The prominent classicist and educator Yu Yue (1821–1907) argued, often doggedly, on behalf of the worth and relevance of the examination essay (specifically the eight-legged essay or bagu), to the extent of even producing a popular essay primer as late as the 1880s. This article charts some of the twists and turns of his intellectual odyssey from youthful practitioner to the author of model essays for his grandson (who placed third [tanhua 探花] in the palace examinations of 1898) and then to his elegy for the essay when the examination system was discontinued in 1905. The author argues Yu's attempts to salvage the essay's rapidly eroding prestige sprang from far more than a mere sentimental attachment. Yu considered the essay one of the last vestiges of the cultural and ideological institutions that he credits with imbuing literati youth with the basic values of Confucian civilization, especially both moral fastidiousness and intellectual acuity, and he foresaw chaos should it be abandoned. While his repeated pleas in favor of retaining bagu failed to turn the tide that eventually brought about its demise, his defense of the essay reflects a relatively clear-eyed, even insightful assessment of both its virtues and its flaws, especially in relation to the Westernizing trends of the late Qing.

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