A Scholar Who Failed the Imperial Exam Became the Emperor’s Teacher

Chinese landscape painting with a pavilion on a lake next to a bridge.

A scholar who failed the Imperial Exam recieved an unexpected offer to become a teacher to a rich master's young son. (Image: Nicholashan via Dreamstime)

During the Kangxi period of the Qing Dynasty, there was once a scholar who traveled a great distance from his hometown to reach the capital in order to sit for the Imperial Exam. Although he was knowledgeable, he failed to pass the exam. People who knew him felt sorry for him.

Annoyed at this outcome, there was nothing he could do but pack his belongings and return home since he had to wait another three years before he could sit for the next Imperial Exam.

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The evening before his return trip, he suddenly heard an urgent knock on the door. Startled, he began wondering: “Who could it be at this time of the night? Did I do something wrong? Are the officials coming after me?” Since he didn’t know anyone and had no relatives or friends in the capital, he opened the door cautiously. He spied several people dressed like servants standing outside. They immediately handed him some gifts, saying that their rich master wanted to hire him as his young son’s teacher.

Several people dressed like servants came with some gifts for the scholar.
Several people dressed like servants came with some gifts for the scholar. (Image: Lei Su via Dreamstime)

The scholar was dumbfounded! As he was coming to terms with such an astonishing request, he noticed a rather distinguished-looking figure approaching him. It turned out to be the rich master and after exchanging pleasantries, he said: “Although I have never met you before, I have long been familiar with your moral writings. I have a young son. I hope that he can learn from you.”

The scholar was flattered, but he humbly declined his request, stating: “I am just a scholar from the south. Since I failed to pass the Imperial Exam, my plan is to leave tomorrow and return home. How can I dare to be a teacher? I’m afraid I can’t do that!”

The master listened patiently. He replied: “My sister-in-law is widowed and has a young son. She has always wanted to find a good teacher to educate him. Since you have come to the capital, why not wait here until the next Imperial Exam, so as to avoid the expense and trouble of having to travel back and forth?” Hearing the rich man’s reasoning and repeated requests, the scholar quietly contemplated and acknowledged the truth of his words. So he agreed to his request.

The master thanked him repeatedly and as he was leaving, he said: “Please wait here. I will send someone to pick you up in a few days.” The scholar agreed. Left alone, the scholar slowly reviewed what had just transpired. This sudden and unexpected outcome left him feeling somewhat overwhelmed and apprehensive.

A few days passed and then one evening, some men and one of the servants from the previous visit came to collect him. They brought a big horse for the scholar to ride on. With torches in hand, the party walked quietly on foot while he rode on the horse fighting his fear and trepidation.

In the darkness of the night and at a loss as to how long they had walked, the party eventually came to a high wall surrounding a big mansion. The size, scale, and magnificence of the dwelling spoke of the owner’s wealth and nobility. The servant led him to one of the courtyards and instructed him: “Please rest here and don’t go anywhere. If you are hungry or thirsty, just call us. My master will come to see you tomorrow.”

A servant led him to one of the courtyards and instructed him to rest there until the master came.
A servant led him to one of the courtyards and instructed him to rest there until the master came. (Image: Sun Zhongxunvia Dreamstime)

The scholar teaches the young boy

The next day, the master and a small child came to pay homage to the scholar. The scholar observed the young boy. His hair just covered his forehead, and for his young age, he appeared to be someone who had seen a lot of things. The master said to the teacher: “My sister-in-law is very fond of this child, so you must not punish him.”

The young boy came every afternoon to study. The scholar observed how the boy was far more intelligent than other ordinary children and did his best to teach him. The two got along very well. The master treated the teacher generously. As for the remuneration, he sent the money to the teacher’s home and at the end of the year the family would send a letter to the scholar reporting the amount they had received. In this way, the scholar remained stationed in that courtyard for three years.

One evening when the master came, the teacher told him that he wanted to resign since he needed to prepare for the Imperial Exam that year. The master refused his request and said with a smile: “Don’t worry, you will definitely make it big in the future. Please teach the child for another three years.” The scholar was helpless to do anything so he stayed on.

Three more years passed and the scholar was becoming somewhat resentful about not having achieved his original plans. Eventually, the master came and thanked him, stating: “Your teaching has enabled our boy to become independent now. Seeing that you are anxious to seek success and fame, I won’t detain you any longer and I will arrange to send you off respectfully.” The teacher was very happy to hear that, so he packed his things and prepared to leave.

One night, a servant guided him to another place and said: “Please wait here and we will take you out at sunrise.” The next morning, he heard a summons from outside and immediately after, some men in eunuchs’ clothes came in to guide him. Wherever he passed, everything appeared glorious and solemn. He was overpowered by what he saw.

Finally, they reached a hall and there he saw someone perched on top of the dragon throne. He looked closely at the figure and was totally shocked at what he saw. The person on the throne was the student he had been teaching for the past six years. It turned out that he was the current Emperor Kangxi.

The teacher was so scared that he hurriedly prostrated on the ground. The young Emperor ordered the teacher to stand up, and honored him with the title of Hanlin officer; a reward for his teaching. He thanked the Emperor and walked out of the palace as if in a trance. His clothes were drenched with sweat from the experience he had just encountered.

Translated by Cecilia and edited by Maria

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