Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 6

Here’s where we left off yesterday: 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.


The Scholars finds many reasons why a conscientious person would avoid the system, none of them involving civil disobedience. “Should talented men serve a corrupt government?” is the first question the book approaches. The other question is simply, “Isn’t there more to life than this?” and in answer to this question, the book begins with stories about old, old men who finally pass the lowest level of the examination. It’s too late for them to have done anything good for their families; they failed in their youth, their parents are long dead, the honor which accrues accrues only to their parent’s spirit tablets. Yet, the society has become so strange that in the eyes of the satirist, Wu Jingzu, that honor to the dead is worth more than sustenance for the living.

Wu Jingzu’s point is that the examination system kept the minds of the Chinese people in the past. Language was a serious problem in that everything a Confucian scholar wrote had to be written in an archaic Chinese not the language with which they conducted their dailey affairs. Hu-Shih, diplomat to the United States for the Republic of China under Chong Shan (Sun Yat-Sen), president of Beijing University and a contemporary of Pearl Buck and one of the pioneers of language reform in China, remarked that it was absurd to call a “sedan-chair” a “chariot” when “chariots” were no longer used and the ‘sedan chair” or “rickshaw” were the common ways people got around. 

However immortal and timeless Confucian thought might be, Confucian scholarship — as it was approached — was truly backward looking and became a serious problem at the end of the nineteenth century when the Ching Dynasty was falling apart and foreigners were everywhere in China, preaching, teaching, traveling, trading — innocently and aggressively undermining traditional Chinese values. 

Fiction seemed to open doors to the future. Like fiction everywhere, Chinese fiction provided a mirror of human experience, and may have played a part in bringing about the end of Confucian dialectics, especially works such as The Scholars and Hong Lou Meng. (To be continued, a little…)


Today’s prompt, “spuddle,” sums it up very well, not only the efforts of the characters in these novels who strive to pass exams and never do but also this project of mine. Spuddle means, “(obsolete) To work ineffectively; to work hard but achieve nothing”

I’ve been able to get around my numerous failures by accepting the reality that no one cares.

And even more: the point of life (which I didn’t understand for a long long long time) is set out clearly in Ecclesiastes 3. No, not the “turn turn turn” stuff, but this:

11 He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. 12 I know that there is no good in them (the things God has made), but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. 13 And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.

With this project, at some point back then, I got the idea that pursuing a PhD might be the ticket to having the chance to work full time on the project. I sent myself in that direction, but I had no conviction. I had to retake the Graduate Record Exam — GRE of Literature in English — because it had been more than ten years since I’d taken it to get into grad school to work on my MA. Examination, right? 😀

At 8 am I showed up in a classroom at San Diego State for my exam. I was one of the older people in the room — nearly 40! Most were in their early 20s. It had been a long time since I’d had a survey course on anything. I’d taught one, but that was to a bunch of Chinese students and from a book I put together myself designed for THOSE kids. So, I sat down, followed the proctor’s instructions about opening the book and beginning.

It didn’t seem that difficult, which surprised me. Every time we had a break, though, the proctor told us how stupid and futile this whole activity was. His first comment, before we even started, was “Why are you doing this? There are no jobs. You’re going to throw away some of the best years of your life studying something that won’t get you anywhere. These questions are irrelevant. This isn’t what literature is.” His remarks throughout the exam were along those lines and, as time proved, he was right. There was no reason at all for me (or anyone) to pursue a PhD in English. Teaching jobs were becoming almost exclusively part-time; tenured jobs were vanishing. I had friends with PhDs from very prestigious schools who, like me, were “freeway flyers,” driving miles between community colleges to teach enough classes to hold body and soul together. I ended up luckier than most with a contract lecturer position at San Diego State, but that’s much, much, later.

Finally, the tedium of the test and the arguments of the proctor convinced me that a PhD in English was the last thing I wanted. I hadn’t liked graduate school that much the first time, though, fortunately, I’d had a full scholarship. Two more years and several tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of studying literary criticism? No. I stood up 3/4 of the way through, as we were answering the questions on literary criticism, and turned in my paper. “Thanks,” I said.

“Are you finished?”

“Oh yeah. Have a good day.”

It turned out that my final grade was high enough that UCSD (University of California San Diego) accepted me. It’s a science-oriented university, but it had the only local PhD program in literature. I said, “No thanks.” I don’t know what I might have done if they’d offered to pay my way. I don’t think I’d have done well.

Here’s a sample question:

Many things came between me and finishing this project. More teaching hours and more responsibility at the language school where I worked. Marital problems. Loss of focus. Getting a dog and discovering a great place to hike. Anyway, looking ahead at what I have in front of me, four typed pages, and what seems to be the end of the project. Is it a “spuddle”?

17 thoughts on “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 6

  1. The parallels are striking between China’s civil service exam and your GRE! All of life is a matter of choices. I think your choices have brought you to a place of beauty and peace…

  2. I read this twice as there was so much about life to unwrap. Your writing is like opening a gift with several layers! I have three degrees (my spuddling gave me a good career 😁…good for only one ticket to one destination that hasn’t proved the essence of my life)! I thought about obtaining my PhD. Had I pursued it l would be tens of thousands in debt. Several colleagues joined cohorts. It seemed the easy way to move ahead~but was WAY more expensive. Friends of mine had doctorates in the amount of time/effort it took for my Specialist’s. A TBI, memory loss, failed relationships, ~spuddling had to end. We all know the tests might provide position~but they’ll never provide enlightened purpose. How sad for those who have equated their value on questions and answers. Ecclesiastical, we know what matters. Finn and I were able to enjoy some spelunking and hiking with friends this weekend. It was freeing. We send love and hugs ❤️🐾🤗

  3. …accepting the reality that no one cares…. That line jumped out at me. So true.
    I remember the “Confucius says…” quotes thrown around decades ago – mostly as a joke. Interesting to read this instead. 🙂

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