a focal point. Du, who is apparently based on Wu Jingzi, is the closest The Scholars has to a main character.
The various parts of the book satirise different parts and personalities of the system. One of the earliest characters is the elderly Zhou Jin, who finally passes an examination. He then passes Fan Jin, who’s not much younger than him, but merely because he seems to convince himself of the brilliance of Fan Jin’s essay after reading it several times. Ma Chunshang remains unsuccessful in his attempts to pass the exams, but edits essays and is often criticised by other characters for his superficial learning (although through such criticism those characters are often hoisted by their own petard; two other snobbish essay editors my criticise him, but they themselves are too afraid to sit the exam for fear of failure or passing by chance). One of the more telling barbs comes from Mr Gao who boasts, without the slightest hint of irony, that he passed the examinations by writing pastiches; yet he is another severe critic of Ma Chunshang.
The satire and the humour in The Scholars is often obvious, but at times I wasn’t certain whether Wu Jingzi was being critical of a character or his circumstances; sympathetic; or other ______ (please state). Du Shaoqing and Dr Yu fall into this category.
At times, Wu Jingzi seemed to expand his sights to Chinese society in general. I wasn’t sure, for example, why so much time was spent on Guo Tieshan’s search for his father, and tales about his encounters with fabulous beasts as he travels through the mountains to Chengdu. Perhaps it’s meant to be a parody of Journey to the West or similar stories full of the fantastic which had audiences going “Ooh!” and “Aah!” Similarly, much was written about Xiao Yunxian and the recapture of Green Maple City, but I’m not sure what the episode contributed apart from a minor dig at Xiao Yunxian’s reference to something he read in a book.
More obvious was Wu Jingzi’s treatment of the nouveux riches, the Peng and Fang families, whose arses are collectively kissed even by members of the established Yu (余) and Yu (虞) families, and his scathing contempt for geomancers who insisted that the location of burials would determine the fame and fortune of a family. In the case of the Yu (余) brothers, their parents are finally interred beside the ancestral burial ground – where they should’ve been buried in the first place.
One recurring reference to the book is the salt trade, although its obvious importance isn’t explained. Presumably, the salt merchants have wealth and power not because they passed the imperial examinations, but because of their business.
The particular translation I read is part of the Library of Chinese Classics series. As I noted, there are various typographical errors, but these are not that frequent and, therefore, unobtrusive.
Although I wouldn’t place The Scholars in the same rank as the four classic novels, it’s worth reading as a window on another aspect of Chinese history and culture. I used to think that the mania for science in China was because science allegedly deals with facts, which stops people thinking about other things such as freedom of speech, democracy, and all those other things that get Nanny reaching for the smelling salts. But I now see how the examinations system, which was stultifying and, in turn, stultified China, contributed to the country becoming a basket case for so long.
1. The core of the examinations system was the 八股文 (bāgǔwén; the eight-legged essay) a rhetorically complicated monster which was always about the Confucian classics and written in Classical Chinese (roughly speaking, the language of the early Han Dynasty, 3rd century BC). Part of Wu Jingzi’s criticism of this system is still applicable today: much knowledge; little understanding.
It would be as if the Civil Service recruited new members by having candidates write essays about the philosophy of Socrates or Plato in Attic Greek.
16.06.13. Edited HTML, added tags, and made minor changes to the text.