2000 years of Examinations in China

Tue 20th Jun

Hong Kong 20 years on

The 1st July 2017 marks twenty years since the U.K. 'gave back' Hong Kong to China. Although Hong Kong is a Special Autonomous Region within China with another 30 years to go before China takes full control, many believe that Beijing is firmly in control. The attempts to install more local democracy have been brutally suppressed. Hong Kong remains a prosperous place despite fears that independence from Britain would put it at a severe disadvantage compared to other cities, especially Shanghai.

Another article from CNN uses declassified documents to the complex maneuverings for hand-over unfolded on both sides. Britain sought to find a way to continue to run Hong Kong as a colony but China blocked that proposal, seeking immediate return to full Chinese control. Legally the core part of the settlement had been signed away as a permanent possession, but the vast bulk of the wider area later had been leased from China and up for legal repossession.

Democracy remains a thorny issue. After a century of denying Hong Kong residents any real say in local government, the British under last Governor Patten started to introduce local elections. Young activists continue to try to resist control from Beijing but as long as Hong Kong remains prosperous there is little appetite for confrontation.

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The Imperial examination system of China goes back over two thousand years and its influence pervades Chinese cultural values. In dynastic China the path to wealth and an easy life was through appointment to a well paid government post as a civil service official. The posts were open to any who could pass the daunting examinations. China was the first nation to appoint on merit rather than patronage. Education in China has for long been taken very seriously and Chinese children are known for their hard work and success at school work. This has its roots in the ancient examination system where academic success or failure held great importance. Even when a successful candidate was not given a job in administration, he would be held in great esteem by his community and would be consulted for advice on all sorts of matters.

Chinese Civil Service Examination - Question sheet for the Jinshi Examination 1894
Image available under a Creative Commons license

Lifelong Learning

The chief difference to modern education is that examinations did not follow a rigorous age-related path up to culminate in University final in their early twenties. Some candidates repeatedly presented themselves for examination throughout their lives. This was not considered odd or exceptional. The greatly admired Liang Hao of the Song dynasty eventually passed the exams at the age of 84 (as mentioned in the Three Character Classic). It was not uncommon for a grandfather, father and son all to take the same examination together.

Senior officials showed interest in the examination questions that had been set each year and acted as patron and mentor for bright candidates who they were acquainted with. In this way study, among the scholarly, was a life-long passion and constant source of news and debate.

First Imperial Examinations

The origins of the open examination system (Kējǔ or 科举 in Chinese) are in the early Han dynasty when wise rulers figured out that the way to avoid officials building power bases from their family and friends was to appoint on basis of talent. Long before Confucius himself had set the pattern by taking on students (disciples) on the basis of intellectual merit and not on wealth or family ancestry. In 165BCE Emperor Wendi introduced a system of examinations testing the knowledge of the Five Confucian classics. The Grand Academy tài xué was founded in 124BCE. The Four Books and Five Classics (Book of Documents, Book of Songs, Book of Changes, Book of Rites and Book of Ceremonies) were the core texts. Candidates would also be set a question on current affairs. Later stress on agriculture and ethics were incorporated into the system and the Ming Jing (Expertise in Classics) grade was introduced.

examination, Jilin
Model of a student taking the state examinations, Changchun


During the Sui, and Tang dynasties and again in the Song dynasty the examination system was strengthened and systematized. Its administration became one of the four principal directorates. By the end of the Song dynasty times as many as 400,000 candidates took the exams, and only about 1 in 300 passed; and only those who succeeded could expect a lucrative post in central government. Each province had to put forward at least three candidates for office each year. Written examinations were used to select Xiu Cai 秀才 (Flowering talent) scholars roughly equivalent to a bachelor's degree. Tang Emperor Taizong introduced the Ju Ren (Raised man) grade, roughly equivalent to a master's degree. The third level was the Jin Shi (Advanced Scholar) equivalent to a doctorate. Those that passed the first, local Shenyuan ( ) exams automatically received minor privileges such as exemption from forced labor, effectively becoming middle class. Half of the candidates had no family history of passing the examination. The Emperor often took personal control of the examination system, reading the essays submitted for the highest levels.


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Symbolizing Examination Success

The Examinations were so important that there are many allusions to them. Gifts of porcelain and paintings would often have elements that wished the candidate luck. Apricots; cinnamon and crabs all have the hidden meaning of wishing good fortune. A colloquial term for the examinations was Dragon Gate ( lóngmén) and the tale of a fish (normally a carp) transformed into a dragon was an allegory for passing the examinations. The character for carp sounds similar to advantage. The location of this tale was on the Yellow River between Shanxi and Shaanxi. A euphemism for passing the examinations was 'breaking off a cinnamon (or cassia) branch guì in the moon' (as in the Western Chamber Romance ). On passing the examinations the scholar moves to the ‘Imperial Secretariat’, which was sometimes called the ‘phoenix pond’.

Passing the exams was considered by Hong Mai as the greatest of the four Happiness's of Life. Kui Xing is the god of examinations, and offerings were made to him to help bring success.

Han Dynasty

Han Dynasty


After the trauma of the Qin dynasty it was the succeeding Han dynasty that established China as a stable nation. Many Imperial institutions inaugurated at this time lasted for the next two thousand years. Together with the Tang and Ming it is considered one of the great periods of Chinese history.

The system became more sophisticated during the reign of the first Ming dynasty Emperor Hongwu in 1382. Each prefecture (local district) had to have a school. Scholars who reached the Xiu Cai grade could then enter a provincial examination for the Ju Ren grade, held normally every three years. To pass this examination took years of study and it was rare for a candidate to be ready to take it before they reached the age of 30. The few that passed (5 to 10%) could then compete at national level at the capital city Beijing for the Jin Shi (Advanced Scholar) grade. To succeed at this level it was normal to have a patron who had been impressed by their scholarship and would then help with the candidate's studies and finances. Often a promising young boy would be supported by a syndicate of extended family and friends who would pay for materials, tutors and if successful promotions. The successful official would then pay back his supporters and patrons with money, appointments and other benefits. A student would normally study in one of the many Academies ( shū yuàn) to prepare for the examination. If the Jin Shi examinations were passed the lucky candidate would be offered a permanent and lucrative post in government. During the Ming dynasty only about 200 candidates passed at this level each year; so there were only about 3,000 top scholars at any one time in the whole of China.

examinations, Song dynasty
Palace Examination at Kaifeng, Song Dynasty, China.
Image available under a Creative Commons license
examinations, Kui Xing
Kuixing; blue and white porcelain, Ming Dynasty, 2nd half of 16th century; Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Inv. No. 10615
Image by User:FA2010 available under a Creative Commons license

Strict examination rules

A typical examination involved being locked inside the examination hall for several days and nights so candidates could not cheat, the essay they produced was marked on strict criteria. It is said that at a Nanjing examination hall there were 35 deaths of candidates each day during their incarceration. Exact recall of the great Chinese classics (particularly of Confucius) was a key skill. The core works comprised about 400,000 characters so this was no mean feat, the whole Christian Bible is about 800,000 words. Memory rather than imagination was crucial to success. The eight legged essay (baguwen) was the famous test in Ming dynasty times, the answer was to be in 8 sections and could be no more than 700 characters in length. It should be remembered that old practices remained for a long period in Europe too; up until the 1960s it was necessary for candidates for Oxford and Cambridge Universities to study the Classics in Latin and ancient Greek. It was only as late as 1855 that competitive written examinations were introduced for entry into the British civil service. In China although accomplishments in the Classics achieved the highest prestige, examinations in law; economics; history and science were also available.

As there was no age limit, candidates could retake the examinations several times if they failed. So the temptation for those who just failed to reach the grade was to try again year after year. A well attested case is of a candidate continuing to take the examinations until he passed at the age of 72. In the Qing dynasty about 2,000 men took the test in each prefecture, only 1-10% passed to reach Xiu Cai grade. Passing this far was no guarantee of furtherance if no posts happened to be available that year. The famous Tang poet Du Fu failed the examinations while fellow poets Wang Wei and Su Shi achieved the Jinshi grade. The novelist Cao Xueqin also failed; but more importantly the rebel leader Hong Xiuquan failed the exams and he went on to lead the massive Taiping Rebellion.


Although it was ostensibly an open system, all candidates needed to be able to study copies of the classic texts and gain the advice and support of someone who had been through the system. So success often stayed in 'scholarly' families as the help of fathers and grandfathers was a great advantage. Only men succeeded, some women did try by dressing up as men, but none went undetected. Briefly during Empress Wu Zetian's reign women were allowed to enter for the examinations. In addition slaves, sons of merchants and actors were not allowed to take the exams. An important rule was that a candidate had to prove their name and ancestry by showing the family's ancestral tablet, if an ancestor had committed a disgrace, his name would not be on a tablet and so his descendents were barred from taking the examination. Examinations were however open to candidates from all parts of China, there was no bias towards Beijing locals, Jiangsu and Zhejiang were noted for providing good candidates. The examination system was not the only route to a lucrative government post, patronage still recruited a fair proportion of officials. Over the two thousand years various reforms were instigated to try to keep the system as fair as possible. Papers were copied before marking so examiners could not identify a student by their calligraphy. Candidates were known to bring in various cheat sheets on fans; clothing and written on their skin. In more extreme cheating, some candidates paid for scholars to sit the exam in their stead.

examinations, Beijing
Examination hall in Beijing. John Clark Ridpath (1899)
Image available under a Creative Commons license
Wed 17th May

Belt and Road Initiative

Spending a trillion dollars (yes $1,000 billion) is a serious investment. China’s big idea is to open up the country for much wider trade. The primary focus is to develop stronger links with Central Asian countries on the route of the old Silk Road. However the initiative seems all embracing as even New Zealand, hardly on the Silk Road is keen to be involved. The idea is for both an overland ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (China to Europe) and a ‘21st century Maritime Road’ (China through the Indian Ocean to Africa and then north to Egypt). This has been shortened to ‘One belt one road’ or ‘Belt and Road’ or just ‘OBOR’ for short.

It is hard to work out exactly what the initiative is all about, there seem to be several factors and motives. One is that President Trump has continued to threaten China with extra tariffs to protect U.S. jobs from cheap Chinese imports. If China can open up new markets for her exports she will not be as badly hit by any protectionist measures. The U.S. continues to have a huge balance of payments deficit with China, in March 2017 the U.S. exported $9.6bn but imported $34.2bn. China’s heavy dependence on sales into the U.S. is a problem that needed to be fixed. In 2015 China’s main trade partners were: United States $457bn, Hong Kong $273bn, Japan $152bn, Germany $97.4bn and South Korea $90.1bn. Shifting trade to new countries will strengthen and stabilize China’s economy.

Many analysts also point to the problems of over-capacity in China. Just looking at total imports and exports is too crude a measure, the real problem is that China’s growth rate has slowed and the excess capacity in building related industries (steel, cement, construction) need new markets. If China can kick-start economic development elsewhere in the world she solves two problems at once - over-capacity at home and opening up new markets abroad. The China Communications Construction Group has already agreed deals worth up $40 billion in contracts with ‘Belt and Road’ countries. Sinking so much money in loans that may never be repaid is quite a risk. Venezuela now owes China $65bn and is not in a position to repay. Analysts consider such a huge project will be impossible to manage effectively and huge amounts are likely to be misappropriated.

The initiative comes at a particularly opportune time for the U.K.. Always keen on free trade and instinctively anti-protectionist the U.K. has more to gain than most other countries. With difficult talks ahead on exit of the E.U. trading block the opening up of possible deals with China all over the world is very appealing. U.K. politicians have been very keen to promote the initiative and use its undoubted trading expertise to jointly open up new markets.

The initial proposals centered on the countries of central Asia - along the route of the old Silk Road out of China. The initiative is therefore a way of re-invigorating trading links that were active for a thousand years before trade moved to China’s southern ports. The vast bulk of Chinese development had been along the south and eastern coasts, the poorest inland provinces have been left well behind. Of particular importance is the troubled province of Xinjiang. Positioned on the fringes of China the province is more Central Asian than Chinese with a Muslim majority. With frequent terrorist attacks by separatists in the province, China struggles to keep tight control. Recently China has banned Muslim parents from giving their children Muslim names and is embarking on a system of DNA profiling of every citizen. With the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative deals with neighboring Central Asian states (Takjikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan) the increased economic activity should lessen instability in the region.

The key point is that China is changing from an inward to an outward-looking nation, no longer putting internal development as the top priority. With increased economic involvement comes political power too, and some hawkish observers see this as the first stage in the building of a new Chinese Empire.

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Modern Examinations

The decline of the traditional examination and education system came towards the end of the Qing dynasty. Western missions had started to found schools and universities which taught 'modern' science and technology. Corruption had become widespread with bribes used to directly buy the qualifications. The system ended in 1905 to be replaced with a National University Entrance Examination (Gao kao ). It has a wider range of subjects including science and technology in the standard three levels of schooling: primary, secondary and tertiary. The gaokao is sometimes criticized as still requiring too much learning by heart and continues to evolve. In the period 1949-89 Marxist indoctrination formed a core part. During this era practical application was a compulsory subject.

Anyone who has worked with Chinese students will realize that the cultural and historical emphasis on examinations continues to produce hard working and receptive candidates. The continuing importance of educational attainment is based on a 2,000 year old respect for the profound importance of learning.

Beijing's Examination Hall gòngyuàn stood near the Gate of Nation Building : Jianguo Men at the Eastern end of modern Chang'an Jie . It was built by Emperor Yongle on the site of the Yuan dynasty Ministry of Rites. The Examinations ended around 1900 and the halls were demolished in 1913. Examinations were held here every three years in the third month. The 'hall' was made up of thousands of individual rooms: cells (see photograph). A candidate on arrival was given new clothes (to make cheating more difficult) and assigned a unique Chinese character identifying both his individual cell and his script of submitted answers. Once inside, the door was sealed and not opened for three days and two nights even if the candidate fell ill or died. If a candidate was successful he could buy a boat trip back home from the travel agents on nearby Carp Street lǐyúhútòng; 'carp' was often used to symbolize wishing success in examinations.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'The Imperial Chinese Examination system', last updated 30 Nov 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/examinations.htm.

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