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Regional Mandarinic Examinations

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

I. Introduction
1. What are mandarinic examinations?
2. Confucianism
II. Education
1. The Khai tâm ("Opening the Heart") Ceremony
2. The Nhập Môn ("Entering the Gate") Ceremony
    A. The thầy đồ (teacher)
    B. The student
3. Curriculum
    A. Tiên học lễ (begin by learning the rituals)
    B. Hậu học văn (afterward, learn the "literature")
    C. Instructional books
    D. Writing systems
        1. Nôm characters
        2. Quốc Ngữ (National Script)
4. Khảo and Hạch Tests under the Nguyễn Reign
III. Examination regulations and procedures
1. Requirements for taking the Hương examinations
2. Hương exam contestants
3. Exam officials
4. Exam centers
IV. The Hương examinations
1. The Tiến Trường (Entering the Exam Center) Ceremony
2. The Điểm Danh (Roll Call) Ceremony
3. Exam questions
4. Trường quy (exam directives)
5. Grading the candidates
6. Number of laureates
7. The Xướng Danh (Solemn Proclamation of the Cử Nhân) Ceremony
8. Posting the lists of laureates
1. Official honors
2. Vinh qui (The Triumphal Return)
The "Tiến Trường" Ceremony   (Nguyễn Tuân, "Báo oán", in "Vang Bóng một thời ")

The "Roll Call" Ceremony  (Ngô Tất Tố, Lều chõng)

Failing the Exam (1)  (Ngô Tất Tố, Lều chõng)

Failing the Exam (2)  (Ngô Tất Tố, Lều chõng)

I. Introduction
1. What are mandarinic examinations?
For a millennium, Viet Nam used a mandarinic examination system (Khoa cử) to select civil servants. Yet, only 90 years after this system was abolished, most of us are no longer interested in it. It is either judged severely or treated with derision. Why are Vietnamese people so indifferent toward these once very popular mandarinic examinations? What are they exactly?

Generally speaking, Vietnamese society was comprised of two categories of citizens: the mandarins and the ordinary people. Mandarins helped the emperor govern the country. They were Confucianists by training and their selection by competitive examinations was called Khoa cử. Besides the Khoa cử system, there was also a system of recommendation (Bảo cử or Cốngcử): competent men of high morality could be offered governmental positions if they were recom-mended by officials. However, the Bảocử procedure could not provide a sufficient number of administrators, as mandarins who sponsored unworthy candidates could be severely punished. Hence, Khoa cử was necessary for selecting meritorious appointees.

Mandarinic competitive examinations first appeared in China under the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (141-87 BCE) but their meticulous organization dated only from the Sui and Tang dynasties (6th and 7th centuries). Following the model of China; Vietnam, Korea and Japan soon adopted competitive examinations. European countries espoused them much later, in the 19th century. [1]

Under the Chinese occupation (111 BCE-938 CE), Vietnam's ancient civilization [2] was, little by little, destroyed by China's assimilation policy. Chinese became the official language. Vietnamese students had to go to China for higher studies and examinations. Their number was so high that the Tang emperor decided in 845 CE that candidates of Vietnamese origin should not exceed 8 in doctoral and 10 in Minh Kinh examinations. [3]

In 1075, Lý Nhân Tông organized the first examinations in independent Vietnam, after the Chinese model. Later on, the Trần, Hồ, Lê, Mạc dynasties... all seeked to improve the system. Khoa cử reached its apogee under the reign of Lê Thánh Tông (15th century) but started to decline under the Lê Restoration Kings (17th century), as the examinations were gradually focused more on the literary aspects than on the Confucian doctrine.

In the 19th century, under the Nguyễn emperors, there were three types of mandarinic competitive examinations: Regional (Thi Hương), Capital City (Thi Hội) and Imperial Palace Doctoral (Thi Đình) examinations. Hương examinations were organized once every three years in several regional centers. Those who passed were granted the grade of Tú Tài ("Bachelor") or, for the top quarter, the grade of Cử Nhân ("Master"). Only the Cử Nhân could take the national Hội and Đình examinations, which were organized the year following the Hương examinations. Hội examinations took place in Huế, the capital city and was only a preliminary test to choose those who were allowed to compete in the Đình, the "real" Doctoral Examinations. As there were only a limited number of contestants, the Đình examination was organized in the Royal Palace to enhance the solemnity. Those who passed were granted the grade of Tiến sĩ ("Doctor").

This article deals only with the Hương regional examinations under the Nguyễn emperors.

2. Confucianism
Confucianism (Nho đạo = the Way of Nho) played a central role in mandarinic competitive examinations. As its teachings emphasized good governance and submission to authority; it was the state religion in Vietnam.

According to Trần Trọng Kim, the character Nho is composed of the character Nhân, meaning man, and the character Nhu, meaning need or expectation. Thus, a Confucianist is a man much needed for the government of the country, a man expected to use his capabilities for public service. The roots of Nho đạo are very ancient, and could allegedly be traced back to the mythical reign of Phục hi (Fuxi). Confucius (551-479 BCE) systematized these ideas and developed them into a coherent corpus. Later generations got confused and often considered Confucius to be the creator of this doctrine.

In old times, people devoted to the public interest were more valued than "pure" scholars who remained in their ivory towers. So, the main purpose of Nho đạo was to train the students to become quân tử (often translated as "gentlemen"). [4]  Nho đạo emphasized social usefulness: one did not study for knowledge's sake but to prepare oneself for public service. In peaceful eras, a Confucianist usually became a mandarin. Under the reign of a cruel tyrant, when opposition meant death and service was contrary to morals, he frequently avoided official positions and devoted himself to teaching, training public servants for the next generation. Two themes were particularly stressed in Nho đạo schooling: chính (rectitude) and giáo (education). Education gave men moral standards and politics (chính trị) were literally "correct (chính) administration (trị)": good governance implied ethical ruling.

Peace and stability required order and discipline to avoid petty rivalry and anarchy. Families, as well as countries, needed a chief. The king was the chief of the country; therefore, it was the duty of the people to obey their king and the duty of mandarins to help him govern the country. But the king had the obligation to look after his people's happiness. The Thiên tử ("son of Heaven") ruled only as the representative of God, by a Mandate of Heaven. If he angered his subjects, he acted against God's will and his throne would then be endangered. When the king didn't govern in an appropriate manner, catastrophes (floods, drought...) or unusual phenomena (comets, lunar or solar eclipses...) would occur as warnings from Heaven. Then the king would have to purify himself, distribute alms, pardon prisoners... to show his repentance.

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 (deficient) 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. Therefore, Confucianists prefered Lễ (practice of "rites", i. e. leading people by rules of propriety, by laws) to Hình (punishment). A quân tử gentleman had to first tu thân (cultivate himself morally), only could he afterward concern himself with tề gia (bring the family into order), trị quốc (govern the state) and bình thiên hạ (pacify the world). To govern others, we would have to learn to govern ourselves first; we would not be credible if we taught morality without practicing ethical conduct.

II. Education
1. The Khai tâm ("Opening the Heart") Ceremony
Khai means "to open", tâm means "heart-mind", the organ for thinking. "Opening the heart" refers to the process of opening the child's "heart-mind" so that his "heart-mind" becomes clear, and he will be able to differentiate the right from the wrong. Mental ability doesn't necessarily lead to honorable conduct. Therefore, Confucianists respected virtue more than intellect.

"Opening the heart Ceremony" didn't only mark a special day. It was the start of developing the child's intelligence, training him into a smart and useful member of society. For this reason, the ceremony was solemnly celebrated.

An altar dedicated to Confucius was set up in the courtyard or in the middle of the house on which, lamps, incense sticks, fruits, flower and sweets were displayed. It was declared that starting from this day, the child began his learning. The teacher or the child's father prayed at the altar first, then the student. An ancestral altar was similarly decorated. The child's father, in his best outfit, knelt and reported to the ancestors on his son's upcoming first lesson, asking them to bless him so he would become a good student. [5] The child himself, clean and well-clad, also knelt and prayed.

2. The Nhập Môn ("Entering the Gate") Ceremony
After praying to the ancestors, the child's parents took him to the teacher's house. They brought glutinous rice, chicken, alcohol, tea, betel leaves and betel nuts, to officially request the teacher to start instructing the child. The youngster prostrated himself twice before the teacher, thus completing the "Entering the Gate" ceremony.

Though usually poor, the teacher only accepted a nominal fee. In return, on New Year's Day and major holidays, the students would bring him gifts.

A. The thầy đồ (teacher)

Thầy đồ was a person of letter not yet passing an examination, making his living by teaching or serving as a scribe. He was called Hàn nho (poor Confucianist). Those who passed examinations and became mandarins were called Hiển nho (accomplished Confucianists). Those who detached themselves from high positions were called Ẩn nho (hermit Confucianists). Though their names were different, all of them shared the same goals: setting moral examples and educating the young. They were admired and their opinions valued.

Physical punishment was commonplace. It was said that a teacher who didn't discipline his student was a lazy teacher. Vietnamese used to say "Learned teachers are the best; those who beat often are second best" or "if you love a child, chastise him". Thus all teachers had, besides their brush and ink stone, a rattan rod.

As the transmitter of Confucianism, the teacher was highly respected, even if he had not passed his examinations. According to the Confucian tradition, his social rank was above the father's because he was the person who trained the child to become an ethical human being. When he passed away, his students would go into mourning and, were he childless, commemorate his death anniversary at the valedictorian's house all their life. Even if the student became very successful, he would still treat his teacher with utmost respect. When a mandarin was recognized, his teacher would be, too.

B. The student

The teacher was a staunch disciplinarian; subject matters were arid and difficult to understand (vide infra, Section 3.A Tiên học lễ), the youngster, as a matter of course, took little pleasure in learning. He compensated by behaving mischievously. His mischief was epitomized in the saying "First is the devil, second the ghost, third comes the schoolboy".

Lê Quí Đôn, [6] whose intelligence was legendary, was no exception. When he was young, his parents reprimanded and beat him frequently, to no avail. One day, a friend of his father's visited the family. He made fun of Đôn and, to test his literary skill, challenged him to writing a poem on the theme Rắn đầu biếng học ("obstinate head, lazy in learning". Rắn has double meaning: "obstinate" (adj) and "snake" (n)). Instantly, Đôn, by then only 7 years old, composed a tour de force poem - now famous and often quoted - on his laziness and showing his repentance, in which each line contained the name of a kind of snake.

3. Curriculum
A. Tiên học lễ (begin by learning the rituals)

Lễ (rituals) defines the "proper conduct" for the King as well as for his subjects. Education means learning the way of the quân tử (gentlemen) to serve mankind. A "gentleman" is somebody who has achieved the Way. As such, he possesses high morality, honesty and loyalty. He is not motivated by self-interest, not easily influenced. His character is firm and his manners always composed and amicable.

In the Confucian tradition, the students learned the Kinh Thi (Classic of Poetry) and Kinh Thư (Classic of History) to foster their sensitivity and develop their knowledge; the Kinh Lễ (Classic of Rites) to harness their emotions and personal desires, to become conscious of social and familial orders and so govern their behavior. However, Lễ overstressed the hierarchy, resulting in people distancing from each other, consequently Nhạc (Classic of Music) was employed to harmonize and make education complete.

In practice, proper conduct toward one's family (respect to seniors and leniency to juniors) was taught first; reading and writing came only second. Even then, the main subject was still morality, not vocabulary or grammar. So, regardless of the child's level of understanding, every lesson contained a moral. Even in primers, complex philosophical issues such as innate characteristics - good or evil - of human beings, the beginning of the Universe... were discussed. The child had to memorize the phrases; later he would ponder on these matters and comprehend them.

Arithmetic was taught in the same manner. Thus, the number 3 was associated with tam tài (the three components, viz. Sky, Earth and Man) or with the three most important relationships: the King and his subjects, parents and children, husband and wife. The number 4 was associated with the four directions, the number 5 with the elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), etc.

Since morality was overly emphasized, science was neglected. The main interest involved studying the metaphysical relationships of natural phenomena. It was believed that man should live in harmony with Nature. Mastering the outside world without controlling the inner self would not lead to happiness. Only when man were in control of himself could he be able to find peace in his mind. The student was taught to observe his mind rather than to concern himself with the world around him.

B. Hậu học văn (afterward, learn the "literature")

In the traditional sense, văn (literature) encompassed not only literature, but also philosophy, astronomy, politics, economy, etc.

1. Elementary studies: at age 5 or 6, the child studied under a village teacher. Instructional materials included primers such as Tam Tự Kinh ("Three-Character Classic", a Chinese book), Nhất Thiên Tự ("One Thousand Vocabulary Book", a Vietnamese book) and Tam Thiên Tự ("Three Thousand Vocabulary Book", a Vietnamese book). All these lessons were rhymed to facilitate memorization.

2. Intermediate studies: at 9, the youngster remained under the tutelage of the same village teacher. He began to study the "Nine Classics", viz. Tứ Thư ("The Four Books", vide infra) and Ngũ Kinh ("The Five Classics", vide infra) and practiced writing simple poems, phú (often translated by "rhythmic prose") [7] and câu đối (parallel sentences). [8]

3. High studies: at 13, he would go to town to learn from a Huấn Đạo, Giáo Thụ (mandarins in charge of education in a town), then to the province to seek teaching by the Đốc Học[9] (mandarin in charge of education in a province). He could also attend private schools run by retired mandarins or mandarins in parental mourning. Books used now included all kinds of works from Bách gia Chư tử (see footnote 8), dealing with History, Geography, Astronomy, Politics, Philosophy, etc... referred to as Ngoại Thư (literally: "Outside (the Nine Classics) Books"). [10]

At higher levels, the students worked on assigned themes at home. The teacher evaluated the students' papers, chose better ones to read aloud for comments. This was called Bình văn (Literary critique).

Before a Hương (regional) examination, the teacher would hold mock examinations which were just like authentic ones. The exam ran for a day, students of other teachers were also admitted. Mandarins from the town were invited as judges. This event was called Tịch thượng ("On the Mat" examinations, because the students had to write their dissertations on the spot, sitting on the mat at the school house).

At this time, the student was supposed to have enough writing skills, know sufficiently human psychology, social behavior, government principles and, of course, had memorized the Nine Classics.

C. Instructional books

a) The "Four Books" (Tứ Thư) include:

- Đại Học (Higher Learning) which treats core topics such as the improvement of the citizens and of their customs. Tăng tử (Zeng zi), the author, recorded teachings of Confucius (this part is called Kinh) and added his own comments (this part was called Truyện)
- Luận Ngữ (Analects) which records conversations between Confucius and his disciples covering a vast range of subjects.
- Trung Dung (Doctrine of the Middle) teaches the Middle (Moderation) Way for every day living. It is attributed to Khổng Cấp (Kong Ji), also known as Tử Tư (Zisi), Confucius' grand-son and student of Tăng Sâm (Zeng Shen).
- Mạnh tử (Mencius) which was written by the scholar Mencius (372-289 BCE), a student of Tử Tư. He believed that men were naturally good and contended that "the citizen was the most important, then the country and the king was insignificant" (as he was only mandated by Heaven to serve the citizens).

b) The "Five Classics" (Ngũ Kinh) include :
- Kinh Dịch (Classic of Changes) which is a book on divination. It also discusses the incessant transformations of Nature and actions of all living beings. It allegedly originates from the legendary Phục Hi (Fuxi) emperor. Confucius' comments were added to clarify the text.
- Kinh Lễ (Classic of Rites) which records familial and court rituals. These rituals are taught to provide a standard of conduct and bring about social order.
- Kinh Thi (Classic of Poetry) which records ancient popular songs, compiled by previous generations to help the reader understand the problems of the common people and their daily lives... Confucius used it to enrich the sensitivity of his students.
- Kinh Thư (Classic of History) which studies the government of ancient time's emperors and stresses the importance of virtue.
- Kinh Xuân Thu (Spring and Autumn Classic) [11] which  is the history of the Lỗ (Lu) state - Confucius' native land - from 722 to 481 BCE. It is believed that Confucius wrote this book and used the narration of historical events to comment on the (appropriate or inappropriate) conduct of various dignitaries and to uphold the tenet of the monarchy.

Most instructional books came from China. It was believed that, except for primers, only exceptionally wise men should write books. Very few Vietnamese works still remain. They deal with poetry, Vietnamese history, exegeses of Confucius' works, etc. Most were destroyed by war and by the assimilation policy of the Chinese. [12]

D. Writing systems

1. Nôm characters

Ancient Vietnamese characters, if they existed, were obliterated during the Chinese occupation. Chinese characters became the official script. However, as these characters represent the meaning and not the sound of words; they cannot be directly used to transcribe Vietnamese vocabulary. The Nôm characters were invented for this purpose.

It is not clear when the Nôm characters first appeared and who started them. One theory suggests that they were first used at the end of the 7th century, when Phùng Hưng expelled the Chinese invaders and established independence. He was honored as "Bố Cái Emperor". Bố Cái (Father and Mother) is a purely Vietnamese term. As it was an official title, it must have been written down in Nôm characters. Another theory considers that Nôm characters dated from the 1st century, during the First occupation of Vietnam by the Eastern Han dynasty. Names of Vietnamese villages in official registers as well as names of worshippers in religious registers could not possibly be written in Chinese.

The Nôm characters are formed in the same fashion as the Chinese. Usually a character representing the sound is added to a character representing the meaning. An example: the word "đá" (rock) is made up of the character "thạch" (= rock) which indicates the meaning and the character "đa" (= many) which indicates the approximate sound. Since Nôm characters were not officially endorsed, they were not systematized with set rules.

Chinese characters were the official script. Nôm characters were rarely used in examinations or court ordinances. Perhaps Hồ Quí Ly was the first to use Nôm characters to translate Confucius' works and to write edicts to his subjects at the beginning of the 15th century. In 1565, during the reign of Mạc Mậu Hợp, there was a phú ("rhythmic prose") composition written in Nôm characters in the 4th test [13] of the Doctoral Examination. That was a rarity. In 1760, Lê Quí Đôn, as a Deputy Ambassador to China, wrote the first official report in Nôm to the Vice-Roy Trịnh. Emperor Quang Trung (1752-1792) ordained that Nôm be the national script. However, after his death, it was set aside again. Although Emperor Gia Long (1762-1820) used Nôm in his edicts and ordinances, Chinese remained the official language of the Nguyễn dynasty.

Nguyễn Thuyên (13th century) is deemed the forefather of Nôm literature. Born in Bắc Ninh, he obtained his doctorate in 1247 and later became Minister of Justice in the reign of Trần Nhân Tông. In 1282, the Red River was infested with crocodiles; he wrote a text in Nôm to expel them and then threw it in the river. The saurians swam away. Considering that the Chinese poet Hàn Dũ (Han Yu) once chased crocodiles in the same manner, the emperor changed his name to Hàn Thuyên. Hàn Thuyên was the first to write classical Tang poems in Nôm. For this reason, classical Tang poems (Đường luật) written in Nôm were called "Hàn poems" (Hàn luật) by Vietnamese.

2. Quốc Ngữ (National Script)

Quốc Ngữ was designated official script in place of Chinese characters in the 1908 Reform Program. It was devised in the 17th century by Catholic priests, in particular French and Portuguese clergymen,[14]to facilitate the preaching of the Christian faith. It would take the converts too long to learn Chinese or Nôm to read the Bible. The French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes [15](1591-1660) from Avignon is credited with systematizing Quốc Ngữ. He wrote four books:

1. Eight-day preparation for baptism, published in 1651
2. Dictionarum annamiticum, lusitanum et latinum (1651)
3. A memoir on his life experiences in Vietnam (1650, in Italian, translated into French)
4. A history of Tonkin (i. e. North Vietnam, 1652, in Latin)

They are now kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, France.

4. Khảo and Hạch Tests under the Nguyễn Reign
The Nguyễn Emperors held the Regional Hương examinations, patterned after examinations given by the Hậu Lê dynasty, once every three years, in the years of the Rat, the Horse, the Cat and the Rooster. Ân Khoa (Special Favor Examinations) were held on the occasion of happy events such as Coronation of an Emperor, birth of a prince, etc.

Hương examinations lasted for five weeks, in the 9th or 10th month of the lunar calendar in the North, 5th or 6th month in the Center and South. The first Hương examination under the Nguyễn reign took place in 1807, the last one in 1915 (Ất Mão session) in the North and in 1918 (Mậu Ngọ session) in Central Vietnam.

Before taking the Hương examination, contestants had to take two preliminary tests

A. Khảo test: a test given every year [16] by the Head of the province to motivate students. Three subjects were tested, but at an easier level than in Hương examinations.

B. Hạch test: from 1834 on, regulations ordained that before the Hương examination, the Huấn Đạo, Giáo Thụ organize mock tests for contestants, and then send results to the Đốc Học for re-evaluation. These mandarins would be penalized for sending unqualified contestants to Hương examinations. Test subjects were similar in difficulty to Hương examinations.

In Hạch tests, compositions were written on notebooks turned in previously by the candidates, who had to indicate on the first page their name, age, birth place, names of their father, grand- father and great-grand-father. After the test, the first page would be removed to render them anonymous, then these notebooks were sent to another province to be evaluated.

Those who passed the Hạch test were called Khoá Sinh, those who passed with high enough marks to be allowed to compete in Hương examinations were called Thí Sinh, the valedictorian Đầu xứ (Top (student) of the Province). In the year when the Hương examination was not given, the Hạch test would be called Hạch trừ sưu (Tax Exempt Hạch test) because all who passed would enjoy tax exemption or being free of labor for one year. Because of this privilege, quite a few students took the test, [17] so, in 1880, the number of Khoá Sinh was limited. Each city would be allowed a set quota:
Prefecture of Thừa Thiên  700 persons
Nam Định 800 persons
Hà nội 800 persons
Lạng sơn 50 persons, etc.

III. Examination regulations and procedures
1. Requirements for taking the Hương examinations
Hương examination contestants were the Tú tài (Bachelors) or those who had passed the Hạch test. They were supposed to take the examination at their native provinces.

Each examination center accommodated 3 000 - 6 000 candidates; 9 000 contestants took the last exam in Hà nội in 1879. The population of Hà nội was 56 000 at that time. In 1894, Hà nội and Nam Định-combined Hương examination registered 11 972 competitors; one of them, the famous poet Trần Tế Xương, made the Tú tài grade at the bottom of the list.

Contestants were not limited in age; the famed poet Cao Bá Quát (1809-1854) took the exam at age 14. According to the General Governor Paul Doumer, who witnessed the Nam Định 1897 and 1901 exams, one Tú tài laureate was over 80.

In principle, all were allowed to compete, but in fact discriminatory practices existed. The following groups were not admissible:

1. Descendants of persons convicted of piracy or treason, for 3 generations. [18]
2. Descendants of actors and singers (whose professions were considered disreputable, even immoral), for 3 generations. [19]
3. Those who were in parental mourning. Taking the exam would be contrary to filial piety.
4. Women were absolutely prohibited to take exams. Women would go to school up to age 12, 13 then changed to learning home skills. Đoàn Thị Điểm and Hồ Xuân Hương became famous for their literary talents, but Lady "Sao Sa" was the only female known for having succeeded in mandarinic examinations. Disguising herself as a man, she became a valedictorian doctor in the Đình exam under the Mạc dynasty. [20]

2. Hương exam contestants
Three weeks before Exam day, contestants were supposed to pay the exam fees and submit three blank notebooks to the Đốc Học (Education Mandarin). Thus, a list of contestants was compiled. The Ministry of Rites would then assign the number of examiners accordingly. The notebooks were secured in boxes, sent to the Examining Committee for stamping and returned to contestants on the exam site. This was the process of registration.

Notebooks were 10-20 pages thick and had to be absolutely free from marks. Name and age of the contestant were written on the first page in large characters, native village in smaller characters, followed by names of ancestors (three generations). All information had to be certified by the village chief. Finally, educational administrators reviewed, signed and stamped the notebooks. Those who falsified their information would be charged as criminals. In the last exam, photographs were pasted on the notebooks.

Many of the contestants were poor and earned their living as teachers or were supported by their wives, often also poor. [21] To take part in an examination could be quite costly; contestants had to pay exam fees, travel and lodging costs (Hương examinations lasted five weeks). So, when contestants left their village for the Exam Center, relatives and friends would help share the expenses by giving monetary gifts, diplomatically called tiền đò (ferry fees). [22]

It was believed that "to be a brilliant student is one thing, to pass the exam another". A talented contestant might not succeed if his fortune - which depended on his ancestors' virtues [23] - was not good enough. Therefore, the contestant would pray at the ancestors' altar, the communal patron saint temple, etc. to ask for their protection against misfortune.

3. Exam Officials
Each notebook of the contestants who passed was evaluated five times: first by the SơKhảo examiner, then by the Phúc Khảo, GiámKhảo, PhóChủKhảo (Vice-President of the Board of Examiners) and ChánhChủKhảo (President of the Board of Examiners). Each copy that the Khảo, PhúcKhảo or GiámKhảo failed was rechecked by the PhânKhảo examiner before the candidate was declared definitely eliminated.

Two or three weeks before the exam day, a Board of Examiners was selected by the Court. The PhânKhảo, PhóChủKhảo and ChánhChủ Khảo examiners were high ranking examination laureates and mandarins in the Imperial Court. The two Đề Tuyển (General Secretaries) - who were in charge of removing the notebooks' first page, of stamping these notebooks and were therefore the only persons who could identify the notebooks - were no intellectual heavyweights so that they could not amend the notebooks to help the contestants. All these appointees had to be approved by the emperor. The President and Vice-President of the Board then celebrated the Acceptance Ceremony and received the Khâm Sai (Imperial Envoy) Banner and the Phụng Chỉ (By Imperial Order) Board from the Ministry of Rites. Afterward, two Ngự sử mandarins (Censors) escorted them home and assigned soldiers to guard their houses. From now on, they should not receive visitors to avoid bribery.

The Khảo, PhúcKhảo and Giám Khảo examiners were chosen among the Cử Nhân ("Masters"), Tú tài ("Bachelors"), Huấn Đạo and Giáo Thụ (mandarins in charge of education in a town), but should not serve as judges in their own province. An examiner would have to resign if one of his relatives took the exam. Lại phòng (clerks) and military Thể sát (proctors) were chosen by local mandarins among people who had not passed the exams but were known for their honesty.

In 1834, regulations [24] fixed the number of exam officials as follows:

A. The Board of Examiners, in charge of grading the copies, was composed of:

6 to 14 SơKhảo, chosen from mandarins of the 8th to the 6th rank,
4 to 8 PhúcKhảo, chosen from mandarins of the 6th to the 4th rank,
2 Giám Khảo, chosen from mandarins of the 4th or the 3rd rank,

They constituted the so-called "Inner Board" (Nội trường, see footnote 28).

2 Phân Khảo, chosen from mandarins of the 5th rank,
1 Phó ChủKhảo, chosen from mandarins of the 4th or the 3rd rank,
1 Chánh ChủKhảo, chosen from mandarins of the 2nd rank,

They constituted the so-called "Outer Board" (Ngoại trường, see footnote 28).

B. The Surveillance Committee in charge of overseeing the contestants as well as the exam officials was composed of:

2 Ngự sử, surveillance officials, one for the "Inner Board" and one for the "Outer Board",

8 Thể sát (proctors), 4 watching the contestants and 4 keeping order in the Exam Center.

Its members had to report all suspicious activities, if not, they themselves would be prosecuted.

C. For administrative duties, there were 2 Đề Tuyển (General Secretaries) one for the "Inner Board" and one for the "Outer Board", taken from mandarins of the 5th or 4th rank and about 30-40 clerks, half of them assisting the Chánh Chủ Khảo and half the Đề Tuyển.

4. Exam Centers
Under the Nguyễn Emperors, there were initially 8 Exam Centers. Later on, this number was reduced to 5, namely, the centers of Gia Định, Bình Định, Thanh Hóa and Hà Nam. [25] At first, these centers consisted only of thatched cottages with bamboo partitions and fences, which were destroyed after each session, so that crops could be planted in the meanwhile. In 1843, Emperor Thiệu Trị had the Ninh Bắc center in Thừa Thiên (Huế), used for both the Hương and Hội examinations, constructed with brick houses for mandarins as well as for the contestants. He ordered the other centers built after this model, the only difference being the absence of brick houses for the students, who had to pitch their own tents.

The Nam Định center (see map) illustrated the general organization of those Exam Centers. It was erected in 1845, in the Năng Tĩnh commune of the Mỹ Trọng canton, on the West side of the Nam Định citadel. Its perimeter measured 214 trượng and its walls were 5 thước high. [26]

The center was partitioned in two; the anterior part being reserved for the contestants' tents. Two roads, one running North-South and one East-West, divided this part into four vi's, called Giáp, Ất, Tả and Hữu. At their crossing point lay the Thập Đạo (Crossing roads) Building where the contestants went to get the Nhật Trung stamp [27] and where they deposited their notebooks once finished. The North-South road led to the South main gate where the candidates exited the Exam Center. The Xướng Danh (Solemn Proclamation of the Laureates) ceremony also took place at this gate.

The posterior part of the Exam Center was reserved for the officials; it was divided into three sections separated by fences. The housings of the Khảo, PhúcKhảo, GiámKhảo examiners, the "Inner Board" Ngự sử, as well as the Giám Viện where the "Inner Board" deliberated were built at the northernmost section [28].

The housings of the "Outer Board" staff (Phân Khảo, Phó ChủKhảo, ChánhChủKhảo examiners, "Outer Board" Ngự sử, "Outer Board" clerks) and the ThíViện building - where the "Outer Board" deliberated - were situated next to the contestants' zone. The Đề Tuyển and the remaining clerks were lodged in a stockade located inside the "Outer Board" area (see map), a strictly "no admittance" area.

There were also 7 miradors, 4 at the four corners and 3 in the contestants' area located on the East-West road. During the examination, the "Outer Board" Ngự sử kept the contestants under surveillance from the central mirador, situated next to the Thập Đạo building.

The Exam Center of Nam Định (1900)
1. Pond; 2. Giám Viện building; 3."Inner Board" Ngự sử's lodging; 4. SơKhảo examiner's lodging; 5. PhúcKhảo examiner's lodging; 
6. Clerks' lodging; 7. Office of the Đề Tuyển; 8. Principal Đề Tuyển's lodging; 9. Deputy Đề Tuyển's lodging; 10. Thí Viện building; 
11. ChánhChủKhảo examiner's lodging; 12. PhóChủ Khảo examiner's lodging; 13. Principal Phân Khảo examiner's lodging; 
14. Deputy Phân Khảo examiner's lodging; 15. "Outer Board" Ngự sử'slodging; 16. Thập Đạo building; 17. Main gate; 
18. First entrance to the Ất area; 19. First entrance to the Giáp area; 20. Second entrance to the Giáp area; 21. First entrance to the Tả area; 22. Second entrance to the Tả area; 23. Second entrance to the Hữu area; 24. First entrance to the Hữu area; 25. Second entrance to the Ất area.

The Exam Center of Nam Định (1900)
IV. The Hương Examinations
1. The Tiến Trường (Entering the Exam Center) Ceremony
About one week before the Hương examination, the examiners arriving from Huế (capital of ancient Vietnam) visited the local Governor and, immediately after, celebrated the Bái Vọng (Paying respect to the emperor from afar) and Tiến Trường ceremonies. They would then remain inside the Exam Center compound till the end of the exams.

On the day of the Tiến Trường ceremony, the streets, from the Governor's residence to the Exam Center, were decorated with flags. Coming first in the parade were flags, drums and gongs. The Khâm Sai banner and the PhụngChỉ board followed, each under two yellow parasols. [29] They were succeeded by the palanquin of the Chánh ChủKhảo, protected by four blue parasols. Then came the palanquin of the Vice-President of the Board of Examiners, with three blue parasols... All the examiners paraded, marching in decreasing order of importance and with diminishing marks of honor. Thus the Sơ Khảo examiners had to walk, each under one parasol. After the examiners came the Governor in a palanquin with four parasols. All the mandarins were in ceremonial attires.

Two altars carried by soldiers followed. On the first were displayed three kinds of meat (for example beef, goat and pork), on the second fruits, glutinous rice, etc. Next in the parade were the clerks, the proctors, and finally a company of armed soldiers.

At the Exam Center, the altars were set up at the Thí Viện building and prayers were offered. Then all persons not belonging to the staff left, the gates were padlocked and guarded by soldiers day and night during the entire exam session. Nobody was allowed to come in or leave; only some Thể Sát could go out, when authorized by the Censors. They were the only link to the outside world for five weeks.

2. The Điểm Danh (Roll Call) Ceremony
Once the Tiến Trường ceremony was over, the "Outer Board" Đề Tuyển had the contestants' notebooks stamped on the first page with the Exam Center's name. The "Inner Board" Đề Tuyển marked them between the 2nd and 3rd pages with the Giáp Phùng stamp (see footnote 27). These notebooks were then thoroughly mixed and divided into four parts. The Lại Phòng clerks established four lists of contestants accordingly.

The day before the exam, each contestant list was posted at the entrance of the corresponding vi as well as the húy (prohibited names, see section 4 below) list. At midnight, the examiners in full ceremonial attire arrived for the ĐiểmDanh ceremony, their arrival being announced by three drum rolls. The ChánhChủKhảo presided at the Giáp vi, the PhóChủKhảo the Ất vi, the Phân Khảo and the Giám Khảo the Tả and Hữu vi. The Ngự sử oversaw the ceremony from the miradors.

Using a megaphone, a soldier proclaimed the traditional words: "Let the spirits who want to avenge themselves enter first, the spirits who want to repay favors enter second, contestants enter last". Then, at each vi, the candidates were successively called. Each candidate and his belongings (bag, tent, bamboo bed, etc.) were diligently searched by the military Thể sát. If no illegal documents were found, he received his notebook and could go and pitch his tent anywhere in the vi.

Usually, this roll call started at midnight and finished in the early morning.

3. Exam questions
Once all the contestants had entered, the gates were closed and the exam questions posted at each vi by the Đề Tuyển. A drum roll signaled to the contestants that they could come and copy the questions.

Generally, each Hương examination comprised four tests, to be taken on four different days. All the essays were to be written in Chinese. Quốc Ngữ was used only in 1909.

The first test consisted of 7 Kinh Nghĩa (exegeses on canonical Confucian texts) questions. The contestants were only required to treat any two of them, but they could discuss more. Treating all 7 questions was called kiêm trị. Naturally, if extra questions were treated, the papers were graded more generously.

The second test was a test of literary skills, consisting mostly of poetry and phú (see footnote 7).

Văn sách (question on government problems, both historical and actual) was the subject of the third test. As the purpose of mandarinic examinations was the selection of civil servants and as a contestant was allowed to take a test only if he passed the previous one, a competent administrator lacking literary skills might be eliminated by the first two tests. For this reason, Văn sách was sometimes chosen as the first test.

The fourth test was called Phúc Hạch. Initially, it was a simple composition to check the identity of the candidate (by comparison of the 4 notebooks' writing), but from 1884 onward, the candidates would have to compose a Kinh Nghĩa essay, a Văn sách essay and a poem (or phú).

4. Trường quy (Exam Directives)
Trường quy was the directives to be followed strictly. Their aim was to prevent fraud and also to show respect for the reigning monarch. Here were the main prohibitions. A contestant ought to absolutely avoid the following blunders, all eliminatory.

1. Phạm húy (phạm = commit an offence, húy = prohibited name): It was strictly forbidden to mention the names of the emperor and of his direct ascendants (generally for three generations). The names of more distant ancestors, of the empress... could be written, but the contestant should kính khuyết nhất bút ("respectfully omit one stroke") in writing these characters. Normally, an orthographic error was eliminatory, but in this case, the error was not only mandatory but failing to do so results in severe punishment! The húy were so numerous that examiners were compelled to post a list to help the contestants. However, as they could not themselves write the banned words, they were forced to use periphrasis, such as: "It is forbidden to write the character whose left part is x and right part is y". A 1877 regulation decreed that committing phạmhúy entailed not only failure, but also an 80 club strikes punishment. [30]

2. Khiếm tị: It was forbidden to write the names of the Imperial palaces, tombs, birthplace, etc. A Tú tài or Cử Nhân committing this error would see his previous grade annulled.

3. Khiếm trang: It was forbidden to write words such as "kill", "stupid", "brutal", etc. next to words like "king", even in today's writing, these words would be separated by a comma. Note that there were no punctuation marks in the Chinese used in these examinations.

4. Khiếm đài: When writing certain words, the corresponding characters should be written higher than their normal positions (đài). There were 3 raised positions. Words like "God" or "Heaven" should be written in the highest position. Terms concerning the Emperor himself would be raised to the intermediate position. Terms concerning the Emperor's acts, character... would be raised to the lower position.

5. Khiếm cung: When writing about himself, for example in the traditional conclusion formula "This student, who has the good fortune to live in a prosperous period...", for modesty's sake, the contestant had to write the character student half the normal size and displaced to the right.

6. Bất túc or bất cập: These terms designated incomplete test copies. If a candidate submitted a copy completely blank or containing just a few words, the mandarins who allowed him to compete would also be punished.

The six foregoing mistakes were considered grave ones, bringing not only failure but also inscription of the offender's name on the infamous bảng con ("small board"). This "small board" was posted besides a larger board on which were listed the names of the passed candidates. Concerning the Khiếm đài error, forgetting to "raise" designated words was a major blunder; raising incorrectly a minor one, resulting in failure without inscription on the "small board".

The following were considered minor mistakes. The contestant "only" failed without incurring further punishment. The errors might even be exonerated by the examiners.

7. As mentioned before, each notebook should be marked with the Giáp Phùng and Nhật Trung stamps. The Thiệp tích rule commanded that the Giáp Phùng stamp be written over but the Nhật Trung stamp would be left intact. If a candidate neglected to follow the rule, he would have to make a new notebook and then go to the Thập Đạo building to get these stamps again. It was forbidden to leave distinctive marks (e. g. altering or erasing a word) near these stamps.

8. Writing a character with fewer or more strokes was an eliminatory fault.

9. Absent-mindedly omitting a word was an eliminatory fault.

10. To remove a word, the contestant should put 3 dots on it. He was not allowed to completely obliterate it (in case he might have written a húy).

11. At the end of his composition, the contestant had to indicate the total number of corrections made in his copy. This number should not exceed ten.

12. Finally, let it be recalled here that all the literary compositions should follow very strict rules. For example, in a classical Tang poem of 8 lines, the 3rd and 4th lines should form a pair of parallel sentences, the 5th and 6th another pair. For the bằng-trắc tonal harmony (see footnote 8), these lines were paired: 1st with 8th, 2nd with 3rd, 4th with 5th and 6th with 7th. This meant that the distribution of the bằng-trắc tones had to be the same in two paired lines: if the second [31] word of the first line were in a bằng tone, the second word of the 8th line would also be a bằng. Etc. Failure to abide by these rules would automatically disqualify a contestant.

13. The completed notebook should be deposited at the Thập Đạo building on time. At around 6 or 7 p.m., a first round of drum was heard. The drummer steadily put down 17 coins one by one. When all the coins were down, he would beat the drum once. He started again with 16 coins, then 15 coins, each time with one coin less. This maneuver was executed three times. After that, the notebooks were rendered anonymous (see next section), put in a trunk which was then sealed. All notebooks deposited after the deadline (ngoại hàm) were not graded. However, they were read to verify that the candidate had not committed any punishable errors.

Under the Nguyễn, the exam directives were particularly complex, severe and pernickety. Other dynasties were more lenient. There weren't even prohibited words (húy) under the Tây Sơn.

5. Grading the candidates
First, the notebooks had to be rendered anonymous. As mentioned before, the candidate's personal data (name, age, birthplace, etc.) was written on the right of his notebook's first page. A clerk then drew a circle on the (blank) left part of this page and wrote two identical columns of characters on the right and left of this circle. The first page was then cut along a vertical line dividing the circle. The right part, called phách, was conserved by the Đề Tuyển and the notebooks without the phách were sent to the Inner Board of Examiners in sealed trunks.

The Giám Khảo, after checking that the seals were intact, opened the trunks and distributed the notebooks to the Sơ Khảo, who marked them in red ink. [32] There were four grades: ưu (excellent), bình (good), thứ (acceptable) and liệt (failed). A contestant might fail simply because his handwriting was bad. The notebooks with ưu, bình or thứ were evaluated again by the PhúcKhảo examiners, who graded them in blue ink; then by the Giám Khảo who graded them in cinnabar ink. Each examiner should indicate his name, rank and the mark on the notebook and then signed it.

All the notebooks were then sent to the Outer Board of Examiners. Those who passed were graded again by the Phó Chủ Khảo and ChánhChủKhảo in scarlet ink. Those who failed were examined by the PhânKhảo examiners. If they judged that some copies were unjustly eliminated, these were submitted to the Chánh Chủ Khảo (President of the Board of Examiners). If necessary, a final deliberation would take place at the Thí Viện building. If the judgments of the Inner and Outer Boards differed, the Outer Board prevailed.

For the first three tests, the notebooks were sent to the Đề Tuyển office. The clerks identified the notebooks by checking that the phách matched: the two parts of the circle, on the phách and on the notebook, coincided and the two columns of characters were identical. The passed contestants were assigned at random to the four vi and these lists were posted at the Exam Center's entrances.

After the fourth and final Phúc Hạch test, the candidates were ranked according to the number of ưu and bình received. The list of Cử Nhân (Masters) and Tú tài (Bachelor) was established accordingly.

6. Number of laureates
As the Hương was a competitive examination, the number of Cử Nhân was decided in advance by the Imperial court, usually 10 to 30 for each Exam Center. From 1884 onward, the rule was 3 Tú tài accepted for each Cử Nhân. This was a severe selection.

For example, in the 1909 session at the Nam Định Exam Center, there were:

3068 contestants registered,

934 remaining after the first test,

408 after the second test

261 after the third test

Finally, 200 contestants passed, the top 50 received the title of Cử Nhân, the others the title of Tú tài.

7. The Xướng Danh (Solemn Proclamation of the Cử Nhân) Ceremony
Xướng Danh was a solemn ceremony celebrated in the presence of all the examiners in full regalia. They were seated on elevated stools, by order of precedence, on both sides of the road leading from the main gate to the ThậpĐạo building. The main gate was decorated with flowers, leaves, ornamental panels and flags. A herald in blue uniform with red borders, using a megaphone, called the names of the Cử Nhân by decreasing order of merit. The person called had to respond loudly Dạ (Present) and come to the gate (which was not always easy, due to the crowd). He bowed to the examiners and received the royal gifts (vide infra).

Only when the person summoned had answered that the contestant ranked after him was called. Thus the ceremony might last several hours.

8. Posting the lists of laureates
Once the Xướng Danh ceremony was over, the lists of the Cử Nhân laureates was posted at the entrance of the Giáp vi on a panel decorated with the image of a tiger. For this reason, it was called the "Tiger Board". The list of the Tú tài laureates was posted at the entrance of the Ất vi on the "Apricot Board". In later years, these panels were not decorated with any designs.

The "small board" was also posted.

1. Official honors
On the Xướng Danh day, the Cử Nhân laureates were given royal gifts: a blue parasol and a complete set of ceremonial attire (cap, tunic, boots, socks, hốt[33] etc.) corresponding to the rank of Cử Nhân. The laureates might also receive other gifts, such as pieces of silk, cash, etc.

On the following day, they came to the Exam Center for the Bái Vọng ("Paying respects to the Emperor from afar") ceremony and a thanksgiving ceremony, in the presence of the local mandarins. An altar was erected at the ThíViện building. By order of precedence, the Examiners, one by one, made five prostrations before the altar. Then the Cử Nhân, also by order of ranking, prostrated three times: first five prostrations to pay respect, then five to thank the Emperor for his gifts and finally, five more prostrations to thank him for the banquet in their honor, called the Yến Lộc Minh, which they were going to attend. After these three ceremonies and before going to the banquet, they formally bowed to the Examiners.

2. Vinh qui (The Triumphal Return)
Together with his village's emissaries, the new laureate decided the date for his "Triumphal Return". The ceremony was to be organized by the canton if the laureate were a Tú Tài, by the entire prefecture if he were a Cử Nhân. Members of the laureate's family [34] were exempted of petty duties (bearing the flags or the drums, sweeping the streets, clearing the roadsides, etc.).

On the assigned day, a parade took place between the Exam center town and the laureate's village. Leading the parade were about twenty multicolored flags, followed by drums and gongs. Then came a yellow palanquin containing the royal gifts, protected by two yellow parasols. The laureate's palanquin was honored with a blue parasol. The village's officials followed right behind and a large drum carried by two porters concluded the parade.

All villages that the parade passed through would have to erect an altar on which flowers, fruits, incense burners... were displayed. The village's officials lined up beside the altar to welcome the hero of the day. When the parade arrived, firecrackers were set off. The laureate descended, greeted the officials before resuming his journey. A delegation of this village then joined the parade.

Arriving at his village, the laureate offered prayers at the Từ Đường (building where the ancestors of his family were worshipped) and at the communal patron saint temple. Family, friends, acquaintances... offered him various gifts: tea, alcohol, betel, betel nuts, panels of parallel sentences, hoành phi (panels on which mottos or laudatory tributes were written), etc. In return, the laureate would host a banquet. The feast might last several days.

Then he waited for his first appointment. A Cử Nhân generally began his career as a HuấnĐạo, Giáo thụ (mandarins in charge of education  in a town), to be promoted later to Subprefect, then Prefect... A Tú Tài, except in rare occasions, was not appointed.

The "Tiến Trường [35]" Ceremony
Early morning on the 25th of the 9th month, the Mandarins organized the Tiến Trường ceremony at the Nam Định exam site. The two yellow parasols slantingly covered the Khâm Sai (Imperial Envoy) banner and the Phụng Chỉ (By Imperial Order) board. Four blue parasols were held quite low, close to the grey head of the Imperial Laureate Mandarin. The pomp and ceremony atmosphere pervaded this area of land normally deserted and tranquil.

Sunlight, which had been absent for a long time, did not yet return. From the time the autumnal wind filled with frigidity came round; the sad cold air was never colder. It was now almost the middle of the thìn hour, yet day and night were not clearly set. Those who stood around the altar only saw the light from dozens of candles which illuminated patches of the ceremonial altar. On this altar lied three animals in awkward positions: a water buffalo, a very dark goat, a white pig with dead eyes wide-opened.

It was brighter on the ground than in the sky. This natural setting, the site of the TiếnTrường Ceremony on an autumn morning, seemed to await an ominous calamity. The wind was reluctant to blow. The flame from the candles was motionless, incense smoke from the tam sinh (three sacrificed animals) altar shot straight up.

The eastern sky should brighten up to welcome the morning sun, yet only bland, turbid clouds billowed upward, forming monster shapes in the east, and in the west half a rainbow appeared. Ghostly red and blue hues signaled a macabre atmosphere. Night and day were not yet clear. The world of the living and the dead intermingled.

    Nguyễn Tuân, "Báo oán", in "Vang Bóng một thời"
The "Roll Call" Ceremony
At the beginning of the third night watch, the noise from the crowd sounded far away. Then it came closer and closer. Then it became quite clear. Clumps of lanterns approached the site, flickering like will-o'-the-wisp. Contestants were crowding into the exam entrance.

The frigid north wind picked up.

The glimmering torches flared.

On an area of frozen land, the crowd was dense as in a carnival. Some people were silver-haired; some appeared to be still in their teens. Some couldn't hide their poverty, their gaunt bodies shrinking in thin outfits. Others appeared to show off their affluence, dressing in layers of quilted clothes, but their teeth were clanking. Some contestants had to shoulder heavy loads but were able to elbow themselves inside. Some folks couldn't hold straight their necks, they had to drag their mats and tents along the way. Those with smug air were of course first time contestants. Those whose faces wrinkled with worries no doubt had failed several times. There were more and more. It was impossible to describe all.

As night advanced, contestants came in greater numbers. Each tried to find his own "vi"entrance. At the four vi's, tens of thousands of contestants appeared to be attired in the same way: they wore conical hats, on one side of the rib cage hung the tents and the posts, on the other raincoats and tent coats or a pair of straw mats. On their chest hung water gourds and notebook holders; on their stomach writing desks or paper cases. Such objects came in heavy or light weights, large or small sizes, long or short lengths, all attached to the contestants' meager necks! Perhaps, such was the fate of the men of letters, before gaining a successful career; they had to go through the jobs of laborers!

People jostled in and out, pushing this side and that. How that looked like the waves of the ocean! Sound of greetings, calling out for each other, chiding, quarrelling, and shouting mixed together; the four exam gates were as noisy as four outdoor markets.


All of a sudden, from the Thập Đạo building, three rounds of gongs and drums resounded loudly. Lanterns moved in unison. Corn-flower blue gowns, dragonfly-wing hats fluttered like in a scene of the theater. Once the four Ngự sử (Censors) had mounted the miradors, the Examiners separated to watch over different areas. As in any examinations, the two PhânKhảo checked the right and left entrances, the PhóChủ Khảo (Vice-President of the Board of Examiners) followed the Phụng Chỉ (By Imperial Order) Board to the Ất entrance. The Giáp entrance came under the supervision of the Chánh Chủ Khảo (President of the Board of Examiners) to whom was assigned the Khâm Sai (Imperial Envoy) banner.


At the end of the gongs and drums rounds, two rows of lanterns proceeded from the Thập Đạo. Next came two yellow parasols which protected the Khâm Sai banner, followed by the Chánh Chủ Khảo and his four blue parasols.


The procession reached the vi entrance. The soldier who carried the Khâm Sai banner respectfully set the banner post in a holder on the back of an elevated chair. The Chánh Chủ Khảo temporarily held the hốt [36] tablet in his left hand, then with his right hand, he hung on the leg of the chair, gingerly took a few steps and climbed on the chair. He carefully straightened the back flap of his gown, then sat down. Now he held the hốt by both hands, the sleeves on his arms were as large as storm drains. All six parasols were successively raised above the chair. The blue ones were over the Chánh ChủKhảo, the yellow ones over the Khâm Sai banner.

The noisy melee at the exam entrance was suddenly gone. Thousands of eyes were now on the Chief Examiner.

Abruptly, from the sky, an eerie sound was heard:

"Vengeful ghosts enter first, favor-returning ghosts next, contestants enter last".

The loud megaphone broke the silence, all seemed dumbfounded. The soldier standing next to the ChủKhảo's chair, following the indications of the clerk who was reading the roll, shouted the name of a contestant.

"Here!" was heard clearly from the crowd. A young man, trying hard to get through the siege, approached the Chủ Khảo's chair and put down all his bulky belongings.

The proctor-soldiers began their work. They opened up the raincoat and the roll of tent cover. They checked the legs of the bed. They patted down the man's sash and the hems of his outfits. Then they searched the case hung on the man's abdomen.

The box contained an inkpot, a few brushes, some candles, a stitching awl, a ream of paper, a few snacks, a bun of pressed rice, some buffalo pâtés, a few pieces of sautéed pork, nothing suspicious.

The man then was allowed to receive his notebook from the clerk. He carefully rolled it up and put it in the holder suspended on his chest. He happily walked inside with his belongings dangling around his shoulder and his neck.


Next came another person as the megaphone announced his name. Nothing unusual was found except for a short shovel. Surprised, the soldiers asked:

- "Why is this thing brought into the Exam center?"

The answer was barely audible:

- "I have diarrhea."

Still unable to understand, they asked again:

- "What is the use of a shovel for diarrhea?"

Hesitantly, the man said:

- "If I need to go while writing, I'll dig the ground and let go there, then cover it up. What else can I do? The area is full of other tents, where else can I do it?"

Now that the proctors understood the use of the shovel, they let the man take his notebook and go inside. The soldier held up the megaphone and called on the next one.


The proctors checked his belongings. His personal objects were not different from the ones checked before. Only the water container was not a gourd but a pottery jar with a large opening. One of the soldiers stirred the water with a stick, all at once, a round object floated up. What was this? The object was taken out. It turned out to be a ball of paper, with ant-like characters. It was rolled up, covered with bee wax, so it couldn't be soaked wet.

The illegal item was confiscated. The contestant was immediately expelled from the exam for committing the crime of taking study materials into the exam center.

    Ngô Tất Tố, Lều chõng
Failing the Exam (1)
- Did Cụ Giáo [37] said anything about your exam?

- He said that my brother Hạc failed completely. My brother the Bachelor passed the Tú Tài (Bachelor) grade again. And I was luckily placed at the bottom of the Tú Tài passing list.

Vân Hạc's face turned white like a sheet. Đốc Cung's looks changed too.

- So Trần đức Chinh made up the story?

Đoàn Bằng was busy taking off his turban and coat. Tiêm Hồng interrupted:

- No, he told the truth. Cụ Giáo also said that the Examiners were certain Vân Hạc would rank first. Only when the decree from the King's Court came this morning did we know that he failed.

- So, what error did he make?

- None. Cụ Giáo and Trần đức Chinh both said his grades were excellent, four "Outstanding's" and twelve "Very Good's".

- Then why did he fail? Did Cụ Giáo know what the King's decree said?

- Yes. He recounted: "Đào Vân Hạc possesses superior talents, far above Nguyễn chu Văn, deserving to pass first in rank. But he's still young. His writing showed some vanity. If he passed he'd become even more conceited, which would impede his development into a useful person. The Court is interested in training talents, not in seeing brilliant students go to waste. Let him be failed, so his youthful pride would be curbed. Next time, he'll be the valedictorian."

Vân Hạc was filled with anger and resentment:

- Training this way is plain murder!

Ngô Tất Tố, Lều chõng
Failing the Exam (2)
Since the end of last year, Ngọc had been feeling utterly depressed. Particularly on the day, upon returning from the market, she saw Vân Hạc, dejected, sitting motionless in his study. He didn't bother to shoo away a fly perching on the corner of his mouth. It was January, relentlessly frigid air set in, yet a heated flood of anger and resentment enveloped her and she perspired profusely; sweat soaked through her several layers of clothing.

"So, all my dreams, for over a year, have gone down the drain", she whispered to herself.

Despite her will, she said hello to her husband, and nonchalantly put away her baskets. Then dragging her feet into the kitchen, she prepared to boil a kettle of water. While starting the fire, she pondered, "How strange! He is well-versed; he writes beautifully; he wins praises everywhere. Why has he failed the exam continuously? Perhaps, while staying in Hà nội, he wasted his time cavorting with the singers instead of concentrating in his studies. And now, how deplorable!"

The fire was crackling. Ngọc returned to the study with a very heavy heart. Her mother and her sister Bích were not at home. Her father was in the main building. Only Ngọc and her husband were in the room. To satisfy her anger, she asked her husband with a smirk: "When will they make the formal proclamation of the results?" Sitting across from his wife, Vân Hạc was overwhelmed with shame for himself and pity for his wife. Thinking she didn't know he had failed, he candidly replied: "Perhaps yesterday."

Ngọc was still smiling: "Why didn't you stay for the announcement? Why leave so soon? Did you purposely give in to others?" Realizing at last that his wife was mocking him, Vân Hạc forced himself to keep quiet.

Ngọc continued her mocking: "Did anyone pass the exam?"

Vân Hạc replied listlessly: "Brother Bachelor passed again. Second brother too." Ngọc realized that her husband had misunderstood her question. While feeling distraught, she had forgotten to ask about her brothers-in-law. She changed her tone earnestly:

"How wretched! Three in the family passed the first three tests. Yet, none became Cử Nhân. That's really upsetting! But your brothers earned the Tú tài, at least, their results are creditable. It's quite late now. I'll go to congratulate them tomorrow."

Vân Hạc didn't answer. Ngọc stood up and started to clean the tea set. She brought up the kettle of boiled water, prepared the tea and offered a cup to her husband. With lingering resentment, she continued:

"Did you come home from Hà nội or Đào Nguyên?"

"I came from Đào Nguyên."

"When did you get there?"

"Yesterday. Bác Giáo Kinh Môn [38] informed me of my failure, so the following morning, my brothers and I left. We had no heart to look at the listing of the laureates."

"Why bother to check that list? I'm sure no one passed!"

Vân Hạc lost his temper.

"What a ridiculous remark! If no one is passed, then why are these exams held?"

Ngọc kept her cool.

"Somebody passed? Then why did you use to say: If I don't pass, nobody will!?"

Vân Hạc burst out laughing; he didn't answer. Ngọc poured more tea into her husband's cup.

"I'm convinced you will pass someday. I only wonder for how many more decades you intend to compete in the exams. Do you plan to follow the example of Mr. Lương Hiệu? I learned that he didn't succeed until he was 82. You're still young. There's no rush!"

Each of his wife's words was like a stabbing of a knife. His face turned deep red. Ngọc continued her sarcasm:

"Darling, I heard an old story of a Chinese lady who wrote a short poem for her husband when he failed his exam. A very well-written poem indeed! I translated it. Let me read it to you:

Your literary skills are considered exceptional.

So why are you sent home empty-handed every time?

Now that we are ashamed to see each other,

If you want to meet with me, wait until late night!"

Though Vân Hạc knew his wife was sneering at him, he still enjoyed her literary talents. He said:

"Not bad translation at all. But that still can't match an anonymous translation of a Chinese poem called "Failing the exam". Did you learn about it? It goes like this:

Reaching home upon failing the exam

Wife and children showed no joy.

Only the yellow dog displayed some love,

He lay waiting at the entrance and wagged his tail!"

Realizing that her husband was discreetly scolding her, to diffuse his possible anger outburst, Ngọc smilingly joked:

"So, to those who failed the exam, their wives and children don't have a heart that can match that of a dog!"

Ngô Tất Tố, Lều chõng

[1] - M. Huard, M. Durand, Connaissance du Viêt-Nam, p. 84.

[2] - The Đông sơn culture is considered to be the ancient Vietnamese civilization, reaching its culmination at the end of the Hùng dynasty. Numerous artifacts (bronze drums, ploughshares...) still remain.

[3] - Lê Tắc, An Nam chí lược, p. 251. Minh kính = exegesis on canonical Confucian texts.

[4] - Initially, quân tử referred to noble men having political responsibilities. According to Confucianism, only ethical persons deserve to be rulers, so by extension the term now designates "virtuous persons". In his book Khổnghọcđăng, Phan Bội Châu suggested the following interpretation. Literally, quân tử means "the lord's son", and this implies that such men serve their King as faithfully as dutiful sons would serve their father.

[5] - Ancient Vietnamese believed that as a person passed away, his body decayed but his spirit survived as ghosts. Ghosts could intervene in human affairs and protect their descendants.

[6] - Lê Quí Đôn (1726-1784), penname Quế Đường, born in Thái Bình, is the author of many renowned poems and essays. He was known as a prodigy. At the age of two, he could differentiate the characters hữu (meaning: to have) and (to have not). At four, he could read classical Tang poems; at five, he read Kinh Thi (Classic of Poetry); at ten, he was able to pen various genres of literature; at fourteen, he memorized the major works of Bách gia Chư tử (The term "The Hundred Schools of Thought" refers to the Chinese philosophic schools that flourished between 770 and 220 BCE). He ranked first in three competitive examinations: in 1743 at the Thi Hương (Regional Examinations), in 1756 at the Thi Hội (National Examinations at the capital, prior to the Doctoral Examinations) and at the Thi Đình (National Doctoral Examinations at the Royal Palace). Before 1756, he was disqualified many times at the Thi Hội for his haughtiness.

Lê Quí Đôn reached the rank of Minister of Civil Engineering. At his death, the entire country was ordered to mourn for three days.

[7] - Phú is a form of poetry with rhythm and rhyme with lines of highly variable lengths. A line may contain only a few words, whereas another may contain dozens of them. The rhythm comes not only from the variation of lengths but also from tonal balance (see following footnote). Except for a few verses (the first line and transitional lines between paragraphs), two consecutive lines must form a pair of parallel sentences.

[8] - Two sentences are called "parallel" if they are constructed in the same way: a verb corresponds with a verb, a noun with a noun, and so on. The meanings should be similar (example:If you can dream - and not make dreams your master / If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim) or opposite (examples: black/white; friend/foe; Cannon to the right of them / Cannon to the left of them). The corresponding words should also be of opposite tones. If a word in the first sentence is in the bằng ("flat") tone, the corresponding word in the second sentence should be in the trắc ("sharp") tone and vice-versa.

Vietnamese language has 6 tones, regrouped for the purpose of literary composition into two sets. The bằng set comprises the neutral and the descending tone which are easy to pronounce. The four other (a high level tone, a sharply falling tone and two modulated tones in which the pitch changes) belong to the trắc set. Obviously the trắc tones are more difficult to voice. To be melodious and at the same time easy to recite, a poem in Vietnamese should alternate bằng and trắc words in a harmonious way, exactly as a poem in English should alternate short and long syllables.

[9] - Mandarins of localities with many successful candidates at the examinations received rewards. On the contrary, mandarins of those where no students passed were punished according to their ranks; they may be fired, demoted or stripped of salaries.

[10] - There are works known for literary value but considered immoral and therefore not studied. They are collectively designated as Dâm thư (erotic books).

[11] - The expression Xuân Thu initially indicates a year, symbolized by the Spring and Autumn seasons. Later on, it refers to yearly chronicles.

[12] - In the 15th century, the Ming emperor Thành Tông (Zheng tong) ordered the soldiers invading Vietnam "to burn every word, every single piece of paper, to destroy every stele erected by the Vietnamese". Many works are now only known by their titles recorded in history books.

[13] - A regional Hương examination generally comprised four tests. A candidate was allowed to take a test only if he passed the previous one.

[14] - In the n° 64 of the weekly Trung Bắc Chủ Nhật, Quán Chi reported that the Vietnamese Catholic priests in Hà Tĩnh cooperated with A. de Rhodes in the Quốc Ngữ work.

[15] - His name is transliterated as A-lịch-sơn- Đắc-lộ. He lived in Vietnam for many years, arriving in the South in 1624, going to the North in 1627 where the vice-roy Trịnh, who ruled the North, provided him with a house and permission to preach. However, in 1630 he was deported from the North and in 1645 sentenced to death by the vice-roy Nguyễn, who ruled the South. Later, he was reprieved and deported. Father A. de Rhodes knew the Vietnamese language and studied Vietnamese history and culture. A memorial stele dedicated to him was erected in Hà nội on May 20, 1941.

[16] - According to Trần văn Giáp, there were two Khảo tests every year, in the 4th and 10th months.

[17] - History books listed 19 399 Khoá Sinh in the year 1871. According to Trương Bá Cần, Khoá Sinh in the Nghệ An province counted in the thousands (Trương Bá Cần, Nguyễn Trường Tộ, p. 242).

[18] - Under the Nguyễn Emperors, descendants of Tây sơn (the preceding dynasty) mandarins, condemned as traitors, were forbidden to take the exams.

[19] - This ban also existed under other dynasties. Đào Duy Từ (1572-1634), whose father supervised a female musician group in the court of Emperor Lê Anh Tông, was compelled to compete under a false name. He ranked second at the Hương examination and passed the Hội exam when the deception was discovered. He was then disqualified and his grade revoked. He later became political and military adviser to the vice-roy Nguyễn in South Vietnam.

[20] - Lady "Sao Sa" was born Nguyễn Thị Du (some sources say her name was Nguyễn Ngọc Toàn or Nguyễn Thị Niên) in the Đặc Kiệt village, province of Hải Dương. The Mạc emperor discovered the disguise during the reception honoring the new doctors, took her into his Consort Palace as Lady Tinh Phi (Celestial Consort, the title being translated in Vietnamese as Sao Sa). When the Mạc were overthrown, the two successive vice-roys Trịnh showed her great consideration and appointed her Lễ sư (Professor of Rituals) to their Court. All essays in the in the Đình exam were submitted to her for second round evaluation. A temple, dedicated to her memory, still exists in Đặc Kiệt.

[21] - It is said that the wife of Nguyễn Khuyến (3-time valedictorian) had to sell her clothes to pay for the cost of her husband's exams. Even after her husband's successes, she still had to work in the rice field.

[22] - Indeed, river crossings during the trip were not unusual.

[23] - Vietnamese believed that if a man harmed somebody, the wronged person's ghost could retaliate by preventing this man's descendants from competing successfully in examinations. Conversely, a grateful ghost could help a contestant. The Điểm Danh (Calling the Candidates) ceremony always began with the sacramental phrase: "Let the spirits who want to avenge themselves enter (the Exam Center) first, the spirits who want to repay (a favor) enter second, contestants enter last".

[24] - These regulations were not mandatory. Some of the "Inner Board" examiners might not be mandarins, but simply Tú tài. The number of examiners might also be higher or lower.

[25] - Abbreviation for: "Hà nội and Nam Định". These centers were merged in 1886, the Hà nội center being then occupied by French soldiers. The exam took place in Nam Định.

[26] - According to Trần văn Giáp, 1 trượng = 3.1m but according to the Lê ngọc Trụ dictionary, 1 trượng = 4m and 1 thước = 0.40m.

[27] - When the notebooks were turned in, they first received the Giáp Phùng stamp between the 2nd and 3rd pages to ensure that candidates could not replace these pages with prepared pages. During the exam, when the composition was partly written, the notebooks would be presented to the Thập Đạo building to be stamped with the NhậtTrung stamp. This proved that the composition was written at the exam center.

[28] - With respect to the main gate, this was the innermost part of the Exam Center. Hence, the examiners lodging there were collectively called the Nội Trường ("Inner Board of Examiners"). Those' lodging areas nearer to the main gate were called the Ngoại Trường ("Outer Board").

[29] - These parasols were marks of dignity. Yellow was the Imperial color.

[30] - A mandarin committing this fault in a Capital examination (Thi Hội) would be demoted 3 ranks, receive 90 club strikes. If the contestant was not mandarin, his grade would be revoked. In a Palace Examination (Thi Đình), the penalty would be 4-rank demotion and 100 strikes.

[31] - To follow the bằng-trắc rule for every word would be impossibly difficult. So, in a line of 7 words, errors on the 1st, 3rd and 5th words are tolerated.

[32] - An examiner bringing with him black ink (which would permit him to amend the notebooks to help contestants) risked severe punishment, including death penalty.

[33] - A hốt was a small piece of ivory (or, in this case, of wood) which a mandarin held in both hands before his chest. It was part of the ceremonial costume. The characters Tư đối mệnh (remember your duty) were engraved on the hốt.

[34] - The family was to be understood in a broad sense; it included cousins and more remote relatives.

[35] - "Entering the Exam Center"

[36] - A mandarinic insignia, normally to be held with both hands.

[37] - Cụ is used to politely indicate that the person concerned is rather old and Giáo means "teacher". It is traditional not to use the name but to call a person by his function (Mr. Teacher, Mr. Prefect) or by the grade he has obtained in mandarinic competitions (Mr. Bachelor, Mr. Doctor).

[38] - Bác = elder uncle, Giáo = teacher, Kinh Môn is the name of a village. A male friend of your parents is called "Elder Uncle". It is considered more polite not to use the name or surname of a person, but rather designate him by his function (Uncle Teacher, Mr. Prefect). Should more precision be necessary, his abode is then indicated (the teacher from Kinh Môn).