THE LARGEST museum commemorating the gruelling examination system China used in imperial days to select civil servants opened in 2017 in Nanjing. It would not seem an obvious destination for a fun family outing in the eastern city. As visitors walk into it down a grey ramp—130 metres long to symbolise the test’s 1,300-year history—a sign tells them they will “experience the hardships of the journey to success” for those who sat the keju before its abolition in 1905. Bamboo slips affixed to towering walls represent the “myriad” books that candidates had to read.
Yet on a recent weekday afternoon, there were as many youngsters filling the museum’s cavernous halls as there were attentive adults. A mother from the city of Xi’an, hundreds of kilometres inland, had brought her four-year-old son in order to inspire him. “He likes the dioramas,” she said brightly, “even though he doesn’t know what an exam is yet.” A coalmine engineer from Ordos, a city in distant Inner Mongolia, was there with his nine-year-old son whose “fate” he hoped to alter through their visit. “Xiangshi, huishi, dianshi,” his son piped up, naming three levels of the ancient test that inspired the creation of civil-service exams in the West.
In terms of the awe it inspires, the keju has a modern rival: the gaokao, a punishingly hard university-entrance exam which is taken by over 10m students every year. For those from poor families, a good score is often their only chance to escape a life toiling on farms or in factories. As a result, Chinese education has long involved little more than rote learning, aimed purely at the gaokao. Pupils attend late-night cram sessions and shoulder twice as much homework as the global average.