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Failure Stories: Interpretations of Rejected Papers in the Late Imperial Civil Service Examinations

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This article investigates the practice of returning marked papers to rejected candidates in late imperial Chinese examinations. The practice—common from the sixteenth century to the abolition of imperial examinations in 1905—established a sense of personal communication between examiners and examinees and was an opportunity for rejected candidates to benefit from the examination system. The failed papers returned to their authors enabled them to make sense of their performance by interpreting, when not misconstruing, examiners’ comments. The examiners sometimes praised the papers and blamed the decision to fail on other examiners. As a result, most rejected candidates tended not to challenge the examiners through official channels or take collective action against the examination system. Thus, in the late imperial examination system, the ways in which rejecting decisions could be negotiated and construed were no less important than the awarding of degrees to an extremely small proportion of participants.
Cet article s’intéresse à la pratique, particulière à la période impériale tardive, consistant à rendre leurs copies aux candidats ayant échoué aux examens. Courante depuis le xvie siècle et jusqu’à l’abolition des examens mandarinaux en 1905, cette pratique créait l’impression d’une relation personnelle entre les examinateurs et les candidats et était un moyen pour ceux qui avaient échoué de tirer profit du système. Les copies rejetées retournées à leurs auteurs permettaient à ces derniers de donner un sens à leur performance en interprétant, voire en dévoyant, les commentaires des examinateurs. Il arrivait que les examinateurs fassent l’éloge des copies et attribuent à autrui la décision de les rejeter. De ce fait, la plupart des candidats malheureux évitaient de contester les examinateurs par la voie réglementaire ou de manifester collectivement contre le système. Ainsi, dans le système des examens à la fin de la période impériale, la manière dont les décisions négatives pouvaient être négociées ou interprétées n’était pas moins importante que l’attribution de rangs académiques à une toute petite proportion de ceux qui concouraient.

Affiliations: 1: Brown University


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