Cramming desperately for finals week? Students past and present may find some solace in the fact that even China’s literary elite didn’t always ace their exams. As explored in the exhibition Painting with Words, centered on works by Wu School artists, several of these renowned painters, poets, and calligraphers didn’t excel at tests. During the Ming dynasty, the national jinshi (advanced scholar) examination, held every three years in the capital, qualified test takers for service in the imperial bureaucracy. Some artists, such as Xia Chang and Wu Kuan, distinguished themselves in the examinations and rose to high government offices.
Tang Yin (1470–1524) and Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) rank among the leading artists of the Ming dynasty, and they’re considered two of the Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty. Tang and Wen met as teenagers, and despite radical differences in character and temperament, they became close friends. In 1498, the eighteen-year-olds went off to Nanjing to sit for the provincial juren examinations. Tang was awarded first place (jieyuan); Wen Zhengming failed. Wen would never pass the jinshi examination, though he made multiple attempts. Regardless, he went on to become the unrivaled leader of the Wu School for much of its heyday during the first sixty years of the sixteenth century.
While tests were no match for Tang’s brilliance, he had a wild side. He was given to self-indulgence (some would say decadence) and poor decision-making. While in the imperial capital in 1499 to take the national jinshi examinations, Tang behaved inappropriately—possibly involving drunken debauchery—and became embroiled in a trumped-up cheating scandal. Although he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, Tang was jailed, expelled from the exams, and sent home in disgrace, with the once-certain promise of a glorious official career now reduced to ashes.
Nevertheless, Tang’s status remained intact among the scholarly and wealthy elite of his native Suzhou. He lived and moved in the leading circles of local society, and, through their continuing patronage, he made a successful (if sometimes precarious) living through his writing and art for the next twenty-five years.