Imperial Scholars Challenge the Standards

By Coleman-Knight, Jan | Social Studies Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Imperial Scholars Challenge the Standards


Coleman-Knight, Jan, Social Studies Review


Li Jiang wetted his ink stone. The fine horsehair brush dipped into the ebony pool of ink. The stone glistened with wear, polished by diligent preparation for the examination to be administered at Dingzhou Hall.

-Coleman-Knight

In medieval China, passing the imperial examination brought great honor to self and family. The good fortune of the house of Li depended upon Jiang's mastery of Confucian ideology, composition, history, law, calligraphy, math and poetry. The saying "polish through iron ink stone", admonished the hopeful applicant to study with so much persistence as to wear through an ink stone even if it was made of iron.

Lasting almost 1,300 years until the collapse of the Ch'ing Dynasty, the imperial examination system replaced nepotism with meritocracy. During the T'ang Dynasty the passing rate was approximately two percent. Even the famous poet Li Bo aspired to passing the examination and obtaining a government post. By the time of the Ming Dynasty, nearly half of the successful applicants were from families with no official connections. Scholarship ruled the day. Local, provincial and national level government positions were awarded to successful candidates who passed an examination in the three-tier structure. Li Jiang hoped to become "Xiucai", a lower-degree scholar who had passed the imperial exam.

As a teacher of seventh graders, I wondered how I could inspire students to diligently strive towards academic success. How could I translate the dry bare bones California Standards on Medieval China into a dynamic experience that enticed students to demonstrate persistence in achieving scholarship? The organization of the Standards did not offer any clues. Gaping holes in the structure omit the role of women in the society, the culturally unique practice of foot binding, the rise and fall of the Ch'ing Dynasty, any mention of the great poetry or literature nor an appreciation for Chinese art.

Worse yet, the Standards require information that is not in the adopted textbook. The chasm between Standards, textbook and limited resources is treacherous territory.

Maybe the wise sage Confucius could offer an answer. I turned to the Confucian Analects for the doctrine ofren. Ren is the principle of refining one's character and cultivating humanity- becoming the best you can be while demonstrating kindness and benevolence towards others. It is one of the five Confucian virtues. Confucius played a pivotal role in Chinese history. Confucian ideology became the central core of refining one's character and creating a society. While Buddhism and Daoism became religious institutions complete with temples, writings and priests, Confucianism remained an ideology without priests or temples to offer it longevity. Why did this belief structure persist over time? The imperial examination system prompted hopeful candidates to study, memorize and compose writings on Confucian principles. Confucianism was on the examination and therefore it was taught and studied for some thirteen centuries. The answer was all too simple now. My students would have to study to take the Imperial Examination. Diligent preparation would be required to complete an Imperial Scroll with notes on all of the California Standards on Medieval China to enter the examination room. Unlike the historical examination, information appearing on the scroll could be used during the examination; the test would be open to males and females.

I have administered the Imperial Exam at Thornton Jr. High School for over twelve years now. Each year reluctant candidates embark on a four step preparatory experience in creating an individual Imperial Scroll project that is graded for accuracy of content and artistic expression. The four-step process simplifies the extensive Analysis Skills requirements of the California Standards for grades 6-8 into a realistic and manageable process. The idea was born from my observation of students struggling to make sense of historical information. …

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