Chü jên papers

11 June 2014

I was shocked to discover that my previous blog entry was written almost exactly five months ago. My silence is not due to lack of interest, much less of things to write about, but because I have had to modernise our Chinese catalogue, something which would merit its own blog entry if it were a little less off-message.

So here at last is a brief account of the set of three papers that were used in the provincial examination at Nanchang in 1902. They were exhibited together with related materials in the Proscholium of the Old Library between 22 February and 6 April. I will present the exhibition online as my next blog entry.

But first to the papers themselves. I have called them Chü jên papers not out of antiquarianism, but because on the spine of the small yellow folder in which the papers were kept, presumably made shortly after their acquisition in September 1910, are the words


They are described as follows in my catalogue, and may be seen here.

光緒二十八年壬寅補行庚子恩科並辛丑正科江西鄉試題 第壹、贰、叁場 / (清)光緒二十八年[1902]官撰

3張 ; 58 x 90, 58 x 87, 54 x 86公分
Sinica 3043

Also in the folder were two letters from Arnold Foster. The first is dated 22 June 1910; it says what the papers are and offers a set to the Library. The second is dated 2 September 1910 and encloses the papers; it was evidently written in response to a reply from the Library. There are also two copies of a printed single-sheet description of the papers, with blanks where the names of the city and province should be written. These have been completed in manuscript, to read:

“… in the Examination Cells of Nan-chang Fu the Capital of the Province of Kiang-si …”

I’m grateful to my Cambridge colleague Charles Aylmer for drawing to my attention the work Arnold Foster : memoir, selected writings, etc. (London Missionary Society, 1921), which gives evidence of the provenance of these examination papers. I will quote the relevant paragraph (pp.44-45) in full, as it also sheds light on the dissemination of missionary publications:

“During the Manchu Dynasty, Triennial examinations were held in all the provincial capitals, and students, who had already obtained their B.A. degree, came from all parts of the province to sit for the examination. Out of the five or six thousand who go in for it only seventy or eighty could pass, but as this was the only door to official life, large numbers always competed. This was felt to be a unique opportunity for reaching the student class. In September, 1902, Mr. Foster and representatives from all Protestant Missions in the three cities, with Chinese Christian helpers, waited at the gate of the examination hall with packets of books to give to the students, as they left the building. Thirty-two hampers full of books were given late in the evening and very early the next morning. This was an occasion when Mr. Foster believed in free distribution. As a rule, he thought it much wiser to sell books, as being paid for, they would be valued and read. He regretted that free distribution had revived in later years, so making sales more difficult.”

It must surely have been during the course of this book distribution that Foster obtained copies of the examination papers. We are not told the names of the cities in which these exchanges of materials took place, but in his letter of 22 June 1910, Foster says he got sets of papers from “each of six or seven of the Provincial Capitals of China”, and that in addition to Oxford, he was making “a similar offer to the British Museum, to the Cambridge University Library, & to one other English library only.”


Arnold Foster (1846-1919) was a graduate of St. John’s College and President of the Cambridge Union (1870). Accordingly, he gave what is probably the finest set of papers to his alma mater. These are from Nanking, the capital of Kiangsu Province, which had the largest examination complex in China with 20,644 cells. This set has been described by Charles Aylmer on the CUL website.

The only other set I have seen is ours, which is from Nanchang, the capital of Kiangsi Province. I suppose the set given to the British Museum (assuming they accepted Foster’s offer) is now in the British Library – I will try and find out. What is the “other English library”, I wonder, and what happened to the other two or three sets that Foster said he had acquired?

Like ours until earlier this year, they are probably lying undiscovered on a library shelf or in someone’s office. It is therefore impossible to say whether such sets of papers are rare. I can only say that the only two copies known to me are those in Oxford and Cambridge. A Google search for the title (or more sensibly, elements of the title such as “恩科”, “正科” “鄉試題”) does not reveal any more copies of the papers themselves, but plenty of published reports and lists of candidates, notably in the Toyo Bunko and other Japanese libraries.

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