Recently a batch of miniature cheating books for the Qing Dynasty imperial examination system were revealed in Meizhou City, China. Many are amazed by the fine craftsmanship of these tiny books. Within them, some characters are so small that eight can be covered with a single grain of rice.
According to Guangzhou Daily, there are altogether 40 cheating books in this exquisite collection owned by a resident of Meizhou City, Guangdong Province. The smallest of these books is only slightly bigger than a matchbox and most others were about 12 cm (1 inch = 2.54 centimeters.) long and 8 cm wide. Each book is approximately 100 pages thick and is dense with numerous tiny characters.
These books have both preface and contents. Included in the books are major articles of the Four Books and the Five Classics which the examinee would inevitably be tested on in the ancient exams, as well as numerous test questions that could possibly appear. Accompanying these were “explanations”, “interpretations”, “brilliant excerpts”, etc. It was said that the contents of the Qing Dynasty imperial examination system were mostly comprised of subjects from one or more of the sentences in the Four Books and the Five Classics, which the examinees were requested to analyze and expand upon
In Chinese history, the imperial examination system lasted for more than 1300 years and yielded more than 500 Number One Scholars. Thus to win instant renown some examinees would extract some important chapters and sections and secretly take them into the examination hall. It was required, however, to undergo a strict search before entering the room. Therefore, even if the individual was lucky enough to pass the search, the materials to be brought in would have not served the cheating purpose very well.
To compensate for this situation, some people used the miniature typeface to create miniature books. These books would be sold at a high price specifically to examinees for cheating. In total, however, there were only a limited amount of these books created.
According to “Great Qing Legal Code”, anyone found cheating would remain shackled for three months while exposed publicly, caned 100 strokes, and finally sent out to the border area for frontier service as punishment. Those who made the cheating books were more likely to face capital punishment. Moreover, the small size of the books made them difficult to pass down and circulate. Given such conditions, this kind of cheating book is very rare today.