Ambition in Peace: My Favorite Scene in The Wall of Storms
— by Ken Liu
I suspect all writers have a scene in their novel that they love more than any other. It is the one scene they had the most fun writing and felt at their cleverest. I’m going to tell you about mine.
My first novel, The Grace of Kings, was a story of ambitious men and women in a time of war. For the sequel, The Wall of Storms, I wanted to tell a story about ambitious men and women in a time of peace—or at least I started that way.
How to channel the energy that would have otherwise gone into conquest and slaughter in a time of relative peace is a problem that many societies (including ours) faced and still face. We need to find a way to allocate limited resources—such as education opportunities, access to capital, and power—to select members of a much larger pool of candidates.
Many societies settled on some variation of test-taking as the way to perform this selection: among them are the Chinese Imperial civil examination system and the contemporary standardised tests used by American colleges as part of their entrance requirements. What has fascinated me is the fact that as long as such systems have existed, people have passionately argued that they’re unfair, and also pointed out that they’re better than almost any alternative system. The arguments for and against examinations have essentially remained unchanged.
Let me use the history of the Chinese Imperial examinations as an example. During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, participants in the examinations demonstrated their learning and creativity by composing poetry. Song Dynasty reformers criticised this approach because it tested for skills and knowledge that had little practical value in the expected future employment of examinees (sound familiar?). As a result, the subject of the examinations shifted to the Confucian classics, filled with moral reasoning arguments about the proper administration of the state, which are considered far more relevant for future bureaucrats.
Over time, the examinations were repeatedly criticised for being unfair as students could engage in creative ‘tricks’ that wowed the exam graders, and gradually, the increasing call for standardised test patterns and responses that eliminated all ‘unfairness’ (again, sound familiar?) resulted in the so-called ‘eight-legged essays’ of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which you may think of as something akin to the five-paragraph essays beloved of high school teachers on steroids. Every avenue of creativity was sealed off and all examinees were required to write in this stilted, restrictive organisation pattern to demonstrate their knowledge of Neo-Confucian precepts.
The artificiality of this form of testing brought more criticism that the tests were measuring nothing more than the ability to write eight-legged essays well, and during the Qing Dynasty, the Kangxi Emperor even abolished the essay form for a few years. But soon protests from scholars who argued that there was nothing better restored their use. Later, the Qianlong Emperor also tried to reform the tests in favour of something better, but after the wisest scholars in the realm failed to come up with anything better, the examinations would be continued in that form essentially unchanged until the early twentieth century.
During the long years when the Imperial examinations were carried out in China, they were the primary means by which men (and they were open only to men) advanced into government service and elevated the social class of their families. Despite all the criticisms levied against the exams—that they favoured those who were wealthy and privileged enough to be tutored in the Confucian classics, that they favoured those who toed the official line rather than originality, that they tested nothing more than the skill to take tests, that they prized memorisation over practical skills, and so on—it was also the one institution of dynastic China that was widely recognised as egalitarian and fair. Every session, brilliant scholars from poor backgrounds and families at the very bottom of the social hierarchy became overnight successes through the Imperial examinations. For millions of families struggling in abject poverty and oppression, it offered a ray of hope for social mobility, slim though it was. There was nothing comparable in Medieval Europe.
I was struck by the complexity of the historical debates around the Imperial examinations and the eerie manner in which they echo modern debates about the merits and faults of standardised testing, and so I decided that I had to put an examination scene in my silkpunk epic fantasy.
In Kuni Garu’s Dara, after the Chrysanthemum-Dandelion War, the Islands were at peace. Men as well as women of ambition could now take the Imperial examinations to achieve their dreams. But what an examination it would be! I wrote the examination scene essentially as a battle scene, full of deeds of daring and acts of courage. The scholars pray to the god of war and they prepare as for a day of battle. They fight against not only physical deprivation and mental exhaustion, but also self-doubt. They engage in stratagems and cheats, perform with honour and commit unforgivable sins. They wield the writing knife and the inked brush like Na-aroénna and Goremaw, and their battles against the blank page will live on in song and story.
I suspect anyone who took the bar exam will nod and smile with recognition.
I don’t think I’ve ever read another epic fantasy that features as one of its central set pieces a scene of scholars taking an examination—and this is a bona fide pen-and-paper examination, not a physical trial or ordeal. But I had the best time in the world writing it, and I hope you enjoy it just as much when reading it.