Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 5

Yesterday we left off here: Classical Chinese fiction, especially The Scholars and Hong Lou Meng, criticizes the system for its many failings and absurdities, yet, the Chinese system provided the inspiration for the British Civil Service Exam and its child, the United States Civil Service Exam.  

If Fiction Wasn’t Literature in China, What Was? Part II

[The thousands of years old Chinese examination system] might be one of the most difficult things for a modern western reader to understand, but Pearl Buck had plenty to say about this:

“…In centuries past in China the novel was not considered literature. Confucius makes it quite plain that a story is worthless for its own sake, and only of value when it teaches or illustrates a moral principle. No reputable scholar in old days would write a novel or be seen reading one, and not until the comparatively late date of Chien Lung in the 18th century was fiction given a formal place in national literature. There are various reasons for this disapproval of fiction.

As I said, Confucius set his seal against it; it (fiction) was supposed to have an immoral influence and turn the mind away from philosophy and virtue and make it soft. Practically it had no value to the reader, for the examinations of the state were in the classical literature, and the preparation for these examinations was so vast that it took all the years of a man’s life, and the serious and ambitious man could not afford to divert himself. Moreover, the successful passing of these examinations was the only way for an able man to rise, and he had necessarily to exclude anything which did not help him directly to his aim. Instead, therefore, of finding some of the acutest and most sensitive and powerful minds turning to the novel as a means of expression as we find in English novel history, in China we find such minds occupying themselves in the study of classics and making commentaries upon them.”

(Pearl Buck pretty sure but not absolutely this came from the Nobel Prize Lecture)

It’s pretty difficult (for me) to find a parallel in Western culture, but imagine Plato’s Republic and imagine having to read it in Attic Greek which is not the language spoken by anyone in your world. This would be the ONLY book you would be encourage to read. From certain important passages you would be expected to write essays commenting on the content of these passages. To be an educated person, you would be educated in THIS book. Any other philosophy would be considered inferior or corrupt. Imagine that your success in life, government, business, family relations, everything, depended on examinations on which you write commentaries based on remarks from this work. Imagine writing your thoughts in an essay form as codified and as the structure of a Petrachan sonnet. Imagine an examination so difficult that it could take your whole lifetime to pass. This passage is from the novel, The Scholars, a satirical novel written in 1750 by Wu Jingzu:

The third examination was for candidates from Nanhai and Panyu Counties (these are in Guangdong Province). Commissioner Chou (who had passed the exam after he was sixty years old) sat in the hall and watched the candidates crowing in. There were young and old, handsome and homely, smart and shabby men among them The last candidate was thin and sallow, had a grizzled beard and was wearing an old felt hat. Kwangtung (Guangdong) had a warm climate, still this was the twelfth month, and this candidate wore only a linen gown, so he was shivering with cold as he took his paper and went to his cell. (I lived in Guangdong and I was never colder in my life than in winter there.) Chou Chin made a mental note of this before sealing up their doors. During the first interval, from his seat at the head of the hall, he watched this candidate in the linen gown come up to hand in his paper. The man’s clothes were so threadbare that a few more holes had appeared since he went into the cell. Commissioner Chou referred to the registrar of names and asked, “You are Fan Chin, aren’t you?”

Kneeling, Fan Chin answered, ‘Yes, Your Excellency.”

“How old are you this year?”

“I gave my age as thirty. Actually, I am fifty-four.”

“How many times have you taken the examination?”

“I first went in for it when I was twenty, and I have taken it over twenty times since then.”

“How is it you have never passed?”

“My essays are too poor,” replied Fan Chin. 

Wu Jingzu The Scholars

Imagine a civil service system which awarded government positions of the highest responsibility to those who were able to do well on exams based only on Plato’s Republic, whether or not they showed any aptitude or interest in such positions. If you did not spend all your time studying former successful examinations, which had been published in books and capably commented upon by other scholars, and if you didn’t practice the essay yourself, you would be considered foolish, degenerate, lazy, decadent, irresponsible, etc. (To be continued…) 


The exam was tied up in so much of Chinese culture. If a person NEVER passed he brought shame on his family, past, present and future. It was the ONLY way for a man to advance in society. Tremendous consequences and rewards — even for the future of the family — were tied to it.

As I typed this yesterday I had to laugh at my 36 year old person’s reference to Plato’s Republic. 36 year old Martha had not yet taught composition at the college and university level. She had not realized the tremendous power and utility of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. She didn’t know that she would base ENTIRE composition classes on that ONE essay (and its remakes through time including The Matrix and The Lion King). She didn’t know that there is, probably, only a finite number of stories humans ever come up with and that the struggle to just SEE something as it is is a common — and important — archetype.

Once, during my future career (13 years later?) teaching “The Allegory of the Cave,” a student — Chris — said, “Why are you making us read this old stuff?”
I said, “It’s important. It’s something we all struggle with.”
“No it isn’t. We’re living NOW!!!”
“I know. Just write the paper, OK?”

WEEKS maybe MONTHS later, in the early evening, I was walking across the campus at San Diego State. I heard someone behind me calling out, “Dude! Dude! Wait, DUDE!” Whoever “Dude” was, it wasn’t me. The running feet got closer and closer. Someone grabbed my Levis jacket. “Dude! Dude!” I turned to see the disgruntled student, Chris.

“What’s up?”

“DUDE!!! The ‘Allegory of the Cave’? Dude, that’s my LIFE.”

“It’s all our lives, Chris.”

Which makes me think that there might be a little something in those old texts. During Mao, Confucianism was repressed as something “old,” but it is now reborn and alive and well in China and there are even Confucian schools here in the US now. Maybe it wasn’t the exam; maybe it was the consequences attached to it.


I appreciate everyone with the patience to read this stuff. Among the books I brought back from China is The Scholars which I enjoyed a LOT. While the satire isn’t totally accessible to me (clearly) some of it is. It’s also beautifully illustrated.

Probably there will be some kind of celebration when I finish typing this — but who knows where I might find more of it!

17 thoughts on “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 5

  1. The comparison with The Republic is great. I like Chris’ question and your answer about The Allegory of the Cave. As a student I had a teacher once give the same response to a similar question about The Breakfast Club, and your response to Chris makes me think The Breakfast Club has more in common with The Allegory of the Cave than I’ve ever considered? On a side note, one of my colleagues uses Pleasantville to make some points about The Allegory of the Cave.

    • The Truman Show is the closest film I’ve found since Truman is truly living in a “cave” and people are watching the show instead of living their lives. I took flack from time to time over the years over the Allegory. Years later, in another class, a kid complained and another kid — a young woman from Nigeria! — said to him, “If you understood it, you’d get what she’s doing here. It’s good.” She wasn’t kissing up, either. I liked it best when they taught each other. It was a student who came to class one day and said, “We have to watch The Lion King.” Another student cornered me in the parking lot one day and said, “I’ve never read anything like this. Wow.” She was an Elton John fan and I told her to listen closely to Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters. I’m going to have to watch The Breakfast Club with “old” eyes 🙂

      And I’m still stuck in the damned cave.

  2. I’d love to have taken a class on The Allegory of the Cave. Alas, it was never offered. I did get to take classes on the Hero and the Antihero and on Faust. Not a lot of variety in the schools I attended, mostly survey courses.

    • I was lucky in high school to have a teacher for AP English who had an old school classical education. I taught Plato in my composition classes. You have to read something to write something. 😉

  3. And I too wish I’d have been in your class!! Although I don’t think I can handle The Scholars, I can however put my hands on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave… And watch The Matrix and The Lion King (viewed through a different lens)!

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