Chinese civil service exam

Civil servants were recruited and promoted through a series of examinations. These tests were, theoretically at least, open to anybody and were responsible for a considerable degree of social mobility. Success could bring privileged status and wealth to even the most humble born.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “With Sui dynasty origins and largely formalized in the T'ang and Sung dynasties, the imperial examination system of traditional China developed as a means to identify men of talent and select officials for government service. Practiced more than a thousand years, it came to an end in 1904 with the education reforms as part of modernization efforts at the end of the Ch'ing dynasty. To take part in the imperial examinations and be chosen as the elite of the "golden list" became the ultimate path to success in imperial China. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Professor Derk Bodde of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: “The chief defect in this system was its emphasis upon literary style and a detailed knowledge of the Chinese classics, at the expense of more practical matters. Another was the failure of the Chinese government to provide anything approaching a national system of free education. Hence, most candidates had to prepare themselves for the examinations at their own expense and the inevitable result was that the majority of those able to take them came from the well-to-do. Nevertheless, the system had two important advantages. It was open, with trifling exceptions, to all members of society, thus making it the world's most democratic means, before modern times, for selecting government officials. And it ensured the presence in the government of men of high education.” [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, July 1948 ]

Chinese Imperial Exams

The Chinese civil service exam was essentially a test of knowledge of Confucian texts. For 2000 years, up until 1905, the heart of the exam was a regurgiation of the Four Great Books and Five Classics, including Confucius's Analects, the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. Test takers were given a certain amount of time (sometimes six weeks) and they were supposed to write everything they knew. Ideally, the students with the best scores were chosen for the best positions in the bureaucracy.

leftThere were local, provincial and palace exams and they covered a number of topics, including poetry, philosophy, politics and ethics. Passing was said to be more difficult than getting into Harvard. Stephen West, a Chinese literature professor at Berkeley told U.S. News and World Report, "The magnitude of their accomplishments was impressive. It would be as if a Henry Kissinger was a gifted poet. Or if W.H Auden was also a superb government policy specialist."

Professor Derk Bodde of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: The examinations took place within huge walled enclosures, inside of which were thousands of small brick cells, laid out in straight rows like the houses of a town. Each cell contained a bench and table, and housed a nervous candidate. Every precaution was taken to prevent cheating. Candidates were searched before entering the enclosure, carefully watched while the examination was in progress, and not permitted to leave until it was over. Each examination commonly lasted several days and was of unbelievable difficulty. In 1889, for example, out of more than 14,000 candidates taking the examination in Peking, only slightly over 300 passed. The reward for success, however, was entry into the honored ranks of the scholar-officials who governed the country. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, July 1948 ]

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “Some candidates had to spend three days and nights in an examination cell measuring 6ft by 3ft (1.8 meter by 0.9 meter), the culmination of years of rote learning. Frances Wood, curator of the Chinese collection at the British Library told the BBC: "The civil service exams developed over the centuries. The essays were largely to do with the content of the Confucian classics - how do you rule the people? You rule them through good, you rule them through example. It's morality that they're being examined on - their ability to cough up gobbets of Confucian morality." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 17, 2014]

Confucianism Institutionalized Through the Examination System

Exam Records from 1463

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Imperial China was famous for its civil service examination system, which had its beginnings in the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE) but was fully developed during the Qing dynasty. The system continued to play a major role, not only in education and government, but also in society itself, throughout Qing times. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“The civil service examination system was squarely based upon the Confucian classics and upon recognized commentaries on those classics. The examination system was the basic support for the ongoing study of the Confucian classics during late-imperial times and could be said to have been the impetus behind the school curriculum that was followed all over China, even at the level of the village school for young boys. (In imperial times educational opportunities were far more restricted for girls and women than were for boys. Some girls did get an education, but this was a minority.)

“The Confucian tradition was institutionally upheld by the imperial state in a very direct way. The opening lessons in the curriculum that gave these children basic literacy were the Confucian classics and other approved texts. For a young boy, simply going to school meant beginning the early part of the very curriculum which, if he succeeded at every level, would propel him into the examination system. What this curriculum meant, among other things, was absolute mastery of key Confucian texts.

Preparation for the Chinese Civil Service Exams

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Preparations for the test usually began around age five when young boys were taught to bow respectfully and recite lines from classical texts. The most promising teenagers were sent to study under masters in the Chinese capital. They were taught poetry, essay writing and Confucian scholarship.

The eminent scholar John Fairbank wrote: “To prepare for the examinations a boy began at age seven or so and in about six years memorized the 4 books and 5 classics, which totaled 431,000 characters...memoriz[ing] a passage of 200 characters a day...The examination system took a man over a dozen hurdles in the space of 20 or 30 years. Those who emerged from it had lived an examination life so concentrated on the classical literature that they had made themselves a race apart. Scholars were typically unmuscular, aesthetically refined, and spoke a language intelligible only to their kind, a small elite trained in the principles of bureaucratic government” [Source: John King Fairbank, The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985: 28, 27]

Many students failed. In the year 998, only two students passed the highest, or jin-shi, test. Scholars sometimes cheated on the civil service exams by writing down answers on a special shirt worn under their robes. There are also many stories in Chinese literature of promising students who failed the test because they were corrupted by women and alcohol.

The notion that the Confucian system was based totally on merit and lacked a hereditary element is not true. Children of merchants, landowners and families with money had an advantage in that their parents could hire tutors to teach them how to properly write Chinese characters and study Confucian texts. Once they attained their position, Confucian gentlemen made sure their sons studied the classics and prepared for the exams.

History Chinese Civil Service Exams

Professor Derk Bodde of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: The Chinese examination system seems to have been started in 165 B.C., when certain candidates for public office were called to the Chinese capital for examination by the emperor on their moral excellence. In following centuries the system grew until finally almost anyone who wished to become an official had to prove his worth by passing written government examinations. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, July 1948 ]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The exam system in China was born as early as 100 B.C., soon after the time that the Han Dynasty Emperor Wu accepted the proposals of his courtier Dong Zhongshu and established Confucianism as state orthodoxy. It is recorded that the emperor himself conducted the earliest exams, posing questions to the graduates of the state academy and determining their role in government on the basis of their replies. Although some sort of examination procedures were used at intervals during the Han and then later in some of the many kingdoms of the Six Dynasties period, the exam system as we usually think of it did not become fully institutionalized until the short-lived Sui Dynasty (589-617) brought an end to China’s medieval period of disunity and reinstituted a Confucian pattern as the basis of revived centralized government. From that time until this century, the exam system was central to government in China. Although the nature of the exams changed over time, the system was intrinsically a Confucian one..exam papers were no place to demonstrate one’s Daoist or Buddhist insights. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Although the intricacies of the examination system were endless, its basic structure was simple. Throughout the period from about 589 to 1905, the central imperial government held massive exams at the various capitals of China every three years. Those who performed best on these exams earned the right to receive government positions; the specific position was determined through a combination of exam scores, personal influence, and available openings. To select the thousands of young men (and men only) who could compete for these exams, lower level tests were administered annually at provincial and county levels. The aspiring young man could expect to spend several years moving upward through this pyramid of exams..that is, assuming that he was successful at the lower levels: most were not.

Bodde wrote: “From A.D. 1370 onward, the system was adjusted to include three sets of examinations, one held in the local counties, another in the capitals of the provinces, and a third — the highest examination of all — in Peking, the national capital. Some were conducted annually, and others once every three years. The honors thus attained corresponded roughly to our B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees. This system operated with great regularity until it was finally abolished in 1905. Even today the government of China is officially pledged to its re-establishment, though in greatly modified form.

Exam cells

Confucian Examination System

In late imperial China the status of local-level elites was ratified by contact with the central government, which maintained a monopoly on society's most prestigious titles. The examination system and associated methods of recruitment to the central bureaucracy were major mechanisms 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 a province's population. Elites all over China, even in the disadvantaged peripheral regions, had a chance at succeeding in the examinations and achieving the rewards of officeholding. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The examination system also served to maintain cultural unity and consensus on basic values. The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elite and ambitious would-be elite all across China were being indoctrinated with the same values. Even though only a small fraction (about 5 percent) of those who attempted the examinations passed them and received titles, the study, self-indoctrination, and hope of eventual success on a subsequent examination served to sustain the interest of those who took them. Those who failed to pass (most of the candidates at any single examination) 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. *

In late traditional China, then, education was valued in part because of its possible payoff in the examination system. The overall result of the examination system and its associated study was cultural uniformity — identification of the educated with national rather than regional goals and values. This self-conscious national identity underlies the nationalism so important in China's politics in the twentieth century." *

Civil Service Exams and Education in China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The vast majority of boys did not participate in the examinations; in fact, a relatively large percentage of boys ended schooling no later than after the first five or six years. Some scholars estimate that as a result, as much as 40 percent of Chinese males at that time were literate. In comparison only around 10 percent of Chinese women were literate (“literate” in the fundamental sense of being able to read basic documents and not in the more advanced sense of being able to read the classical texts themselves). Having achieved this level of education, the vast majority of boys simply left school and went about their lives. This was true of boys from merchant as well as farming families. Only those from wealthier families or showing exceptional promise and having wealthy sponsors who were impressed by their potential could continue their studies and compete in the examination system. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““The Chinese literary examinations are conducted by means of themes, upon which essays are to be prepared. According to the theory, the preparation of an ideal essay is the mightiest achievement of the human intellect. We have just seen that it is the theoretical condition of good government that the wise and able should rule; but when the matter is reduced to practice, it turns out to be the man who is master of the most correct literary style, and who can impart the most faultless finish of form to his propositions (not one of which is or can be new), who is regarded with the degree, a sufficient number of which in a slow, toilsome, and increasingly difficult series make it probable that the recipient will find official employment at last. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“We have spoken of the blighted minds left in the track of Chinese education. In an Empire containing a total population of perhaps three hundred and fifty millions, there seems to be good reason for estimating the number of those who can read Chinese characters at all as not more than fifteen millions, and perhaps not more than seven millions. The prodigious waste of mental force experienced in the early stages' of education is matched by a similar waste in its higher ranges, where the chances of taking a degree at any particular examination do not appear to rise ordinarily above one or two in a hundred. And when a scholar has definitely failed to take his degree, the time expended in acquiring the technical skill required to compose examination essays is practically lost unless he becomes in turn a school-master arid gives his life to instructing other minds how to repeat the same weary round. The irrationality of supposing that the best essayist is the person most fitted to be a magistrate, or that he is fitted at all, has been so often exposed that we need only allude to it in passing. Yet it is toward this single point that all Chinese education must be made to tend.

On the legacy of the Chinese Scholar-official System, Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “Children in Chinese schools today are still under huge pressure to do well in exams... But young people now have more choices in life. The civil service is only one career path. And the public perception that some bureaucrats are more concerned with their own fortunes than that of the country is leaving an "increasingly sour taste" according to Jonathan Fenby, author of a History of Modern China. The communist mission statement is ruling China for the people, after all. The leadership changed hands in 2013, but there is no sign of a Wang Anshi among them - someone ready to risk their career by turning the bureaucracy upside down. [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 17, 2012 \=]

Exam takers

Levels of Chinese Imperial Exams

Frances Wood, curator of the Chinese collection at the British Library told the BBC: "There were a series - you have local exams, provincial exams, and then the central imperial exam, so you've got lots of people falling by the wayside at the local exams or the provincial exams, so absolutely the creme de la creme get through to even take the central imperial examinations. [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 17, 2014]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The civil service examinations were conducted at every level of the Chinese administrative hierarchy. The lowest level of the Chinese imperial administration was the county seat, and in the county seat one took the preliminary examination, which, if passed, qualified one to take the examination at the second level, which was at the prefectoral (district) seat. The third-level examinations were given in the provincial capitol, and the fourth and highest level of examinations were given in the imperial palace itself. In addition to his many other functions, the emperor was in fact the “grand tutor” of China. Theoretically, he was to proctor the palace exams, although in practice he sent someone to represent him in that capacity. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““During the Ch'ing dynasty, a scholar before becoming a Cultivated Talent was known as a Confucian Apprentice, regardless of age. Once a Confucian Apprentice passed the local county, prefecture, and institute examinations to become a Cultivated Talent, it was but the first step in the imperial recruitment examinations. After achieving status as a Cultivated Talent, a scholar had to pass the examination of the Provincial Education Commissioner (Supervisory Examinations) before being eligible for the Provincial Examinations held once every three years. Usually held in the eighth lunar month, they were known as the "Halls of Autumn." [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“After passing the Provincial Examinations, a scholar would be known as a Provincial Graduate and was eligible to go to the capital and sit for the Metropolitan Examinations. The Metropolitan Examinations were also held once every three years, usually in the spring after the autumn provincial examinations of the preceding year. Those lucky enough to pass the Metropolitan Examinations were known as Passed Scholars. The Palace Examinations were then held about a month after the Metropolitan Examinations. The Palace Examinations were to confirm the number and ranking of successful examinees, all of whom appeared on the list of passing scholars, with the ranking directly determining their paths in officialdom. There were three grades in both civil and martial subjects of the Palace Examinations. The first grade was known as a Presented Scholar with Distinction, the second a Regular Presented Scholar, and the third an Associate Presented Scholar. \=/

Success and Social Mobility Under the Chinese Imperial Exam System

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news of passing the exam
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The civil service examination system was an important vehicle of social mobility in imperial China. Even a youth from the poorest family could theoretically join the ranks of the educated elite by succeeding in the examination system. This assurance of success in the examinations dependent only on one’s ability rather than one’s social position helped circulate the key ideas of Confucianism — concerning proper behavior, rituals, relationships, etc. — through all levels of Chinese society. The hope of social mobility through success in this system was the motivation for going to school in the first place, whether one was the son of a scholar or a farmer. But even for the farmer’s son who did not do well enough to take the exams even at the lowest level, going to school had the major payoff of working literacy, and this literacy was acquired through mastery of the same basic texts that others who went on to pass the examinations at the highest level also studied. This curricular uniformity had an extremely powerful effect on Chinese society, and the major impetus for this uniformity was the meritocracy promoted by the civil service examination system. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The "golden list" was announced by posting the names of those successful participants in the palace examinations and was also known as the "yellow edict," so named because it was written on yellow imperial paper. In addition, because the list was issued by the emperor himself, it was called the "imperial edict." In terms of the nature of historical documents, it belonged to "decrees," meaning it was intended as a stock announcement for officials in general. It often began with the phrase, "The Emperor, who governs with the Mandate of Heaven, declares that…" and would end with "Let such be known by imperial manifestation." [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]

According to Asia for Educators: “Those who passed the imperial palace examinations at the highest level (jinshi) became the most important people in China’s educated class immediately upon achieving that goal, and went on to become important members of the Chinese bureaucracy. Those who only passed at the provincial-level (juren) became part of an important provincial elite and held enormous power at that level. Many of these provincial degree-holders could be called to government service, though this was not automatic. Those who only passed at the prefectoral level (xiucai) had the most common imperial degree in China. The holders of this degree took positions of leadership in their villages and towns and also became school teachers, maintaining the very educational system in which they themselves had achieved success.”

The collection of Ch'ing dynasty archives in the National Palace Museum includes a rich source of materials related to the imperial examination system. Selected for display here are examination papers, subjects for the provincial examinations, passing lists, announcements of passing, and memorials expressing gratitude in relation to the imperial examinations. Among these are: 1) A Memorial Expressing Gratitude to the Emperor by Educational Commissioner of Shan-hsi17th day of the 9th month of the 2nd year of the Yung-cheng reign (1724), Ch'ing Dynasty, 20 x 50 centimeters; 2) Pass List from a Metropolitan Examination by Grace, 30th year of the Kuang-hsu reign (1904), Ch'ing Dynasty, 32 x 26 centimeters; 3) Pass List from a Provincial Examination, 29th year of the Kuang-hsu reign (1903), Ch'ing Dynasty, 33.5 x 21 centimeters; 4) A Proposed Pass List for an Imperial Examination on Martial Arts, 10th month of the 10th year of the T'ung-chih reign (1871), Ch'ing Dynasty, 20 x 220 centimeters.

Song Dynasty Scholar-Official Examinations

Song-era ranking of the Jinshi exam

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Since the Sui Dynasty (581-617), it had been possible to become a government official by passing a series of written examinations. It was only in the Song, however, that the examination system came to be considered the normal ladder to success. From the point of view of the early Song emperors, the purpose of the civil service examinations was to draw men with literary educations into the government to counter the dominance of military men. So long as the system identified men who would make good officials, it did not matter much if some talented people were missed. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “ By the time of the Song, the civil service examination system had become so central to the Chinese state that it was, in many was, the cultural focus of all who aspired to success. Even the growing merchant class, which was, by policy, banned from participating in the exams because their profession, based on self-serving “greed” for profit, was considered intrinsically immoral, looked for ways to have some of their sons shed the merchant class designation in order that the family could become members of the most prestigious class in society: the official class. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

According to Asia for Educators: “In Song times exam success came to carry such prestige that the number of men entering each competition grew steadily, from fewer than 30,000 early in the dynasty, to about 400,000 by the dynasty’s end. Because the number of available posts did not change, a candidate’s chances of passing plummeted, reaching as low as one in 333 in some prefectures. Men often took the examinations several times, and were on average a little over 30 when they succeeded. The great majority of those who devoted years to preparing for the exams, however, never became officials.”

Song Dynasty Examination System

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Dr. Eno wrote: “Although the intricacies of the examination system were endless, its basic structure was simple. Throughout the period from about 589 to 1905, the central imperial government held massive exams at the various capitals of China every three years. Those who performed best on these exams earned the right to receive government positions; the specific position was determined through a combination of exam scores, personal influence, and available openings. To select the thousands of young men (and men only) who could compete for these exams, lower level tests were administered annually at provincial and county levels. The aspiring young man could expect to spend several years moving upward through this pyramid of exams..that is, assuming that he was successful at the lower levels: most were not. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: ““From the point of view of those taking the examinations fairness was crucial. They wanted to be assured that everyone was given an equal chance and the examiners did not favor those they knew. To increase their confidence in the objectivity of the examiners, the Song government decided to replace candidates’ names with numbers and had clerks recopy each exam so that the handwriting could not be recognized. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

According to Asia for Educators: “Scholars in and out of the government regularly debated what should be asked on the examinations, but everyone agreed that one element should be command of Confucian texts. Candidates were usually asked to discuss policy issues, but the examinations tested general education more than knowledge of government laws and regulations. Candidates even had to write poetry in specified forms. To prepare for the examinations, men would memorize the Confucian classics in order to be able to recognize even the most obscure passages.

Preparation for the Scholar-Official Examinations

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Chinese school in 1901
Dr. Eno wrote: “Preparation for the tests began at an early age and could continue for many years; in some cases, men spent their entire lives attempting to pass the exams (which could be taken any number of times). Successful candidates were rewarded with great prestige. Their families could boast that they belonged to the sole recognized nation-wide elite, and were permitted to fly a special flag at the gates of their family compounds. They could expect that their successful son would bring to the family all the benefits that Confucian education, public service, and deeply entrenched customs of bribery could provide. Although the examinations were open to any adult male, regardless of birth, in practice families whose members had already achieved high rank through the examinations were at a tremendous advantage in preparing the next generation for success. It was such families who usually possessed the resources that allowed them to excuse their children from all economic contributions to the household in order that they might spend a dozen years or more devoting themselves solely to the study of examination texts. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“There were a number of different types of examination tracks open to young men. The most important was the Confucian civil service examination, which gave men access to the highest level of government posts. These exams were based on a thorough mastery of the extensive corpus of Confucian classical texts, with their voluminous commentaries, of political essays composed by exemplary Confucians of the post-Classical era, and of the arts of poetry, calligraphy, and essay composition that marked one as a cultivated member of the Chinese intellectual elite. /+/

“The intensity of this educational process can be suggested by a quantitative measure concerning only the matter of Confucian classical texts. In addition to a very wide knowledge of the texts and their commentaries, exam candidates were expected to know a certain core group of these texts by heart. The texts that needed to be memorized included the following group, listed below with the total number of words, or Chinese characters, that they include:

The Analects.................................. 11,705
The Mencius.................................. 34,685
The Yijing..................................... 24,107
The Book of Documents................. 25,700
The Book of Songs........................ 39,234
The Book of Rites........................... 99,010
The Zuozhuan................................ 196,845

The total comes to well over 400,000 words, roughly the equivalent of memorizing a book of 1,000 pages word-perfect. And this was just for starters! A never ending stream of commentaries, histories, poetry and so forth would demand unceasing attention for all the years of a student’s youth, and preparation for the highly artificial literary styles demanded by ossified examination formats ensured that when a student wasn’t memorizing texts, he was trying to master poetic rhyme schemes or baroque essay formats that would please the critical eye of future examiners.” /+/

Social Consequences of the Exam Curriculum

Qing-era students

Dr. Eno wrote: “ The imperative of rote learning that permeated the education of Chinese youths was symptomatic of the authoritarian character of the entire system of Confucian education. Although students read the “Analects” of Confucius and heard him state plainly there that he was not “one who studied much and memorized what he had studied,” and saw that Confucius challenged the legitimacy of virtually every power holder of his day, the overall thrust of Confucianism, as presented to young boys, stressed the primacy of the Three Bonds: obedience to father, elders, and rulers. This was a primary lesson instilled in every child aspiring to become a member of the ruling class of China, and although a significant number of men were able to overcome this call to political docility in their maturity, the overall cast it leant to the bureaucratic government of China was a high tolerance for imperial autocracy and fear of innovation. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“This tendency undermined one of the most progressive features of the examination system..the fact that the institution of government appointment through examination made access to wealth and power dependent upon intellectual merit rather than on the whim of the ruler or personal connections at court. The government system of China is often referred to as a “meritocracy,” and this is one of China’s most celebrated glories. However, the intellectual “merit” that earned young men promotion was not necessarily the type of creative or independent achievement that we would tend to deem appropriate for the highest levels of public responsibility. /+/

“The intensity of textual study that was required to rise from the lowest educational levels to candidacy for the examinations was so great that it formed an effective barrier to most children. In some cases, this was simply a matter of intellectual talent or an ability to settle down and study hour after hour, year after year (not a quality we associate with children). More often, it was simply a matter of economics. Only a small percentage of the households of China could afford to spare a son to full.time study for the entire period of his life at home. This fact worked against another of the most progressive features of the examination system..its openness. In theory, with only a few exceptions (such as the exclusion of merchant families from candidacy during certain periods), social mobility through competitive examination was available to the sons of all families, down to the lowliest peasants. While it is true that talented sons of impoverished families somehow scrimped their way through to expertise and high rank frequently enough to maintain the meaningfulness of the exam system’s egalitarian promise, the great majority of successful candidates always came from privileged families in the wealthiest regions of China. /+/

Exams and the Confucian Esprit de Corps

exam cell models

Dr. Eno wrote: “ One of the unique features of Chinese society that resulted from the exam system was the fact that members of the ruling bureaucracy from the sixth century on shared a common experience of great intensity that formed an important bond among them. While in many traditional societies, members of a single generation might share certain sorts of military training or experiences, or in smaller social groups might undergo some other type of rite of initiation, China was unique among traditional cultures in subjecting its large governing elite to an intellectual initiation such as the exam system. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Every three years, young men of promise would flock to the capital city, find lodging in that sophisticated and strange place, and encounter hundreds of other young men from all parts of the empire similarly displaced in the hope of lifelong advancement. During the period leading up to the exams, candidates, who were often on their own for the first time in their lives, would form intense friendships, friendships which might later form a network of government contacts. Many features of Chinese political history are best explained only after one has examined lists of triennial examination candidates and discovered which political actors were linked by comradeship dating to their exam days. Moreover, exam graduates also formed important relationships with their examiners, and men who performed outstandingly on the exams could expect that their examiners would become lifelong patrons who would serve as surrogate fathers within the Confucian bureaucracy. /+/

“The function of the exams as a socializing experience was enhanced by the exhausting nature of the metropolitan tests. The entire process stretched over eight days, and was permeated by elaborate ritual ceremonies. The examinees spent days at a time locked in tiny examination cells which stretched over several acres in prison-like rows, and were expected to write all day and all night, squinting under the light of their cubicle candles. /+/

“Given the stress of these terrible conditions, a rich body of folklore grew around the exams, reinforcing their impact upon society and the men who had to endure them. Candidates who entered their cells had heard how the ghosts of failed candidates haunted the testing grounds in the night, and it was not unknown for men’s courage to break; sometimes a hapless candidate would be found hanging in his cell at dawn, his undistinguished exam paper left incomplete. /+/

Education and Governmental Responsibility

Dr. Eno wrote: “ Perhaps the greatest irony of the civil service examination system in China is that in many respects, despite the praiseworthy principle of appointment by competitive examination, the system was defective because the exams tested students for the wrong skills. It was a fundamental tenet of the time that mastery of Confucian moral texts, of poetic forms, and of the rhetoric of canonical commentary uniquely equipped a man to govern others. To us, it seems self-evident that this is not true. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Successful graduates of the exam system faced certain immediate problems to which they were ill suited to respond. Graduates were often posted to low level positions in the provinces where they assumed duties at the level of the county magistrate. There, they were responsible for such duties as tax collection, water conservation, agricultural enhancement, legal administration, and management of their own county offices, called “yamen”. Typically, they faced certain handicaps. First of all, their jurisdictions generally extended over populations of perhaps forty to fifty thousand people, and they were supplied with no assistance from the central government. Magistrates were responsible for hiring “yamen”staff from local people. Because there was a “rule of avoidance” that ensured that no official would ever be appointed to a post in his home district (to avoid problems of favoritism), a new officer from the capital would be entirely unfamiliar with the population from which he had to select his assistants. Frequently, when young men were posted far from their home counties, they were not even able to understand the local dialects of the people they governed! Moreover, the budget of a magistrate was a very limited one..his salary was small and he was provided with virtually no discretionary funds. /+/

“Basically, young men fresh from their Confucian studies were completely untrained in the skills that would allow them to succeed under such conditions unless they had received informal instruction from family members or acquaintances who had been immersed in government. It was quite common for such men to govern incompetently. Some resorted to brutal authoritarian measures, others exhausted themselves issuing moral proclamations urging their people to behave properly (not a very effective strategy). Most often, magistrates fell under the influence of powerful local families, who provided them with “officers” who were skilled in using coercion to extract taxes from peasants and confessions from “criminals.” By relying on such local bullies, a magistrate could ensure that he could forward to the central government the revenues the emperor demanded and that he could submit records of court proceedings demonstrating his sagely ability to bring the guilty to justice and keep order in his district. Inevitably, such patterns of conduct also involved habits of bribery and other forms of corruption that were endemic in the Chinese political system (and remain so today). /+/

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Future mandarins

“Periodically, there were reform initiatives that proposed to make the contents of the exams more relevant to the practical skills necessary for government. But these movements were rarely successful. The men who occupied high office and served as the examiners of the next generation had invested their entire identities in the education of their youth..they were not likely to approve of any radical change in standards or content to the exams. In most cases, the most revolutionary changes merely involved the authorization of a more “modern” or pragmatically oriented set of commentaries to the Confucian classics than those that had been employed previously. While in some cases this might have allowed examiners to give added weight to answers that suggested some grasp of the intricacies of practical governance, this was not always the result. The fourteenth century certification of the commentaries of the great Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi’s as orthodox resulted in the opposite result. Zhu Xi was a brilliant metaphysician..his theories of the cosmos and its relation to man’s ethical tendencies represent a wonderful example of philosophical imagination – but when successful candidates sought to apply Zhu’s cosmic theories of Heavenly Principle, material force, and the moral intuitions of the sage heart to the problems of tax collection, flood control, and militia organization, they sometimes found that he was a little sketchy on the details.” /+/

Image Sources: University of Washington; Ohio State University; civil service exam wikipedia; exam cheat sheet. and Qing official hat, future Mandarins: Columbia University; Others: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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