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Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

February 14, 2011

Tiger Mothers and the Ming Dynasty Examination System

Imperial Exam Halls
In the Ming Dynasty, (1368 – 1644), China established an examination system as a merit-based approach for appointments to government office. There were three levels to the exams, with the final cut then coming through an examination administered by the Emperor himself. The subject matter of the exams was standardized beyond anything we see today. It was based on a limited set of ancient works, stripped of any contemporary additions. The examinations depended exclusively on the memorization of these classics. The exams were administered in a way that assured anonymity. Those reaching the third level wrote in separate cells, the equivalent of modern-day cubicles. After days of writing, they literally threw their papers over a wall, where the writing was copied by a scribe to assure there would be no tell-tale indications of the examinees.

Those seeking elite government office spent years preparing for the exams. Those who failed could reapply as often as they wished. This gave hope that even those of humble birth could rise to the upper class by dint of their will and assiduous efforts. This in turn increased the stability of the Dynasty, because those who might vent their frustration of being outside the system and who had the talent for fomenting a revolution could be channeled into the elite rungs of society instead. And the fact that this path existed made it more difficult to corral others of a similar mindset.

This system was adopted by other Asian countries, notably Japan and Korea, and has continued to the modern era with little change. The path to the top colleges came through similarly standardized tests based on that ability to memorize and learn by rote. These tests were of such critical importance that students followed up their class work with hours of after school studies, and often took an additional year to prepare. Tests governed admission into the elite middle schools, which in turn prepared the student for the next set of tests to get into the elite high schools, which then led to the elite colleges. Unlike the U.S., the pecking order of those colleges is clearly determined, with one school indisputably at the top – Seoul University in Korea, Tokyo University in Japan.

I studied Asian languages in college and spent a few years in Asia, seeing this first hand. Just before I spent time in Korea, the country had eliminated the grueling examination program for entrance into the middle schools, and the result was an almost immediate increase of an inch in the average height of twelve and thirteen year-olds. I knew students who took a year after college, living in squalid conditions while studying non-stop for the kodung koshi, the equivalent of the third-level exam that extended from the Ming. And those who failed could retake the exams, in the same spirit as occurred during the Ming.

I believe this tradition of examination, based on memorization and rote learning, with a fanatical focus to the exclusion of all else, is at the root of the Asian “Tiger Mother” approach to raising children today.

The examination system is less prevalent now in Asia because government service has lost some of its earlier luster as opportunities expanded in the private sector, and it is certainly irrelevant for Asians who now live in U.S., (the preparation for the SAT, substantial as that can be, pales in comparison). But the tradition remains. Perhaps it survives as more than a tradition, because the families of those who harbored the characteristics that allowed them to succeed in these exams would have flourished, so those traits would have survived disproportionately.

The rigor of this examination process, which in the U.S. simply does not require the level of focus and does not fully determine one's future, is being channeled into other areas. One area, prominent in the Tiger Mother book, is music. Several of my children who participated in piano competitions were often the only non-Asians. The results of the Tiger Mother progeny's two plus hours a day of practice, focused a year at a time on the two or three pieces required for most competitions, is spectacular in one respect, and flat in another. Such musical training is more like training for athletics; indeed piano performance in particular can be readily transformed into an athletic event that focuses on small-muscle groups. The performances of the piano athletes are technically spectacular, but as would be expected from something that is developed by rote, they can be lean on musicality. Think gymnastics versus ballet. (I sponsor a piano competition in the memory of one of my children who had an insatiable love of music where a broad repertoire is required, with the hope that this will map to students who have a love of music as an end in itself).

What is the end result of this vestige of the Ming approach to education? Well, we can look back to the end result in the Ming itself. Those who passed the examinations and entered into the elite offices had the classics down cold. But they didn't know much else. How could they, given the efforts and focus required of these examinations? And while I don't have much to go on, my guess would be that they were not exactly off the charts in terms of what we now popularly call emotional IQ. But the history of the period suggests that for all the laudable screening, those who succeeded to office often did not succeed in the office.

My experience is that this process as it has been retained in the modern era leads to similar failings. That should not be surprising, because as with the Ming, there is little time for anything beyond the task. There is an incredible uniformity in the approach to problem solving, and the sorts of problems that can be solved. When I was a professor, I had two Korean students who handed in identical exam papers. They went so far as to work out the problems in the same steps, put a box around each problem, put identical work in the same place in the box. They both even underlined each of the answers twice. It was clear to me that one of them must have copied in distinctively uncreative fashion from the other. When I called them into my office and confronted them with their identical work, they really had no idea why I thought there was a problem. They had not cheated, they had been trained with painstaking precision to do things in the same way. Thus the form of their work was identical, the process of their solutions was identical, and their mistakes were as well.


  1. As an Asian (Indian nationality), I can relate to this post and agree with it completerly. When I came to the US to do my MS, I realized my approach to "studying" was completely wrong as there was not much importance on thinking. I am not going to do the same mistake with my kids.

  2. I'm sure you're aware that the exam system was designed to maintain the Dynastic Status quo. Confucius wanted a stable and safe social system for the people. And it worked for thousands of years until the West invaded China.

    On the other hand, the non-bureaucratic Chinese invented all sorts of things like the stirrup; the fenestrated rudder on large junks; Admiral Ho's (or He's) Treasure Ships that explored the world before Columbus (during the Ming Dynasty); and thousands of other inventions.

    Joseph Needham's "Science and Civilization in China" is certainly worth a read, if you have the time. It is, after all, 27 volumes and several thousand pages long. He catalogued thousands of Chinese inventions. This clearly indicates the creative and innovative aspect of Chinese culture, doesn't it?

    The Chinese culture is multifaceted and multi-dimensional. The ancient exam system was just one small part of the total. Chinese calligraphy is another. Do you know what it takes for a Chinese school kid to learn how to write Chinese characters with a brush?

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  3. I know about Chinese calligraphy -- I studied it while in Asia and I collect literati art. I agree that Chinese culture is deep and multi-faceted. I am writing in this post about one thing, and that is the how the examination system might be an antecedent to what is now popularized as the "Tiger Mother".

  4. My point about calligraphy is this: the 6-7 year old child without small muscle dexterity in his hands didn't do well. This eliminated a lot of children. Further, many people just don't have the dexterity necessary to use the brush in the Chinese writing manner. Not all people are artists. And it takes an artist's skill to write Chinese in the classical way.

    Calligraphy eliminated many otherwise gifted people from the bureaucratic exam system. What happened to all those people? A scholar-mandarin didn't invent gunpowder. He wouldn't dirty his hands with the chemicals. Then who did? Who taught the inventors that Joseph Needham wrote so copiously about?

    The fact of the matter is that there were many educational systems in China. The Imperial exam was only a tiny part of it. I don't remember how many brick exam stalls there were, but the number 500 sticks in my mind. And, in any given year, only a few positions were available. Another reason people came back year after year to take the exam. They were hoping for someone to die or be removed by the Emperor.

    It is dubious that the scholar-mandarine had any real impact on the average Chinese family. People knew about the rigors of the Imperial exam system, and few ever made it their life's work to serve the Emperor. The fact of the matter was that most of the servants to the Emperor were Eunuchs.

    I don't believe it's fair to characterize all Chinese learning to be "rote." Rote learning has its place. And what makes a creative individual very often comes from rebelling against "rote knowledge."

    1. And also, faith-based religion was far less important than secular ideologies such as Confucian thought, based obviously on close study of human society. Just my half-baked Western view, of course...

  5. Interesting article. I recently read Amy Chua's book and greatly enjoyed it. Her approach required equally as much dedication on her part as it did on the part of her children.

    It would appear that in many Western cultures, where discipline has been increasingly seen as detrimental to beneficial development of the young, there has been a general trend towards a poorer general standard of education.

    If rewards are to gained, discipline requires dedication, input and participation on the part of the person(s) enforcing it and a willingness to be disciplined on the part of the person(s) on whom it is being imposed. Most individuals tend not to be good at self discipline, especially if they have not generally been exposed to disciplinary measures, and do need to be disciplined.

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of Amy Chua's approach to the education of her children there was discipline at its heart, balanced successfully with love.

    We all recognise that to varying degrees the learning of skills requires dedication and practice, both of which require discipline if they are to be successfully marshalled to achieve the skills sought.

    Nothing exists on its own, nor are things successfully achieved by adopting a blinkered approach to their attainment. Understanding the constituent activities for achieving learning and skill development and the adoption of a balanced approach to their application is one of the keys to successful education.

    The attainment of core skills and abilities forms part of the foundation on which subsequent learning and personal development is dependent. The early development of mind is fundamental to its future development. A bed rock of sound, principled ideas has to be present, has to be learnt, before the mind can start to interpret experience and coalesce the individual spheres of early knowledge into a greater whole. Learning by rote during these early stages is an important phase in development of mind.

    As with knowledge the learning of skills, the training of the brain to perform motor functions, requires frequent repetitive training that forms the basis for subsequent development on which real accomplishment can be attained.

  6. From an early age I was encouraged by my parents to try anything and everything and stick with it for a minimum amount of time as set by them (summer "fun/creative" classes, advanced school year classes, sports, music, etc). Today I feel well rounded for it and have diverse interests (finance, history, 20th century "classics", astronomy, among others). Did this approach shut down some avenues for me, by not focusing in certain areas or "studying for the test"? I am sure, but also not studying for ACT/SAT still allowed for good enough scores in late 90s of 31 and 1,300 respectively to get into a good college and major in Finance and minor in History. Today I have a genuine love of knowledge and regularly piece together ideas from different disciplines in ways others rarely think about or explore.

    That said, back to studying for the Level III CFA exam.

  7. It would seem that judged competition is becoming the norm in music, even among the very young, to pernicious effect.

    Our former Secretary of State was a product of this type of upbringing. Her piano playing, while surprisingly polished, especially considering the enormity of her other responsibilities and accomplishments, is robotic and devoid of human sentiment.

    The compensatory approach of Lang Lang is even more inhuman.

  8. This in turn increased the stability of the Dynasty, because those who might vent their frustration of being outside the system and who had the talent for fomenting a revolution could be channeled into the elite rungs of society instead.

    Good memorists are good revolution-fomenters?

    1. They might not all pass the exam, but they have an equal and fair chance. This will dampen the revolutionary urge, because they are not forced outside the system, their energy is spent working toward entering the system, and the system is not rigged. And not as many will follow them, because either they have had a shot and have failed, or they have not even tried.


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