Why this Nanjing museum was often a life changing experience…

Actually, when it comes to taking a school test today, it’s a breeze compared to what many would-be Chinese intellectuals had to go through. Take Wu Cheng’en for instance. The talented Nanjing-based writer tried to take what’s known as the “keju” test, in 1531. He didn’t pass. For several years, he took the test again and again, only to fail each time.

He wasn’t the only one. Around the same time, Li Shizhen also sat for what was known as the ancient imperial examination. He failed three times. Centuries later, Pu Songling sat for the test on four different occasions, only to learn that he had not passed either.

Well, who did manage to pass this early example of the college entrance exam, as it was known in China?

All is revealed at the renovated China Imperial Examination Museum in Nanjing’s Jiangsu Province, the country’s largest such example. There, larger-than-life statues of many of the country’s most famous historical figures are on display, along with the stories of their efforts to pass the test for the Imperial Exam System. It was a four-level exam held once every three years that started during the Sui Dynasty in 581 and lasted through the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Smart intellectuals who wanted to be officials needed to pass this rigorous system in order to qualify.

There are nearly 1,000 exhibits on display at the renovated Museum. Once one passes through the wooden gates, examples abound of the look and conditions during which the would-be scholars would take the three-day exams. At the Imperial Examination Cells, visitors can view examples of actual rooms where exams would be taken. This includes the wooden planks which would serve as both a desk AND a bed. In another location, the Feihong Bridge, made of stone, can be seen. This marked the separating point between those who supervised the subjects taking the test, and the officials who were grading the results. In Zhigong Hall, the main exhibition room, examples of the glorious reception are on display of what would happen if a scholar passes the exam. It often consisted of them being paraded on horseback throughout their home village. On the flip side, there are also examples of papers where students cheated, and the infamous wall of thorns — or “Cheater’s Wall” — can also be observed.

By day, the Imperial Examination Museum serves as a historic reminder of an important aspect of China’s past. At night, lights emanating from the location showcase an architectural achievement in its own right.

And what became of Wu Cheng’en, Li Shizhen and Pu Songling once they passed through the gates of the China Imperial Examination Museum for the final time? Wu ended up writing “Journey to the West”, a cornerstone of Chinese literature. Pu created a collection of short stories that are also considered to be classics. And Li compiled the country’s most comprehensive traditional Chinese medicine book.

Taking the keju exam in Nanjing might have temporarily broken their spirit, but in the end, it inspired them to greatness…