Digital Version Shop TWOC Events

Historic failures: Famous Chinese who didn’t pass their exams

Famous historical figures who failed the imperial examination


Historic failures: Famous Chinese who didn’t pass their exams

Famous historical figures who failed the imperial examination


China’s annual college-entrance exam, or gaokao, is the subject of intense preparation, motivation, to competition.  A modern iteration of an ancient custom known as the imperial examination, the gaokao has long been considered the best (indeed, only) way to change one’s destiny.

“He who excels in study, can follow an official career (学而优则仕),” goes the old saying, and to be a government official was considered the ultimate form of fulfilment. The imperial examination, also known as keju (科举), was designed to select officials from  the country’s scholars.

With a failure rate of between 75-90 percent, though, the keju was no laughing matter. In the keju‘s long history, many great people failed this fateful exam yet went on to establish themselves in other fields. Here are a few famous examples.

Artist: Tang Bohu (唐伯虎)


Image courtesy of shangdu.com.

TangYin (唐寅), or Tang Bohu (唐伯虎), was a Chinese scholar, painter, calligrapher, and poet in the Ming Dynasty. His life story has become a part of popular lore and was adapted into movies and TV plays. To some extent, his legendary story started with his failure in the imperial exam.

Known as a brilliant scholar at a young age after coming first in the provincial examinations, Tang went to the capital to partake in the national examinations. Before the exam started, Tang and his friend Xu Jing visited an official surnamed Cheng, who later held the examination that year. During the exam, Tang and Xu were the only two people who gave the perfect answer to a difficult question. However, Tang and Xu were accused of bribing Cheng to give them the examination questions in advance. All of them three were jailed. Afterwards, Tang returned to his hometown with his hopes of being an official dashed forever and his lifestyle went in another direction.

In those folktales about him, Tang was always depicted as a rebellious, unconventional, and romantic guy, who drank and flirted with girls all day, looked down upon powerful people, and pursued freedom. But in reality, he lived a poor life, making a living by selling his paintings. In order to avoid a political whirlpool, he even pretended to be crazy.

But such a miserable life didn’t stop him from becoming a great artist. His paintings, especially landscapes, exhibit his outstanding artistic skills and profound insight. He was listed as one of the “Four Masters of Ming dynasty (明四家)” , which was made up of four prominent painters. As a poet, he was also one of the “Four Literary Masters of the Wuzhong Region (吴中四大才子)”.

Poets: Du Fu (杜甫) and Zhang Ji (张继)


Image depicts Du Fu, courtesy of ce.cn.

There were many famous poets who failed the keju. Du Fu, one of the greatest poets in Chinese history, experienced a failure in the exam for a very unusual reason.

In 747, Tang Dynasty, Du took part in the examination. However, the premier Li Linfu (李林甫), a corrupt official, stepped into this exam. In case any candidates would become a threat to his political career, he suggested all examinees should be “filtered” carefully. After a series of tests, it turned out that not even one was admitted. Such an unprecedented situation was explained by Li, as “it was because the emperor was so wise that all the talents in the country had already been recruited with no others left (野无遗贤)”.

Though he failed the exam, Du’s achievements in poetry was unmatched. He was called “Poet-Sage” by critics, considered as a prominent representative of Chinese realistic poets and enjoyed an irreplaceable place in Chinese literary history. Du completed around 1500 poems. Since many of his works revealed real life at that time, his poems were called “poetic history”.

Different from Du, Zhang Ji perhaps couldn’t be regarded as a famous poet. But one of his works “A Night Mooring By Maple Bridge (枫桥夜泊)” is known by almost every Chinese person. The great masterpiece was created just after Zhang failed the imperial examination and went on a journey to Suzhou. When he passed the Hanshan Temple, all the stifling sorrow and frustration burst out and transferred into inspiration. Zhang wrote:





Moon’s down, crows cry and frost fills all the sky;
By maples and boat lights, I sleepless lie.
Outside Suzhou Hanshan Temple is in sight;
Its ringing bells reach my boat at midnight.

This sad but beautiful poem made Zhang’s name, and thanks to his mention, Hanshan Temple also became a tourist attraction.

Image depicts "A Night Mooring By Maple Bridge", courtesy of blog.sina.com.

Image depicts “A Night Mooring By Maple Bridge”, courtesy of blog.sina.com.

Doctor: Li Shizhen (李时珍)

Image courtesy of sssc.cn.

Image courtesy of sssc.cn.

An old Chinese expression said that “if I can’t become a good premier, I would like to be a great doctor (不为良相,愿为良医)”.

When Li Shizhen, a 23-year-old young man in the Ming Dynasty, failed the keju for a third time, he decided to follow this saying. Completely giving up his hopes of becoming an official, Li devoted his life to medicine. He spent 27 years walking around China to study different kinds of herbs and wrote his book “Compendium of Materia Medica (本草纲目)”. This book collected more than 1,800 Chinese medicines, including 1,100 illustrations and 11,000 prescriptions, and described the type, form, flavor, nature, and application in disease treatment. It has been translated into different languages and remains as the most complete and comprehensive medical book ever written in the history of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Novelists: Wu Chengen (吴承恩), Wu Jingzi (吴敬梓), and Pu Songling (蒲松龄)

Chinese literature should also thank the imperial examination for refusing some unqualified official candidates, because many of them became super stars in the Chinese literary world with their excellent traditional novels.


Image of Wu Cheng’en, courtesy of cnhubei.com.

Wu took the keju test in 1531 but failed, though his peer—who wasn’t as talented as him—passed. In the later years, Wu kept working hard and tried several more times, but always failed. While poverty-stricken and depressed, he finished the novel “Journey to the West (西游记)”, one of the “Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature”. Today, nobody remembers who ranked first in those examinations, but almost everyone in China has heard of Wu and loved “Journey to the West”.

Image of Wu Jingzi, courtesy of tgljw.com.

Image of Wu Jingzi, courtesy of tgljw.com.

Wu Jingzi was born to a rich family, whose father was an official. After failing the imperial exam, Wu began to doubt the reasonableness and the meaning of the keju system, and refused to take it again. Wu hated the phenomenon that people were all trying to chase fame and fortune through keju, so he satirized and mocked those people in his book “The scholars (儒林外史)”, which was considered a classic and prime work of satirical novels in Chinese literature.

Image of Pu Songling, courtesy of zhshmrw.com.

Image of Pu Songling, courtesy of zhshmrw.com.

Different to Wu Jingzi, Pu Songling, was much more enthusiastic about keju. In his life, Pu sat for the exams for four times, but failed every time. It was not until he was 71 years old when he was awarded a degree. But that was for his literary achievements, not because he passed the exam. Making a living as a tutor, Pu spent his spare time collecting strange stories, which were filled with magical foxes, ghosts, scholars, jiangshi, Taoist exorcists, and beasts. These stories were published later in “Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio (聊斋志异)”, and regarded as one of the greatest Chinese classics that exposed the dark side of human nature and society.

So, remember that all roads lead to Rome. Failure in an exam sometimes really means nothing, no matter how important the exam seems now.


Mastery Image courtesy of haosou.com