Cheating in Examinations for Cheapskates?–A Centuries-Old Tip from the Chinese Collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library

Alert to readers: For those families who are willing and able to budget hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe athletic coaches and proctors of college admissions tests, this tip may be quite unnecessary. For the rest, read on at your own risk.

[Cheat sheet of Confucian text] approximately 19th century. 6 x 29 inches. (Cotsen 32774)

In a recent effort to organize textile materials from the Chinese collection, I came across a piece of yellowing silk. Fraying in a few spots, the satin measures 6 x 29 inches and has been folded thrice into a fraction of the size. One side is covered with minuscule text written in brush calligraphy. The Chinese term for handwriting in tiny font is “fly-head script” (蝇头小字), comparing, with a bit of exaggeration, the skillfully inscribed characters to the size of a fly’s head. The satin sheet was not meant as an exhibition of calligraphic virtuosity to be proudly displayed, however. On the contrary, its purpose was to discreetly pack as much content as possible onto a long strip of fabric, which could be smuggled as a cheat sheet into a civil service examination.

Detail of the cheat sheet. (Cotsen 32774)

The civil service examination system was a method of recruiting officials in imperial China from 650 to 1905 (Elman 405). Designed to be a merit-based system, it gave boys and men in premodern Chinese society a hope–however slim–of upward social mobility, regardless of family background.

We have no information about the provenance of the cheat sheet. Who owned it? Who composed the content? Who painstakingly inscribed the “fly-head scripts” and when? Were the essay author and the test taker the same person? Was the satin ever slipped into an examination hall and used for cheating? For which level of exam were the essays prepared–county, provincial, or even higher? One safe conclusion we can draw is that the cheat sheet was prepared before 1905, when the imperial examination system was abolished, during the twilight of the Qing dynasty.

Fading text in red at the center of the third section. (Cotsen 32774)

As many as eleven essays are packed onto the silk. We know this because the sheet is punctuated by eleven short passages in red ink, which are quotations taken from Confucian classics. Civil servant candidates were evaluated by their literary talent and classical learning (Elman 406), as reflected in their essay responses to Confucian canon. I imagine the anonymous test taker had selected the quotes, based on some sort of guesswork, and had prepared answers (in black ink) beforehand. Unfortunately, the red ink has faded considerably. Yuzhou Bai, East Asian Processing Assistant and a doctoral candidate in East Asian studies, and I identified five of the quotes, which seem to have been taken from Analects and Mencius (see Appendix). Given the precious real estate, as well as the candidate’s presumable familiarity with the canon, the quotes are not necessarily complete but serve as shorthand for the entire passages where they appear.

Lower-left corner of the backside is marked with the character yi, or “propriety.” (Cotsen 32774)

If there is not enough irony in cheating one’s way to the privileged status of a civil servant, the backside of the silk is marked with one single character yi (義). Meaning propriety or rightness, yi denotes “morally correct action choices” (Eno vii) and is one of the pivotal concepts in the Confucian code of ethics. When the sheet remains folded, “propriety” is seen at the lower-left corner of the section that faces up, as if serving as a surreptitious title/index word. If we allow the conjecture that the eleven essays have been organized around the theme of yi, then there might even be additional cheat sheets, each organized around one Confucian principle, such as ren (benevolence) and li (ritual), which would significantly enlarge the magnitude of the cheating project.

Timeless Teachings

Cheating notwithstanding, the yi-themed quotes still resonate in the twenty-first century. Take the fifth quote, for example.

Qu Boyu sent an emissary to Confucius. Confucius sat with him and questioned, “What is your master engaged in?”

“My master wishes to reduce his errors and has not been able to do so.”

After the emissary left, Confucius said, “What an emissary! What an emissary!” (Analects 14)

Qu was a reputable grandee of the state of Wei. The brief exchange sketches a respected nobleman, whose greatness lay not in unattainable perfection but humility and the continual pursuit of self-improvement. Interestingly, Confucius’ attention was on the emissary, perhaps impressed by how attuned the latter was to his master’s value and how well he conveyed that value independently.

The eighth quote is taken from a conversation between King Hui of Liang and Mencius. Mencius expressed his view that a true ruler knows when it is important to intervene and when it is wise to stay out of the way, if his people are to prosper and enjoy life.

If a state does not interfere with the people during the growing season, there will be more grain than the people can eat. If you regulate fishing nets so that fine-woven ones may not be used in the pools and ponds, there will be more fish than the people can eat. (Mencius 1)

According to Mencius’ unassuming criteria, we know we have a True King, when, under his sensible ruling, those seventy and older wear silk and eat meat, and the people never go hungry or suffer from cold (Mencius 1).

The ninth quote reflects Confucius’ view on the state’s responsibility to its people.

Confucius traveled to the state of Wei, and Ran You drove his chariot. The Master observed, “How populous it is!”

Ran You asked, “Now that Wei is populous, what more can be done about it?”

“Make the people rich,” was the reply.

“Once they are rich, what more shall be done?”

“Educate them.” Confucius said. (Analects 13)

These teachings will not go out of date anytime soon.

A “Credible” Cribbing Cloth

The inconspicuous cheat sheet from the Cotsen collection makes an interesting contrast with the flamboyant, so-called “cribbing garment” held at the East Asian Library of Princeton.

The Gest Library Chinese “Cribbing Garment.” Approximately between 1840 and 1905. (East Asian Library JQ1512.Z13 E878; image source: Digital PUL)

According to Professor Andrew H. Plaks’ meticulous research–which eventually spanned a quarter of a century and involved an array of Sinologists, graduate students, librarians, photographers, and textile experts–a total of 722 essays were inscribed on almost the entire surface of the shirt, both outside and in. Widely believed to be a fine specimen of the cheating tools used in the imperial examination, the silk gown was aptly named a “Cribbing Garment” and its current catalog description still upholds that understanding of its intended usage. Plaks, however, convincingly challenged the practicality of the notion, not just based on the prominent size of the garment. Plaks was interested in the essay responses as examples of classical-prose writing, known as the bagu style. He discovered that a significant portion of the texts copied onto the “cheating robe” have been taken from widely disseminated collections of model examination essays, including one imperially authorized edition (8). The idea of plagiarizing from a source like that in an imperial exam is indeed dubious, even if the wearer of the garment managed to escape the proctor’s scrutiny.

While the true purpose of the famous “Cribbing Garment” is in question, I henceforth proudly present Cotsen’s silk strip, by virtue of its portability and discreetness, as the more credible cribbing cloth. A high-resolution version of the sheet is available at the Cotsen Children’s Library Digital Collection site. The cheat sheet should be of significance to the scholarly community invested in the history of Chinese civil service examinations, the bagu-style essays, and the application of digital methods to break new ground. (For the rest of us, it stands as a reminder to think of yi before unfolding the cloth.)

Appendix: quotations from Confucian canon

“子游為武城宰”–論語:雍也 [Ziyou became the steward of Wucheng.–Analects 6]

“蘧伯玉使人于孔子,孔子与之坐而問焉”–論語:憲問 [Qu Boyu sent an emissary to Confucius. Confucius sat with him and questioned him.–Analects 14]

“問管仲。曰:人也。”–論語:憲問 [Someone asked about Guan Zhong. The Master said, “He was a man!”–Analects 14]

“黎民不飢不寒”–孟子:梁惠王上 [The people did not go hungry or suffer from cold.–Mencius 1]

“富之”–論語:子路 [Make the people rich.–Analects 13]


Analects [论语]. Accessed 25 March 2019.

Elman, Benjamin A. “Civil Service Examinations.” Berkshire Encyclopedia of China. 2009, pp. 405-410.

Eno, Robert. Mencius: An Online Teaching Translation. 2016.

Eno, Robert. The Analects of Confucius: An Online Teaching Translation. 2015.

Mencius [孟子]. Accessed 25 March 2019.

Plaks, Andrew H. “Research on the Gest Library ‘Cribbing Garment’: A Very Belated Update.” The East Asian Library Journal, vol. 11, no. 2, 2004, pp. 1-39. Accessed 19 March, 2019.

(Edited by Dr. Tara McGowan; Yuzhou Bai, East Asian Processing Assistant of the Cotsen Children’s Library, contributed to the research of this post.)

2 thoughts on “Cheating in Examinations for Cheapskates?–A Centuries-Old Tip from the Chinese Collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library

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