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.)

Welcome to the “Land of Children” (Kodomo no kuni): Courtesy of a Gift from the Friends of Princeton University Library

By Dr. Tara M. McGowan

Illus. by Honda Shōtarō 本田庄太郎[1], Kodomo no kuni, Nov. 1922 (Cotsen 30591)

Illus. by Nakahara Jun’ichi 中原淳一, Kodomo no Kuni, March, 1937

In recent decades, Japan has achieved worldwide recognition for its own brand of kawaii, or “cute” aesthetic, epitomized by the wide-eyed, youthful characters of manga and animé. What is not so well known is that this aesthetic can be traced back to a profusion of artistic activity that began during a brief period of almost unprecedented freedom of expression known as “Taishō Democracy.” During the Taishō period (1912-1926) progressive ideas flourished, and Japanese artists and writers who had been studying in Europe began returning home in greater numbers, freshly inspired by modernist artistic movements there—late impressionism, expressionism, cubism, fauvism, and Art Deco (Horie and Taniguchi 6). Artists, illustrators, and designers seamlessly integrated Western and Japanese influences into a fusion of styles that continues to feel fresh and innovative today.

Illus. by Hatsuyama Shigeru 初山滋, “Swings,” Kodomo no kuni, May 1930

Illus. by Fukazawa Shōzō 深沢省三, “Bears making mochi,” Kodomo no kuni, Dec. 1929

The Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan first opened its doors to the west after more than 200 years of relative seclusion, had seen the creation of museums, theme parks, zoos and aquariums, especially in the major metropolitan centers of Tokyo and Osaka, but it was not until the Taishō period (1912-1926) that these spaces began to be viewed as entertaining and educational for children. In Europe, this was roughly the same period in the wake of WWI (1914-1918) that Swedish designer and social reformer, Ellen Key dubbed “The Century of the Child,” where the creation of spaces that would allow children to thrive, both emotionally and physically, and also to develop as artists in their own right became a matter of world-wide concern. In Japan, too, artistic activity increasingly focused on creating an imaginative world, almost exclusively for children. One of the most significant children’s magazines from this period was in fact called “The Land of Children” (Kodomo no kuni). Started in 1922, toward the end of the Taishō period, Kodomo no kuni ran until 1944—a total of 287 volumes—visually chronicling the development of Japanese modernism and rapidly changing definitions of childhood in the lead up to World War II (Nakamura and Iwasaki 5). Thanks to a generous gift from the Friends of the Princeton University Library, the Cotsen Children’s Library recently acquired 72 volumes of this legendary magazine, greatly adding to the completeness of its holdings (a total of 225 volumes).

Author/illus. Takei Takeo 武井武雄, “In the ‘Land of Children’ a children’s tree grows. What a joy it is to see the little birds at play!”

Kodomo no kuni stood out in what is often called the “golden age” of Japanese children’s magazines because of its high artistic standards and the long duration of its publication. Child psychologist and prominent educator Kurahashi Sōzo (倉橋惣三, 1882-1955) was brought on as the chief consultant for the magazine, which reflected his progressive ideas about the importance of comprehensive engagement in the arts to develop children’s self-expression and quality of life (International Library of Children’s Literature). Illustrator Okamoto Kiichi (岡本帰一, 1888-1930), poets Kitahara Hakushū (北原白秋, 1885-1942) and Noguchi Ujō (野口雨情, 1882-1945), and lyricist Nakayama Shinpei (中山晋平, 1887-1952)—all artists at the pinnacles of their respective fields—were brought on as editors and contributors. Iwaya Sazanami (巌谷小波, 1870-1933)—the “father of children’s literature” in Japan—also contributed frequently. Combining pictures, stories, songs, dance, drama, and crafts, the magazine offered artists opportunities to collaborate with one another and even with their young readers. In line with its child-centered philosophy, the serial was published on large (26 x 18.5 cm), thick paper that withstood rough treatment from little hands and allowed for the high-quality, color printing, which still remains vibrant today (International Library of Children’s Literature).

Illus. by Okamoto Kiichi, Kodomo no kuni, December 1929

Just as authors and lyricists were intent upon creating a literature of poetry and songs (dōyo 童謡) and stories (dōwa 童話) for children, illustrators set to work developing a new kind of children’s imagery (dōga 童画). Kodomo no kuni was at the forefront of these efforts because it was the first magazine to commission multiple illustrators, instead of just hiring one in-house artist. In the process of collaborating and exhibiting their work collectively, these illustrators formed Japan’s first Association of Children’s Illustrators (日本童画家協会) in 1927 (Horie and Taniguchi 100). Between 1922 and 1932, Kodomo no kuni boasted over 100 contributing artists, about a quarter of whom were women (International Library of Children’s Literature).

The primary audience for the magazine was the children of a new and growing urban middle-class, who had access to the best that both Western and Japanese cultures had to offer. Artists imagined for these children a fashionable world that consciously combined Japanese and Western styles and motifs (和洋折衷) (Horie and Taniguchi 6). In this illustration, Shimizu Yoshio 清水良雄 depicts a girl, who voices the accompanying lyrics by Kuzuhara Shigeru 葛原滋 (set to music by Motoori Nagayo 本居長世). With her white chapeau, shawl, and mantle—given to her by a favorite uncle—she compares herself to that most often cited symbol of Japan—Mt. Fuji—and says she no longer needs to fear going out in the cold and the elements.

Illus. by Shimizu Yoshio, “White Mantle,” Kodomo no kuni, Feb.1922

Western styles of clothing freed both girls and boys from former constraints on physical movement, and in Kodomo no kuni they can be seen engaging in all manner of outdoor sports together.

Illus. by Takehisa Yumeji, (Cover) Kodomo no kuni, Feb. 1923

The importance of exercise was emphasized in schools through the institution of a yearly sports field day (運動会), which began at the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912) and continues in Japanese public schools today.

Illus. by Okamoto Kiichi, “Sports Field Day,” Kodomo no kuni, Nov. 1929

Artists like Okamoto Kiichi and Takehisa Yumeji (竹久夢二, 1884-1934) did not just depict the children they saw around them, they reimagined and redefined a fashionable and active lifestyle for educated children of the urban middle-class. In Kodomo no kuni, children are often shown in charge of themselves and empowered to take control of their modern, urban surroundings.

Illus. by Okamoto Kiichi, Kodomo no kuni, May 1930

In “Moving Picture Show,” Iwaya Sazanami writes about a boy named Gorō, who just received a movie projector as a gift for his birthday, yet again from “an uncle,” as in the Mantle song above. In silhouette, Gorō is showing movies to his friends on a rainy day when they can’t go outside.

Written by Iwaya Sazanami, “Moving Picture Show,” Kodomo no kuni, June 1922

Along with physical freedom and agency in their modern setting, the magazine encouraged children’s freedom of expression through various arts competitions. Winning entries would often be published at the end of the volumes. In the examples below, we see a sampling of children’s artwork. On the left page below, six-year-old Okumura Fukuko 奥村富久子 has drawn a girl playing with a mari (bouncing ball) and, on the right, is seven-year-old Hagihara Kunio’s 萩原邦夫 drawing of okagura, a sacred shrine dance performance.

Kodomo no kuni, Sept. 1922

Entries by winning contestants between the ages of seven and nine. Kodomo no kuni, Sept. 1927

Although vetted by judges, who were also contributing artists of the magazine, these peeks into actual children’s lives both complement and contrast in intriguing ways with the world depicted in the illustrations by prominent artists of the period.

The interactive aspects of the magazine also included collaborations between the magazine’s artists and child contributors. In the poem titled “My Mother” below, six-year-old Toda Tamae 富田玉江 writes about seeing her dead mother, who came back to her in a dream. The wistful scene in this prize-winning poem is romantically portrayed by female artist Tōyama Yūko 遠山陽子.

Toda Tamae, “My mother,” illus. by Tōyama Yūko, Kodomo no kuni, June 1924

As this poem demonstrates, the editors of Kodomo no kuni were not entirely indifferent to the harsher realities of children’s lives, but the fact remains that the brightly-lit modern and fashionable world often depicted in its pages represented the lives of only a very small proportion of children in Japan at the time. Even for families who could afford the magazine, the “Land of Children” was a realm they could only dream about. During the Taishō and early Shōwa periods (1926-1989), the rift between rich and poor widened, and many Japanese children, especially in rural areas, lived in extreme poverty. In the shadows, children of the very poor were being sold into servitude or slavery and a high proportion of children suffered from endemic diseases, such as tuberculosis (Horie and Taniguchi 82). This shadow side of the history of childhood only darkened as Japan continued its military aggression in the Pacific, greatly depleting its resources at home. Quality paper became scarce by the 1940s, and this decline can be traced in the gradual deterioration of materials and printing standards of the magazine by 1944 when it was discontinued after only 3 volumes. Having a nearly full run of this important children’s magazine allows historians to trace this tumultuous transitional period in Japan between wars, and, as such, it is an invaluable resource for scholars of all aspects of Japanese social, cultural, and visual history. The innovative artists who brought Kodomo no kuni to life continue to inspire and inform the work of artists and illustrators, designers and animators, working in Japan today. Thanks to the generosity of the Friends of Princeton University Library, this rich and delightful resource is now available for the Princeton community and Japan scholars and enthusiasts everywhere.


[1] All Japanese names are presented in Japanese order with last name first.


Horie, Akiko, and Tomoko Taniguchi. Kodomo paradaisu: 1920-30 nendai ezasshi ni miru modan kizzu raifu [A paradise for children: Modern kids’ lives, as depicted in picture magazines from the 1920s to 30s]. Tokyo: Kawade shobō shinsha, 2005.

International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library. “Kodomo no kuni: Artists and Children’s Books in 1920s Japan.” Accessed January 29, 2019.

Nakamura, Etsuko, and Mariko Iwasaki. ‘Kodomo no kuni’ sōmokuji [The complete index for the Kodomo no kuni magazine]. Tokyo: Kyūzansha, 1996-1998.