Imagined Tests: Imitations of Chinese Imperial Examinations in Tokugawa Japan

Yoshitaka YAMAMOTO

National Institute of Japanese Literature, Tokyo, Japan

Tokugawa Japan (1603–1868) never adopted the Chinese imperial examination system of selecting bureaucrats. Even the academic tests for samurai serving the Tokugawa shogun, begun in 1792, were conducted using a mixture of classical Chinese and vernacular Japanese, and did not imitate Chinese imperial examinations. One may expect, then, that the ability to administer or take tests in the style of Chinese imperial examinations had no place in the conceptualization of Sinitic literacy in Tokugawa Japan. However, major Japanese Confucian scholars of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, including Hayashi Gahō, Itō Jinsai, Ogyū Sorai, and Itō Tōgai, composed Sinitic prose imitating questions and responses in Chinese imperial examinations.

This presentation will consider why such prose pieces, titled “imitations of examination responses” (擬対策) or “unofficial imitations of examination questions” (私擬策問), were composed in Tokugawa Japan. I will point out that these scholars idealized the examinations of Chinese and Japanese antiquity (Han; Nara and Heian) rather than contemporary China, and used imaginary test questions to advance their own interpretations of Confucian classics, at times subverting the orthodox, neo-Confucian interpretations that informed the civil service examinations in contemporaneous China, Korea, and Vietnam.


Yoshitaka Yamamoto’s research is primarily on classical Chinese texts by Edo and Meiji-period Japanese authors, with an emphasis on Confucian scholars in service of the Tokugawa shogunate. Recently, he has written about the role of imitation in Sinitic poetry by Confucian scholars prior to Ogyū Sorai.


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