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Imperial examinations

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Imperial examinations


The imperial examination (Chinese: 科舉; pinyin: Kējǔ; Wade–Giles: K'o1-chü3) was a civil service examination system in Imperial China designed to select the best potential candidates to serve as administrative officials, for the purpose of recruiting them for the state's bureaucracy. The tests were designed as objective measures to evaluate the educational attainment and merit of the examinees, as part of the process by which final selections and appointments to office would be made. Candidates could receive the jinshi (chin-shih), and other degrees, generally followed by assignment to specific offices, with higher level degrees tending to lead to higher ranking placements in the imperial government service. Theoretically testing and selecting candidates for merit, this system had a huge influence on both society and culture in Imperial China and was partly responsible for changes in the power balances of the Tang (including the interim reign of Wu Zetian) and Song Dynasties, changes involving long-term shaping of societal structure, even lasting beyond the dynastic limits of the particular dynasties administering the examinations. At times, the result of the examination system was replacement of what had been relatively few aristocratic families with a more diffuse and populous class of typically rural-dwelling, landowning scholar-bureaucrats, organized into clans. Neighboring Asian countries such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan and Ryūkyū also implemented similar systems, both to draw in their top national talent and to maintain a tight grip on that talent's time, resources, and ideological goals, as well as encouraging literature and education. As the operations of the examination system were part of the imperial record keeping system, the date of receiving the jinshi degree is often a key biographical datum for the Tang and later dynasties: sometimes the date of achieving jinshi is the only firm date known for even prominent historical persons.

Established in 605 during the Sui Dynasty, the system was used only on a relatively small scale during the Tang Dynasty, although extensively expanded during the reign of Wu Zetian:[1] the impact of her use of the testing system is still a matter for scholarly debate. Under the Song dynasty the emperors expanded the examinations and the government school system in order to counter the influence of military aristocrats, increasing the number of those who passed the exams to more than four to five times that of the Tang. Thus the system played a key role in the emergence of the scholar-officials, who came to dominate society. Under the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, the system contributed to the narrowness of intellectual life and the autocratic power of the emperor. The system continued with some modifications until its 1905 abolition under the Qing Dynasty. The system had a history (with brief interruptions, e.g. at the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty) of 1,300 years. The modern examination system for selecting civil service staff also indirectly evolved from the imperial one.[2]


The civil service examination for recruitment into service of the imperial government spanned different dynasties, although it was utilized more or less from time to time during its existence, and at times even discontinued. The imperial, or civil service, examinations in their modern sense did not take place until the Sui Dynasty, when they began to recognizably take on the form of standardized tests. However, the tests had some background in evaluating the potential of possible people to fill positions through various contests, competitions, or interviews: even as early as the Zhou Dynasty promotions might be won through winning archery competitions. Even more, the bureaucratic system which the examination system was intended to recruit persons of merit to fill the ranks of service first had to be developed: much of the development of the imperial bureaucracy in the Confucianist form in which it was known in later times had much of its origin in the Han Dynasty rule of Hanwudi (Emperor Wu of Han). However, all through the Three Kingdoms until the Sui Dynasty recruitment was viewed as more of a bottom-up process, where promotions were generally through preferment from the local and lower levels of government up to each next level, preserving the Zhou idea that the lower levels of government were responsible to find recruits for the higher ones. This changed during the Sui, when recruitment into the imperial civil service bureaucracy became to be considered an imperial prerogative, rather than a duty to be performed by the lower levels. By the Tang Dynasty, most of the recruitment into central government bureaucrat offices was being performed by the bureaucracy itself, at least nominally by the reigning emperor. However, the historical dynamics of the official recruitment system involved changes in the balances of the various means used for appointments (all theoretically under the direction of the emperor); including, the civil service examinations, direct appointments (especially of members of the ruling dynastic family), nominations by quotas allotted to favored important families, and special induction procedures for eunuchs.

Han Dynasty

From the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220) until the implementation of the imperial examination system, most appointments in the imperial bureaucracy were based on recommendations from prominent aristocrats and local officials whilst recommended individuals were predominantly of aristocratic rank. Emperor Wu of Han (141 - 87 BC) started an early form of the imperial examinations, in which local officials would select candidates to take part in an examination of the Confucian classics, from which he would select officials to serve by his side. While connections and recommendations remained much more meaningful than the exams in terms of advancing people to higher positions, the initiation of the examination system by emperor Wu had a cultural significance, as the state determined what the most important Confucianist texts were.

Three Kingdoms era through the Sui Dynasty

Beginning in the Three Kingdoms period (with the nine-rank system in the Kingdom of Wei), imperial officials were responsible for assessing the quality of the talents recommended by the local elites. This system continued until Emperor Yang of Sui established a new category of recommended candidates for the mandarinate (进士科) in AD 605. For the first time, an examination system was explicitly instituted for a category of local talents. However, the Sui Dynasty was short-lived, and the system did not reach its mature development until afterwards.

Tang Dynasty

Over the course of the Tang Dynasty, the examination system became much broader and systematic, than what was inherited from the Sui, which was essentially a process of qualifying candidates based on questions on policy matters, followed by an interview.[3]

Oral interviews as part of the examination and selection system in practice favored candidates from elite backgrounds from the capital (speakers of solely non-elite dialects could not succeed).[4][5]

In 681, a written test on knowledge of the Confucian classics was introduced: basically meaning that the candidates were required to memorize these works and fill in the blanks of the test.[6]

In 693, the imperial government of China, under Wu Zetian, greatly expanded the civil service examination system,[7] part of a policy to reform society and to consolidate power for her self-proclaimed "Zhou Dynasty". Examples of officials whom she recruited through her reformed examination system include Zhang Yue, Li Jiao, and Shen Quanqi. She introduced major changes in regard to the Tang system, increasing the pool of candidates permitted to take the test by allowing commoners and gentry who were previously disqualified by their background to take the tests. Successful candidates became an elite nucleus within her government.[8]

Sometime between 730 and 740, after the Tang restoration, a section requiring the composition of original poetry (including both shi and fu) was added to the tests, with rather specific set requirements: this was for the jinshi degree, as well as certain other tests. The less-esteemed examinations tested for skills such as mathematics, law, and calligraphy. The success rate on the tests on the classics was between 10 and 20 percent, but for the thousand or more candidates going for a jinshi degree each year in which it was offered, the success rate for the examinees was only between 1 and 2 percent: a total of 6504 jinshi were created during course of the Tang dynasty (an average of only about 23 jinshi awarded per year).[9]

However, the imperial examinations were never the only means of obtaining governmental positions.

Song Dynasty

In the Song dynasty, officials selected through the exams became dominant in the bureaucracy. Theoretically, any male adult in China, regardless of his wealth or social status, could become a high-ranking government official. Many individuals moved from a low social status to political prominence through success in imperial examination. Examples include Wang Anshi, who proposed reforms to make the exams more practical, and Zhu Xi, whose interpretations of the Four Classics became the orthodox Neo-Confucianism which dominated later dynasties. Yet the process of studying for the examination tended to be time-consuming and costly, requiring leisure and tutors. Most of the candidates came from the numerically small but relatively wealthy land-owning scholar-official class.[10]

Since 937, by the decision of the Taizu Emperor of Song, the palace examination was supervised by the emperor himself. In 992, the practice of anonymous submission of papers during the palace examination was introduced; it was spread to the departmental examinations in 1007, and to the prefectural level in 1032. The practice of recopying the papers in order not to allow biases by revealing the candidate by his calligraphy was introduced at the capital and departmental level in 1105, and in the prefectures in 1037.[11]

Yuan Dynasty

The imperial examination system was abolished with the foundation of the Yuan Dynasty, but was revived in 1315 by Emperor Renzong of Yuan.

Ming and Qing eras

In late imperial China, the examination system was the major mechanism by which the central government captured and held the loyalty of local-level elites. Their loyalty, in turn, ensured the integration of the Chinese state, and countered tendencies toward regional autonomy and the breakup of the centralized system. The examination system distributed its prizes according to provincial and prefectural quotas, which meant that imperial officials were recruited from the whole country, in numbers roughly proportional to each province's population. Elite individuals all over China, even in the disadvantaged peripheral regions, had a chance at succeeding in the examinations and achieving the rewards and emoluments office brought.[12]

The examination based civil service thus promoted stability and social mobility. The Confucian-based examinations meant that the local elites and ambitious would-be members of those elites across the whole of China were taught with similar values. Even though only a small fraction (about 5 percent) of those who attempted the examinations actually passed them and even fewer received titles, the hope of eventual success sustained their commitment. Those who failed to pass did not lose wealth or local social standing; as dedicated believers in Confucian orthodoxy, they served, without the benefit of state appointments, as teachers, patrons of the arts, and managers of local projects, such as irrigation works, schools, or charitable foundations.[13]

Yet the system also promoted resistance to change. Reformers charged that set format of the "Eight-legged essay" stifled original thought and satirists portrayed the rigidity of the system in novels such as The Scholars. In the twentieth century, the New Culture Movement portrayed the examination system as a cause for China's weakness in such stories as Lu Xun's "Kong Yiji." Some have suggested that limiting the topics prescribed in examination system removed the incentives for Chinese intellectuals to learn mathematics or to conduct experimentation, perhaps contributing to the Great Divergence, in which China's scientific and economic development fell behind Europe.[14]

It thrived under the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which attempted to overthrow the Qing Dynasty in the middle of the 19th century, was the first in Chinese history to admit women as exam candidates, although they abandoned the system later. With the military defeats in the 1890s and pressure to develop a national school system, reformers such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao called for abolition and the Hundred Days' Reform of 1898 proposed a set of modernizations. After the Boxer Uprising, the government drew up plans to reform, then abolish the exams. On 2 September 1905, the throne endorsed a memorial which ordered that the old examination system be discontinued at all levels in the following year. The new system provided equivalents to the old degrees; the Bachelor's Degree, for instance, would be considered equivalent to the xiu cai. The details of the new system remained to be worked out by the time of the fall of the dynasty in 1911.[15]

Republic of China

After the fall of the Qing in 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the newly risen Republic of China, developed similar procedures for the new political system through an institution called the Examination Yuan, one of the five branches of government, although this was quickly suspended due to the turmoil in China between the two world wars, such as the warlord period and the Japanese invasion. The Kuomintang administration revived the Examination Yuan in 1947 after the defeat of Japan. This system continues into present times in Taiwan along with the regime itself after loss of the mainland to the Communist Party of China.

Taking the exams

The examinations consisted of a battery of tests administered at the district, provincial, and metropolitan levels. Tight quotas restricted the number of successful candidates in each test — for example, only three-hundred students could pass the metropolitan examinations. Students often took the examinations several times before earning a degree.

County and district level exams were called yuanshi (院试), those who passed were call xiucai (秀才); provincial level exams were called xiangshi (乡试), those who passed were call juren (举人); national level exams were called huishi (会试), those who passed were called gongshi (贡士); imperial court exams are called dianshi (殿试), those who passed were called jinshi (进士).

Each student taking the exam arrived at an examination compound with only a few amenities: a water pitcher, a chamber pot, bedding, food, an ink stone, ink, and brushes. Guards would verify the students' identities and search them for hidden printed materials. In the Ming and Qing periods, each exam taker spent three days and two nights writing "eight-legged essays" — literary compositions with eight distinct sections — in a tiny room with a makeshift bed, desk, and bench. There were no interruptions in those three days, nor were candidates allowed any communication. If someone died during an exam, officials wrapped his body in a straw mat and tossed it over the high walls that ringed the compound.[16]

Since the pressure to succeed was intense, cheating and corruption were rampant, often outrunning strenuous attempts to prevent or defeat them. In order to discourage favoritism if the examiner recognized a student's calligraphy, each exam was recopied by official copyist, for instance. Exact quotes from the classics were required; misquoting even one character or writing it in a wrong form was fatal, so candidates went to great lengths to bring hidden copies with them, sometimes written on their underwear.[17]

Details of the imperial examination


By 115, a set curriculum had become established for the so-called First Generation of examination takers. They were tested on their proficiency in the "Six Arts":

  • Scholastic arts: music, arithmetic, writing, and knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies in both public and private life.
  • Militaristic: archery and horsemanship

The curriculum was then expanded to cover the "Five Studies": military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography, and the Confucian classics. In this form, the examinations were institutionalized during the sixth century AD, under the Sui Dynasty. These examinations are regarded by most historians as the first standardized tests based on merit.

Degree types

The examinations and degrees formed a "ladder of success", with success generally being equated with being graduated as jinshi. The examination process extended down to the county level, and included examinations at the provincial and national levels. The highest level tests would be at the imperial court or palace level, of which the jinshi was the highest regular level, although occasional special purpose tests were occasionally offered, by imperial decree:

  • Shengyuan (Sheng-yuan; 生员/生員), also called xiucai (hsiu-tsai; 秀才), licentiate; administered at exams held in the county level each year.
    • Anshou (An-shou; 案首), a shengyuan who ranked first
  • Juren (Chu-jen; 举人/舉人) or "recommended man", a provincial graduate, administered at the provincial level every three years
    • Jieyuan (Chieh-yuan; 解元), the juren who ranked first
    • Huiyuan (Hui-yuan; 会员/會元), the juren who ranked first in pre-qualification
  • Gongshi (Kung-shih; 贡士/貢士), a national degree "tribute personnel"
  • Jinshi (Chin-shih; 进士/進士) or "presented scholar", a graduate of the palace examination, administered in the capital immediately after the metropolitan examination every three years
    • Jinshi Jidi (Chin-shih Chi-ti; 进士及第/進士及第), graduates ranked first class in the palace examination.
      • Zhuangyuan (Chuang-yuan; 状元/狀元), lit. exemplar of the state, the jinshi who ranked first overall.
      • Bangyan (Pang-yan; 榜眼), lit. eyes positioned alongside (the top-ranked scholar), the jinshi ranked second overall.
      • Tanhua (Tan-hua; 探花), lit. selective talent (in reference to the eponymous banquet), the jinshi ranked third overall.
    • Jinshi Chushen (Chin-shih Chu-shen; 进士出身/進士出身): graduates ranked in the second class, immediately after the tanhua, in the palace examination.
    • Tong Jinshi Chushen (Tung Chin-shih Chu-shen; 同进士出身/同進士出身): graduates ranked in the third class in the palace examination.

Degree examinations

Besides the regular tests for the jinshi and other degrees, there were also occasionally special purpose examinations, by imperial decree (zhiju). These decree examinations were for the purpose of particular promotions or to identify talented men for dealing with certain, specific, especially difficult assignments. During the Song Dynasty, in 1061, Emperor Renzong of Song decreed special examinations for the purpose of finding men capable of "direct speech and full remonstrance" (zhiyan jijian): the testing procedure required the examinees to submit 50 previously prepared essays, 25 on particular contemporary problems, 25 on more general historical governmental themes. In the examination room, the examinees then had a day to write essays on six topics chosen by the test officials, and finally were required to write a 3,000 character essay on a complex policy problem, personally chosen by the emperor, Renzong. Among the few successful candidates were the Su brothers, Su Shi and Su Zhe (who had already attained their jinshi degrees, in 1057), with Su Shi scoring exceptionally high in the examinations, and subsequently having copies of his examination essays widely circulated.[18]

Military examinations

Military examinations were held for potential army officers. [19] They were rewarded with military versions of Jinshi and Juren degrees like the regular examinations. Although the literati who took the civil exams sneered at their content, they had the same system as the regular exams, with provincial, metropolitan and palace versions of the exams. The ideal candidate was expected to master the same Confucian texts as the civilians as well as Chinese military texts, especially Sun Tzu.[20]

Examination procedures

By 1370, the examinations lasted between 24 and 72 hours, and were conducted in spare, isolated examination rooms; sometimes, however, it was held within cubicles. The small rooms featured two boards which could be placed together to form a bed or placed on different levels to serve as a desk and chair. In order to obtain objectivity in evaluation, candidates were identified by number rather than name, and examination answers were recopied by a third person before being evaluated to prevent the candidate's handwriting from being recognized.

In the main hall of the imperial palace during the Tang and Song Dynasties there stood two stone statues. One was of a dragon and the other of Ao (鳌), the mythical turtle whose chopped-off legs serve as pillars for the sky in Chinese legend. The statues were erected on stone plinths in the center of a flight of stairs where successful candidates (jinshi) in the palace examination lined up to await the reading of their rankings from a scroll known as the jinbang (金榜). The first ranked scholar received the title of Zhuàngyuán (狀元/状元), and the honor of standing in front of the statue of Ao. This gave rise to the use of the phrases "to have stood at Ao's head" (占鳌头 [Zhàn ào tóu]), or "to have stood alone at Ao's head" (独占鳌头 [Dú zhàn ào tóu]) to describe a Zhuàngyuán, and more generally to refer to someone who excels in a certain field.[21]


Some people were banned from taking the imperial exam. The low class of ordinary people was divided into two categories- one of them, the good "commoner" people, the other "mean" people. Prostitutes, entertainers, and low-level government employees were the people in the "mean" class. The "mean" people were heavily discriminated against, and amongst other prohibitions, they were forbidden to take the imperial exam.[22] This was the case for the caste of "degraded" outcasts in Ningbo city, where around 3,000 people, said to be Jin Dynasty descendants, were barred from taking the Imperial Exams, among numerous other restrictions.[23]


Other countries

The Chinese imperial examination system had extensive influence throughout East Asia. It was used as a model by both the Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties in Korea (see Gwageo) until the country's annexation by Japan. The examination was restricted to the Yangban class. In Vietnam, the system provided the framework for the Confucian examination system in Vietnam from the reign of the Lý Dynasty's Emperor Lý Nhân Tông (1075) until that of the Nguyễn Dynasty's Emperor Khải Định (1919). Japan also used the Chinese imperial examination system as a model in the Heian period; however, the influence affected only the minor nobility and was replaced by the hereditary system during the Samurai era.[24]

The Chinese imperial examination system had important influences on the Northcote-Trevelyan Report and hence on the reform of the Civil Service in British India and later in the United Kingdom.[25]


Some of the main outstanding questions regarding the imperial examinations are in regard to poetry. To what extent did the inclusion of poetry in the examinations influence the writing of poetry, for instance the proliferation of poetry during the Tang Dynasty?[26] And, in regard to testing procedures, there is a long history of debate on the usefulness of testing the ability of the candidates to write poetry.[27] For example, in the late 1060s Wang Anshi removed the traditional poetry composition sections (regulated verse and fu), on the grounds of irrelevancy to the official functions of bureaucratic office: on the other side of the debate, Su Shi pointed out that the selection of great ministers of the past had not been obstructed by the poetry requirements, that the study and practice of poetry encouraged careful writing, and that the evaluation and grading of poetry was more objective than for the prose essays, due to the strict and detailed rules for writing verse according to the formal requirements.[28]

See also


References and further reading

  • Elman, Benjamin. (2002) A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. London: Univ. of California Pr.ISBN 0-520-21509-5
  • Fairbank, John King (1992), China: A New History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-11670-4
  • P.T. Ho, The Ladder of Success in Imperial China Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368-1911. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.)
  • Ichisada Miyazaki, China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China Conrad Schirokauer, tr. (New York: Weatherhill, 1976). ISBN 0-8348-0104-3, reprint 1981 ISBN 0-300-02639-0
  • John Chafee, The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung [Song] China (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
  • Thomas H.C. Lee, Government Education and Examinations in Sung [Song] China (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press,; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985).
  • Mayers, William Frederick, and G.M.H. Playfair. The Chinese Government: A Manual of Chinese Titles, Categorically Arranged and Explained, with an Appendix. 3 ed. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh Limited, 1897.
  • Murck, Alfreda (2000). Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent. Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London: Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute. ISBN 0-674-00782-4.
  • Man-Cheong, Iona (2004). The Class of 1761: Examinations, the State and Elites in Eighteenth-Century China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Paludan, Ann (1998). Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial China. New York, New York: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05090-2
  • Yu, Pauline (2002). "Chinese Poetry and Its Institutions", in Hsiang Lectures on Chinese Poetry, Volume 2, Grace S. Fong, editor. (Montreal: Center for East Asian Research, McGill University).
  • Etienne Zi. Pratique Des Examens Militaires En Chine. (Shanghai, Varietes Sinologiques. No. 9, 1896). American Libraries Internet Archive Google Book (Searchable).
  • This article incorporates material from the Library of Congress that is believed to be in the public domain.
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