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The Examination

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Reviewed by Diana Marston-Wood

During this past fall a friend who specializes in young people’s literature steered me toward an intriguing novel of traditional China—the year 1448, to be exact! This story focuses on the functioning of the exam system in a way which is suspenseful, historically accurate to a reasonable degree, and conveyed through the eyes of teenagers. I think the book is appropriate as supplementary reading for students in grades eight, nine, and ten (depending on reading level, of course).

Bosse’s adventure tale follows two brothers: the older, born under the sign of the Tiger, was “strong, if reckless; loyal, but hot-tempered; compassionate, though with little respect for authority.” Younger brother, “born under the sign of the ox [was] patient and stubborn [and had] demonstrated a wonderful gift for language.” Younger brother embarks on an attempt to pass all examination levels, from district to county, province, and eventually the pinnacle of civil service advancement, Beijing. Older brother accompanies and protects his scholarly brother along the way. Of course, they make it, but not without some hair-raising skirmishes with flood, famine, and pirates along the Yangzi River, as well as members of the White Lotus Society.

In reality, younger brother seems almost too brilliant to be believable; and both young men seem to lead charmed lives as they journey from Sichuan to Beijing. Another distracting aspect of the book lies with Bosse’s mistaken use of “Lao” as a surname instead of using it to designate the older brother. However, the ultimate point of the novel rests with the contrast between Chinese scholars’ excessive emphasis on Confucian moralism and book learning as opposed to the stark realities of most people’s everyday survival. Surely, this is an essential issue of Chinese history and culture. The author does an excellent job of accurately describing the grueling examination process and explores many facets of Confucian and Daoist thought. The Examination may be just the book to draw young adolescents into a serious inquiry into the values of Chinese society.