Double sided cheat’s handkerchief
[China, circa 1850]. Manuscript calligraphy in Chinese characters in black and red ink on silk, 410 x 425mm (irregular); arranged in vertical columns, surrounded by a narrow border; a well preserved example, with minor restoration in places.
The so-called “cheat’s handkerchief” was used as an aid by students undertaking civil service examinations under the keju system in imperial China. These examinations, conducted from as early as the seventh century until 1905, were designed to select candidates for admittance into the state bureaucracy. In an effort to promote cultural unity under the empire, the examinations entailed a rigorous assessment of candidates’ knowledge of literary and juridical topics such as the Confucian classics, in particular a history known as the Four Books and Five Classics, as well as poetry and policy. By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), the highest level of attainment (‘jinshi’, or ‘advanced scholar’) had become a prerequisite for a high-ranking position in the imperial government. This system was thus, in theory, a meritocracy. However, as the running of the examinations became progressively more bureaucratic and pedantic, candidates increasingly sought alternative methods of success.
Given the rigour of these examinations, the surfaces of these aids were covered with as much minute content as possible. Discretion was absolutely paramount, since discovery would have entailed harsh penalties. Examinees would fold or roll up this contraband to be hidden in various places, including pockets, lining of clothing, shoes, writing implements, or even in bread. Invisible ink was occasionally employed and, in a further display of ingenuity, some students would arrange for a collaborator to tie the material around rocks to be thrown over the walls of the examination grounds, or even to have the text delivered by carrier pigeon.
A similarly fine example of a double sided cheat’s handkerchief is held in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and another in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Provenance: Judith Rutherford