"China's imperial exams were a hotbed for fraud"
In July 2020, 36-year-old Chen Chunxiu discovered that the score she had been given in China’s university entrance exam (gaoako) was, in fact, not hers at all. An investigation by local authorities in Shandong revealed that when she took the exam as a teenager, her real score of 546 out of 750 had been stolen by Chen Yanping, another examinee, whose well-connected family swapped the test results to secure a better future for their own daughter (who scored just 303).
But Chen Yanping’s modern act of fraud has long historical precedence in China’s imperial examinations. For centuries, the most important day in the life of China’s scholars was the imperial exam, or keju (科举). First established around the Sui dynasty (581 – 618), the keju took place once a year during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), but later became a once-every-three-years event. Like today’s civil service examination, the imperial exams aimed to select the most talented minds to become government officials. Since Confucian beliefs held that “officialdom is the natural outlet for good scholars (学而优则仕),” many spent decades preparing for the test.
With that pressure came immense incentives to cheat. Smuggling notes into exam sites, paying to get the exam questions in advance, or even bribing examiners to obtain a higher score; some examinees would do anything to pass. Until the keju's abolition in 1905, many fraud cases were recorded, with some even influencing history in unexpected ways.
The “Southern and Northern Lists” Controversy
In the reign of Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), a nationwide keju scandal rocked the regime, and saw imperial examiners accused of “regional discrimination.” After the 1397 exams, the final list of accepted candidates for the imperial court included 51 candidates—with every single one southern parts of the empire. The list was nicknamed the “Southern List.” Naturally, it caused a public outcry. Examinees from the North bitterly contested the results, accusing examiners of favoring southerners, or accepting bribes.
The emperor was enraged. He immediately organized an investigation team, consisting of 12 government officials, to review all the test papers, and recruit more northerners from those who had failed. But a few days later the investigators reported that they had found no evidence of cheating: all the 51 southern examinees had indeed outclassed their northern competitors. The investigation team even handed some of the most “outstanding” papers by northern examinees to the emperor, which all turned out to be low-quality.
This did little to quell the anger of northern candidates, who protested that the investigation team had colluded with corrupt examiners, deliberately presenting “ugly” papers as evidence.
The emperor agreed, and jailed and then exiled the main examiner Liu Sanwu (刘三吾), executed Zhang Xin (张信), a lead member of the investigation team, and punished all the other officials involved except for two who had recommended northern scholars after the exam. Later, the emperor announced a new admission list with 61 accepted scholars, all from the north. This list became known as the “Northern List.”
The truth of the incident remains unclear, but it seems that political struggles between distinct parties representing the north and south of the country had polluted the examination system. Whether or not the southern candidates had truly outperformed their northern counterparts, the emperor knew he couldn’t be seen to favor one side over the other and had to keep a balance at court.
Whatever the truth, the influence of the case was profound. In 1425, the government announced that the southern, northern, and central regions would each have an enrolment quota, guaranteeing a degree of balance between the regions.
Tang Yin and the (Suspiciously) Correct Answer
Tang Yin (唐寅), also known as Tang Bohu (唐伯虎), is one of the most famous artists in Chinese history. He was a successful painter, calligrapher, and poet, as well as a brilliant scholar of the Ming dynasty.
At the age of 29, Tang came first in the provincial examinations in Nanjing and then went to the capital to take part in the national examinations. Before the exam, Tang and his friend Xu Jing (徐经) visited an official named Cheng Minzheng (程敏政), who also happened to be an examiner.
When it came to the exam, one essay question stumped every single candidate—except Tang and Xu. Rather than be lauded as geniuses and welcomed into court as high ranking officials, both were instead arrested and accused of bribing Cheng to tell them exam questions in advance.
All three were jailed and interrogated repeatedly. No solid evidence could be found, but under torture Xu and Tang admitted that they had met Cheng, and that during their conversations Cheng had mentioned some information relevant to the exam.
As a result, both Tang and Xu were deprived of their qualifications and barred from taking the imperial exams again, while Cheng lost his post. Afterwards, Tang returned to his hometown in disgrace, and then lived a poor, miserable life, making a living by selling his paintings. Cheng professed his innocence until the end, and many historians today are skeptical about whether Xu and Jing really did cheat.
Xu spent the rest of his life waiting for a pardon, but didn’t get it until he died at just 35. His suffering deeply influenced his descendants, who all avoided taking the imperial exam. His great-great-grandson, the famous itinerant writerXu Xiake (徐霞客), spent all his life traveling across China, wrote The Travel Diaries of Xu Xiake (《徐霞客游记》), and became China’s most influential travel writer. It’s reasonably believed that Xu Xiake didn’t devote himself to taking the imperial exam partly because of his great-great-grandfather's unpleasant experience.
Lu Xun’s Family Fraud
Lu Xun (鲁迅) is considered one of the greatest writers in modern China, with Chairman Mao once calling him a “saint of modern China.” Nowadays, many of Lu Xun’s works are included in school textbooks and his texts often feature in exams. But Lu Xun’s family were actually once involved in an imperial exam fraud themselves, the outcome of which was largely responsible for Lu’s depressing childhood.
Lu’s grandfather Zhou Jiefu (周介孚) obtained an excellent score in the imperial exam in the late Qing dynasty (1616 – 1911), and was appointed to the Imperial Hanlin Academy—the highest position for scholars who had passed the imperial exam. Zhou Jiefu’s son (Lu Xun’s father), Zhou Yongji (周用吉) didn’t perform so well, and only managed to pass the county-level exam.
Zhou Jiefu decided to take matters into his own hands to help his son. In 1893, another imperial exam was to be held, and Zhou Jiefu found that the chief examiner was an acquaintance named Yin Ruzhang (殷如璋). Zhou Jiefu joined with five other families who also had children taking the exam, and decided to bribe Yin to help them. Zhou ordered a servant to send an envelope to Yin, which contained a small fortune collected from the six families and a note. The message explained that the six children would each write four characters—宸、衷、茂、育—into their answers, and asked Yin to give them a high score once he identified their papers.
However, when the servant delivered the envelope, Yin, who often didn’t open his own mail lest it contain something incriminating, had his colleague open it first. Zhou’s scheme was exposed, and Yin immediately reported the attempted bribe to the authorities. Zhou Jiefu was sacked from his official post, confessed to his crime, and was initially sentenced to death by beheading. That sentence was later commuted and he spent eight years in prison before being pardoned.
Lu Xun’s family was heavily affected by the bribery case. Lu’s father fell into heavy drinking and opium smoking, and died at 35. The family spent almost all their fortune on medical bills for Zhou Yongji and trying to get Zhou Jiefu released from prison. This contributed to Lu’s depressing childhood, which in turn influenced his often cynical and dark writing style.
Cover image from VCG