The spectacle of anxious parents poring over the entrance list of a reputable school to see if their child has been admitted is nothing new. The Chinese have strived for more than 1,400 years for high academic achievement.
Instituted by Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty in AD605, the imperial examination system dominated and shaped Chinese aspirations and values through subsequent dynasties. Although it was abolished in 1905 by the Qing court shortly before the 1911 revolution, the pursuit of social status or family honour through study and examination remains deeply rooted in the Chinese psyche.
'A look at the imperial exam system gives you clues to lots of cultural phenomena about the Chinese, such as why boys are preferred over girls, and why parents are obsessed with helping their kids get ahead in education,' says Josephine Wong Lai-kuen, a curator at the Hong Kong Museum of History.
Families will find plenty they can relate to at a new exhibition being hosted by the museum. Entitled 'Knowledge-Power: the imperial examination system of the Qing dynasty', it features more than 100 precious artefacts from Shanghai's Jiading Museum, making it the largest display on the subject ever presented in the city.
'The imperial examination was a powerful tool to motivate the community to strive to reach the top. It was open to the entire society and the reward was more than a post in the officialdom. It was the honour and recognition that came with it, not just for the individual but also for the family, clan and even the entire province,' Wong says.
For many, the exam meant more than obtaining an official title, be it an imperial jinshi or a provincial xiucai, and it was a lifelong pursuit. One story has it that a 100-year-old man, aided by his grandchildren, finally managed to sit the exam after decades of perseverance.
The honour is best illustrated by the pristine, four-metre ceiling-to-floor embroidered silk tapestry dated 1872 made to celebrate the 70th birthday of a lady whose husband and son, the tapestry proudly notes, were graduates of the imperial examination.
'Since only men were qualified, the decision to groom a member of the household for the exam was an important one. It was a long-term investment, like training an Olympic gold medallist. The exam was tough and competition stiff. But it was the only viable way for common folk to move up the social ladder and for the administration to recruit talent,' Wong says.
She says the desire for success in the imperial exam was an effective means for governance and control. Unless there was another way to select qualified officials, the exam system was 'a necessary evil'.
One of the most impressive exhibits is the palace examination results signed by Emperor Guangxu. Hundreds of names are on the long imperial edict that runs across the hall. But attention is drawn to the left margin and the top three candidates, who were named zhuangyuan, tanhua and bangyan of the year. For more than 1,000 years, these three top accolades were the ultimate aspiration of all Chinese commoners. In fact, only 654 exam participants became zhuangyuan, the top accolade, over the past 1,400 years. The term is still used today for straight-A students in local public exams.
Other inspiring exhibits include original examination papers written in impeccable penmanship, graded and sealed in red ink by imperial examiners.
Interestingly, all examinees were identified by name, plus their place of origin, and names of their father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Wong says that all these factors constituted a person's identity in the past. It was also a way to prevent cheating or substitution. Nevertheless, there are exhibits that illustrate ingenious cheats and frauds, such as needle-sized print of texts inscribed on inner garments and other accessories.
Another feature of the exhibition is various objects reproduced to scale for visitors to appreciate in a tangible way. A cubicle resembling the ones in which that exam was sat is free for anyone to jump into for a photo opportunity. For the military exam, too, a real 33.75kg long-handled broadsword is on display. An original 191kg stone-weight that candidates had to lift is on display, as is a miniature replica for the public to test their strength.
But how much is historical examination culture relevant to 21st century Hong Kong? 'It is still very much a necessary evil,' says Wong, whose child was recently admitted to an elite primary school.
She says exams in Hong Kong have become 'professionalised', aimed at attaining high grades to enter elite schools. Reflective of Hongkongers' pragmatic spirit, students are taught examination technique and how to spot the kind of questions that will be asked.
Unlike in the past, when examinees motivated themselves to work hard to earn a top place, the drive now rests with parents.
'Before children realise what examinations are all about, they are pretty much moulded by their parents to go through this piano exam or that maths test. Their life is so packed that they hardly have any space to think. Their vacations are fully planned and they get burnt out after the break,' Wong says.
All this might result in a new generation of students who score highly in examinations but fall short in knowledge and skills. They could present an impeccable r?sum?but crash in an interview.
'We have to teach our children they are more than what they score. The value of man is not measured by exam scores. Just like Chinese history, it is not just about the 654 zhuangyuan. They were merely the tip of an iceberg. There were billions of common people who lived side by side with them, including all the women,' Wong says.
It is ironic, she adds, that the elite nature of the Chinese imperial examination was picked up by the British when it was abandoned in China in the early 20th century. Elite education is still practised in the West, but the Hong Kong system seems to have gone awry.
'On the surface, the local exam system has given way to homework and tests so that students don't have to live with the stress of the annual exercise. But in reality it's even worse, as the tension has been spread out across daily class and school work, and the pressure has reached right down to students in Primary Four, as well as their parents,' she says.
'For my child, I think just music and sport would be enough for after-school activities. I ask not for a zhuangyuan, but a happy and healthy child, who is resilient enough to handle failure, including flunking an exam.'
Knowledge-Power: the imperial examination system of the Qing dynasty; Hong Kong Museum of History; 100 Chatham Road, until Feb 6; Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 10am-7pm, closed Tues; HK$10; HK$5 (concessions); free admission on Weds; inquiries 27249042