In 1909, a year after he had published a textbook that was aimed at modernizing elementary education, Nguyễn Dynasty official and reformist scholar Phạm Quang Sán published another small book that was targeted at more advanced students, namely students who were studying for the civil service exams (khoa cử).

Entitled A New Selection of Policy Studies (Sách học tân tuyển 策學新選), this book purported to present model examples of the types of questions that one could expect to be asked in the exams, as well as model examples of how one should answer those questions.

Books that served as guides for answering the questions on the civil service exam were a popular genre of text. For instance, throughout the nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth century a text known as the Collected Essays from the Palace Exam (Hội đình văn tuyển 會庭文選) which contained the actual questions from the last palace exam and either actual answers or model answers was regularly published.

So on the surface there appeared to be nothing new about Phạm Quang Sán’s book, but its content was in fact revolutionary, as it provided questions and answers for topics that were not anything like the questions and answers on the actual exams at that time.

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The first question, for instance, requested that exam candidates talk about the history of Occidental (Thái Tây 泰西) expansion into Asia (Á Châu 亞洲) and to discuss what kind of foreign relations policy (ngoại giao chính sách 外交政策) should be employed to deal with the West. The model answer provides an extremely detailed answer about the rise of the West, and the history of Western expansion into Asia.

There is a question about civilization (văn minh 文明), which asks if civilization is something that is territorial or is developed among human societies, and that if Asia is civilized, then why is it not at the level of development of Europe and America.

Another question asks about the history of Buddhism in Vietnam. It ends by noting that adherence to religions leads to conflicts among the people, and asks how this problem can be alleviated.

Yet, another question cites the (Confucian) classic, the Doctrine of the Mean (Tung Dung 中庸), as saying that “the cultivation of the Way is called instruction (tu đạo chi vị giáo 修道之謂教), and asks that exam candidates explain what this means. The question then notes that Westerners teach students in schools. The question then goes on to say that in recent years many schools had been set up in Vietnam in an effort to become more civilized, but asks why it is that progress (tiến bộ 進步) towards civilization has been so slow.

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There are many other questions like this in this small book, and as my recent posts on the 1910 exam demonstrate, the questions and answers in this book were not at all like the actual questions and answers on the civil service exam at that time.

What Phạm Quang Sán was doing here was not actually trying to teach students how to pass the civil service exam, but instead, how to revolutionize the civil service exams and society as a whole.

This was impressive. The civil service examination system was criticized by reformers throughout East Asia in the early twentieth century as an extremely conservative force that held back reform and progress (new concepts that they had learned from the West). The approach of most reformers, from Liang Qichao to Phan Bội Châu, was to break away from the world of the exams and to promote their ideas elsewhere.

Phạm Quang Sán, by contrast, tried to take reformist ideas to the heart of the exam world and make a direct effort to transform the ideas of the most conservative members of the educated elite in Vietnam.

That was revolutionary.