Chim Việt Cành Nam             Trở Về  ]          [ Trang Chủ            Tác giả

Hội and Đình Examinations

Author : Nguyễn Thị Chân Quỳnh
Translated from Vietnamese by Phạm Vân Nga

I. Introduction
The people of Việt nam, formerly known as "An Nam", were classified into two classes: the mandarins and the common folks. The Mandarins assisted the King in governing the country. In order to become a mandarin, it was imperative that one pass an extremely rigorous examination process called Khoa Cử, which tested the candidates on techniques of government based on Confucian standards. The mandarins earned more merit on their morality than their competence.

Khoa Cử first took place in China, in the 2nd century BCE. Other countries - Việt nam, Korea, Japan - followed suit with their own examinations. Not until the 19th century did Europe use examinations to select administrators.

Under the Chinese domination (111 BCE to 938 CE), Vietnamese who wished to take higher level examinations had to go to China to do so. In the year 845, the Tang Emperor limited the Vietnamese candidates for Doctorate degree to only 8 persons.

Immediately after gaining independence from the Chinese, King Lý Nhân Tôn held the first examination in 1075, patterned after the Chinese competition. The subsequent dynasties (Trần, Hồ, Lê, Mạc) continued the tradition while modifying it to meet the needs of the country. The Golden Age of Vietnamese Mandarinic Examinations took place in the 15th century, during the reign of King Lê Thánh Tôn. The 18th century marked the decline of the examination and in 1919, this practice was abolished, replaced by western style education.

The curriculum of the Mandarinic Examination preparation emphasized governing skills based on Confucian values. According to this doctrine, an efficient government should take root in an orderly society where the King held absolute powers. Confucian traditions produced scholars with knowledge, ability and, above all, morality. Their motto was: "train oneself, discipline one's family" first, then later "govern the country and pacify the world ". Scholars took the examinations to become mandarins, they used their personal morality and capabilities to be the model to the people and govern them. Confucian tenets indicated that all men possessed some goodness, only their customs, habits, education... made them good or evil. Therefore, rulers had to educate the people in order to change their undesirable mentality and habits. Mandarins should use moral principles to teach people to distinguish between right and wrong, so that they would naturally be ashamed to transgress the law. To simply punish wrong-doers without enlightening them would be brute coercion, and criminals would not amend their behavior. Moreover, punishment could only chastise offenses already committed, whereas moral education could prevent delinquency.

If a scholar failed the examination or preferred not to serve as a mandarin, he could always become a teacher and train the younger generation to live by Confucian principles.

Khoa Cử involved two main examinations:

- Hương Examinations, held every three years in the localities near the candidates' home villages. Those who passed earned the title Cử Nhân (Master) or Tú tài (Bachelor).

- Hội and Đình Examinations, called Hội for short. Đình Examination was, in fact, the last leg of the Hội Examination. Hội Examinations took place in the spring after the Hương Examinations; the laureates were entitled Tiến sĩ (Doctor).

An account of Hương Examination was published in Études Vietnamiennes, vol.3, 2010. This article deals with Hội and Đình Examinations.

I. Hội Mandarinic Examination
Hội (Capital City) Mandarinic Examinations were held in spring, one month after Hương (Regional) Examinations, and lasted about a month.

In the year 1075 King Lý Thánh Tôn initiated the first Examinations in Việt Nam called Tam trường. Not until the reign of King Minh Mệnh of the Nguyễn dynasty was the Hội Examinations organized in 1822. This exam, which took place in the royal capital Thừa Thiên (Huế)[1], was open to all scholars in the country. Those living far away would have to take hazardous trips to ThừaThiên; by sea, stormy weather could take their lives; overland, they had no choice but crossing rivers, walking over passes and spending the nights in jungles and mountains. It could take them months.

Thừa Thiên Examination Center

This site was a group of bamboo huts first built on the banks of the Perfume River. It was moved several times. In 1843, King Thiệu Trị ordered the construction of 21 buildings for mandarins, 7 rows of 15 rooms for the Hương and Hội examination contestants at Ninh Bắc. All were built of bricks and tiles. Contestants no longer had to bring their tents. The site was later moved to An Ninh village, then to the foot of La Chử Mountain and finally to Tây Nghi.

The first Hội Examination of the Nguyễn dynasty was held in 1822. A red desk was set in the Thí Viện (Examination building), on which lay the exam questions assigned by the king. Outside, swordmen stood on guard day and night. In addition, 600 officers and soldiers and 20 elephants patrolled outer areas. In 1826, the King removed the elephants and reduced the number of soldiers to 300.


The number of contestants varied from 100 to 6 000, but under the Nguyễn dynasty, it never exceeded 700. In 1838, only 130 scholars signed up for the examination; consequently, the number of examiners was significantly reduced.

Those admitted to take the Hội Examination included:

- Cử Nhân (Masters)

- Huấn Đạo and Giáo Thụ (mandarins in charge of education in a town)

- Tôn sinh, Ấm sinh and Giám sinh [2]

- Tú Tài over 40 years old or passing the Hạch test [3] with honors

From 1838, new regulations stated that except for Cử Nhân, all should have passed the Hạch test given at the Quốc Tử Giám [4] to be permitted to take the Hội Examination. Those below are forbidden to take the Hội Examination:
- Mandarins of 7th grade up

- Huấn Đạo and Giáo Thụ of 6th grade up

- Tri Huyện (Subprefect)

for fear these officials would neglect their duties to prepare for the exams.

Before the exam, contestants had to turn in to the Lễ (Rites) Ministry 8 notebooks for the four test cycles; each page should have 8 lines, each line for 20 characters. On the first page, they indicated their name, age, home village and the year in which they obtained the Cử nhân degree.

Under the Nguyễn Kings, contestants didn't need to bring their tents and briefcases (yên) but they should bring their notebook holders. They should wear formal attires, with belts and boots, as if they were already mandarins.

In 1838, King Minh Mệnh visited the Exam site. It was rainy and cold. He granted a special treat to all present: wine to the examiners, grass mattresses and coal heaters to contestants. In 1841, to show appreciation to scholars, the Court provided food and wine to all.

Examination questions

Examination questions were chosen by the King or the Exam mandarins, one day before the exam day. In 1822, in the first Hội Examinationunder the Nguyễn Kings, red banners were raised followed by 3 volleys of cannon. Two mandarins walked around and read the questions aloud, then the questions were posted. Later, because the questions were long, they were printed and distributed.

In 1858, Hội Examination format was as follows:

- Test 1: 7 topics on Kinh Nghĩa (exegeses on canonical Confucian texts), contestants should do three, more was optional.

- Test 2: 300 word chiếu (the King's speech to his people, for example chiếu to find talented citizens) or biểu (the people's request to the King); 600 words or more luận (dissertation).

- Test 3: poetry

- Test 4: 

12 questions & answers , contestants should do 8:

3 Kinh (records of Confucius' words)

1 truyện (explanations and comments by Confucius' students)

2 history

2 dissertations on current events

Examining mandarins

All examining mandarins were selected by the King. They were divided into the "Inner Board" and "Outer Board" like in the Regional Examinations (Thi Hương). In 1834, the officials and their benefits were listed as follows [5]:

1 Chief Examiner  2nd grade literary
stipend: 80 quan
15 phương [6]of rice
1 Vice-chief Examiner
70 "
12 "
2 Examiners
55 "
10 "
10 Co-examiners  5th grade
30 "
6 "
2 Đề Điệu[7] 3rd grade military
40 "
8 "
2 Giám thítuần sát[8] 2nd grade military
40 "
8 "
4 Nội Liêm Giám thí[9] Royal Guards officers 
30 "
6 "
4 Ngoại Trường tuần sát [10] military officers 
30 "
6 "
1 Đăng Lục[11] 5th-6th grade literary
25 "
5 "
1 Soạn Hiệu [12] 5th-6th grade literary 
25 "
5 "
1 Đối độc[13] 5th-6th grade literary 
 25 "
5 "
40 secretaries  8th-9th grade literary 
 8 "
 3 "

Grading and Posting Results

The contestants' notebooks were written in black ink. After the personal data section was removed, Đăng Lục mandarins copied them in red ink. The copy and the original were checked carefully. Then the Đăng Lục (copier) and the Đối độc (checker) signed their names and listed their titles on the first page of both copies. Next they delivered them to the Đề Điệu mandarin [14]. This mandarin locked up the original and sent the copied notebooks to the Inner Board to be graded by the two examiners. They signed their names then sent them to the Outer Board for the Chief Examiner and his Deputy to grade again.

Hội Examinations tests were graded cumulatively; grades of all 4 tests were added together. If they met the required score, the contestants passed. At first, they were graded ưu (excellent), bình (good), thứ (acceptable) and liệt (failed) just like the Hương Examinations. From 1829, the grading scale was changed to 0-10; in 1910 the scale changed to 0-20. Those who passed were called Trúng Cách, those who didn't pass but had high grades were given the title Phó Bảng, and they were not allowed to take the last leg, Thi Đình (Imperial Palace Doctoral Examinations).

The names of the Hội Examinations Laureates were not called out in a ceremony, they were only officially posted. Examining mandarins prostrated and bowed in front of the altar then ascended the raised chairs to witness the ceremony. Banners were hung; drums beat then a 4th grade mandarin hung up the name board on the gate.

II. Đình Examination
Đình Exam, also called Phúc Thí, was the last leg of the Hội Exam. It was held a few days after the names of the Hội successful scholars were published. It normally took place in April and lasted for one day.

Except for special cases, only those who passed the Hội Examination could take the Đình Exam. On the exam day, the Vice-Minister of the Lễ (Rites) Ministry led the formally attired contestants into the Inner City through the Main Gate Ngọ Môn [15]. They were carefully searched before taken to their seats.

Exam Site

The Nguyễn Kings organized the first Đình Examination at the Cần Chính (Diligent Government) Palace. The site was later moved to other palaces, Thái Hòa (Supreme Harmony) or Khâm Văn.

In 1856, the King ordered the Exam be given outside the Forbidden City and the Examination was called Phúc Thí, the last part of the Hội Exam. In the same year, new Exam Preparation Rites were established by the Lễ Ministry. The day before the exam, two rows of desks and straw mats were set along the hall of Khâm Văn Palace. On exam day, the Giám Thí came into the main Court in official uniform. The Lễ Vice-Minister led the contestants into the court; they faced North [16] and knelt down to wait for the King's order. Next, they offered two prostrations then went to their mats.

Questions were opened after the King and the mandarins left. Two proctors remained. At about 8:00 P.M., a round of drums signaled the time the contestants' textbooks and drafts be turned in. This done, contestants could leave.

Breakfast, water, tea, snacks, betel leaves and areca nuts were given by the King. Upon receiving, contestants would bow five times to show gratitude. They could keep all the King's gifts, including bowls and plates, as souvenirs. Lunch was provided by Lễ Ministry. No prostrations were required.

Exam topics

The night before the test, the King met with his mandarins to choose exam questions. They were reproduced by hand copying and sealed to be distributed the next day.

This was a đối sách, a list of almost 100 questions

(1) Classical studies. Questions were about the life and accomplishment of former successful Chinese Kings, the problems they faced and their solutions.

(2) Contemporary studies. Questions were on what the King had done and was doing; what should be done to empower the country and improve the life of citizens.

A sample question in 1868: The (French) invaders are getting more and more aggressive. They have built forts and bulwarks all over the country. Should we fight or find a peaceful solution?

Examining Mandarins

According to regulations of 1856, the Board of Examiners included
1 President of the Board, Military mandarin of 2nd grade or above
2 First Evaluators, Literary mandarin, 3rd grade or above
3 Reviewers, Literary mandarin, 3rd or 4th grade
1 Truyền Lô, Ministry of Rites mandarin, 4th or 5th grade
1 Di Phong mandarin, in charge of placing notebooks in boxes and sealing them, 4th or 5th grade
1 Thủ Chưởng, in charge of guarding notebook boxes, 4th or 5th grade
1 Ấn quyển, in charge of stamping notebooks before placing them in boxes, 4th or 5th grade
6 Đằng Tả, in charge of copying notebooks
1 Tuần La, officers commanding the patrolling Royal Guards
2 Tuần sát, noncommissioned officers of the Royal Guards


Tests answers were written in black ink. On the top pages, besides the name, address, etc., the contestant's Trúng cách passing rank and date of Hội Examination were also listed.

Once done, notebooks were collected and presented to the Tuần La mandarin who would next transferred them to Di Phong and Soạn Hiệu offices to remove the personal data before giving them to the "Nghè bút thiếp"[17] to copy them in red ink. The competitors' original notebooks were stored away; the copied volumes would be graded. The First Evaluators graded the books first. The Reviewers reevaluated, signed their names, and reattached personal data of contestants. Next they wrote up the list of passing scholars and presented it to the King. The latter made the final evaluation, wrote comments and returned to examining mandarins then to the Ministry of Rites which would get the attires to be given to laureates and decided on the date of commencement [18].

Successful contestants were classified into:

1) First grade Doctors, 3 people

Trạng Nguyên  (Valedictorian)
Bảng Nhãn 
Thám Hoa
2) 2nd grade Doctors The number of passing doctors was not limited
The highest rank was called Hoàng Giáp
3) 3rd grade Doctors This class of Doctors is the most numerous; it was not limited. The total number of all three grades of Doctors and Phó Bảng (Alternates) in each exam under the Nguyễn Kings was never more than 20.

According to Trần văn Giáp, of all 187 exams in the history of our country, 2991 were awarded Doctorate degrees. The Nguyễn Kings held three Hội exams and 558 earned the title Tiến sĩ (Doctors). They were also referred to as ông Nghè. The Nguyễn Kings ordered 47 Hương exams, 5226 were awarded the Cử Nhân degree.

Commencement Ceremony

Commencement Ceremony was held in early May of the lunar calendar. This was the time when names of Đình examination successful contestants were officially announced. The Tham Tri mandarin of the Ministry of Rites (Lễ) loudly read the victors' full names and home villages; these names then were repeated by soldiers so people from a distance away could hear. This formal event was presided by the King and his top mandarins in full regalia.

In 1822, the Commencement Ceremony was held in Thái Hòa Palace. The new Doctors dressed in ceremonial attires given the day before followed the Minister of Rites and knelt in the court.

In some years, this ceremony was held in the Main Gate. The Minister of Rites and his deputy stood by the two sides of a covered altar on which rested the King's royal decree. The mandarins proclaimed the recognition, then the Royal Guards read out the names of the laureates. The latter walked up to receive the uniforms offered by the Tham Tri mandarin. They changed into the new attires, filed into Cần Chính Palace and prostrated to show gratitude.

In 1841, uniforms offered to the Valedictorian Doctor included:

1 dragonfly wing silver hat, adorned with a gold flower in the front, a silver flower in the back
1 head cover
1 green silk shirt imprinted with floral motifs, a square embroidered appliqué with five-color clouds or white swallow motifs was attached to the front or back.
1 tunic in silk crepe with 5-color clouds motif decorating the edges
1 belt made of horn covered with red leather; the belt was encrusted with three pieces of silver framed in tortoise shell and seven pieces of copper framed in black horn
1 tablet made of ivory on which the name and title of the laureate were carved
1 pair of silk socks
1 pair of boots

On Commencement day, the Laureates Names Board was displayed at Phú Văn Tower, in front of Ngọ Môn Gate for three days then later stored at Quốc Tử Giám.

From 1829 the Alternate Laureates Name Board was hung on the right side of Phú Văn Tower for one day.

Special Feast

A few days later, the Examining Mandarins and the Laureates attended the Bowing to the King Ceremony, then the Special Feast at the Ministry of Rites, in some other years in the Royal Gardens.

From 1835, each high ranking mandarin and First grade Doctors was awarded a silver hairpin plated with gold. Second and third grades Doctors received silver hairpins. Lower mandarins received small silver hairpins.

The Doctors received banners indicating their Doctorate ranks and panels on which their names, home villages and the phrase "Victorious Return by the Grace of the King" were written in gold.

The following day, the laureates offered their gratitude to the King by writing, then came to Quốc Tử Giám to pay homage to Confucius, the Ultimate Teacher.

Visiting the Imperial Garden and the Imperial City

 After the Royal feast, the new Laureates were shown a tour of the Imperial Garden by the Minister of Rites. Tradition dictated that each could pick a flower and goldsmiths would be ordered to make a replica in gold to be worn on the left side of their hat. It was said that one had chosen a banana flower [19]!

The ritual of throwing the ball to chose the Royal groom started under the reign of the Chinese Emperor Han Wudi (156-87 BCE). When the Laureates were strolling in the Imperial Garden, the princesses would throw a ball. The one who got hit would become the Prince Consort.

Nowadays, old style exams have been abolished, the Imperial Garden is no longer here. A few verses of Nguyễn Bính's bring back fresh memory of those special days:

The Imperial Garden is nowhere to be found,
What's left is a community entitled "Imperial Garden".
Royal Exams are gone, there are no more Trạng Nguyên.
This night, flowers and grass are playing fairies.
Today, there's a tourist
Staying in Imperial Garden and reminiscing Imperial Garden!
Later, the Laureates were guided to visit the Imperial City.

Doctors' Steles

Personal information of each Doctor was carved into rock steles for posterity. The steles in the Temple of Literature in Hà Nội were established by King Lê ThánhTôn in 1484, going back to former exams from 1442. Throughout political upheavals, several were broken or lost. Now there are 85 steles including 3 set up under the Nguyễn Kings [20].

The steles were lined up along the sides of Thiên Quang Well, the information on the Laureates was inscribed on the front side, the Laureates' eulogy to the King and description of that year's examination on the back side. Each stele sat on the back of a tortoise symbolizing longevity.

1469 Laureate, (later) Minister of Justice Thân Nhân Trung, commented: "Reputation and merits must match. If one is superior in Literature but deficient in morality and the practice of what one learned, then the inscription on the stele is only a dirty stain. If one is disloyal to the King and impious to his parents, then his name should be chiseled out" [21].

Triumphant Return

From the first exam under the Nguyễn Kings, Doctors were granted horses for their return to their home villages; first to their provinces where the province governor would provide soldiers to escort the homecoming parade. Along the way, the Doctors could stop in order to worship at temples or visit well-known scholars in the area. Meals would be provided by local authorities; wealthy villagers took great pride in taking charge of the feast. From 1901, Alternate Doctors were also awarded the same honors.

The Laureate's Privileges

Long ago, after homecoming, the laureate enjoyed the right to choose a piece of land to build his house; this was called the "land choosing tradition". Citizens from the entire prefecture had to help out in putting up the house, usually a three section abode.

The newly passed Laureates had to spend three years at the History House to sharpen their skills in literature and politics before being assigned responsibilities. From 1856[22] on the salary scale for the new Laureates was as follows:

Bảng Nhãn  5 quan (monetary units)
Thám Hoa    4.5 quan
Hoàng Giáp 4 quan
Tiến sĩ          3.5 quan
Phó Bảng      3 quan

Each would also receive 3 weight units of lamp oil.

So, the Tiến sĩ privileges were considerable. There were some who were only hoping to pass the exam and yet being abusive to fellow villagers. They were subject of the sarcastic dictum: he has not succeeded in the exam, yet already bully the village neighbors. Families were willing to marry off their daughters to scholars and the young ladies didn't opt for "large fields and expansive ponds"; they only longed for "the scholar's pen and inkpot", so that later the Golden Board would list his name then during the triumphal return, "his palanquin would go first and hers would be right behind".

Even after these exams were abolished, ladies would still look up to those with knowledge: "Without college education, there would be no husband and wife."

No system, however perfect, could withstand the test of time. Even though the Mandarinic Examinations system existed for over a thousand years, it couldn't avoid decline. Reasons were numerous, but the main ones pertaining to Việt nam could be:

- Privileges granted to mandarins were excessive. Many scholars were devoted to their ideals of serving the country and its citizens, but there were also many who strived to pass the examinations only for they own material gains. Honest mandarins would be gradually outnumbered by corrupt ones. Common people would suffer bitterly, hence the saying:

"My child, remember these words:
Night thieves are robbers, day thieves are mandarins"
"Ministry of the Military, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice
All three are accomplices in robbing my children's rice"

- Scholars idolized Chinese civilization to an unreasonable degree, every thing Chinese was the best, all other civilizations were backward savageries. They would not recognize their own weaknesses and they shut out the rest of the world.

- They valued literary talents and despised military skills. Military mandarins were treated as uncultured musclemen deserving to be mere servers:
"Literary mandarins of the 9th grade are already noble
Military mandarins of the 1st grade still carry sword as servants."
The intellectuals would engage in verbal debates, not physical fights. They would not learn military strategies so when confronted by the French modern weapons, they had to sign the Patenôtre Accord in 1884; and the country quickly lost its sovereignty. The Mandarinic Examinations were looked down on as a system producing failing, worthless mandarins though many were brave and noble, such as Hoàng Diệu, Nguyễn Tri Phương who would rather die than surrender to the French invaders.
The system of education of the past, though no longer exist, had produced a class of scholars who valued morality, earning respect of the citizens. Today, western style education is at work, but the general public still reserves special esteem for the intellectuals.

In "L'Annam d'autrefois", P. Pasquier related that one day in 1898, he was meeting with a French administrator when a parade with fully blasted drums and cymbals and a mandarin sitting in a palanquin came toward them. A leader of the group approached the Administrator, saying: "We are dignitaries from Phú Xuyên. Our village produced successful scholars, Cử Nhân and even Tiến sĩ. We cannot accept our Chief Mandarin not to be one of letters. We're returning this mandarin to you. He won't be able to pass down orders to us. Please send us a mandarin with at least a Cử Nhân degree. We'd be grateful."

It turned out that that mandarin earned his post only by serving the Protectorate Government faithfully, not by his own merits. Of course, he was suddenly stricken by a severe disease and decided to resign.

Annex 1
Hardship on the journey to take the Hội Examination
From Thanh Hóa, the road became more and more treacherous. Yet from Hà Tĩnh it got unbelievably daunting.

For days, they walked through very dense jungles, rarely having a chance to see the sky. Then suddenly mountains appeared like towering walls blocking their views. They had to arch their chests forward to climb up. Going down, they dragged their knees and hands on the steep slope. They followed the zigzagging hidden canyons whose bottoms seemed to be tens of meters deep. If they slipped, they'd surely be crushed into pieces. Nearby, thundering streams splashed foaming waves all around.

The most fearful place was Núi Trồng.

Across the sky-high mountains which were difficult even for ants to climb, the path was covered with sharp rocks of all sizes. Knife-like edges of these rocks cut into their feet. To lessen the pain they jumped onto rock surfaces smoothed-out by those passing this way before.

Their shoes were torn, their knees pained, yet they couldn't stop. There was no space to rest their feet. At this moment, Vân Hạc and Đốc Cung recalled Chinese texts about Sạn Đạo (Gallery Roads [23]). They wondered if these roads could be as horrible as this. "From Antiquity, Chinese people already learned to place wood planks to get over treacherous mountains. Why didn't we the Vietnamese do the same?"

Both men were exhausted after conquering this dreadful path. Fearing they would not be able to find an inn, they only rested quickly for a meal of pressed rice, then resumed their trip.

One day, they saw a few machetes on a rock. Đốc Cung thought they belonged to some woodcutters, so they didn't ponder much about them until Vân Hạc found a few words scribbled on a boulder. They realized that these knives were meant for people passing through to use to cut down broken branches, to clear the road and they should be returned to their original place. A few meters ahead, indeed they found bamboo trunks felled by storms blocking their way. With the machetes, the two servants cut down the bamboos, the masters pulled them away. A long while later, they were able to move on.

On another day, Vân Hạc suffered severe exhaustion due to the physical duress and harsh weather. He developed a fever and could no longer walk. Đốc Cung and the two helpers had to wait constantly. Looking through the clearing, they could see the sun sinking on the mountain tops. No boarding place was in sight.

"We'll sleep on the tree branches" Vân Hạc said. Alas, the trees were straight and tall, there were no branches near the ground. It wouldn't be possible to climb up. Coming close, they were so glad to find wooden nails as large as their toes embedded in the tree trunks up to the branches. People going this way before them had climbed up there. Some nails were missing from the lower parts. The helpers made new bamboo nails; then, one standing on the other's shoulders, they felt the holes and stuck the new nails in. Finally, they took out some pieces of burlap and tied the ends onto the branches to make hammocks. This kind of bed would keep them safe from snakes and tigers.

Hugging the trees, pressing their feet on the bamboo nails, they gingerly got into their hammocks. Their hair stood on ends, they trembled with fear. If the burlaps gave in, their bodies would be crushed.

The two helpers didn't settle down until after they had found some large gồi leaves to cover their masters' bodies from dew.

It was as dark as the door to hell. Owls hooted, monkeys screeched, crickets chirped, now and then they could hear tigers roar and smell their foul odor. Such frightening atmosphere!

Vân Hạc suddenly felt the fever rising again. He wondered if he would survive the trip and return home. He told Đốc Cung:

- "If I had known this, I'd say it's not worthwhile to achieve the test to becoming the Jade Emperor, let alone a Tiến sĩ."

The men were able to lie down, but they dared not turn or sleep for fear they would fall down.

The next morning, they didn't climb down until the sun was out and they could see everything clearly. Vân Hạc was feeling better, the fever had subsided. However, he was still lethargic. The four men started again on the road. When they came out of the jungle, it was almost dusk. The mountains blocked their view like gigantic monsters preparing to capture their human preys.

Now most of the road skirted the coast. On one side the mountain cliffs shot straight up, on the other, ocean waves violently beat against the rocky wall. The four men stepped carefully on the winding path. If they fell, no doubt they would be good food for the fishes below.

Not until several days later did the group reach an extremely large river, they couldn't see the other shore. It was the Tam Giang estuary. The river waves were as fierce as the ocean waves. It was said that this part of the river used to be even larger, but silt deposit had narrowed its width. The ferryman took nearly the entire day to get them across. The four men couldn't hold themselves upright when they disembarked. They threw up and couldn't go on until after a day's rest.

They didn't get to Huế until 20 days later. All in all, the trip took them a month and 10 days. They entered the City, found a boarding house, rested for a few days and turned in their blank notebooks to the Ministry of Rites.

Ngô Tất Tố, Lều chõng, pp. 247-250
Annex 2
Triumphant Return Parade
The Doctor wore black boots, a blue tunic, a cornflower blue outer garment, a dragonfly-wing hat decorated with silver flowers. First, he ceremoniously ascended the palanquin, then rested his arms on a support pillow set in the front. Next his parents climbed onto their palanquins, lastly his wife onto hers.


Dozens of hired men lifted the palanquins' poles upon their shoulders and stood erect to wait for orders.

The procession was in order; the banner on which "First Grade Doctor" was embroidered led the way.

Next came the four yellow parasols leaning toward each other to protect the placard inscribed "Royally Sanctioned Home Coming", bordered by red crepe valances.

Next came a very large drum suspended on a pole, carried by two men. A self-important drummer stood nearby, holding the drum stick slantingly.

Four boys stood in the four corners of a square-shape space; their uniforms brightened the scene: red tunics, blue sashes, green belts; their left hands resting on their hips, their right hands holding square banners.

A man carrying a smaller drum was behind the boys.

The Doctor's palanquin came next. Along each side of his palanquin a man held up a blue parasol with silver tops. Nearby was a man holding a feather fan and on the other side, another held a water pipe and a black lacquer box for betel leaves.

Right behind the Laureate's palanquin were five flags in different colors, blue, yellow, red, white and purple, carried by five men standing four in a square with one in the center. All wore the same colorful uniform: Chinese sandals, red crêpe tunic, swallow-tail hat. Their arms supported the wooden flag holders in front of their abdomen.

The gong man came next, followed by the Doctor's wife's palanquin. Two young girls walked alongside the palanquin, one carrying a fig-leaf fan, the other a box painted red. They wore pink dresses and maroon crêpe turbans. This palanquin was also protected by a blue parasol but without silver tops.

Then came the Doctor's father's palanquin.

And his mother's palanquin.

A few village elders dressed in blue ceremonial gowns.

An orchestra of horns, drums, flutes... followed close behind. Then came 40, 50 flags lining up one after another.

Last of all were two men carrying two big cymbals. The cymbalists, just like the drummers, dressed in formal ritual uniforms - tunic, hat, boots; with the sticks dancing rhythmically outside their sleeve hems. Megaphones on their shoulders, the Văn Khoa village chief and several other village dignitaries scampered here and there to fulfill their duties.

Three rounds of drums were followed by three rounds of cymbals, then rounds of smaller drums and smaller cymbals, the procession moved along the main province road in the loud sounds of flutes and fiddlers.

A few dozen steps after leaving the town, the drummer struck three quick drumbeats to signal that all had to stop. One hand on his hip the parade captain ceremoniously stepped back five steps. He placed his feet in the shape of the Chinese character "eight". His toes pointing outward, he swung his drumstick and hit it on the drum forcefully, making loud thumping noises.

This drum round ended, the four boys holding the banner simultaneously turn toward each other. The second round of drums resounded; the boys waved the banners swiftly while running back and forth across the road, left to right, right to left, exchanging their positions. Upon the third drum round, they twisted the banners around and quickly returned to their original positions. The fourth round sounded, they stepped toward the middle of the road. Next, they swung the banners in front of their faces and let out a loud long hoot... Finally they picked up their feet and made one step, one hoot synchronizing with single drum beats. Four rolls of this ritual completed, they stepped backed and looked forward toward the head of the procession.

The parade slowly continued.

Finally, the procession reached the village where the main gate was adorned with flower and leaf arrangements; village elders and dignitaries lined up to welcome the procession. Altars were set up and fire crackers popped joyously. The Doctor dismounted his palanquin, greeted all who were there to congratulate him, then he went home, set the King's decree on the ancestral altar to report his good fortune to his ancestors.

The next day, he went to the Village Hall to pay respect to Confucius.

Relatives, friends, villagers proudly came to honor the new laureate; they brought generous gifts: tea and wine, fire crackers, decorative panels of wood and brocade...

The Doctor ordered tents to be set up to entertain his guests with a feast for four, five days - water buffaloes, cows, pigs and chickens were killed by the dozens.

In the evening, a theatrical troop was invited to perform at this very special ceremony.

Ngô Tất Tố, Lều chõng, pp. 16-19
[1] From the Lý to the Lê Dynasties (11th-18th centuries) the royal capital was Thăng Long (Hà Nội). The Nguyễn Dynasty lasted from 1802 to 1945.

[2] - Tôn sinh were royal family members. Ấm sinh were children of high-rank mandarins. Giám sinh were those recommended to enter Quốc Tử Giám (National University for children of the nation) or passed the Hạch test. These received a salary, uniforms and were exempted from taxes.

[3] - From 1834 on, regulations ordained that before the Hương examination, the Huấn Đạo, Giáo Thụ organized mock tests for contestants - called Hạch tests - and then sent results to the Đốc Học (mandarin in charge of education in a province) for re-evaluation. These mandarins would be penalized for sending unqualified contestants to Hương examinations. Test subjects were similar in difficulty to Hương examinations.

[4] - Quốc Tử Giám was built in the 11th century to train royal princes. Later, selection included children of high-rank mandarins, then talented common people who passed the Hạch test.

[5] - In later exams, these numbers changed according to needs.

[6] - 1 phương equaled 30 bowls of rice. In 1813 the monthly salary of the highest mandarin was 30 quan (money unit) and 20 phương of rice.

[7] - Under the Lê kings, Đề Điệu was the Head Examining mandarin; under the Nguyễn, this title was given to the military mandarin in charge of maintaining order and security.

[8] - Proctors.

[9] - Security officers in charge of controlling entrances and exits.

[10] - Security officers responsible of the gate keys. They also inspect people and goods going through these gates.

[11]- Copy contestants' notebooks. See the following section "Grading and Posting Results".

[12] - Code the contestants' notebooks before the personal info page was removed.

[13] - Check that the original text and the text copied by the Đăng Lục mandarin are identical. See the following section "Grading and Posting Results".

[14] - Đề Điệu here indicates the secretary who removed the personal data sheets from the notebooks, not the Chief Examiner of the Lê kings.

[15] - The Huế Royal City had three ramparts:
- the outer ramparts were fortified
- the middle ramparts protected the Imperial City
- the inner ramparts encircled the Forbidden City where the Royal palaces were built.
The Imperial City was surrounded by four gates: the main gate was Ngọ Môn (South gate). It was open on important events such as reception of foreign ambassadors, commencement ceremony or military parades. The King would sit on Ngũ Phụng Pavilion to witness the event. His mandarins in formal uniforms attended the event too, as did common people. King Bảo Đại abdicated from his throne here.

Thái Hòa palace was in the Imperial City. Cần Chính palace was nearby behind Đại Cung Môn. This was part of the Forbidden City, where the King and his concubines lived. Imperial City and Forbidden City together were called Đại Nội. A poem was carved in the middle of Đại Cung Môn. It said: "One person takes up the Heaven's duty to govern the people. But all these people are not assigned to serve that one person."

[16] - According to traditions, the King faced South, his subjects faced North to show submission.

[17] - A Nghè bút thiếp is not a Nghè (Doctor in Literature) but simply a person with hand-writing skills, chosen to copy contestants' test books.

[18] - Contestants were permitted to ask for their original test books with royal comments in red ink for souvenirs.

[19] - A banana flower may weigh more than 1 kg.

[20] - Other Nguyễn dynasty's steles are stored in the Huế's Temple of Literature.

[21] - King Tự Đức ordered Phan Thanh Giản's name to be removed from a stele because he ceded 3 provinces to the French. Later he was reinstated by King Đồng Khánh. (When the French attacked, considering their military superiority, Phan Thanh Giản chose to avoid armed resistance to avert civil casualties and, after asking the French to guaranty the security of the population, committed suicide).

[22] - From this date, the Nguyễn Kings did not choose 1st grade doctorate Trạng Nguyên so the one graded valedictorian would be titled Bảng Nhãn.

[23] - Roads made of wooden planks fixed on the sides of some steep mountains in China.

 The Examiners
 Hội Examination Contestants in Cử Nhân (Master's degree) formal costumes
 The Triumphal Return
 Paper Doctor

Educational recreation: parents dreamed of their children being successful in examinations. They chose their playthings purposefully. The paper Doctor represented their highest hope for their offspring. Even after the abolition of the old system examination, the Paper Doctor reappear at the yearly Mid-Autumn Festival for children.

 Doctors' Steles