Writing off Confucius

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 12:00am

The Taiwan Examination Yuan's announcement that future test questions will not require detailed knowledge of the Confucian classics will be a relief to many students. The prestigious Yuan organises the examinations that control entry into government service at every level, from firemen and coastguards to psychologists and diplomats. Until now, learned essays had been expected, inscribed in an elegant hand and displaying a knowledge of classical Chinese literature. Modern Taiwanese, often more concerned with computer games and hip hop, did not always find these exercises easy.

On an open day at the Yuan's headquarters, typical essay topics were discussed among Taiwanese journalists. One question didn't appear too difficult: comment was invited on Confucian advice that administrators should always be polite. Gales of laughter reverberated. 'It may sound easy in English,' one reporter said. 'But you should see it in Chinese.' I asked if humour might be used. Apparently not. 'Attempts at wit would not be appreciated in the circumstances,' said an official.

Yuan president Chia-wen Yao, former chairman of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, is anxious to modernise the system but also maintain its traditional virtues. Old hands, even so, will no doubt lament the passing of former ways. The system administered in Taiwan is, after all, essentially the same one that was used on the imperial mainland for centuries.

Under the emperors, the mainland exhibited the most sophisticated competitive examinations the world had seen. Its scholar-officials - unlike those in any other civilisation - were the result of just such classically-based tests. The emperor's word may have been beyond dispute, but its administration was in the hands of the best minds the population could muster. Candidates' answers were identified only by a number to avoid suspicions of favouritism. As long ago as the 13th century, these tests attracted up to half a million candidates. Its virtue was that it was genuinely open to all - a meritocracy in full working order when Europe was still deciding public policy issues by fights between knights in plated armour.

Taiwan's students crowd into cram bushiban (colleges) to prepare for the until now unfamiliar language of the exams. It must have been hard. I visited a museum at the Yuan showing items that former candidates had smuggled in to the test room. These had Chinese characters - and probably not a few quotations from Confucius - faintly scratched onto items such as plastic rulers. What happened to the unfortunate culprits was not divulged.

Presumably, though, they had had to seek out their iron rice bowls in the private sector.