An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

cewen 策問, strategic questions

Apr 28, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Cewen 策問 "strategic questions" was a type of essay written during the state examinations. It originated during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) and was in use until the Song 宋 (960-1279). This type of "examination about strategy" (ceshi 策試) included comments on political matters (zhengshi 政事) and applied interpretations (jingyi 經義) of quotations from the Confucian Classics. The questions dealt in particular with problematic issues (nanwen 難問). The essay was to be compiled in a questions-and-answer pattern. Examinees (yinshi zhe 應試者) answered the suggested questions by their own opinion, and included a measure to resolve problematic issues (duice 對策 or xiece 謝策 or shece 射策 "with anwers quickly pronounce like arrows").

The answer might be quite short, but demonstrated that the examinee had understood the basic problem of the question. In case the ruler himself had chosen the questions, the examination was called "strategic [examination] on imperial order" (zhice 制策). The question catalogue itself was called shice 試策. The focus on statecraft matter served to select candidates which were able to apply statements from the Confucian canon or history books on practical matters. The text was to be written in a style similar to suggestions submitted in memorials to the throne (zouyi 奏議). It was generally rather short, with a maximum length of about 500 characters.

Early Tang period 唐 (618-907) cewen essays were still written in paired prose (piantiwen 駢體文), but unbound prose soon dominated.

Quotation 1. Five answers to strategic questions for the central examination (Jinshi cewen wu dao 進士策問五道), compiled by Quan Deyu 權德輿 (759-818)
問:六經之後,百氏塞路,微言大義,浸以乖絕。使昧者耗日力以滅天理,去夷道而趨曲學,利誘於內,不能自還。漢廷用經術以昇貴位,傅古義以決疑獄,誠為理之本也。今有司或欲舉建中制書,置五經博士,條定員品,列於國庠,諸生討論,歲課能否。然後刪非聖之書,使舊章不亂,則經有師道,學皆顓門。以為如何?當有其說。至於九流百家,論著利病,有可以輔經術而施教化者,皆為別白書之。 [First] question: After the Six Classics [had flourished], the hundred Masters blocked the road, and [while the Classics earlier had] expressed great matters with refined words, [the writings of the Masters] aborted [them] by distorting and dispersing [important issues]. [The Masters] weakened the ignorant in their daily duties by destroying the Heavenly principle; made them leave the even Way and turn towards crooked teachings; they [brought about] temptations in the private sphere, so that no one was able to find back to himself. The court of the Han dynasty used the skills of the Classics to elevate persons to high posts; it relied on the ancient meanings to resolve disputes in judicial matters—[this kind of] sincerity is the root of order.
In present times the one or other official desired to realize the edicts of the Jianzhong reign period (780-783), to create [the institution of] the erudites for the Five Classics, define the ranks of [their?] offices, and install them in the national schools, so that is was possible to discuss whether all students had achieved the annual targets [of learning]. Later on all books not belonging to the sacred canon were abolished, and the correct versions of the old texts were established; thus [each] Classic had a way of teaching, and [those] learning were experts in their field. What do you think about [these matters]?
This discussion is correct. When it came to the time that the nine schools diverted from [the line established in the Classics], their writings discussed profitable or harmful [matters], and with some among them, it is possible to support the skills of the Classics and to carry out cultivation; everything written [in these books] serves to clarify [matters].
問:《易》曰:「君子夕惕若厲。」《語》曰:「君子坦蕩蕩。」《禮》之言絅衣則曰:「惡其文之著也。」《儒行》則曰:「多文以為富。」或全歸以為孝,或殺身以成仁,或玉色以山立,或毀方以瓦合,皆若相戾,未能盡通。顏回三月不違仁,孟軻四十不動心,何者為優?柳下惠三黜而不去,子文三巳而無慍,何者為愈?召忽死子糾,管仲相小白,棠君赴楚召,子胥為吳行人,何者為是?析疑體要,思有所聞。 [Second] question: The Changes say, if the superior man is in the evening careful and apprehensive, this is dangerous. The Analects say, the superior man is satisfied and composed, and on the words about the plain single garment in the [chapter Zhongyong of the] Rites [actually a quotation from the Songs], as [expression of] a dislike [of the modest lady] to the display of the elegance [of the embroidered robe], the chapter Conduct of the Scholar [in the Rites] says that [the scholar] looks on many [cultivated] accomplishments as his riches. Some believe that "to return [what parents have given] all complete [to them]" (Liji, ch. Jiyi) is filial piety; others hold that “sacrificing one's life is to preserve virtue complete” (Lunyu, ch. Wei Linggong); some argue that "[showing complexion] like a piece of jade" is like "standing firm as a mountain" (Liji, ch. Yuzao); again others [compare the comportment of a superior man with a potter who] "breaks his square [mould], and his tiles are found to fit together" (Liji, ch. Ruxing)—such statements contradict each other and cannot pervade [the matter] thoroughly. As to Yan Hui [a disciple of Confucius], there was nothing in three months in which he was contrary to perfect virtue (Lunyu, ch. Yong Ye); at forty, Meng Ke (Mengzi) attained to an unperturbed mind (Mengzi, ch. Gunsun Chou A)—so why should one be worried? Three times Liuxia Hui [a highly virtuous state official in the feudal state of Lu] was thrice dismissed from office, yet did not abandon [his official career] (comp. Lunyu, ch. Weizi), and Ziwen [an official in the state of Chu] was discharged three times, without complaining (comp. Lunyu, ch. Gongye Chang)—so why should one be troubled? Zhaohu saw [his master], Prince Zijiu of [Qi], killed, while Guan Zhong became counsellor of [his master], Prince Xiaobai [the eventual Duke Huan of Qi 齊桓公 (r. 686-643)] (comp. Lunyu, ch. Xianwen); [Wu Shang 伍尚], the Lord of Tang, [obeyed the treacherous order of chief minister Fei Wuji 費無忌] of Chu to present himself to the court [where he was killed], while [his younger brother Wu 伍] Zixu fled to [the court of] Wu; which of them was right?
When clearing up doubtful points and identifying the essence, one [must] ponder about what is [commonly] heard.

Famous examples from oldest times are Emperor Wu's 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) Cewen xianliang wenxue 策問賢良文學, Emperor Shun's 漢順帝 (r. 125-144) Cewen zhouju 策問周舉, Dong Zhongshu's 董仲舒 (179-104 BCE) Tianren sance 天人三策, or Lu Ji's 陸機 (261-303) Ce xiucai wen 策秀才文. Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101), the famous Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126) scholar, even wrote 25 essays, the most outstanding of which is Jiao zhanshou ce 教戰守策.

The Ming period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Xu Shi 徐師, author of the literary theory Wenti mingbian xushuo 文體明辨序說, divided cewen essays into three categories, namely zhice (on imperial order), shice (used during examinations), and jince 進策 (submitted by state officials).

The essay became obsolete for the state examinations with the introduction of the eight-legged essay 八股文 during the Ming period.

Jiaoyu da cidian bianzuan weiyuanhui 《教育大辭典》編纂委員會, ed. (1991). Jiaoyu da cidian 教育大辭典, Part VIII, Zhongguo gudai jiaoyu shi 中國古代教育史 (Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 184.
Lin Fei 林非, ed. (1997). Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 77.
Shi Xuanyuan 施宣圓 et al., ed. (1987). Zhongguo wenhua cidian 中國文化辭典 (Shanghai: Shanghai shehui kexue yuan chubanshe), 428.
Wang Kun 王琨 (1996). "Cewen 策問", Feng Kezheng 馮克正, Fu Qingsheng 傅慶升, ed. Zhuzi baijia da cidian 諸子百家大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 935.
Zhang Quansheng 張全生 (1997). "Cewen 策問", in Men Kui 門巋, Zhang Yanqin 張燕瑾, ed. Zhonghua guocui da cidian 中華國粹大辭典 (Xianggang: Guoji wenhua chuban gongsi), 691.