“Gifted as you are and coming from an illustrious family,” said Ma Zhunshang, “you should have passed the examinations long ago. How is it that you are still in retirement?” “Since my father died early I was brought up by my grandfather and occupied with family business: I had no time to study for the civil service.”
“That was a mistake. Right from ancient times all the best men have gone in for the civil service. Confucius, for instance, lived during the Spring and Autumn Period when men were selected as officials on the strength of their activities and sayings. That is why Confucius said: ‘Make few false statements and do little you may regret, then all will be well.’ That was the civil service of Confucius’ time.
“By the time of the Warring States, the art of rhetoric had become the road to officialdom: that is why Mencius traveled through Qi and Liang delivering orations to the princes. That was the civil service of Mencius’ time.
“By the Han Dynasty, the examination system was designed to select men for their ability, goodness and justice; and thus men like Gongsun Hong and Dong Zhongshu were appointed to office. That was the civil service of the Han Dynasty.
“By the Tang Dynasty, scholars were chosen for their ability to write poetry. Even if a man could talk like Confucius or Mencius, that would not get him a post; so all the Tang scholars learned to write poems. That was the civil service of the Tang Dynasty.
“By the Song Dynasty, it was even better: all the officials had to be philosophers. That was why the Cheng brothers and Zhu Xi propagated neo-Confucianism. That was the civil service of the Song Dynasty.
“Nowadays, however, we use essays to select scholars, and this is the best criterion of all. Even Confucius, if he were alive today, would be studying essays and preparing for the examinations instead of saying, ‘Make few false statements and do little you may regret.’ Why? Because that kind of talk would get him nowhere: nobody would give him an official position. No, the old sage would find it impossible to realize his ideal.”
–Wu Jingzi, The Scholars (儒林外史), chapter XIII, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2005),173-4.
Much has changed since the time of Confucius. Or, then again, maybe it hasn’t.