Merit and the god of Death
A young but unprepossessing student travels to the capital city to sit for civil service examinations. He is unfairly failed, but his merit is later recognized in an unexpected manner
Excerpted from: Anti-Work: Psychological Investigations into Its Truths, Problems, and Solutions, by George M. Alliger. Routledge, 2022, pp 206-212.
Early in the Tang dynasty, in the town of Zhongnan, there lived an impoverished but bright student named Zhong Kui. One day he and his best friend and fellow student, Du Ping, were sitting in the town square. Now Du Ping, carefully observing his friend’s countenance — never attractive at the best of times — came to the conclusion in his own mind that something was wrong. For some time he weighed the propriety of addressing Zhong Kui directly about this. When an ancient proverb occurred to him, namely: “Only when the years grow cold do we see that the pine and cypress are the last to fade,” Du Ping was not completely convinced of the relevance of these words to the current situation. Though didn’t his friend seem faded, perhaps? He decided that he should speak just in case. “Zhong Kui, I would like to say, though I may be wrong, that you appear downcast in heart, judging solely by your posture and appearance. Is it so?”
Zhong Kui smiled sadly. “Ah, Du Ping, it is true. You may think that this is because I have not eaten or taken drink for several days (not being able to afford these). But, no, actually it is because I seem to see no future for a poor student like me in this our beloved home town. Yet I feel inside myself some slight sense of worthiness.”
Though taken aback at this boasting, Du Ping admitted that, in fact, he felt the same way, but what could they do? After great debate, somewhat subdued it is true due to lack of sustaining food, the two friends decided that they had nothing to lose by repairing to the Imperial City and sitting for the upcoming civil service examinations. When an apple cart was upset in the road directly in front of them, they took this for a favorable omen, not the least because several apples rolled under the step on which they sat, providing energy for the three-day journey.
Once sealed in the examination room and facing the numerous questions on the exam parchment, everything Du Ping thought he knew vanished from his head. In his own cell, however, Zhong Kui realized that not only did the questions on Confucius and the great poets seem as transparent as the purest water, but that he could write in a crystalline calligraphy, a talent he had not been aware of.
“I have failed,” Du Ping said sadly to his friend when all was finished and they were partaking of tea provided by servants of the Imperial examiners. “I will never be a scholar-bureaucrat.” “I, on the other hand, will have my jinshi degree as soon as the examination grades are posted,” said Zhong Kui.
And indeed, Zhong Kui’s name was at the top of the list of all 352 candidates. But then events took a dark turn.
Later that week the Committee for the Imperial Examination convened to hand out diplomas and jobs to the candidates. Zhong Kui was there, though not Du Ping, for he had left for their home town before his score was announced in order to avoid the ignominy of the raised eyebrows of successful candidates. Zhong Kui regretted his friend’s departure but looked forward to the ceremony. Soon, however, he noticed one of the officials seated on the dais scowling slightly and subtly pointing him out to the others; quiet conversation among all the officials followed. Finally, one supremely dignified examiner paced slowly over to Zhong Kui and took him aside. “Know, candidate, that not only must a scholar-bureaucrat have done well on the examinations, but he must be capable of dignified appearance and demeanor. If, on an occasion as significant and auspicious as the current one you come bedraggled and unkempt, what can that bode for the future? Moreover, though these things might be corrected, an unbalanced and exceedingly unbecoming face cannot be. Now here I apologize deeply for my frankness, but with your bulging eyes you look like the King of the Dead. You are dismissed.”
Staggered, Zhong Kui wandered out of the hall. He had passed the examination with flying colors, but his penurious and degrading state was not to be altered, all because the officials thought him unprepossessing in appearance.
He would not stand for it. Gathering his tattered attire about him, Zhong Kui made for the Imperial Palace gate. There he stated loudly, “Justice has not been done. I am due the jinshi!” Nothing happened. The guards ignored him; people hurried by on their own business. Then, in determined retaliation against the very government itself, Zhong Kui began to bang his head against the palace gate. After continuing in this manner for some time, he first lost consciousness then died from the contusive wounds.
* * *
Usually Yan’s docket was light; as the foremost of the ten kings of the dead, sinners passed through a series of filters, as it were, being judged by his subordinate kings and so not needing to meet Yan himself. So when Zhong Kui appeared before Yan, the entire court stirred a bit. The huge Yan himself looked down for a minute at the dead man, and then addressed him, perhaps luckily not seeing himself in miniature. “Well, you didn’t engage in fraud, or the second king would have dealt with you. In a similar way, you weren’t just an ignorant physician, violator of graves, blasphemer, unfilial son, and so forth or you wouldn’t have made it through the courts of my other kings to me. Why are you here?”
Unfazed by the regal (if at the same time oddly tawdry) surroundings, nor even by Yan’s mammoth appearance, Zhong Kui said this: “I am the top scorer on the Imperial Civil Service examination. I ought to have received the jinshi diploma and a job within the Imperial Court, but I passed away suddenly.”
King Yan again studied him, and asked further: “How did you die?”
“I died protesting the rights of a maligned and mistreated honorable man.”
This roused King Yan somewhat. “Did you indeed! Hmmm… If you have won the jinshi you know the Confucian classics and probably even mathematics, for which I’ve never had a head.”
Yan turned his attention to his court attendees. “For some reason, I believe this man. And you all know the great need I have of an official to corral, arrest, and punish any number of hungry ghosts who are up to no good. The other day one crept into the palace and stole Her Lady’s pocketbook! And you yourselves, who present yourselves as loyal courtiers to me, how would you act if not under my direct gaze! Bah! What do I even know about you? But this young gentleman’s accomplishments and upright character suggest he could act as the regulating and counteracting influence needed to manage this plague of ghosts. Moreover, there is even something about his countenance which attests to capability.”
Zhong Kui felt a glow of requitement. His merit recognized, from that day on he wore the dignified grey robes of an official and executed his duties flawlessly. He toured the empire, capturing and carrying out immediate justice upon misbehaving ghosts; in large part this meant plucking out and eating at least one of their eyes, or even eating the ghosts themselves, whatever seemed most fit.[i]
Markovitz (The Meritocracy Trap) has termed merit a “scam,” and provided a convincing narrative supporting this view. In this story of Zhong Kui, however, merit is recognized and rewarded, albeit belatedly. And it worked as it should; the testing system showed that Zhong Kui was indeed the right person, or ghost, to carry out important duties.
The Keju system of examinations is thought to span from about 600 CE to 1905.[ii] These examinations provided the information needed to choose councilors, ministers, governors, magistrates, and commissioners; some of these positions were the highest in government, and all were coveted as conveyances to power, wealth and prestige. The examination system was complex and multi-layered, beginning at the local level, proceeding to the provincial, with a third, two-level set of exams conducted at the national capital. One had to succeed at one level to progress to the next. They were open to all, with re-taking allowed. If one were did sufficiently well, they might proceed all the way from being deemed a shengyuan or “budding scholar” to jinshi or “advanced scholar.”
The testing environments were controlled, with strict isolation for the days-long examinations conducted at the capital. Content included history, poetry and Confucian philosophy, and the essay and poetic answers written by the candidates needed to follow strict conventional construction. The chances of obtaining a highest degree, jinshi, were remarkably small, given the number of candidates.
The history of this institution is one of constant attempts to game it. When at the first only political essays were required, candidates managed to purchase versions of earlier successful essays, memorizing and reproducing these during testing. Requirements for original writing were added to address this, but memorization of various materials remained an ongoing concern, and prohibitions on the publication of such writings were routinely ignored. Because candidates tried to conceal their ignorance of history and policy within elaborate language, changes were made to minimize this by requiring a particular essay format. Schools sprung up teaching this format. Numerous candidates hired substitutes to sit for the examinations. Punishments were declared and meted out for cheaters. Names were covered up on examinations to avoid influencing scorers, and copiers hired so that handwriting could not be recognized, but secret code phrases could identify candidates’ work to bribed examiners. Cheat sheets and materials were smuggled in – increased searches were instituted. As a result, incredibly small manuscripts were prepared and hidden in the handle of a pen. And on and on.
Because of the status attendant upon good exam performance and the opprobrium associated with failure, on occasion those who did not succeed killed themselves.
As mentioned earlier, modern standardized testing, both psychological and vocational, has greatly impacted such practices as work hiring, training, and development. Job “fit,” job-related abilities, job knowledge, psychological stability, drive, honesty all can now be tested for, and are. Testing has as its justification, in part, the goal of eliminating irrelevant factors from consideration. But testing is undergoing reconsideration as one potential enabler of the unequal status quo, as a major servant of the meritocracy machine.
The central problem is that a) there are individual differences, for example in ability or interests, some of which can appear early in life and be fairly stable even across developmental milestones; b) tests can index these with varying but oftentimes worthwhile degrees of accuracy; c) these differences can validly predict differences on the job, say of performance, teamwork, or trustworthiness; and d) sometimes the results are demographically skewed. There are bigger questions than simply whether a test “works.” The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing points out that “it is important to distinguish between evidence that is directly relevant to validity and evidence that may inform decisions about social policy but which falls outside the realm of validity.”[iii]
Still, the Economist recently opined re educational tests, “Junking exams only introduces new kinds of stress if the alternative is that all schoolwork counts towards final grades. Without objective assessments, learners from poor homes are more likely to be judged on their backgrounds than on their actual achievements.”[iv] One wonders if the same is true for occupational testing.
[i] My own extrapolation of the myth of Zhong Kui
[ii] I rely for this description on the excellent article by Hoi K. Suen and Lan Yu, “Chronic consequences of high-stakes testing? Lessons from the Chinese civil service exam,” Comparative Education Review 50, no. 1 (2006): 46-65.
[iii] American Educational Research Association. Standards for Educational and Psychological testing. (American Educational Research Association American Psychological Association National Council on Measurement in Education), 2014, 16.