Peasants and Gentlemen
To Confucius, there were two types of men. Peasants think only of pay. They are always seeking external guidance and approval. Gentlemen think of what is right, look within for guidance and have strong self-discipline. A society has room for many peasants but only a few gentlemen.
Often the gentlemen are from upper class families, but a peasant can prove himself and elevate his status. Confucius established a system of schools and exams enabling any peasant to become one of the gentlemen. But it wasn't easy.
The Civil Service Exams separated those with the potential to rule from the masses. The exams were divided into three levels: local, provincial and national. To prepare for them, young men rigorously studied music, archery, horsemanship, writing, arithmetic and rituals. Eventually these disciplines became military strategy, law, taxation, agriculture, geography and the Confucian classics.
The local exams tested students on poetic form, poetic composition and calligraphy. At the provincial level, students spent up to 72 hours proving their knowledge of the classics. A student who made it to the national level would be challenged to provide solutions for various political problems.
Success rates for these exams were as low as two percent. Personal anguish and sometimes suicide accompanied failure. Some students spent their lives continuously studying and retaking the exams until they were old and gray.
Success in the exams meant not only personal reward but also prestige for the entire family. A man from the lowest beginnings could become a ruler through this process.
The tradition of grueling study concluding with a rite of passage continues in China, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere in Asia. School is not a fun time, but it prepares a person for the rest of life.