2000 years of Examinations in China

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.

Chinese Civil Service Examination - Question sheet for the Jinshi Examination 1894
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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).

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 were also 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. It 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 equivalent to a doctorate. Those that passed the 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 of exam.

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 about success.

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 (Recommended man) 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 impressed by their scholarship and would then help with the candidate's studies and finances. Should the candidate succeed the patron would expect some favors in return. A student would normally study in one of the many Acadamies ( 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. Only about 200 candidates passed at this level each year. There were only about 3,000 jinshi scholars at any one time during the Ming dynasty in the whole of China.

examinations, Song dynasty
Palace Examination at Kaifeng, Song Dynasty, China.
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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
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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. 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. As late as 1855 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. 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)
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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 about 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 19 Oct 2015, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/examinations.htm.

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