Examining Exams Brings History to Life

“An exam on exams!,” University Archivist Heather Briston excitedly described the final for graduate students in Qing History through Manchu Sources, which met in Library Special Collections last fall. Instructor Devin Fitzgerald explained, “Studying seventeenth-century Imperial examination papers helps bring this important period of Chinese territorial expansion to life for students.”

During that century the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) acquired Tibet as well as Xinjiang, located in the country’s far northwest corner. Following the conquest, former warriors sought positions as high ranking civil servants—and like many civil servants today, they needed to pass exams to progress in their careers.

“For historians, reading Manchu is essential to understanding the Qing Dynasty’s government records and thus its actions, particularly in regions that continue to be contested today,” explained Fitzgerald. “Though Manchu is now an endangered language, the Qing Dynasty governed these regions exclusively in that language, and working with these examination papers helped my students learn both the language and the politics.”

But that’s not all the students in the class learned from the papers. For Joyce Kuo, who’s working on a master’s degree in East Asian studies, the exercise broadened her perspective.

“Before this class, I thought of the Manchus as a brute, conquering army,” Kuo said. “But I learned how they established a functioning system of governance and even caught glimpses of their humanity: the Imperial exam papers revealed some translation errors, just like a student today might make!

“Having these sources in front of your eyes connects you with people of the past; studying history is really studying humanity,” she continued. “Also, seeing Manchu and Chinese texts juxtaposed reminds you that identity politics is not just a modern phenomenon.”

Hundreds of Imperial examinations spanning 1646–1904 are only one of the treasures in the UCLA Library’s Han Yu-Shan Collection. Among other remarkable items, the collection includes a set of eighteenth-century woodblocks containing “miracle stories”—similar to Biblical fables— based on the ancient Buddhist Diamond Sutra.

Fitzgerald’s class is one of hundreds that come to UCLA Library Special Collections each year to work with its rare and unique holdings. For many students, engaging with centuries-old works triggers new curiosities.

“I believe materiality can tell you a lot,” Fitzgerald concluded. “When you actually handle the paper, when you smell that it was stored in cedar boxes, when you see the brittle corners, it raises questions that you wouldn’t otherwise ask.”