The Test of a Scholar

7 Jun

by Leah Harris
7th Grade

Fu Zao Wang woke up, drenched in sweat and terrified by the nightmare that haunted him. His breathing was ragged and his heartbeat was rapid, hammering a hole in his broad chest. He rolled off of his bed pallet and got a refreshing glass of cool water. Then the realization hit him: today was the day of the Imperial Service Exam. He glanced at the position of the sun through the small square window before running like a whirlwind around the small room of the boarding house. He threw on his tunic over his trousers and pulled on his boots, at first on the wrong feet. He quickly corrected them and yanked on his belt. His cap was hiding from him, and he looked for it in a panicked frenzy. He spotted it and seized it, then sped out of the room and out of the building. He walked into the crowded dirt streets. He glanced down at his disarray and thought that this surely wasn’t going to make an impression on the officials at the palace, but he had run out of time.

Fu Zao Wang was escorted by wagon to the gates of an official building on the edge of the palace, which towered like a fortress. The palace was majestic and the beauty of it all made you want to laugh and cry all at once. The vines crawling up the building were lush and green, their long leaves were suspended, and the walls were peeking through. He only caught a glimpse of this serene setting before he was ushered into the building. At the door, a security guard checked Fu Zao thoroughly for any paper or anything he might use to cheat with. He was cleared. Then he followed a different official through several long, curvy hallways into the main building. The walls were a clear, crisp, and calming white. He was led to a small room containing a wooden table and chair. He was told to sit and wait while the officials put the correct papers in order.

As Fu Zao waited, he took deep breaths and recalled the hours he had spent studying each day and how he had passed the service exam in his city, then in his region. This was the last round of testing. If he passed, he would be made an official and if he didn’t…it was worth trying.

An official in a tunic with a blue sash strode into the room, gave a brief instruction, laid the papers carefully on the desk, and promptly left. Fu Zao heard a lock click after the official exited. I have to be locked in here? Fu Zao thought. He had not been locked in a room before. I’m wasting time questioning the motives of others. They would do what is best for me, and now it is my turn to hopefully do what is best for myself. With that thought, Fu Zao read the first question.

1. What was the quote from Confucius in Analects 12.2 relating to the phrase “treat others the way you want to be treated?”

Fu Zao considered and then wrote down, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

2. Please complete the following Confucius quote found in Analects 12.1: “Look at nothing in defiance of ritual, listen to nothing in defiance of ritual, speak nothing in defiance of ritual…”

Fu Zao knew the answer immediately, for his father had made him recite this when he was a boy. He wrote, “Never stir hand or foot in the defiance of ritual.”

3. What is the mandate that a ruler gains when he rules compassionately?

“The mandate of Heave—”

Fu Zao Wang choked, tears springing to his eyes. He was transported back into his nightmare.

“Daddy, what is heaven?”

Fu Zao Wang looked down at his sweet five-year-old child, Lian. Her name meant graceful willow. He smiled into her large brown eyes, and scooped her into his muscular, capable arms. She giggled, a clear, high, melodious sound. Her face lit up like the sun on a clear day. She stopped giggling and looked at him with curiosity. Her eyelashes were long, like her mother’s.

He began to explain, “Heaven is the divine place where good, obedient people go after they die. This is the place where God lives, where he watches us from, to see if we are being good and obeying his rules.” He gave his young daughter a short version, relatively easy to understand.

She looked like she understood, and suddenly looked up at the ceiling with awe on her face, as if she was going to see God Himself smiling down at her. Lian stared and stared, and when she finally looked down, she had tears in her eyes, upset with the results or her staring. All she had seen was the white ceiling. She was lowered to the ground and promptly ran out of the room.

A petite, beautiful woman of shiny black hair and subtle curves walked into the room. She was wearing a beautiful long dress. It was red and silky and covered in a floral print. The flowers were lotus, which symbolized perfection. Her face was oval, and her skin was as smooth as cream and the color of delectable caramel. Her eyes were large and the color of milk chocolate, like Lian’s. They made you instantly want to be her friend. Her lips were full and as red as if they were coated with lip color, but they weren’t. Her eyebrows had a natural upward curve that made her look like she was always happy. Her beauty was blinding.

Her name was Chrysanthemum. She was always smiling and laughing, and she would always talk to you. Her laugh was like a song. It could bring you to tears, just like a song. It could also grip you and make you want to start laughing, too. She had that kind of hold on people, and once you talked to her you just couldn’t stop thinking about her. She could come up with a conversation in any situation. She was always good for cheering you up, and she would really listen to what you had to say. She was caring. Chrysanthemum, she was a goddess.

Chrysanthemum floated into the room and gave a brilliant smile. “Why is Lian crying?”

“She didn’t see the face of God,” Fu Zao sighed.

Suddenly, there was a loud clatter, and the rug lit on fire. Someone had thrown a burning torch through the window. Chrysanthemum screamed. The fire was rapidly spreading and the flames were licking at Chrysanthemum’s feet, because she was a terrified, frozen statue. Fu Zao turned and saw her, and yanked her arm. She stumbled, but was caught and lifted into strong arms. With his wife still in his arms, Fu Zao went in search of his daughter. She was sitting in her room, unaware of all the flames heading her way.

“LIAN!” Fu Zao screamed as he frantically looked in her room. She looked up, startled. He grabbed her and yanked her out of the room and into the hallway. The wispy tendrils of smoke got into all of their lungs, but since Lian was the smallest, she was the first to start coughing. She hacked as she tried to rid her lungs of the smoke. She was being dragged through the hallways and she had lost all sense of where she was going. Black was dotting the edge of her vision, and she started to slip under when…she gasped in fresh air. She was outside.

Fu Zao felt like he was about to collapse. Then something caught his eye. About twenty feet in front of the coughing family was a group of seven men on horses. The front three men appeared to be officials of the emperor. The back four were solidly built and their muscles were as thick as sausages. Fu Zao was confused. They were the ones who had thrown the torch?

The lead rider moved his horse forward, and so did everyone behind him. His eyes had a glint, but it wasn’t from the moonlight, because there was only a sliver in sight. The trees surrounding the property were rustling in the wind, and the sky above was pitch black. The only light provided was from the flames consuming the household, which was slowly crumbling. All of their belongings and heirlooms were turning to ashes. Chrysanthemum let out a small whimper.

A menacing voice came from the lead rider’s lips. “Fu Zao Wang. Chrysanthemum and Lian Wang. What a pleasure.” He stopped Fu Zao’s attempt to reply by holding up his hand. “I heard that you have been doing some naughty things.” The leader chuckled with glee. Fu Zao’s confusion grew. He was a model citizen, and he had never done anything illegal. What was the man talking about? “You must understand that no bad deeds go unpunished. But I have gotten bored lately. Instead of killing you, why don’t I make you watch your family suffer?” He grinned.

Fu Zao’s eyes widened and he threw his arms around his family and pulled them to his chest. “Please, there is a misunderstanding. I didn’t do anything! Don’t hurt my family. Take…take m-me instead.” Fu Zao’s voice faltered. “Please!” Fu Zao’s pleading voice was choked with emotion and he gave out a loud, sudden sob.

During Fu Zao’s monologue, the leader’s grin only grew. “Don’t try that on me. You know what you’ve done. For the sake of your family.” He looked with greedy eyes at Chrysanthemum and Lian. “We won’t mention your…past mistakes. I don’t like sitting here and wasting my time when we could have so much more fun.” With that, the leader snapped his fingers, and two of the four heavyset men in the back jumped off their horses and grabbed Fu Zao, and the other two grabbed Lian and Chrysanthemum. 

“Please, please, please!” Fu Zao broke down in shoulder-wracking sobs.

Lian didn’t understand everything that was happening, but she was afraid of the man holding her and was even more afraid of the man who had talked. Chrysanthemum had tears streaming down her beautiful cheeks. The leader noticed this and got off his horse. He walked slowly and menacingly towards Chrysanthemum, and when he got to her, leaned down and kissed a tear off of her cheek. When Fu Zao saw this, he thrashed wildly in his captor’s arms but they quickly restrained him.

The leader turned and said, “I’d certainly like to go home now. Let’s get this over with and go.” He pulled a match out of his pocket and grabbed a torch from a bag on his saddle. He threw the torch into a pile of kindling piled outside of the house’s walls, which were now ashes. The fire flared up immediately. The flames climbed higher and spread closer until they stood just short of Lian. He beckoned for the man holding her to come over. The man dragged the girl, now crying hysterically, over to the leader. The leader turned, threw Fu Zao a smile, and threw the girl into the flames. She screamed for about thirty seconds, and then was silent. Fu Zao and Chrysanthemum were now both in hysterics, struggling against their captors and crying loudly.

The leader then beckoned Chrysanthemum and her captor over. The leader stared into the beautiful eyes of Chrysanthemum. He leaned down, kissed her lips, grinned, and pushed her into the flickering flames. The way the flames illuminated her face was almost beautiful. But Chrysanthemum was in agony, burning to death. She knew her husband never did anything wrong, and she wondered why she and her family were being punished. With the last ounce of her breath, she whispered, “I love you,” and then the flames consumed her.

 “I love you, and love lasts forever.” Fu Zao sank to his knees and buried his face in the dirt. When he lifted his face it was dawn and the riders were gone, as well as his house and family.

Fu Zao suddenly sat up. The question on the exam had triggered more than his nightmare. It was his memory. He choked back a sob and was startled when the door swung open.

One of the officials came back into the room. “You have ten minutes left.”

“Ten minutes? How long did I have?” Fu Zao asked incredulously.

“Two hours,” the official replied as he exited the room and locked the door.

Fu Zao was only on question four and had ten minutes to answer 46 questions. He had been lost in memory for almost two hours. He got to work even though he knew he had no chance of finishing. He rushed through the next ten questions in two minutes. He had eight minutes left and thirty-six questions. He would never make it on time. He would give it all he had regardless.

***

Fu Zao Wang ushered a nervous looking young man into the cool crisp building. He waited as the young man was checked by security. Then Fu Zao led him through the winding hallway and into room 15. He gave the man the set of instructions and said that the man with the test would come in soon. Another official came in, placed the papers on the desk, and exited. Fu Zao waited until the other man left, pulled out the key from his robe pocket, and locked the door. He turned around and went to the front of the building to escort the next man taking the Imperial Service Exam. He passed many of his colleagues and nodded at them as they passed. When he arrived at the front he saw someone in the doorway that he never expected: the leader of the horsemen.

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