This study offers a reading of the early nineteenth-century Chinese novel Jinghua yuan 鏡花緣 (Flowers in the Mirror) by Li Ruzhen 李汝珍 (1763–1830?) as a fiction about fiction making. Contextualizing the novel in a society where the civil service examinations are among the most important cultural institutions, this article considers the protagonist Tang Ao's 唐敖 voyage to bizarre, fantastical islands, narrated in the early chapters of the novel, as an account of his conversion from examination scholarship to fiction creation. From these islands, his symbolic realm of fictionality, he sends flower spirits-turned-girls to China for the female examinations, here interpreted as an enterprise to fictionalize the examination system. Thus the narrative of the girls' participation in the exams and ensuing celebrations in later chapters becomes a fiction within the fiction. Discussing the dynamic between the examinations and fiction writing elevated in the metafictional structure of the novel, this study considers Tang Ao a fictional representative of many scholars in late imperial China, whose experience with the examinations was not merely a cause of intense frustration but also an inexhaustible source of literary inspiration.

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