The Chinese examination system, stretching though two thousand years of
Chinese history, theoretically created a system of meritocracy, in which any man
of whatever background could join the governing class by means of his learning.
By late Imperial times, successful candidates were appointed only to districts
other than their own, to avoid conflicts of interest and other seeds of local
corruption. But the examination system itself became increasingly bureaucratic
and exacting, leading to a condition, according to Benjamin Elman, in which
"cheating became a cottage industry." Since candidates and their possessions
were physically searched before they could enter the examination hall, in which
they were locked for the three days of the examination, it is hard to imagine
how successful any of the attempts at cheating actually were. This handkerchief
is covered with hand-brushed tiny characters representing some of the texts a
candidate was required to know.