Sunday, August 26, 2007

Imperial Examination and Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese Calligraphy Tradition

Imperial Examination and Chinese Calligraphy

Around year of 600 AD, the Chinese began to select their civil officials through imperial examinations. For the first time, people - not just the rich - could get government jobs. Affected the life of the whole of society and brought about joys and sorrows, the civil service examination brought up a large number of great scholars and statesmen in its 1,300 years of history.

The examination was given at intervals of three years and divided into three levels - the provincial, the national, and the final - in which candidates were prescribed to improvise a poem of eight lines, two pieces of prose and a discourse on politics.

The candidates of the examination were prepared through government-funded public schools, the higher education form in feudal China. The enrollment, from about fifteen to thirty, was determined by population or tax payment of a county, the smallest administration unit to which a public school was subordinate. Pupils from private schools had to pass a series of entrance examinations, collectively called pupillary examination, to be admitted. The schoolwork in the public schools was rite, archery, mathematics and calligraphy, an enduring curriculum designed by Confucius.

Besides literary performances, calligraphy skill was of vital importance to the candidates - a faulty brushstroke would reduce a candidate's placement and a poor handwriting would cause its writer being eliminated. To the examiners, the ability of proper handwriting was an essential feature of proper eduction; to the examinees, to be successful in the examination is to be prepared with a perfect handwriting. On a school day schedule was copying as many as five hundred regular characters from master calligraphers, the standard script of the examination. This training would enable the students to grasp the pith of the masters for a confident, elegant hand.

The training of Chinese calligraphy finalized during public schooling, which lasted till the next examination was due. This pre-examination paper, which is a rice paper booklet in accordion form, shows advanced brush technique with fashion.

The imperial examination system underwent constant refinement. Reaching final development in the fifteenth century, eight-part essay was prescribed to prose composition, a literary format known for its rigidity of form and poverty of ideas. Associated with this fixed literary practice was a calligraphic standard - Official Style, a neat, proper and uniform handwriting fashioned out of early Tang masters. Being commonly adopted by the candidates, this style had a lasting influence on Chinese calligraphy and remained mainstream for the next five hundred years.

With a ready standard, a candidate's calligraphy carried more weight than ever before - in 114 first-place candidates of the final examination in Qing dynasty, 44 of them were celebrated calligraphers. This 1887 test paper of Xu Shichang, the president of Republic of China in 1918, shows a sound understanding of Ouyang Xun, an inexhaustible resources of Official Style.

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