Mystery Object #28: Imperial Examination Cheat Sheet Socks

Late last week while going through some of my photos for a talk on China, I came upon some images I took while visiting the Jiangnan Imperial Examination Museum in Nanjing (江南贡院) a few of years back—part of a small case displaying elaborate attempts at cheating on the imperial examinations.

The photos were of some knee-high leggings completely covered with neatly hand-written characters—including the soles of the feet! I was very impressed at the detail, the care and the attention to each and every character—complete with section breaks and highlighted areas. These socks were masterful works of art. To me they were an example of focused efforts to workaround systems of managerial control—tactical responses to strategic test-taking gate-keeping.

I suppose it is unlikely that the test-taker who wore these actually prepared them, and I don’t remember if the accompanying text mentioned who made them or not. I’d like to imagine, however, the wearer staying up by the light of an oil lamp for many nights in a row, carefully preparing these talismans. Then, on the day of the test, he dons them and makes his way to the examination—sheathed in a layer of magical test-taking armor that would protect him from the bureaucratic nightmare of the Chinese imperial test taking regime.

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