Imperial examination

Candidates gathering around the wall where the results are posted. This announcement was known as "releasing the roll" (放榜). (c. 1540, by Qiu Ying)
Imperial examination

"Imperial examinations" in Traditional (top) and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 科舉
Simplified Chinese 科举
Hanyu Pinyin kējǔ
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet khoa bảng
khoa cử
Chữ Hán 科榜
Korean name
Hangul 과거
Hanja 科擧
Japanese name
Hiragana かきょ
Kyūjitai 科擧
Shinjitai 科挙

The imperial examinations were a civil service examination system in Imperial China to select candidates for the state bureaucracy. Although there were imperial exams as early as the Han dynasty, the system became widely utilized as the major path to office only in the mid-Tang dynasty, and remained so until its abolition in 1905. Since the exams were based on knowledge of the classics and literary style, not technical expertise, successful candidates were generalists who shared a common language and culture, one shared even by those who failed. This common culture helped to unify the empire and the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule, while leaving clear problems resulting from a systemic lack of technical and practical expertise.

The examination system helped to shape China's intellectual, cultural, and political life. The increased reliance on the exam system was in part responsible for Tang dynasty shifting from a military aristocracy to a gentry class of scholar-bureaucrats. Starting with the Song dynasty, the system was regularized and developed into a roughly three-tiered ladder from local to provincial to court exams. The content was narrowed and fixed on texts of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy. By the Ming dynasty, the highest degree, the jinshi (進士/进士), became essential for highest office, while there was a vast oversupply of holders of the initial degree, shengyuan (生員), who could not hope for office, though these were granted social privilege. Critics charged that the system stifled creativity and created officials who dared not defy authority, yet the system also continued to promote cultural unity. Wealthy families, especially merchants, could opt into the system by educating their sons or purchasing degrees. In the 19th century, critics blamed the imperial system, and in the process its examinations, for China's lack of technical knowledge and its defeat by foreign powers.

The influence of the Chinese examination system spread to neighboring Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan (though briefly) and Ryūkyū. The Chinese examination system was introduced to the Western world in reports by European missionaries and diplomats, and encouraged the British East India Company to use a similar method to select employees. Following the initial success in that company, the British government adopted a similar testing system for screening civil servants in 1855. Other European nations, such as France and Germany, followed suit. Modeled after these previous adaptations, the U.S established its own testing program for certain government jobs after 1883.[1]

General history

Although, in a general way, the formative ideas behind the imperial exams can be traced back at least to Zhou dynasty times (or, more mythologically, Yao),[2] such as imperial promotion for displaying skill in archery contests, the imperial examination system in its classical manifestation is historically attested to have been established in 605, during the Sui dynasty; which in the quickly succeeding Tang dynasty was used only on a relatively small scale, especially in its early phase. However, the structure of the examination system was extensively expanded during the reign of Wu Zetian:[3] the impact of Wu's use of the testing system is still a matter for scholarly debate. During the Song dynasty the emperors expanded both examinations and the government school system, in part 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 selection of the scholar-officials, who formed the elite members of society. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, 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. Other brief interruptions to the system occurred, such as at the beginning of the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. The modern examination system for selecting civil servants also indirectly evolved from the imperial one.[4]

The operations of the examination system were part of the imperial record keeping system, and the date of receiving the jinshi degree is often a key biographical datum: sometimes the date of achieving jinshi is the only firm date known for even some of the most historically prominent persons in Chinese history.

History by dynasty

Chinese Examination Cells at the South River School (Nanjiangxue) Nanjing (China). Shown without curtains or other furnishings.

The civil service examination for recruitment into service of the imperial government spanned several dynasties, although the degree to which this process was utilized varied over its existence, and its use was even discontinued for periods of time. In the modern sense of an open examination system, the imperial civil service examinations did not take place until the Sui dynasty, when they then began to recognizably take on the form of standardized tests. Nevertheless, the tests had a lengthy historical background in Chinese thought, including 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 Confucian form in which it was known in later times had much of its origin in the Han dynasty rule of Han Wudi (Emperor Wu of Han). Through the Three Kingdoms and the Sui dynasty recruitment was viewed as basically a bottom-up process: promotions being generally through preferment from the local and lower levels of government up to each successively higher level until recommendations finally might be offered to the emperor himself, in continuation of the Zhou idea that the lower levels of government were responsible for finding 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, recommendations, clerical promotions, direct sale of official rank, and special induction procedures for eunuchs. The regular higher level degree examination cycle was nominally decreed in 1067 to be 3 years. In practice both before and after this, the examinations were irregularly implemented for significant periods of time: thus, the calculated statistical averages for the number of degrees conferred annually should be understood in this context. The jinshi tests were not a yearly event and should not be considered so; the annual average figures are a necessary artifact of quantitative analysis.[5]

Han dynasty

From the time of the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) until the later, fuller 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. Oral examination on policy issues were sometimes conducted personally by the emperor himself, during Western Han.[6] 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. During the Han dynasty, the examinations were primarily used for the purpose of classifying candidates who had been specifically recommended; and, through the Tang dynasty the quantity of placement into government service through the examination system was only averaged about 9 persons per year, with the known maximum being less than 25 in any given year.[7]

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 and Wu interregnum

A model of exam cells displayed at Beijing Imperial Academy

Over the course of the Tang dynasty (唐朝) and during the Zhou dynasty of the Wu Zetian interregnum, the examination system developed into a more comprehensive system, developing beyond the basic Sui process of qualifying candidates based on questions on policy matters and then followed by an interview.[8] Oral interviews as part of the examination and selection system were theoretically supposed to be an unbiased process, but in practice favored candidates from elite clans based in the capitals of Chang'an and Luoyang (speakers of solely non-elite dialects could not succeed).[9][10]

A pivotal point in the development of imperial examinations arose with the rise of Wu Zetian.[11] Up until that point, the rulers of the Tang dynasty were all male members of the Li family (李氏). Wu Zetian was exceptional: a woman not of the Li family, she came to occupy the seat of the emperor in an official manner in the year of 690, and even beforehand she had already begun to stretch her power within the imperial courts behind the scenes. Reform of the imperial examinations to include a new class of elite bureaucrats derived from humbler origins became a keystone of Wu's gamble to retain power.

In 655, Wu Zetian graduated 44 candidates with the jìnshì degree (進士), and during one 7-year period the annual average of exam takers graduated with a jinshi degree was greater than 58 persons per year. Wu lavished favors on the newly graduated jinshi degree-holders, increasing the prestige associated with this path of attaining a government career, and clearly began a process of opening up opportunities to success for a wider population pool, including inhabitants of China's less prestigious southeast area.[12] Most of the Li family supporters were located to the northwest, particularly around the capital city of Chang'an. Wu's progressive accumulation of political power through enhancement of the examination system involved attaining the allegiance of previously under-represented regions, alleviating frustrations of the literati, and encouraging education in various locales so even people in the remote corners of the empire would work on their studies in order to pass the imperial exams, and thus developed a nucleus of elite bureaucrats useful from the perspective of control by the central government.[13]

In 681, a written test on knowledge of the Confucian classics was introduced, meaning that candidates were required to memorize these works and fill in the blanks on the test.[14]

In 693, Wu Zetian's government further expanded the civil service examination system,[15] 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 previously disqualified by their non-elite backgrounds to attempt the tests. Successful candidates then became an elite nucleus of bureaucrats within her government.[16]

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 these tests of knowledge 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).[17]

During the early years of the Tang restoration, the following emperors expanded on Wu's policies since they found them politically useful, and the annual averages of degrees conferred continued to rise; however with the upheavals which later developed and the disintegration of the Tang empire into the "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period", the examination system gave ground to other traditional routes to government positions and favoritism in grading reduced the opportunities of those taking the tests who lacked political patronage.[18] Ironically this period of fragmentation resulted in the utter destruction of old networks established by elite families that had ruled China throughout its various dynasties since its very conception. With the disappearance of the old aristocracy, Wu's system of bureaucrat recruitment once more became the dominant model in China, and eventually coalesced into the class of nonhereditary elites who would become known to the West as "mandarins," in reference to Mandarin, the dialect of Chinese employed in the imperial court.[19]

Song dynasty

The emperor receives a candidate during the Palace Examination. Song dynasty.

In the Song dynasty (960 to 1279) more than a hundred higher level examinations were held. Officials selected through the exams became dominant in the bureaucracy. Theoretically, the examinations were open to adult Chinese (at least in terms of literacy) males, with some restrictions, as, in parallel was the opportunity to become a high-ranking government official. This included even individuals from the occupied northern territories.[20] 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. Two other prominent successful entries into politics through the examination system were Su Shi and his brother Su Zhe: both of whom became political opponents of Wang Anshi. Indeed, one of the major objectives of the examination system was to promote diversity of viewpoints and to avoid over-filling of offices with individuals of particular political or partisan alignment, as might occur with alternative, more biased methods, which could allow for active recruitment.[21] Yet the process of studying for the examination tended to be time-consuming and costly, requiring time to spare and tutors. Most of the candidates came from the numerically small but relatively wealthy land-owning scholar-official class.[22]

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.[23] Statistics indicate that the Song imperial government degree-awards eventually more than doubled the highest annual averages of those awarded during the Tang dynasty, with 200 or more per year on average being common, and at times reaching a per annum figure of almost 240.[24]

Various reforms or attempts to reform the examination system were made during the Song dynasty, including by Fan Zhongyan and those by Wang Anshi. Fan's memorial to the throne actually initiated a process which lead ending up resulting in major educational reform, through the establishment of a comprehensive public school system.[25]

Yuan dynasty (The Mongols)

Governmental examinations ended with the defeat of the Song in 1279 by a disintegrating Mongol empire. After a period of turmoil, the part of the Mongol empire that was led by Kublai Khan established itself in China as the Yuan dynasty. Kublai ended the imperial examination system, as he believed that Confucian learning was not needed for government jobs.[26]

The examination system was revived in 1315, with significant changes, during the reign of Emperor Renzong. The new examination system was one of regionalism with Mongol characteristics. The northern areas of Mongolia and its vicinity were favored, and a quota system (both for number of candidates and number of degrees awarded) which was based on the classification of the imperial population into four racially-based groups (or castes and/or ethnicities) was instituted, the groups being Mongols, their non-Han allies (Semu-ren), Northern Chinese, and Southern Chinese, with further restrictions by province.[27] Under the revived and revised system the yearly averages for examination degrees awarded was about 21.[28] As the degrees were arithmetically divided between the four "races" (although with further modification), rather than being proportionally based on either population or number of qualified candidates, this tended to favor the Mongols, Semu-ren, and North Chinese: the South Chinese were by far the greatest part of the population, the 1290 census figures recording some 12,000,000 households (about 48% of the total Yuan population), versus 2,000,000 North Chinese households, and the populations of Mongols and Semu-ren were both less.[29] The restrictions on candidates by the new quota system allowed only 300 candidates for each testing session of the three year examination cycle. The provincial restrictions resulted in a greater effect; for example, only 28 Han Chinese from South China were included among the 300 candidates, the rest of the South China slots (47) being occupied by resident Mongols or Semu-ren, although 47 "racial South Chinese" who were not residents of South China were approved as candidates.[30]

Ming dynasty

A 15th-century portrait of the Ming official Jiang Shunfu. The two cranes on his chest are a "Mandarin square" for a civil official of the first rank.

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) retained and expanded the system it inherited. Shortly after the inauguration of the dynasty, the Hongwu emperor in 1370 declared that the exams should cover the Four Books, discourses, and political analysis, accepting the Neo-Confucian canon put forth by Zhuxi in the Song dynasty. But he firmly insisted on including the martial arts. The curriculum at the National Academy emphasized law, mathematics, calligraphy, horse riding, and archery in addition to Confucian classics required in the exams.[31]The emperor especially emphasized archery.[32]

The Ming established Neo-Confucian interpretations as the orthodoxy guidelines and created what the historian Benjamin Elman called a "single-minded and monocular political ideology" that "affected politically and socially how literati learning would be interpreted and used." The imperial civil service system adopted this rigid orthodoxy at a time when commercialization and population growth meant that there was an inflation in the number of degree candidates at the lower levels. As a result, the higher and more prestigious offices were dominated by jinshi (Palace) degree-holders, who tended to come from elite families. The Ming thus started a process in which access to government office became harder and harder and officials became more and more orthodox in their thought. Near the end of the Ming dynasty, in 1600, there were roughly half a million licentiates in a population of 150 million, that is, one per 300 people; by the mid-19th century the ratio had shrunk to one civil licentiate for each 1,000 people.[33]

Qing dynasty

Examination hall, Prosperous Suzhou by Xu Yang, 1759

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which attempted to overthrow the Qing dynasty in the middle of the 19th century, in 1853 offered the first exam in Chinese history to admit women as exam candidates. The exams administered by the Heavenly Kingdom differed from those administered by the Qing dynasty, in that they required knowledge of the Bible. Fu Shanxiang took the exam and became the first female zhuangyuan in Chinese history.[34]

The end of the imperial examination system

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 of the exams, and the Hundred Days' Reform of 1898 proposed a set of modernizations. After the Boxer Rebellion, the government drew up plans to reform under the name of New Policies, 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 years. The new system provided equivalents to the old degrees; a 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 fall of the dynasty in 1911, but the end of the system meant the end of Confucianism as an official state ideology and of the scholar official as a legal group.[35]

General discussion of late imperial system

Yet the system also promoted resistance to change. Reformers charged that the 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.[36]

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.[37]

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.[38]

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 government itself after loss of the mainland to the Communist Party of China.

Taking the exams

"Cribbing Garment" worn as underwear into the examination

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

Each candidate arrived at an examination compound with only a few amenities: a water pitcher, a chamber pot, bedding, food (which he had to prepare himself), an inkstone, ink and brushes. Guards verified a student's identity and searched 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 during those three days, nor were candidates allowed any communication. If a candidate died, officials wrapped his body in a straw mat and tossed it over the high walls that ringed the compound.[39]

Intense pressure to succeed meant that cheating and corruption were rampant, often outrunning strenuous attempts to prevent or defeat them. In order to discourage favoritism which might occur if an examiner recognized a student's calligraphy, each exam was recopied by an official copyist. Exact quotes from the classics were required; misquoting even one character or writing it in the wrong form meant failure, so candidates went to great lengths to bring hidden copies of these texts with them, sometimes written on their underwear.[40]

Details of the imperial examination


By 115 AD, 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":

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

Stone flagpole planted at the examiner's abode indicating the jinshi imperial examination status

The examinations and degrees formed a "ladder of success", with success generally being equated with being graduated as jinshi, which is a degree similar to a modern Doctor of Literature degree, or PhD. Modifications to the basic jinshi or other degree were made for higher-placing graduates, similar to the modern Summa cum laude. 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:

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.[41]

Military examinations

Imperial Military Examinations
Traditional Chinese 武舉
Simplified Chinese 武举
Literal meaning Military Examination
Hanyu Pinyin Wǔjǔ

In addition to the civil examinations, the imperial government also held specialized military examinations for the selection of army officers.[42] Before the military exams, the participants who were from military families studied at military schools.[43] Successful candidates were awarded military versions of Jinshi and Juren degrees: Wujinshi (武進士) and Wujuren (武舉人), and so on.[44] In the traditional Confucian scheme of things, civil affairs and service were much more prestigious than the military. Nevertheless, the civil and military elements of government were in Chinese political theory sometimes compared to the two wheels of a chariot; if either were neglected, government would not run smoothly.[45] Thus, the military examinations had the same general arrangement 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, in addition to martial skills such as archery and horsemanship as well as Chinese military texts, especially Sun Tzu.[46] At the entry level exam, for instance, which was conducted by the district magistrate, the candidate had to shoot three arrows while riding his horse toward the target, which was the shape of a person. A perfect score was three hits, a good score two, and one hit earned a pass. The candidate failed if he made no hits or fell from his horse. The higher levels were made up of more and more challenging exams until the highest level, conducted at the palace in the presence of the emperor, which included not only mounted archery, but bow bending, halberd brandishing, and weight lifting.[47][48] The practices of the Qing and Ming military exams was incorporated into physical education during the Republic of China.[49]

Besides China, the military examinations were also a practice of certain Korean and Vietnamese dynasties.

Examination procedures

Examination hall with 7500 cells, Canton, 1873.

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 party 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.[50]


Some people were banned from taking the imperial exam, although this varied to some extent over history. Traditionally, Chinese society was divided into officials/nobility and commoners. The commoners were divided by class or status into 4 groups by occupation, ranked in order of prestige: scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants.[51] Beneath these in terms of prestige were the so-called "mean" people, with various regional names and attributes; but, boat-people, beggars, sex-workers, entertainers, slaves, and low-level government employees were all people included among the "mean" class: among other forms of discrimination, "mean" people were forbidden to serve as government officials or to take the imperial exam.[52][53] 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.[54] Women were generally excluded from taking the exams. Butchers and sorcerers were also excluded at times.[55] Merchants were generally restricted from taking the exams until the Ming and Qing dynasties.[56] During Sui and Tang artisans were also restricted from official service; during the Song dynasty artisans and merchants were specifically excluded from the jinshi exam; and, in the Liao dynasty, physicians, diviners, butchers, and merchants were all prohibited from taking the examinations.[57] At times, quota systems were also used to restrict the number of candidates allowed to take or to pass the imperial civil service examinations, by region or by other criteria.

Cultural context

Chinese traditional religion responded to concerns about the imperial examination system. The examination system was also influential on the contemporary literary tradition.[58]

Confucian rationalism

From a certain viewpoint, the examination system represented the Confucian system in its most rationalist aspect. The system of testing was designed according to the principle of a society ruled by men of merit, and to achieve this by objectively measuring various candidates' knowledge and intelligence. However, in actual operation, the examination system also included various aspects of religious and mythical or irrational beliefs which made the actual reality of the examination structure more complex than the Confucian ideal.[59]


A less scientifically rational idea which had a significant role in the cultural context of the examination system involved traditional beliefs about fate; that is, that cosmic forces predestine the certain results of certain human affairs, and particularly that individual success or failure was subject to the will of Heaven, or that the results of taking the tests could be influenced by the intervention of various deities.[60]

Zhong Kui

Zhong Kui, also known as Chung-kuei, was a deity associated with the examination system. The story is that a certain scholar took the tests, and, despite his most excellent performance, which should have won him first place, he was unfairly deprived of the first place prize by a corrupt system: in response, he killed himself, the act of suicide condemning him to be a ghost. Many people afraid of traveling on roads and paths that may be haunted by evil spirits have worshiped Zhong Kui as an efficacious protective deity.[61]

Strange Stories from the Examination Halls

Also known as Kechang Yiwen Lu, the Strange Stories from the Examination Halls was a collection of stories popular at least among Confucian scholars of the Qing dynasty. The theme of many of the stories is that the good or bad deeds of individual persons during the course of their lives are causally rewarded or punished according to karmic principles, by which good deeds are cosmically rewarded by success in the examination halls, often by Heavenly-inspired deities; and, bad deeds result in failure, often resulting from the actions of the ghosts of the victims of those deeds.[62]

Naming taboo

Some individuals were discriminated against because of their names, due to a naming taboo. For example, because the Tang dynasty poet Li He's father's name sounded like the jin, in jinshi, he was discouraged from taking the tests.[63] The claim was that if Li He was called a jinshi, it would be against the rule of etiquette that a son not be called by his father's name.


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 technically opened to everyone, except Nobi who are not required to pay taxes and are not drafted to serve in army. 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.[64]


The imperial examination system attracted much attention and greatly inspired political theorists in the West, and as a Chinese institution was one of the earliest to receive such attention.[65] One example is the important influence in this regard on the Northcote-Trevelyan Report and hence on the reform of the Civil Service in British India and later in the United Kingdom.[66] After Great Britain's successful implementation of systematic, open, and competitive examinations in India, in the 19th century, other implementations were undertaken in other Western nations.[67]


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?[68] And, there is a long history of debate on the usefulness of the procedure of testing the ability of the candidates to write poetry.[69] During the Tang dynasty, a poetry section was added to the examinations, requiring the examinee to compose a shi poem in the five-character, 12-line regulated verse form and a fu composition of 300 to 400 characters[70] The poetry requirement remained standard for many decades, despite some controversy, although briefly abolished for the examination year 833−834 (by order of Li Deyu).[71] During the Song dynasty, 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 (Dongpo) 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.[72]

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Imperial examination.



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  3. Paludin, 97
  4. Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd Ed., 2010), 145-147, 198-200,
  5. Kracke, 252
  6. Yu, 57
  7. Kracke, 253
  8. Yu, 55
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  33. Elman (2009), pp. 408-409.
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  39. Ichisada Miyazaki. China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China. (New York: Weatherhill, 1976. ISBN 0834801043), pp. 18-25.
  40. Andrew H. Plaks, "Cribbing Garment" Gest Library
  41. Murck, 2000: page 31
  42. Etienne Zi. Pratique Des Examens Militaires En Chine. (Shanghai, Varietes Sinologiques. No. 9, 1896). American Libraries Internet Archive Google Book (Searchable).
  43. Roger V. Des Forges (2003). Cultural Centrality and Political Change in Chinese History: Northeast Henan in the Fall of the Ming. Stanford University Press. pp. 152–. ISBN 978-0-8047-4044-9.
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  46. Nicola Di Cosmo (2009). Military culture in imperial China. Harvard University Press. p. 245. ISBN 0-674-03109-1. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
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  52. Ch'u, 249
  53. Susan Naquin; Evelyn Sakakida Rawski (1989). Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century (reprint, ed.). Yale University Press. p. 117. ISBN 0-300-04602-2. Retrieved 2011-10-31.
  54. Samuel Wells Williams (1883). The Middle kingdom: a survey of the ... Chinese empire and its inhabitants ... (revised ed.). New York: Wiley & Putnam. pp. 321, 412. Retrieved 2011-05-08.
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  56. Ch'u, 248
  57. Ch'u, 386 note 70, citing Liao-shih.
  58. Yang, 265-272
  59. Yang, 265-266 and Kracke, 251
  60. Yang, 265-268
  61. Christie, 60 (picture, 58)
  62. Yang, 266-267
  63. Hinton, 286
  64. Liu, Haifeng, Influence of China’s Imperial Examinations on Japan, Korea and Vietnam -Frontiers of History in China, October 2007, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp 493-512
  65. Kracke, 251
  66. Ssu-yu Teng, "Chinese Influence on the Western Examination System", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 7 (1942-1943): 267-312.
  67. Wu, 417
  68. Yu, 58-60
  69. Murck, 51
  70. Yu, 58
  71. Yu, 58-59, who notes factual inaccuracy of the former belief that the poetry requirement was eliminated from 781−834
  72. Murck, 52


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