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Chapter 162: Being an Examiner is Really an Interesting Job

There was a silence outside the courtyard, and countless nervous glances turned to young Master Fan, unsure what this student's problem was. Fan Xian looked at the student carrying his crumpled bedclothes. "Have you checked?" he suddenly asked.

The functionary from the Ministry of Rites and the official from the Overwatch Council both gave their reports at the same time: "We've checked; there's nothing out of the ordinary."

The student raised his head and puffed out his chest as he looked at Fan Xian. His face was calm, with not a trace of nerves. Fan Xian frowned slightly. "Have you taken his clothes off and checked?"

"Yes, sir." The official to his side looked at the doorway, increasingly filling up with people, and could not help but feel slightly nervous. In a little while, the order would come from the palace. If things remained at this speed, the exam candidates would have difficulty getting in.

At that moment, Fan Xian suddenly stood up from the seat of the imperial tutor, walked over to the calm-faced student, looked him up and down, and laughed. He moved in close to his ear, saying, "There's a problem with your clothes."

He spoke very quietly so that only student could hear. It was a chilly early February, but the student had sweat on his brow! The student's name was Yang Wanli, and he had absolutely no idea how young Master Fan, poetic wunderkind, had discovered his secret. Under Fan Xian's calm gaze, he couldn’t help but feel his was beginning to crack.

Fan Xian suddenly smiled. "Go in. If I expose you, you'll have spent ten years in vain. But remember, don't let me find out you've been using your clothes over these two days in the exam hall."

Yang Wanli was pleasantly surprised, but he couldn't stop his lingering fear. "Thank you for your help, Master," he said sullenly. He feared that the young intermediary, his eyes like a hawk, could go back on his promise. He took up his ragged bedclothing, and covering up his face, rushed into the exam hall. He was determined that over these two days, he would not open up his clothing to look at the inside layer.

Soon after, Fan Xian cautioned a number of poor students who tried in vain to smuggle in crib sheets. Gradually, the functionaries gathered around him understood what was going on. Although they were very surprised by his sharp eyes and judgment, they had a faint worry that there would not be enough time.

Fan Xian seemed to have some feelings about his first time acting as an official. He smiled - as he carefully scrutinized the entrants, he made sure not to let a single one slip by. He confiscated many pairs of shoes, caps, and wads of paper hidden behind writing brushes, which began to form a small mountain by the entrance. By now, the students lined up finally realized that this year's intermediary was strict, and nothing like the poetic immortal they had imagined. He would not understand their attempts at cheating, and so they quickly retreated, throwing all of the things they carried on them into a ditch behind the exam hall.

That day, the person taking the lead for the Overwatch Council was someone who Fan Xian knew - Mu Tie, who was currently temporary head of the First Bureau. Hearing his subordinate's report, he quickly came by. Seeing Fan Xian, he spoke uneasily. "Master, time is getting on; you must be quicker."

When the functionaries from the Ministry of Rites and the Overwatch Council saw his deference to Fan Xian, they couldn’t help but feel shocked. They wondered how someone from the Overwatch Council could be so polite to a junior official; then they considered Fan Xian's family background - a Prime Minister, a government minister, and a princess - and so they didn’t dare speak out of turn, instead simply and quietly listening to Fan Xian's reply.

Fan Xian fished out the pocket watch from the ship, looked at it, and found that time was indeed getting on. He shook his head, stopp

ed his interesting little game, and stood up. "I, the official Fan Xian, presume that all of you have heard," he announced to the hundreds of waiting students. "As everyone has seen, in order to avoid any further delays to the timing of the exam, we will not be performing any more body searches today."

The entrants were overjoyed.

Fan Xian smiled as he looked around. "Throw all of the things you are carrying into this bamboo basket, and there will be no punishment. If you are discovered over these two days of exams, I shall have you taken away and thrown in front of the royal palace, where all will know what your education is really worth."

The entrants were shocked. Finally, they understood that a ruthless spirit hid behind the smile of this poetic genius, Master Fan. So they all entered, walking in a well-behaved line. As for the students who still wished to risk it, that was a matter for another time. With this allowance, things sped up, and a little while later, the entrance to the exam hall quickly returned to peace and quiet, with only a number of stinky shoes on the floor and countless scraps of paper and some distraught-looking faces. The official from the Ministry of Rites hurriedly got the staff to clear things up in order to greet the order from the palace to begin the examinations and sort out the burning of incense. Things got awfully busy.

Everyone was bustling about and thinking about how Master Fan was certainly different from the other officials of the Kingdom of Qing. If he didn't allow people to bring things in, then fine. But what had happened today, where he searched for them, then still allowed students to enter the exams? If it had been carried out by another examiner, then perhaps the imperial censor would have been angered. But everyone knew that as Fan Xian had dared to do it, he didn’t fear such things.

Fan Xian sat in the seat of the imperial tutor and smiled as he looked at the busy scene, chatting with Mu Tie Mu. Mu Tie had assumed that his promotion had been thanks to Fan Xian, so he was particularly friendly toward him. "Thank you for your hard work, Master Fan. Once the imperial order arrives and the exams are declared to have started, then you may return home to rest. The business of watching over the exams naturally is the work of subordinates."

Fan Xian looked at him and smiled. "As you are here, wait a moment and take a stroll around the exam hall. We cannot have a moment's rest."

"Sir, it is your first time taking on this task, so perhaps you are unaware that once they have entered the exam hall, there is no need to worry too much." Mu Tie laughed as he spoke, presuming that the young noble was unclear on the unwritten rules of the imperial exams.

Fan Xian suddenly spoke in a quiet voice. "This journey to Northern Qi - Master Mu, are you going?"

Mu Tie was taken aback. He had not prepared his thoughts on the matter, and unthinkingly responded, "The Council is still arranging things, but it should be a matter for the Fourth Bureau, so I cannot intervene." He suddenly looked elsewhere, thinking about how young Master Fan wrote poetry but did not love it; instead he seemed prefer business. Presuming he had figured something out, he smiled. "Master Fan, are you preparing goods to take over the northern border? I can help you arrange that."

Fan Xian chucked. "It’s no big deal. I was just asking." A subordinate came by to serve them tea, and Fan Xian offered Mu Tie a cup. "Master Fan, you seem to be in a good mood today," said Mu Tie curiously.

The corners of Fan Xian's mouth curled, and an indescribable expression flashed in his eyes; it was like a smile, but not a smile. It was unclear what he was thinking, and some time later, he finally spoke quietly. "In truth, I always presumed that reading without having to take an exam was one of life's greatest pleasures. After I came to the capital, the thing I feared most was the imperial exams. To my surprise, a year later, I have become the intermediary; I can read books without having to take the exam, and I can relax while watching my peers go through gruelling exams. This really is life's greatest pleasure."

The imperial edict arrived, the fireworks were launched, the incense table was removed, the doors to the hall were closed, and the curtains were opened on the first imperial exams of the year in the Kingdom of Qing. Hearing the heavy doors of the hall close behind him made Fan Xian suddenly recall the gaokao exams of his previous life. He had never taken them. At the time, he presumed that it was the biggest regret of his life. Now, in this world, he had no need to take part in the imperial exams. Although he was relieved, he still felt some slight regret. [1]

"Master, I have come to pay my respects." The cold early spring wind filled the room upon their entry. Fan Xian bowed toward Guo Youzhi, head of the Ministry of Rites, who sat in the middle of the hall. "The door of the exam hall has closed, and may not be opened again without your order. Scholars from all the counties and prefectures of the kingdom have their examination papers in hand and have begun to compose their essays. Master Mu of the Overwatch Council and an official from the Ministry of Rites are in charge of ensuring candidates have access to food and drink; all should be taken care of."

Guo Youzhi looked at the handsome young face of this fifth-level official and could not help but feel a frown forming. Soon after, he smiled. "Young Master Fan, thank you for your hard work." He called to the examiners. "According to the old customs, you are to go and inspect in a little while."

The two examiners had recently graduated from imperial exams. One was a scholar of the Imperial College, the other was an academic of the Tongwen Pavilion. They had both been selected by the Emperor himself. Hearing Minister Guo's orders, they nodded. "Yes, Master."

Guo You turned to Fan Xian. "Young Master Fan, your task is to keep order in the exam hall and help them supervise; patrol the exam hall every now and then and look for any sign of movement at the corner gate. Be ready to accept an imperial decree at any time."

Following Minister Guo's words, all kinds of officials within the exam hall returned to their duties. A solemn and nervous atmosphere quietly filled every corner of the exam hall. Everyone knew that after his various northern campaigns, the current Emperor had shifted the center of his rule onto the bureaucracy. So every year, each set of exams seemed particularly important. A few years ago, there had even been a precedent of a high-ranking official making undercover inspections, so no one dared be careless.

And this time, as far as those diligent students were concerned, this was an even more crucial juncture in life. If they could get through it smoothly, then it was their path to prosperity. If they couldn't, then they could only return home to the countryside in sadness to prepare for the next year's exams. The back-and-forth whittled away the youths of countless people, and there were some proud and stubborn ones who, if they failed the exams, lingered around the capital, not willing to return to the countryside. Some of them fell into decay, some loitered, and some disappeared without a trace.

This was a ceremony of the nation; this was a place of life and death for scholars.

Fan Xian stood on the stone platform, closed his eyes, and listened to the sound of scribbling coming from all corners. He thought of the Crown Prince's scrap of paper, and a strange smile floated across his face.

[1] The gaokao exams are grueling examinations taken by high school students in China wishing to enter university.

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