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Uniquely HK

History Matters

Study to Succeed

The front of the Chik Kwai study hall, Yuen Long | Courtesy of Richard Garrett
The Chinese have a long history of striving to excel in examinations – it paved the way to power and wealth
Chinese Empire was run by a civil service headed by mandarins. Their position paved the way to status and wealth. But how did one become a mandarin? The system was not based on direct patronage by the emperor, or on hereditary privilege, but on success in the Imperial Examinations system.
The Imperial Civil Service exams were first devised during the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907 AD). With the refinement of the  examination system in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911 AD), Imperial Civil Service exams became the main route to  officialdom. In the Qing dynasty there were three levels of exams. Successful candidates at the first level were eligible to be appointed to local office and to sit for the next grade. As you passed each level the posts which you could hold increased in seniority. Thus the system was a meritocracy with the top posts being occupied by the best brains.
The inscription above the doorway | Courtesy of Richard Garrett
There were nine ranks, depicted on a badge worn on the front and back of the Mandarin’s surcoat. All shared a similar design but the type of bird identified the rank. In theory anyone, regardless of status, could work their way up the system. However, those from wealthy families who could afford the best teachers usually did better. Nevertheless it was the dream of all village clans that one of their number would qualify and to this end schools were established in each village or group of allied villages. In the 19th Century there was at least one school in every village of any size in what was later the New Territories of Hong Kong.
Side room of the study hall  | Courtesy of Richard Garrett
Chinese classics and history were taught by a schoolmaster paid for by the villagers. Most children only stayed at school for three to four years to acquire a basic knowledge of reading and writing; the exceptional few continued their studies longer. When the Imperial examination system was abolished in 1905 many old style schools changed their curriculum. Practical subjects, such as calculation with the abacus and the etiquette of letter writing, were added. Even after the British government took over administration in 1898 a policy was made to not interfere with the traditional rural ways of life.
Teaching could be done in the local temple but often a purpose-built study hall was used and a number still exist; some are now listed as heritage structures. One, which has been restored, is the Chik Kwai Study Hall. It was a school in Lai Uk Tsuen and acted as an administrative centre and ancestral hall for Lai clan in the 1930s. The name is propitious as Chik means helping the weak and Kwai means passing the examinations. There is a painted panel beneath the roof with the date of the 25th year of the Guangxu Emperor (1899) and it is believed that the hall was built then.
Decorative detail  | Courtesy of Richard Garrett
The building is similar to many temples and ancestral halls, and indeed was later used as the ancestral hall for the Lai Clan. It appears to have been mainly funded by Lai Kam-tai, who emigrated to Australia as a common labourer in the second half of the nineteenth century. Mr Lai prospered during the gold rush and later became the manager of a trading company in Sydney and amassed great wealth. After he returned to Hong Kong, he bought stretches of land in Pat Heung, developed Lai Uk Tsuen and built the Chik Kwai Study Hall.
The building is a rectangular two-room structure, with an entrance hall, a courtyard and a main hall that houses an altar, all aligned along a central axis. The front wall of the building is recessed, providing a vestibule to the main door. It is designed as a porch with two columns in the middle and beams spanning them and the gable walls. These structures are constructed in grey granite in imitation of the traditional wooden structure of Chinese architecture. At the roof top is a flat ridge decorated with plaster sculptures in the middle and kuilung ends.
The many traditional decorative features contain a number of propitious motifs. There are peaches, symbol of longevity, and a flying bat, which symbolizes blessed fortune. A brush, a fan, and a sword, represent immortality and flowering peony branches are a symbol meaning wealth and peace. There are many more. The decorations and structure have been restored, and although it is no longer used as a school it remains the ancestral hall for the clan, with the soul tablets arranged above an altar. The side rooms are furnished with tables and benches but only the ghosts of past villagers study there today.
Mandarin Rank Badge  | Courtesy of Richard Garrett
Today’s students study in modern schools but like their ancestors they aim to move up the system and study at university and gain wealth. Indeed modern graduates are still honoured in their ancestral halls and are also expected to share their good fortune with the rest of the clan. With such traditions it is no surprise that Chinese students strive hard and often outperform their Western counterparts.
Richard Garrett has lived in Hong Kong for more than forty years and is the author of numerous articles on people and places in Hong Kong, Macau and China. www.richardjgarrett.com


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