Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Disarming the College Degree Arms Race

A Ming Dynasty portrait of the Chinese officia...
Decoration of two cranes on the chest are a "rank badge" that indicate that he was a civil official of the first rank (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As time went on, more and more people took  -  and passed -  the exam’s first round.

Test prep academies proliferated. Imperial officials started to worry: there were now more degree-holders than there were positions, which threatened to create an underclass of young men with thwarted ambitions.

When the Ming dynasty fell in 1644, their successors, the Qing, resolved to make the test more difficult. By the middle of the 19th century, 2 million people sat the exam, but just over 1 percent passed its first round; only 300 candidates - .016 percent - passed all three.

Failure could be discouraging. In 1837, after botching the exam’s second round for a second time, Hong Xiuquan, an ambitious 23-year-old from a village near Guangzhou, suffered a nervous breakdown.

The precocious Hong had come in first on the county-level test, but after he turned 15 his family could no longer afford the customary tutor. Nor could Hong afford to bribe the examiners, as many test-takers did.

The notional possibility that anyone could pass the test concealed a bitter truth: for a poor countryman like Hong, making it past the second round was all but impossible.

Sick and delirious, Hong began to see visions. While in the provincial capital, he had encountered missionaries from the U.S. who gave him a tract on Christianity.

It made a big impression: soon Hong had a dream in which he saw the Christian God remonstrating with Confucius about his faithlessness. In another, angels carried Hong to heaven, where a man with a long golden beard presented him with a sword and instructed him to rid China of its demons.
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