Before the national civil service exam (Gwageo) adopted, civil servants in China were mostly hired through recommendations from local heads of municipalities or through a special employment program reserved for the children of noble families. During the Wei-Jin period when pedigree was heavily factored in the recruitment process, many became public officials on the back of their family’s reputation irrespective of their individual competence. The introduction of Gwageo system was a meritocratic field where any mediocre scholar can grab the opportunity to join the public service regardless of their family background.
Talented scholars gathered for the newly adopted test from across the country, and many clung to it for indefinite time to pass the exam. There was even a proverb that “passing the Gwageo test at 50 is early enough.” Seolwoncho, who became a chancellor under King Gojong of the Tang Dynasty, considered his failure to pass the test as his lifelong disappointment, reflecting his self-flagellation about taking office on the back of his family’s influence.
Given the social status of the exam, it is no wonder that the poet was euphoric when he passed the test after 10 years of trials. He thought passing the Gwageo test was an even bigger achievement than getting promotions in a public post. His morale high, he tells his friends from hometown to take a second look at him. After reading his poem, Lee Shin, a fellow poet who recommended him to take the test, replied with a poem of advice. “Gilding is for fake gold as real gold needs no gilding,” he said. “It took 10 years to pass the test; what is there to brag so much about it.”