84. Exams, handwriting and school stories

Minjie recently published a very interesting post about crib sheets on the Cotsen blog titled Cheating in Examinations for Cheapskates? – A Centuries-Old Tip from the Chinese Collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library. This sparked off an email conversation between us…

HW: As always, Minjie, I love the detail in your post, including the descriptor “fly-head script” 蝇头小字 for the tiny writing. It’s similar to the English expressions of art or writing so small it would fit on a pinhead. Could you tell us a few more descriptors of Chinese writing?

MC: The first expression that comes to mind is “斗大的字” (characters as big as a dou), the opposite of miniscule size. Dou is an old unit of volume, equivalent to ten liters, and, by extension, the name of the container. Although the big size *could* be a deliberate choice, beginners in Chinese need time and practice to gain the fine control to write Chinese characters accurately and neatly, and for a while tend to produce somewhat ungainly handwriting. Bringing a three-dimensional image to two-dimensional writing adds to the descriptive power of the expression. The phrase is also used in another saying, “斗大的字不识一筐”  (his big clunky characters wouldn’t fill a basket), describing someone who can barely read and write.

Two different kinds of dou: one for ladling water, in the Shanxi Provincial Museum (left), and one for measuring rice, in the Li Hongzhang ancestral hall, Hefei (right) (image source: Wikipedia)

Another common expression for crude handwriting is “七歪八扭” (7 straight, 8 twisted) describing crooked and lopsided strokes. Cao Wenxuan used a similar four-character phrase “歪八斜扭” in his novel Bronze and Sunflower. In the story, the mute boy Bronze is insulted for being illiterate and dumb. People have no idea that he has been learning how to read and write from his adoptive sister Sunflower. They are shocked when he brushes huge characters (dou-sized, no doubt!) with whitewash on the wall, though his writing is crooked and lopsided, or, as you translated it, “a bit higgledy-piggledy” (p. 144).

Bronze’s higgledy-piggledy writing might look like this. (Image source: font.chinaz.com)

The phrase “龙飞凤舞” (flying dragons and dancing phoenixes) describes lively and beautiful calligraphy exuding both vigor and grace. But, it can also be used with a sarcastic tone, about cursive writing that is poorly done and hardly legible.

HW: How important was/is good handwriting in exams? And is there a Chinese equivalent of graphology? (For those of us who learned Chinese as adults, we often look at our childish handwriting and cringe…)

MC: The first question does not have a straightforward answer—yes and no. A clean and neat-looking answer sheet never hurts. However, as a strategy to combat cheating and corruption in imperial civil service examinations, answer sheets for higher level exams were copied by a clerk to mask the identity of the test takers (Cartwright, 2019).

College entrance examinations in modern China have replaced imperial examinations as the new high-stake destiny-changing social-ladder-climbing testing system. My own teachers could not stress enough the premium of neat and tidy writing, which might “earn a good impression” and possibly even a few extra points from exam markers. The danger of not heeding the wise advice? Here’s a cautionary example from when I was six years old. One day my math teacher made me stand up in class. She was infuriated with my hasty and sloppy handwriting (like “flying dragons and dancing phoenixes,” if you will) and demonstrated on the blackboard how my answer “12” looked like the character “口” (mouth) in cursive script. So instead of 8+4=12, my workbook suggested that 8+4 equals a mouth. The class snickered. “I did not give Chen Minjie a full score even though I knew her answer was correct!” my teacher declared angrily, and I was suitably mortified. (Thank you, Teacher Yang, for your tough love — but not for my first experience with public humiliation.) She was by no means the only teacher who considered handwriting important. Another teacher in middle school made time available for the whole class to practice calligraphy daily.

Chinese believe that in written communication your handwriting is a stand-in for your face, so I wouldn’t be surprised if many buy the idea of graphology. There is even the expression “字如其人” (the written character is like your character). In a school story with that title, a new teacher impresses her class by successfully analyzing the personalities of students based on their handwriting.

徐玲: 《字如其人》The Students’ Characters by XU Ling (image source: amazon)

HW: How widespread was/is cheating in exams in China?

MC: Cheating in civil service examinations was widespread enough that, as Andrew Plaks (2004) pointed out, authorities employed an arsenal of methods to detect infractions, which were recorded in such official documents as Imperially Authorized Regulations for Examination Grounds《钦定科场条例》.

A cheating attempt famously shaped the adolescence of Lu Xun (1881-1936), the leading figure of modern Chinese literature. When he was twelve years old, his grandfather was imprisoned, and narrowly escaped the punishment of beheading, for attempting to bribe an examination official for Lu Xun’s father. As Lu Xun related in an autobiographical account, his family owned many rice paddies which afforded a comfortable life when he was born. The family’s prosperity took a drastic downturn after what he vaguely referred to as “a sudden major incident” (Lu, 1930)–there was hardly anything left, not even money to pay for modest tuition for Lu Xun.

Cheating scandals plague modern-day college entrance examinations as they did imperial examinations. For proof of that, take a look at the measures Chinese authorities are taking to combat high-tech methods of cheating. Back in the mid-19th century proctors were warned to watch out for hired test takers catapulting answer sheets (attached to a chunk of tile, for example) over the wall of the examination compound. By the 2010s, test administrators have gone so far as trying to intercept radio signals that transmit answers (Hernández, 2016) or implementing iris recognition to verify test takers’ identities (Xinhuanet).

There is a more insidious form of cheating that does not happen on the test ground, but is done through bribery and corruption behind closed doors, perpetuating an unfair game between the privileged and the less fortunate. Most of the abuses would probably never been exposed, but in the early days of the Internet adoption in China in 2001 the public was “granted” a rare peek at the tip of the iceberg of how power, privilege, and nepotism trump test scores. Due to poor password protection, a computer file compiled by the Dean’s Office of Shanghai Jiao Tong University was accidentally leaked to the World Wide Web. It was a table that listed more than 100 students, specifically their college entrance exam scores (many were below the minimum threshold of the university), desired majors (all were the more coveted and competitive ones), and who requested favor on behalf of them. (A copy with redacted names is archived at xys.org.) These applicants were marked as the sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, and other unspecified relations of government officials, university administrators, and other power figures.

The college entrance examination is a relentless sorting tool to allocate limited educational resources and is designed as a zero-sum game. Had they been provided with equal opportunities, many more students would have thrived. Unfairness and inequality are baked into the educational and testing system, and the finger should be pointed at both cheaters and the flawed systems.


An English examination held in a Chinese university, a setup intended to prevent fraud. Does this remind you of the Ordinary Wizarding Level Examination held in the Great Hall of Hogwarts? (Image source: Voanews.com)

HW: Exams and homework loom so large in young people’s lives – is this reflected in fiction too? Or is fiction an escape from all that? – could you introduce some books as examples of this experience? (In an earlier post Dong Haiya mentioned that her son adored the Mi Xiaoquan series, for 8-9 year olds, about naughty Mi Xiaoquan and his antics at primary school.)

MC: Zheng Yuanjie 郑渊洁, dubbed China’s “King of Fairy Tales,” is a masterful creator of allegorical stories, and is famous for his stories about the young boy Pipi Lu 皮皮鲁. His books The Taming of the Bunny 驯兔记 and “Dr. Parrot” 鹦鹉博士 criticize how the Chinese education system destroys independent thinkers and rewards total compliance with the authority.

The Taming of the Bunny 驯兔记 and The Rubik’s Cube Mansion 魔方大厦 by Zheng Yuanjie. (Image source: Amazon.com and Amazon.com)

In “Dr. Parrot,” a chapter from The Rubik’s Cube Mansion, a bored boy named Laike is playing with his Rubik’s Cube, when it suddenly grows into a gigantic building. Laike easily enters it through a portal. Each cube turns out to be a kingdom of its own, and each chapter relates Laike’s adventure in one kingdom. In Chapter 12, Laike enrols at a school, which gives one examination every day. Those who pass immediately skip to the next grade. So if one does well enough, he/she can start a new grade a day, proceeding from the first grade all the way to a PhD degree in a whirlwind. There is only one way to test students’ learning: after the teacher’s monologue, they are asked to repeat what the teacher has just said. Laike and his friends cannot keep up, but one student—a parrot—successfully repeats the teacher’s words almost verbatim. When the parrot receives its doctoral degree, Laike is still shamefully stuck in the first grade! The school is so thrilled by the newly discovered talent that it renames itself “The Parrot School” and changes its policy to enrolling parrots only.

Just as Laike is about to be kicked out of the school, he finds a solution. He sneaks a tape recorder into the classroom, records the lectures, and lets the tape run during the examinations. This way he and his friends all “earn” a doctoral diploma eventually. When the newly minted “doctors” ask each other what they have learned at the Parrot School, they realize that they do not know any better than when they started.


Doraemon and the memory bread (image source: doraemon.fandom.com)

I’d also like to mention a Japanese manga series and anime show titled Doraemon, which is well-known by Chinese children. Doraemon is a robotic cat, who travels back in time from the 22nd century and tries to offer high-tech solutions to a boy’s problems. In the episode “Memory Toast,” Nobita, the boy, is panicking because he is ill-prepared for the next day’s examinations. The cat gives him “memory toast.” All Nobita needs to do is press a slice of the bread on the page of a textbook, then eat it, and he will instantly memorize everything on that page. Things are going fairly well until Nobita has to impress his romantic interest, a fellow classmate, with his ability to memorize a telephone book—he recalls the numbers alright, but this is the start of his over-eating. Long story short, by the end of the day Nobita suffers from stomach-ache and spends hours in the bathroom, releasing, and thus forgetting, everything he has just memorized.

The story has great appeal for Chinese children, because students are so often evaluated by their ability to recall information, as opposed to their analytical skills, critical thinking, and creativity. I distinctly remember watching the show as a child without getting the real moral of the story, which is that there is no shortcut to success. Instead, I longed for the same memory toast for my test preparation, confident that I would be more judicious than Nobita with what I pressed the bread on and how much I ate!

HW: There are a lot of Chinese (of course, not only Chinese) children/young adults in overseas schools, and this is much more stressful than many say (eg the family pressure to do well, the personal pressure). Lin Man-Chiu’s novel Behind the Shower Curtain starts with a girl who thinks going to school in England will be easy, and it comes as a shock how hard it is to do the work and to negotiate the relationships with other students). Late at night she sneaks into the bathroom so she can catch up with the work while others sleep. But the bathroom is where the others have their private conversations, and she overhears from behind the shower curtain.


林滿秋: 《浴簾後》Behind the Shower Curtain, by Lin Man-Chiu (image source: readmoo.com)


Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok (image source: Amazon.com)

MC: Sounds like an intriguing book! I also love Girl in Translation, a young adult novel by Jean Kwok. The protagonist Kimberly emigrates with her single mother from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, New York. Even though she is a super brainy child, her schooling experience is not any less challenging when she negotiates the new language and cultural environment as a female, Asian, and poor child.

HW: Could you tell us about some famous schools in Chinese books (especially fictional ones (eg here’s an British list of schools in fiction).

Entrance of the Taoist temple, as represented in television adaptation of Journey to the West (1986).

MC: Great question, but I can’t think of many in Chinese children’s literature. One prominent unnamed “school” is a temple where Monkey King learns Taoist magic. As is described in Journey to the West, the temple is well hidden on a lush mountain and entered through what is called “the Cave of Slanting Moon and the Three Stars.” Under the tutelage of the immortal Patriarch Subodhi, Monkey masters charms, transfiguration, flying, “cloning” (each of his body hair can turn into a little monkey to aid him in battles), and other powerful magic. Little wonder when I read Harry Potter series I experienced a sense of familiarity despite the drastic difference in setting between a Chinese temple and a British boarding school.


The Three-Taste Study Room (image source: Sohu.com)

Another well-known name is “三味书屋” (Three-Taste Study Room), a private tutor’s classroom where Lu Xun received an early education in classical Chinese. He wrote about his school life, filled with carefree fun, in a memoir essay. The Three-Taste Study Room is now a tourist site in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. Child and adult visitors, all having learned about the school room in Chinese textbooks, like to make a pilgrimage to Lu Xun’s former residence to check out the Three-Taste Study Room.


83. Interview with Yangsze Choo, author of “The Ghost Bride”

One book leads to another… last November Lin Man-chiu and I were invited to talk about The Ventriloquist’s Daughter at an event at the LSE. The chair of the event, Prof Fang-long Shih, suggested that the story might be linked with ghost brides (on which she is an expert). Lin Man-chiu rejected this idea, but the discussion stuck in my mind, and when I saw Yangsze Choo’s novel The Ghost Bride, I was intrigued. Amy Matthewson devoured The Ventriloquist’s Daughter and Yangsze Choo’s two books The Ghost Bride (2013) and The Night Tiger (2019) in quick succession, and was thrilled when Yangsze Choo 朱洋熹 agreed to an interview. They discussed both of her books, but agreed that while The Ghost Bride is suitable (albeit scary) for young adults, The Night Tiger is more of an adult read. We are very grateful to Yangsze and Amy for this interview! – Helen


Yangsze Choo (image provided by the author)

Author Yangsze Choo burst onto our bookworm radar with the release of The Ghost Bride in 2013. The book won numerous accolades, including the New York Times bestseller list, Oprah.com’s Book of the Week, and Barnes & Noble Fall 2013 Discover Great New Writers selection. It is currently in production as a Netflix Original series. In 2019, Choo released her second novel, The Night Tiger, which made both the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists, and was also Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick for April 2019. Both books delve into the supernatural and tackle the complexities of forbidden love. Choo brings the reader right into the pulsing daily life of historical Malaya as she describes its diverse cultures, customs, and mouth-watering cuisine in deliciously vivid detail. Choo kindly consented to do a phone interview, offering insight and comments into the main themes of her two successful novels.

The Night Tiger (image sources: amazon; amazon)

AM: First, I would like to say congratulations on The Night Tiger hitting number 5 on the NYT audio bestseller list. You must be very excited.

YC: Yes, thank you! I was lucky enough to be the voice for the audio book. Normally they hire voice actors to read books because they tend to do a better job, but I asked if I could audition for the part, as there are some Malay and Chinese words in the book and I wanted to make sure that they were pronounced right for listeners.

AM: If you had to describe your books in 3 adjectives, what would they be and why?

YC: Hmmm… let me think. Soul-searching would be one; the human quest for identity. Tasty, I think would be another adjective. And wonder. A sense of wonder.

AM: I think ‘tasty’ is a perfect adjective to describe the books!  I remember being constantly hungry reading The Ghost Bride.  Especially your description of the assortment of meals for sale in the market alley where Li Lan’s spirit followed Old Wong: glossy prawns, noodles, crispy begedil, satay and stingray rubbed with chilli paste… yum!

Ghost bride

The Ghost Bride (image source: amazon)

A central theme in both novels is the supernatural. Can you tell us more about your interest in this topic? And perhaps tell us how you distinguish between the supernatural and religious beliefs?

YC: I’ve always been interested in the idea of parallel or a mirror worlds, and the human capacity for holding contradictory beliefs. The question of what reality you see, and how it affects your understanding of the world, is always in flux. The Ghost Bride is split between the worlds of the living and the dead, and The Night Tiger also explores parallel worlds of servants and masters, foreigners and locals, men and women, science and mysticism. There’s also the theme of twins and doppelgängers as well, and the question of what happens when you truly see yourself. Are you, as in the legend of the doppelgänger, doomed to die—or is that the death of the ego?

Going back to the supernatural and religiosity, these two are combined with our everyday lives. For Chinese, that’s commonly seen in the use of numbers because numbers are homophones and everyday conversation can be layered with the supernatural.  In the West, I have friends who will say that their favourite basketball team won because they remembered to wear their lucky blue socks! It’s the same impulse.

AM: I’m intrigued by this idea of homophonous numbers.  Could you give some examples?

YC: The number 4 sounds like “death” in Chinese, so any numbers with four in them are usually considered bad luck. Similarly the number 3 sounds like “life”, while 8 is a homophone for “fortune”. That’s why you’ll see the popularity of number combinations like 3388 or 888. There are many more combinations you can make (e.g. 168 sounds like “fortune all the way along the road”), which is why whenever people get phone numbers or addresses, they instinctively check them to see whether they have lucky connotations. Certain numbers are in high demand and are sometimes auctioned off, e.g. car license plates.

AM: In The Ghost Bride, the two women Li Lan and Ji Lin have similar romantic interests. Their romances are also unusual and go against the socially accepted norms. Could you elaborate on the idea behind the themes of forbidden love in both novels?

YC: Haha! Interestingly, there wasn’t much romance in The Ghost Bride initially, but my editor and agent both suggested exploring it more, which I think was a good suggestion. It turned out to be an element that readers really enjoyed.

When I’m writing, I usually let the characters decide where the story is going, in the sense that after a while they start acting and deciding things on their own, as though they have become real people. That’s the beauty of fiction, I think—that after a while all these imaginary characters from Elizabeth Bennett to Harry Potter become people that we actually know and can talk about with readers across continents and time. It’s a great gift.

And so for both The Ghost Bride and The Night Tiger, I felt like the protagonists had begun to decide for themselves, even if those choices were sometimes deeply inconvenient and came at a steep cost. But perhaps that is where the dramatic tension lies. When I’m stuck, I often ask myself “what would be the most interesting/inconvenient thing to happen now?”. Sometimes it’s good, or bad, or ambiguous – but it should always be interesting!

Perhaps that’s the other thing about novels: they are a heightened reflection of reality, like a dream or the mirror worlds we talked about earlier. I imagine that each person has a slightly different movie version of a novel playing in their heads, with different actors, different music, different set designs and colour tones.

AM: Within the first few minutes of The National Critics Choice interview, you mentioned how you believe that the reason there are so many women in Chinese ghost stories is because there is a subconscious recognition that hauntings were one of the only ways women could get back at everyone. I found this observation really interesting. Certainly Ji Lin felt this inequality. How do you reconcile this tension between situating women within their own historical circumstances yet still keeping them relatable to modern readers?

YC: That’s a really good question. I think you have to stay true to the time period as this is an alternate reality that has to be sustained. To a certain extent, there are limits to having a modern-day super heroine in a historical time and context, where women faced very difficult odds. Of course, there were always people who went against societal norms but when they did, there was often a very high price to pay.

AM: Is there a third novel on the way? If so, could you tell us a little about it?

YC: I’m working on something right now, though I’ve changed direction and setting since I started. I tend to write by the seat of my pants, so we’ll see!

AM: The Ghost Bride was set in the late nineteenth century and The Night Tiger was set in the early twentieth century. Will the third novel keep moving forward in time?

YC: I’m not sure, to be honest, though I’m tempted to go slightly backwards in time again.

AM: One final question… Chinese Books for Young Readers likes to ask interviewees about their own childhood reading – would you tell us about the books you read as a child or teenager, what you liked about them, and how you came across them (did someone introduce them to you, or did you find them yourself, and if so where?)

YC: As a child I read Pu Songling’s Liao zhai zhi yi, also known as “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio”. My parents bought it from a Chinese bookstore called Popular Bookstore in Malaysia and it’s considered a classic. It’s full of ghosts and foxes and really just odd stories, which captured my imagination, and also painted this shadowy other world that existed alongside ours. I suppose to this day I’m still trying to write “strange tales” myself.

pu songling

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling, tr. John Minford (image source: goodreads)