The district examination, which was scheduled for late February. was the first stage of the county-level exams. Normally, the date of the exam and series of cumbersome registration procedures would be announced a month before the district examination. Fortunately, Rongxuan Academy always did group registrations, and thus saved a lot of trouble for the examinees.
Tanggu Town’s testing location was next to the yamen, which was located in the north and faced the south. It was a decent size. According to the teachers’ introduction, in the south side of the examination hall, there was a door on the east and west side, and it was surrounded by wooden fences. The examinees had to line up in two rows and could only enter after a full body search. After entering the wooden fences, there was a large courtyard and the main entrance.
After entering the main entrance, there was a big courtyard. This was the place where the examinees had to wait for their names to be called. On the north side of the courtyard, there were three large halls, in which the examiners sat and called the names of the examinees. There were also numerous rows of simply constructed seats, which was the place for examinees to take their exams.
Unfortunately, in ancient times, there was no such thing as checking out the testing location in advance. Otherwise, Yu Xiaocao would have really wanted to take a look at the examination hall.
Today was the first round of the district examination. The examinees had already arrived at the testing location before dawn and gotten a full body search by the ‘inspectors’. Every examinee had an exam basket, which contained the necessities of the examination such as stationary, food, examination identification, and more. The exam basket needed to be thoroughly inspected to prevent prohibited items from being carried in.
Rongxuan Academy’s exam baskets were fully prepared by the academy. However, Yu Xiaocao didn’t like the simple food prepared by the school, which were only rice balls, steamed buns, and salted vegetables. So, she changed the food in his basket into the specially baked peanut and sesame biscuits and jerky. She also included a copper brazier that could warm his hands when it was cold. The specially made heat preservation water bag contained boiling hot mystic-stone water, and it was tightly wrapped with a small quilt.
Each exam took an entire day and it was still rather cold in late February. Yu Xiaocao hoped that her younger brother could drink some warm water at noon. She had heard that many examinees, who had relatively weak physiques and usually had good grades, were unable to perform well for the exams. The main reasons were the weather and the food. Furthermore, there were people who couldn’t endure the five days of exams due to illness and failed in the examination.
Little Shitou waved his hands at his parents and second sister, who sent him to the testing location, and then calmly stood in line. Before entering the examination hall, the ‘inspector’ looked at clothing, which reflected the characteristics of the academy and was slightly surprised when he inspected his exam basket. After repeatedly checking the small quilt, water bag, and brazier, the inspector let him into the examination hall.
At this time, there were already many students quietly waiting in the courtyard. Although the sky hadn’t lit up yet, there were many paper lanterns in the yard, which made it very easy to see. Little Shitou followed the other students, walked in an orderly manner, and then entered when his name was called.
The examinees stood in the yard and faced the examiners as they waited for roll call to enter the central hall to pick up their exam papers. They also had to go through a ‘vowing’ process. In order to prevent cheating, every examinee, who participated in the district examination, must have a scholar who lived on government grants as a guarantor. After Little Shitou got his exam paper, he sat down on his assigned seat.
After all the examinees received their exam papers, there would be bailiffs walking around to show the exam questions. One of the bailiffs recognized Little Shitou and specially stopped in front of him for two more seconds. After seeing the exam questions and carefully analyzing it, Little Shitou thought about the questions as he grinded the ink. When the ink was ready, he began to seriously answer the questions.
In the early morning of February, the temperature was very low. The limbs of the students, who stood in the cold wind for more than two hours, had become a little stiff. Little Shitou took out the water bag from the small quilt and drank two mouthfuls of the warm mystic-stone water. He felt warmth returning to his body again. He warmed his hands with the brazier, and then began to write with passion. With the heat provided by the mystic-stone water, he didn’t feel cold at all. His writing on the paper was the same as usual without any sense of stiffness.
Today was the first round of the exams. The exam was on writing two essays on The Four Books  and a poem with 6 five-characters rhyming verses. There was a standardized format for the title, poem, and writing methods, and the maximum word count couldn’t exceed 700 characters. Generally, for the first round, one could pass as long as the writing flowed smoothly. Only those who passed the first round could participate in the second round of the exam. For Little Shitou, there was no need to worry about the first round.
At noon, he stopped writing and, as if he was having a picnic, he leisurely ate the delicious biscuits and took a few bites of the pork jerky. After he drank a few mouthfuls of water, he finished all of his writings in one go. He carefully checked it again, slightly revised it, and then transcribed it onto the exam paper. When he finished, he looked around and noticed that most of the examinees were huffing into their own hands while swiftly writing.
It was a cloudy day today, so the temperature was lower than that of previous days. Some of the examinees were so cold that their faces had turned white and their lips were purple. Some of them sneezed and sniffled, and appeared to be in a bad condition. Little Shitou felt somewhat puzzled. Why didn’t he feel cold? Could it be the effect of the protective stone that his second sister gave him?
The little divine stone, who was tied around Little Shitou’s neck, rolled its eyes endlessly, ‘Master actually lent me to others so casually. Isn’t that being too disrespectful to me, this Divine Stone?’ It thought back to how Yu Xiaocao kept reminding it to take care of her younger brother before they came here. She also said that it was considered a merit, which would help it cultivate its power. Thus, it reluctantly agreed. Yu Xiaocao told Little Shitou that this protective gem was blessed by a great master and could bless him to smoothly pass the examination.
When the exam ended in the evening, most of the examinees were cringing their necks and shivering as they came out. However, Little Shitou, who had tasty snacks to eat and the protection of the little divine stone, was even more spirited than before he went in.
As soon as he came out of the examination hall, he saw his second sister, who came to pick him up. Little Shitou rushed over, like a cannonball, with his exam basket, “Second Sister, what tasty food are we eating tonight? I want to eat Zhenxiu Restaurant’s roasted duck. Can we go buy one back?”
Sun Runze and Liu Jinye also came out and joined the siblings. Hearing that they could eat Zhenxiu Restaurant’s roasted duck tonight, the two really looked forward to it yet didn’t have any hope.
Zhenxiu Restaurant’s ‘one duck three dishes’ was very famous in both Tanggu Town and in the capital. It was currently the time when ducks were out of season, so Zhenxiu Restaurant only sold twenty roasted ducks a day. The price of one had increased to fifty taels, yet there was still an excessive demand for it. It was apparent that they didn’t believe that Yu Xiaocao was capable of getting the roasted duck.
Yu Xiaocao took the three kids back home first and had each drink a bowl of brown sugar ginger tea to warm up their bodies. The kang bed was so warm that Sun Runze and Liu Jinye quickly fell asleep as soon as they took off their boots and snuggled into the warm quilts.
Yu Xiaocao entered Zhenxiu Restaurant’s back kitchen from the back entrance. When she found out that today’s roasted ducks had been sold out, she rolled up her sleeves and personally roasted two of them. One was for Little Shitou to bring back to the headmaster of the academy to satisfy his cravings, and the other was for them to eat ‘one duck three meals’ in the evening. The sauce was brought back from Zhenxiu Restaurant, while the pancakes were made by Yu Xiaocao herself.
As he ate the fragrant duck meat wrapped in pancakes and drank the delicious duck bone soup, Sun Runze immediately felt alive again, “If I can eat such delicious roasted duck every day, I would be willing to take exams every day.”
Liu Jinye scolded him, “Aren’t you afraid of becoming muddled from taking exams every day!! A roasted duck cost fifty taels, yet it’s still hard to get. The money you paid was only enough for one duck. Are you planning on going hungry in the future?”
Generally, the district examination had four to five rounds with an interval of two to three days between each test. The entire district examination lasted for more than half a month!
Fortunately, for more than half a month, the three little fellows were able to eat well and had healthy bodies. They were completely fine even after suffering in the cold wind for a whole day. Before the next exam, Yu Xiaocao made delicious food for the three kids for every meal, for fear that they couldn’t make it through the five rounds of exams.
For each of the following rounds, the seating was arranged according to the results of the previous round. Little Shitou performance for the first round was relatively stable and he wasn’t affected by the cold wind and the atmosphere in the examination hall, so he naturally received good results. In the second round, his seat was close to the examiners.
An instructor of the Confucianism Department saw the fair and cute appearance of the eight-year-old Little Shitou and said with a smile, “Official Zhao, Tanggu Town is full of talents. Even such a young child has come to take the district examination.”
County Magistrate Zhao recognized Yu Fan, so he smiled and said, “Looking at his clothes, he seems to be a student of Rongxuan Academy. Since the teachers of the academy had registered for him, then they must have confidence in him. Based on his seating, it seems like he did very well yesterday.”
The official registrar of Tanggu Town smiled and said, “The examinee looks to be only seven or eight years old. He should be the youngest among the examinees, right? To have such achievements at such a young age, Rongxuan Academy certainly deserves their reputation ah!”
Little Shitou didn’t know that he had caught the attention of the examiners. Like the first day, he wrote down his student number and name first and carefully looked over the questions. Today, they needed to write one essay on The Four Books and an essay on filial piety. In addition, they had to write down a section from Sacred Edict and Board Instructions  from memory. With a minimum of at least one hundred characters, they should not make any mistakes and modifications.
Writing from memory was Little Shitou’s strongest ability. The little guy was originally smart, and after drinking mystic-stone water for over two years, his memory had become even better. It was almost to the point of never forgetting after one look. This was one of the main reasons as to why Headmaster Yuan agreed to let him participate in the county-level examination.
The writings for The Four Books and Sacred Edict and Board Instructions were very easy for Little Shitou. He just spent more time on the theory of filial piety. After that, he just had to check his answers, transcribe the writings, and wait for the end of the exam. When the examiners saw that he had finished a long time ago, their impression of him slightly deepened.
For the next three rounds, one round consisted of writing an essay on the Five Classics , an essay on rhymed prose, a poem with 8 five-characters verses, and writing from memory the first two lines of Sacred Edict and Board Instructions. The last two rounds were focused on classical text, rhythmical prose, the four forms of poetry , and so on.
Although the four forms of poetry and rhythmical prose were slightly difficult for Little Shitou, he still finished answering them seriously. As for the quality of the content, different people would have different opinions.
During the exam, Little Shitou also noticed that his younger uncle had also gotten into the fifth round. His younger uncle was under high pressure, and although he ate food that was specially prepared by Madam Zhang, he was unable to eat well normally, so his health had seriously deteriorated. Therefore, the five rounds of exams were the same as a torture for him. At the end of the last round, he fainted as soon as he went out of the examination hall. Yu Dashan and Madam Zhang, who came to pick him up, helped him sit down at a small eatery nearby. After drinking a bowl of hot soup, he gradually recovered his senses.
Yu Xiaocao also saw the scene, but with Madam Zhang’s blood-sucking, leech-like personality, she would definitely cling onto them if she helped out, so she didn’t go over. Sun Runze’s and Liu Jinye’s families had also come to the last round, so Yu Xiaocao just took her younger brother home.
 The Four Books (四书) includes Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects of Confucius, and Mencius
 Sacred Edict and Board Instructions (圣谕广训) - Instructions that describes the proper conduct and principles that the common people should abide by.
 Five Classics (五经) includes Classic of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, Book of Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals
 four forms of poetry (诗词歌赋) - verses, ditties, odes, and songsPrevious Chapter Next Chapter