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T'ang Studies 6 (1988) The Dragons and Tigers of 792: The Examination in T'ang History JOHN LEE ST. MARY'S UNIVERSITY HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA In 792, twenty-three young men, all ambitious and talented, earned the coveted designation of chin-shih ~ ±, or Presented Scholar, by successfully competing in the examination held to select candidates for government offices. An unusually high number of them went on to achieve fame as gifted men of letters or as able and respected officials, prompting one present-day writer to call 792 an annus mirabilis.1 Their contemporaries were no less impressed, and the class of 792 was popularly dubbed the List of Dragons and Tigers (lung-hu-pang 1m fJr. ~).z This essay is not a study on the lives of these twenty-three men. Far too few of them left behind enough details of their lives to enable us to reconstruct them. They will be used, instead, as a sample in examining some larger issues of T'ang history. The focus of our inquiry will be on the examination system. We will begin with a brief description of the various aspects of the examination system as it appeared in the mid- and late-T'ang. This will be followed by a consideration of the examination's role in T'ang society and culture and its significance. A few summarizing remarks will conclude the essay. I In the T'ang, the chin-shih, which tested candidates on their literary ability, including the ability to compose various types of verse, was but one of several means to select future officials. In 1 Edwin Pulleyblank, "Neo-Confucianism and Neo-Legalism in Tang Intellectual Life, 755-806," in Confucian Personalities,ed. Wright (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1960), 94. 2 Hsin Tang shu ffi m.(hereafter HTS) (Peking: Chung-hua, 1975),203.5787. 25 Lee: Dragons and Tigers of 792 time, however, the chin-shih exam came to surpass all others in terms of importance and prestige and emerged as the premier way to official success. "Passing the examination" in fact became synonymous with passing the chin-shih, and as all ambitious young men competed to pass the chin-shih, according to a popular sarng of that time, "for a chin-shih, even a fifty-year-old is young." The reign of the Emperor Hsiian-tsung (r. 712-756) is generally seen as a time when the examination system as a whole went through a major transformation. Two changes were especiallynotable . In order to qualify for the examination, a candidate must either have studied at one of the academies that the state maintained at the capital and at the seats of local government or be recommended by prefectural governors. Each prefecture held its own examination, and successful candidates were presented to the central government in the tenth month of every year, as a part of the annual tributes.4 In the early years, few among such provincially -recommended candidates emerged successful from the final contest. Between 674 and 707, for example, only six of the 638 chin-shih fell into that category.5 By the middle of the eighth century, however, the situation had been reversed, and, alarmed by the trend, twice (in 753 and 764) the central government went so far as barring provincially-recommended candidates from the final examination. 6 Judging from the evidence, this and other similar attempts were ultimately fruitless. State academies went into an irreversible decline, and instead of trying to secure admission to these schools, young men now flocked to those prefectures 3 Wang Ting-pao x ~ ~, Tang chih-yen mUf g (hereafter TCY) (Shanghai: Ku-chi, 1978), 1.4. The quote in question forms one half of a couplet, the other line being, "for a ming-ching, even a thirty-year-old is old." 4 These candidates were referred to as hsiang-/amg • it, while the graduates of state academies were dubbed chien-sheng J!i 1:.. 5 TCY, 1.8. 6 For 753, see Chiu Tang shu • me (hereafter ChTS) (Peking: Chung-hua, 1975), 9.227 andHTS 44.1164. For 764, see T~ 1.5. 26 T'ang Studies 6 (1988) that had produced a high number of...


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