In our previous episodes, we mentioned the Imperial examination 科举 考试 in ancient China in a few stories. Today we are going to talk about the God of the Examination in Chinese mythology – Kui Xing 魁星.
Chinese Imperial examinations were a system in ancient China to select candidates for the bureaucracy, which had the enormous affect in Chinese culture, society and politics. It could be dated back to Sui Dynasty 隋朝, around the year 605 until Qing Dynasy 清朝, the last Dynasty in Imperial China. During Tang Dynasty 唐朝 and Song Dynasty 宋朝， the system was widely used. It lasted for 1300 years and also affected the exam system in a lot other countries especially in Asia. The exam, not like today, has a variety of subjects but was based on knowledge of classics, literature and philosophy. There are definitely a lot of things to talk about the exam and the both positive and negative effects it brought to China. We will mention it in the future in our stories for sure. Since it was the major path to bureaucracy, what’s more, in ancient China, being an official in the government was considered as the best choice in life, almost everyone tried to get a good ranking in the exam. I think that’s definitely one reason today in Asia, education of the young generation is still considered as the most important thing. Families would invest most of their money to their kids. Because education is related with social status, wealth and respect.
The god we are going to talk about today is called Kui Xing. Xing 星 means star in Chinese. So Kui Xing in the ancient time referred to the four stars in the first section of the Big Dipper. The character of Kui 魁 means the first or top. As a Taoism god, since Song Dynasty 宋朝，there have been a lot of temples in China for people to worship. Since Kui Xing is in charge of examinations, you might think he looks nerdy, pale skin and skinny body right? On the contrary, he is depicted as a ferocious ugly guy with gold body, green face, red hair just looked like a demon. He usually holds a writing brush in his right hand and ink bottle in his left hand. The most signature thing about him is that he stands with his right foot on a giant turtle and his left foot supports a ladle of the stars. Because turtle is called ao 鳌in Chinese. Ao tou鳌头, the head of the turtle, means get the first place. In Taoism, it is said Kui Xing is bent and humpbacked looking like an calligraphy character himself.
There is some folktales about who he was before he became the god of the examinations. One story says he was a ugly man but talented man who got admission to the last round of the exam called DianShi 殿试, the exam held in the palace in front of the emperor. Like we mentioned in a lot of stories before, the exams were to select the most intelligent people however, the last round was more like an interview. Among all of the smart people, the emperors had a preference to pick a better looking one. So the emperor asked him, “why do you have so many freckles on your face? ” Freckles are common among white people but most Asians don’t have freckles so it is considered as a shortcoming in terms of appearance in China. I mean I think freckles are cute especially on young girls’ faces. But anyways, he replied, “my freckles are stars in the sky.” The emperor asked him, “why are you crippled?” He said, “it means I can stand on top by myself ” cause in Chinese du 独 means alone or one. The emperor got impressed and assigned him as the top one in the exam.
There is a really short story only in three sentences from Strange Stories from A Chinese Studio聊斋 志 异. It says, there is a man named Zhang Jiyu 张济宇 from the city of Yun 郓城. One night he was lying on the bed and suddenly the room was filled with bright light. He looked carefully in astonishment and saw a ghost standing with a writing brush like Kui Xing, God of the examination. He jumped out from the bed and keeled down to pray. The night then disappeared. From then on, he was so confident about the examination that he thought it was a sign from the god. Guess what happened? After that, he became so unlucky and didn’t make any progress in his career. What’s worse, his families all passed away leaving only him in this world. The author commented in the end: why didn’t Kui Xing bring him good luck but bad luck? Like Oracle told to Neo in the Matrix, “I can show you the path but you have to take it.”
It just reminded me of one story from the Japanese comic book Doraemon, my favourite comic from childhood. So Doraemon is a robotic cat from the future who has a magic pockets with all kinds of cool inventions. He lives with a really normal pre-teen boy called Nobita Nobi. Like most kids, Nobita didn’t prepare well for the exam one morning, so Doraemon offered him this memory bread. All Nobita needed to do was to stamp the bread on the pages of the books he was required to memorize and ate them. The bread was like an edible copy machine! The end of the story like most of stories in Doraemon that Nobita made fun of himself by going to the restroom during the exam and forgot everything he “ate”.
魁星 Kui Xing
聊斋 志 异 Strange Stories from A Chinese Studio