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Imperial examination

Imperial examination
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 科舉
Simplified Chinese 科举
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet khoa bảng
khoa cử
Hán-Nôm 科榜
Korean name
Hangul 과거
Hanja 科擧
Japanese name
Hiragana かきょ
Kyūjitai 科擧
Shinjitai 科挙

The imperial examination was 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 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.

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. 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 influenced Europe and the development of the civil service system in the United States of America as well.


  • General history 1
  • History by dynasty 2
    • Han dynasty 2.1
    • Three Kingdoms era through the Sui dynasty 2.2
    • Tang dynasty and Wu interregnum 2.3
    • Song dynasty 2.4
    • Yuan dynasty 2.5
    • Ming dynasty 2.6
    • Qing dynasty 2.7
    • General discussion of late imperial system 2.8
    • Republic of China 2.9
  • Taking the exams 3
  • Details of the imperial examination 4
    • Curriculum 4.1
    • Degree types 4.2
    • Degree examinations 4.3
    • Military examinations 4.4
    • Examination procedures 4.5
    • Restrictions 4.6
  • Cultural context 5
    • Confucian rationalism 5.1
    • Fate 5.2
    • Zhong Kui 5.3
    • Strange Stories from the Examination Halls 5.4
    • Naming taboo 5.5
  • Influence 6
    • Other countries 6.1
      • East 6.1.1
      • West 6.1.2
    • Poetry 6.2
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References and further reading 9
  • External links 10
    • More information on the military examination 10.1

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),[1] 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:[2] 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. The system had a history (with brief interruptions; for example, 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.[3]

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 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, recommendations, clerical promotions, direct sale of official rank, and special induction procedures for eunuchs. The regular higher level degree examination cycle was nominally decreed to be 3 years, in 1067. In practice both before and after this, the examinations were irregularly implemented for significant periods of time: thus, the calculated statistical averages for 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

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

Over the course of the Tang dynasty and during the "Zhou dynasty" of the Wu Zetian interregnum the examination system developed into a more comprehensive system, much beyond the basic Sui process of qualifying candidates based on questions on policy matters, followed by an interview.[7] 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).[8][9]

Historically, the major change to the imperial examination system arose together with the rise to power of Wu Zetian.[10] The rulers of the Tang dynasty were of the family of Li, and they were all male. Wu Zetian was exceptional: she was a woman and not of the Li family, yet she came to occupy the position of the emperor, formally in 690, yet before this she was already running things behind the scenes. Reform of the imperial examination system was one of her keys to power, and by 655 Wu was first lady of the empire.

In 655, Wu Zetian had 44 candidates graduated with the jinshi degree, and during one 7 year period the annual average of examinees achieving jinshi was greater than 58 persons per year. Wu lavished favors on the newly graduated jinshi degree-holders, increasing the prestige of this way of attaining a government career, and clearly began a process of opening up the opportunity for success to a greater population, including to the inhabitants of China's southeast.[11] Most of the Li family supporters were located to the north, particularly around the capital city of Chang'an. Wu's progressive gain of political power through enhancement of the examination system involved gaining the allegiance of previously under-represented regions, alleviating the frustrations of frustrated literati, and encouraging education in various localities as more people would study harder even in the more remote localities in hopes of passing the examinations, thus developing an elite nucleus useful from the perspective of control by the central government.[12]

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.[13]

In 693, the imperial government of China, under Wu Zetian, even further, greatly expanded the civil service examination system,[14] 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.[15]

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).[16]

During the early years of the Tang restoration, the following emperors expanded on Wu's policies, finding them useful politically, 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 "Five dynasties and Ten kingdoms", the examination system gave ground to the other traditional routes to government positions, and favoritism in grading reduced the opportunities of those taking the tests who lacked political patronage.[17]

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.[18] 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 time to spare and tutors. Most of the candidates came from the numerically small but relatively wealthy land-owning scholar-official class.[19]

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.[20] 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.[21]

Yuan dynasty

From 1279 to 1315 no imperial civil service examinations were held. The Song system of governmental examinations ended together with the demise of the Song government itself, in 1279, when it was defeated 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, which included the modern areas of Mongolia, Manchuria, Korea, and large areas of northern China which had not been under the control of the Southern Song, together with the former Song territory in southern China. The imperial examination system was revived in 1315, during the reign of Emperor Renzong of Yuan (also known as, Ayurbarwada Buyantu Khan), with significant changes. 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.[22] Under the revived and revised system the yearly averages for examination degrees awarded was about 21.[23] 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.[24] 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 greater affect; 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.[25]

Ming dynasty

A 15th-century portrait of the Ming official Jiang Shunfu, now in the Nanjing Museum. The decoration of two cranes on his chest is a "rank badge", indicating that he was a civil official of the first rank.

The Ming dynasty replaced the Yuan dynasty in 1368. The policy in regard to the imperial examination system was one of slow change. At first, the Mongol system was allowed to remain intact then later expanded.

Qing dynasty

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. [26]

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.[27]

General discussion of late imperial system

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.[28]

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.[29]

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.[30]

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

"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.

  • Entry-level examinations were held annually and accessible to educated individuals from early teenage years. These were held locally and were collectively called Háizi kǎoshì (孩子考試, "child exam"). Háizi kǎoshì was hierarchically classified into Gāi xiàn kǎoshì (縣考試, "county exam"), Xiàn kǎoshì (府府試, "prefectural exam") and yuanshi (院試, "college exam") successively.
  • Provincial exams: xiangshi (鄉試, "township exam"), held every three years in provincial capitals.
  • Metropolitan exams: huishi (會試, "conference exam"), held every three years in the national capital.
  • Palace exams: dianshi (殿試, "court exam"), held every three years in the Imperial palace, often supervised by the emperor himself.

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.[31]

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.[32]

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":

  • 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

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:

  • Tongsheng (童生, lit. "child student"), entry-level examinee who pass the county/prefecture exams.
  • Shengyuan (生員, lit. "student member"), also commonly called xiucai (秀才, lit. "distinguished talent"), entry-level licentiate who passed the college exam. Xiucai enjoyed officially sanctioned social privileges such as exemption from statute labour, access into local government facilities and limited immunity against corporal punishments. They were further divided into three classes according to exam performance.
    • Linsheng (廩生, lit. "granary student"), the first class of shengyuan, who were the best performers in the college exam, and got to receive government-issued rations and pay for their academic achievements. The top performers within this class would get accepted into the Imperial Academy as gongsheng (貢生, lit. "tribute student"), who will then be eligible to sit the provincial or even the national exam directly.
      • Anshou (案首, lit. "first on the desk"), the highest ranking linsheng, and thus the top shengyuan who ranked first in college exam.
    • Zengsheng (增生, lit. "expanded student"), the second class of shengyuan, who performed less well than linsheng and enjoyed similar legal perks, but not the material allowance.
    • Fusheng (附生, lit. "attached student"), the third class of shengyuan and considered substitute recruits outside the official quota of enrollment. They were considered passable in exams but needed more improvements.
  • Juren (舉人, lit. "recommended man"), a qualified graduate who passed the three-yearly provincial exam.
    • Jieyuan (解元, lit. "top escorted examinee"), the juren who ranked first in provincial exam.
  • Gongshi (貢士, lit. "tribute scholar"), a recognized scholarly achiever who passed the three-yearly national exam.
    • Huiyuan (會元, lit. "top conference examinee"), the gongshi who ranked first in national exam.
  • Jinshi (進士, lit. "advanced scholar"), a graduate who passed the three-yearly court exam.
    • Jinshi Jidi (進士及第, lit. "distinguished jinshi"), graduates ranked first class in the court exam, usually only the top three individuals were qualified for this title.
      • Zhuangyuan (狀元, lit. "top thesis author"), the jinshi who ranked first overall nationwide.
      • Bangyan (榜眼, lit. "eyes positioned alongside"), the jinshi who ranked second overall just below zhuangyuan.
      • Tanhua (探花, lit. "flower snatcher"), the jinshi ranked third overall.
    • Jinshi Chushen (進士出身, lit. "jinshi background"), the graduates who ranked second class in court exam, ranking immediately after the tanhua.
    • Tong Jinshi Chushen (同進士出身, lit. "along with jinshi background"), graduates ranked third class in the court exam.

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.[33]

Military examinations

Imperial Military Examinations
Mounted military examination candidate takes aim in archery test using specialized arrow
Mounted military examination candidate takes aim in archery test using specialized arrow
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.[34] Successful candidates were awarded military versions of Jinshi and Juren degrees: Wujinshi (武進士) and Wujuren (武舉人), and so on.[35] 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 was neglected, government would not run smoothly.[36] 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.[37] 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.[38]

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 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.[39]


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.[40] 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.[41][42] 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.[43] Women were generally excluded from taking the exams. Butchers and sorcerers were also excluded at times.[44] Merchants were generally restricted from taking the exams until the Ming and Qing dynasties.[45] 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.[46] 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.[47]

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.[48]


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.[49]

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.[50]

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.[51]

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.[52] 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.[53]


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.[54] 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.[55] 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.[56]


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?[57] And, there is a long history of debate on the usefulness of the procedure of testing the ability of the candidates to write poetry.[58] 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[59] 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).[60] 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.[61]

See also


  1. ^ Wu, 413-419
  2. ^ Paludin, 97
  3. ^ Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd, 2010), 145-147, 198-200,
  4. ^ Kracke, 252
  5. ^ Yu, 57
  6. ^ Kracke, 253
  7. ^ Yu, 55
  8. ^ 任立达,薛希洪,"中国古代官吏考选制度史" (A History of the Examination Systems for the Chinese Imperial Mandarinate)(青岛出版社, 2003)
  9. ^ Keay, John (2009). China — A History. Harper Collins.   p. 228
  10. ^ Kracke, 253
  11. ^ Kracke, 253
  12. ^ Kracke, 254
  13. ^ Yu, 58
  14. ^ Paludan, Ann (1998). Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial China. Thames and Hudson.   p. 97
  15. ^ Fairbank, 82
  16. ^ Yu, 58
  17. ^ Kracke, 254
  18. ^ Kracke, 257 (Table 2, which shows 26 doctoral degrees awarded in 1184 to individuals from Occupied North China, and 1 in 1256)
  19. ^ Gernet, Jacques. (1962) Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276. Translated by H.M. Wright (Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-0720-0, p. 65).
  20. ^ Elman, Benjamin A. A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, 2000:14.
  21. ^ Kracke, 254
  22. ^ Kracke, 263
  23. ^ Kracke, 263
  24. ^ Kracke, 263
  25. ^ Kracke, 263, and note 17, page 391
  26. ^ Mao, Jiaqi (Grace Chor Yi Wong tr.) (1998), "Fu Shanxiang", in Ho, Clara Wing-chug, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Armonk, NY: Sharpe, pp. 43–45,  
  27. ^ Wolfgang Franke, The Reform and Abolition of the Traditional China Examination System (Cambridge, Massachusetts: East Asian Research Center, 1968): 70-71.
  28. ^ Justin Yifu Lin, Demystifying the Chinese Economy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. xiv, [1]
  29. ^ Fairbank, John King and Merle Goldman. (2006) China: A New History. (Cambridge: MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2006 ISBN 0-674-01828-1), p. 95.
  30. ^ Fairbank, John King and Merle Goldman. (2006) China: A New History (Cambridge: MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2006 ISBN 0-674-01828-1), pp. 101-107.
  31. ^ Ichisada Miyazaki. China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China. (New York: Weatherhill, 1976. ISBN 0834801043), pp. 18-25.
  32. ^ Andrew H. Plaks, "Cribbing Garment" Gest Library
  33. ^ Murck, 2000: page 31
  34. ^ Etienne Zi. Pratique Des Examens Militaires En Chine. (Shanghai, Varietes Sinologiques. No. 9, 1896). American Libraries Internet Archive Google Book (Searchable).
  35. ^ Etienne Zi. Pratique Des Examens Militaires En Chine. (Shanghai, Varietes Sinologiques. No. 9, 1896). American Libraries Internet Archive Google Book (Searchable), Remarques générale, 2ieme.
  36. ^ Miyazaki, China's Examination Hell p. 102.
  37. ^ Nicola Di Cosmo (2009). Military culture in imperial China. Harvard University Press. p. 245.  
  38. ^ Miyazaki, China's Examination Hell p. 102, 105.
  39. ^ Hucker, Charles O. (1985), A dictionary of official titles in Imperial China / 中国古代官名辞典, Stanford University Press, pp. 106–107, 536,  
  40. ^ Ch'u, 246
  41. ^ Ch'u, 249
  42. ^ Susan Naquin, Evelyn Sakakida Rawski (1989). Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century (reprint, ed.). Yale University Press. p. 117.  
  43. ^ 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. 
  44. ^ Ch'u, 247
  45. ^ Ch'u, 248
  46. ^ Ch'u, 386 note 70, citing Liao-shih.
  47. ^ Yang, 265-272
  48. ^ Yang, 265-266 and Kracke, 251
  49. ^ Yang, 265-268
  50. ^ Christie, 60 (picture, 58)
  51. ^ Yang, 266-267
  52. ^ Hinton, 286
  53. ^ 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
  54. ^ Kracke, 251
  55. ^ Ssu-yu Teng, "Chinese Influence on the Western Examination System", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 7 (1942-1943): 267-312.
  56. ^ Wu, 417
  57. ^ Yu, 58-60
  58. ^ Murck, 51
  59. ^ Yu, 58
  60. ^ Yu, 58-59, who notes factual inaccuracy of the former belief that the poetry requirement was eliminated from 781−834
  61. ^ Murck, 52

References and further reading

  • Christie, Anthony (1968). Chinese Mythology. Feltham: Hamlyn Publishing. ISBN 0600006379.
  • Ch'ü, T'ung-tsu. (1967 [1957]). "Chinese Class Structure and its Ideology", in Chinese Thoughts & Institutions, John K. Fairbank, editor. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
  • Elman, Benjamin. (2002) A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. London: Univ. of California Pr.ISBN 0-520-21509-5
  • —— (2009), "Civil Service Examinations (Keju)", Berkeshire Encyclopedia of China, Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire, pp. 405–410 
  • Fairbank, John King (1992), China: A New History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-11670-4
  • Hinton, David (2008). Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 0374105367 / ISBN 9780374105365
  • P.T. Ho, The Ladder of Success in Imperial China Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368-1911. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.)
  • Kracke, E. A., Jr. (1967 [1957]). "Region, Family, and Individual in the Chinese Examination System", in Chinese Thoughts & Institutions, John K. Fairbank, editor. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
  • 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
  • Wu, K. C. (1982). The Chinese Heritage. New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN 0-517-54475X.
  • Wang, Rui (2013). The Chinese Imperial Examination System : An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.  
  • Yang, C. K. [Yang Ch'ing-k'un]. Religion in Chinese Society : A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors (1967 [1961]). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • 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). University of Oregon Libraries (not searchable), 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.

External links

More information on the military examination

There were military schools for training before taking the military division of the imperial examinations.

  • , by Andrew D. MorrisMarrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China, on Google Books.
  • , by Roger V. Des ForgesCultural Centrality and Political Change in Chinese History: Northeast Henan in the Fall of the Ming, on Google Books.

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