The Last Mandarin

A Scholar from a China that No Longer Exists

What caught my attention about the thin, 85-year-old Chinese man seated in a Hong Kong restaurant was neither his ancient wooden cane nor his long, blue changpao, the traditional Chinese gown.  It was the small, round cap he wore on his head.  I had seen piles of those caps in novelty shops in the Chinatowns of the world; but there only the tourists tried them on, to the amusement of friends.  Never had I actually seen such a cap on a Chinese before.

As the old man, suddenly aware of my scrutiny, turned on a warm smile, his cap began to assume an appositness of its own, as if it were part of him, like his hair, like the lines that age had engraved on his face, like his inexpressible dignity.  I could not possibly have imagined him without it.  Only late did I realize that the unaffected composure which that cap had assumed was a vestige of a vanished time.  For Ling Chu-Ch'uan, as I came to know him, was one of the last living scholars with a hsiu-ts'ai; a literary degree meaning "Fine Talent," awarded to him under the traditional Chinese examination system one year before its abolishment in 1905 under the pressure of western ideas.  Ling was a mandarin, a title honored for centuries in a China that no longer exists.  Born to a long line of scholars, Ling felt the parental pressure towards literary achievement early in life.  In 1901, then 15, he attempted to pass the first of the exams but failed.  two years later he failed again.  But on his third attempt, at 18, he was determined to win honor for his family and for himself, and he did.

We talked about this triumph.  His alert eyes twinkled as he recalled that dark morning in 1904 when ten thousand scholars from all over Kwangtung Province assembled at 2 a.m. in the Great Examination Hall in Canton.  The gates were barred.  The roll call, commencing at 4, went on for hours.  Ling vividly remembers the tenseness of the other candidates as well as his own, expressed in boisterous laughter, nervous fidgeting and tempers flaring like lightning in the oppressive summer heat.

His smile broadened as he remembered the old men who, 70 years and more, still aspired to the coveted degree which had eluded them throughout life.  Because they had yet to achieve the first degree, they remained "boy candidates," regardless of their age.  Some of these septuagenarians answered the roll call with sons and grandsons taking the same exam.

Not all the candidates present were, like Ling, the descendants of scholars.  But most of them were.  To become a mandarin was not open to all Chinese.  Watchmen, executioners, laborers, yamen torturers, coroners, boatpeople, musicians, detectives, jailers, actors, slaves, beggars - those from such callings, and many others, were forbidden to apply.  As Ling stood listening intently for his name to be called, he silently reviewed what he had reviewed a thousand times before:  Every line in his recitation must contain the prescribed number of words; the emperor's name must begin a new line; the essay must end at a certain part of the paper; there must be no visible erasures.  What if, as was certainly not unknown, the room of his cubicle had leaked during a sudden shower and his examination paper was damaged?  Well, that would be up to the heavens to decide, not Long Chu-ch'uan.

He entered his "cell," a cubicle 5 ft. 3 in. by 3 ft. 8 in.  He brought his own brushes and ink, although his paper was supplied by the Exam Hall.  There would be 16 of these one-day sessions over a period of up to two months.  At last his test sheet was placed before him.  His spirits rose immediately as he read his main question.  It was a quote from Mencius, one of China's most famous philosophers:  "Although you area superior, if you are not aware of what the ordinary people experience, your conduct is not correct."

The examiners seemed to be hesitantly asking the searching questions which Ling's troubled times called forth.  He had thought about such matters a great deal and he was prepared.  Yet, there were more topics on other Chinese philosophers, Chinese history, contemporary plitics.  He had no time to waste.  He picked up his brush and began.  At last, the sessions were over.  The results were posted.  He and his friends eagerly scanned the list of names until their eyes came to Ling Chu-ch'uan, now holder of the degree of hsiu-ts'ai or "Fine Talent."

Yet even as his family honored his with a banquet, Ling knew the ordeal was far from complete.  His father had passed the Peking exams.  His grandfather had been a magistrate.  Ling now prepared himself for the next exams and the journey to Peking, where, in still another cell, his fortune would be decided.  In the capital, he could not leave the exam area for three days.  If it was cold, his coverlets would be of limited help.  His small cell was furnished with two tables and a board, the board no longer than five feet.  When placed across the tables, it served as his bed.  he brought his own food and eating utensils.  As in Canton, one cook and servant per corridor were provided free of charge.  Ling studied as never before: The Great Learning, the Doctrine of the mean, the Analects of Confucius, Mencius, the Book of Odes, the Book of History, the Book of Changes, the Book of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals.

The Chinese examination system dates back to the Sui Dynasty (590-618) and the T'ang (618-907 AD) dynasties - the system which from Ling's own family had produced generations of scholars and government officials - now, the worst of the rumors were confirmed, it was to be abolished.  For years after, Ling shivered from the shock he felt then.  What was to be his livelihood?  As officials often dept silver in the long sleeves of their gowns, those who were destitute were said to have "two sleeves fluttering in the wind."  Was this then to be the fate of Ling Chu-Ch'uan?  But the government responded.  Teacher-training schools were set up and his exam degree was declared to be still valid.  Ling became a headmaster in Canton for ten years.  In his twenty-second year he was also appointed Chung-she, a section chief concerned with the drafting of documents.

And then the final shock:  The 1911 collapse of the Ch'ing (Manchu) dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of Sun Yat-sen.  Ling had mixed emotions when cutting his queue.  For many scholars their hair in anything but a queue would have been unthinkable, yet the hairstyle had been imposed by the Manchus, and so, after 267 years, the Chinese were freed from Manchu rule.  In the cities, students with scissors confronted anyone reluctant to cut their queues.

During the second year of the Republic he passed the high exam for Hsien (Prefect), and became Prefect in the province of Fukien.  After a few months, he was transferred to Peking as a literary official.  Ling Disliked the capital.  Expenses ate up his small grant and left him poor.  Like other hsiu-ts'ai, he was now exempt from corporal punishment and would wear the mandarin button on his hats.  But the prestige he would have gained as part of the local gentry in a small community weighed nothing in the teeming capital.

He returned to Canton as director of education and as principal of a teachers' college in the area of Fan Yu.  For 30 years he stayed, teaching literature and history.  Then, in 1948, as the Communist takeover loomed, he left the area of his birth for Hong Kong.  In that refugee colony he was to live for 25 years.  The scholar raised his tea cup to his lips with a steady hand and ate sparingly of his boneless chicken.  He was born, he continued, in the Year of the Pig.  At 18, his first marriage was arranged by his family, as such matters were done then.  Just as naturally, the young maiden's feet were bound.

He survived that first arranged marriage, which was followed by three more.  All told, his wives bore him seven sons and two daughters; they in turn produced more than 20 grandchildren.  He saw them often - but not too often.  He liked solitude, and used it to write classical Chinese poetry and to paint - plum trees and flowers were his favorites.  Despite his traditional education, Ling was not conservative himself.  Although he concentrated on education partly because of the turbulence of the warlord period and the great upheavals which swept China during his lifetime, he was convinced that education is an integral part of political reform, itself a form of political involvement. 

Thus we talked.  At length Ling rose, and slowly, with the caution of his years, crossed the room.  He was off to the Chinese University where, once a week, he lectured in literature.  As we bade farewell, Ling held up the sleeves of his blue gown and smiled.  Even at 85, the scholar could demonstrate that his two long, wide sleeves did not "flutter in the wind."  My first encounter with Ling was also the last.  Some months passed before I sought to see him again.  He answered the telephone with his usual courtesy, but regretted that he could not see me for a day or two; he was running a fever.  I called again in two weeks; a servant informed me that the master was gravely ill.  I let a week pass, and called again.  The Last of the Mandarins, I was told, had died.     Dean Barrett 2008

Asia Magazine interview - Hong Kong - 1973

Photographs: Ling Chu-Ch'uan at the Hong Kong Star Ferry, Kowloon side, photo by Kishor Parekh, 1973; Ling as a young man in his 20's; summer and winter hats of mandarin officials; examination cells from the book, China's Examination Hell; mandarin officials in full regalia.  The red knob was the highest of the nine Ch'ing dynasty knobs.  Civilian mandarins had far more prestige than military mandarins.  The peacock feather on the hat denoted an additional distinction.

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The Mandarins

Ch'ing Dynasty hat knobs of mandarin officials

To the outsider, the very word "mandarin" suggests someone from old China's ruling class.  In a sense, this is true, but only partly.  The mandarin was nothing more or less than a civil servant, an employee of the state, who earned his title - in China, kwan, or, public character -and earned his post by passing a series of examinations, frequently as many as seven.  Each dynasty had its own mandarin ranks, but for purposes of simplicity there can be said to have been nine: three each drawn from the lower, the middle, and the upper classes.

Outwardly, mandarins were distinguished by a cap with a special button, a robe with the insignia of their rank embroidered on the breast and back, and a girdle clasp.  Military mandarins wore insignia denoting animals, real or imaginary.  A mandarin of the civil as opposed to the military service might display a Manchurian crane or pheasant.  The highest mandarins were the custodians of Chinese culture, and had to pass a series of seven examinations to attain the highest rank.  Their intellectual and artistic accomplishments were likely to include excellence in calligraphy, the ability to recite learned books from memory and to create extemporaneous poetry.  Such powerful minds earned great respect, which, in turn, ensured monetary success as well as considerable status in the community.  One Chinese scholar, T. C. Lai, has written that "people in dynastic China aspired to be mandarins more fervently than people now aspire to be millionaires."  The mandarins of the higher ranks were expected to lead lives of great probity.  They were never assigned to the province from whence they came.  they were prohibited from marriage and owning property, nor could they serve for more than three years in any one province.  The birth of the Republic of China under Dr. Sun Yat-sen marked the death of the mandarin orders.  Ling Chu-Ch'uan was one of the last to take the examinations; and, because of his great years, he was certainly one of the few remaining men to survive a class and a China which are no more.  There was much to be desired in China's examination system: Many categories were not allowed to take the examinations including women, and many of the exam questions were irrelevant to a China confronted with the modernization of the West; but at least it was a system which valued knowledge and learning and scholarship. 

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Books on China

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Read another article on China:

A Beijing Journey - Ten days wandering about the back streets and forgotten secrets of Beijing