Li Po, Du Fu, Wu Cheng’en (Journey to the West), Li Ruzhen (Flowers in the Mirror), etc., etc. It seems that every important Chinese author I’ve read about mucked up the exams. Why is that? These guys were no dummies, certainly. Yes, the exams were hard and required study and extensive knowledge of the Confucian classics and they were biased towards entrenched, traditional ways of thinking. But was it really that hard to parrot the official line and pass the test? Why did these guys fail when thousands of mundane thinkers managed it?
Umm…just guessing here, but maybe because the sort of person who will grow up to become an important and influential writer is the sort of person who has trouble parroting the official line just to obtain a civil service job?
The Chinese civil servant exams weren’t just garden-variety spelling-and-typing tests like we have today. They were quite difficult and often required years of study. Parroting the party line wasn’t sufficient. One basically had to master all of Confucian philosophy.
Think of it as an American having to read and study The Federalist in order to take the American civil-service exams.