Imperial examination

Imperial examination
Imperial examination
Traditional Chinese 科舉
Simplified Chinese 科举

The Imperial examination was an examination system in Imperial China designed to select the best administrative officials for the state's bureaucracy. This system had a huge influence on both society and culture in Imperial China and was directly responsible for the creation of a class of scholar-bureaucrats irrespective of their family pedigree. Neighboring Asian countries such as Vietnam, Korea, and Ryūkyū also implemented similar systems to draw in their top national talent.[1][2][3]

Established in 605 during the Sui Dynasty, the system was used only on a small scale during the Tang Dynasty. Under the Song dynasty the emperors expanded the examinations and the government school system in order 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 emergence of the scholar-officials, who came to dominate society. Under the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, 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, e.g. at the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty) of 1,300 years. The modern examination system for selecting civil service staff also indirectly evolved from the imperial one.[4]



From the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220) until the 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.

Emperor Wu of Han 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,[5] 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 which are the most important Confucianist texts. 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. This is generally accepted as the beginning of the imperial examination system (科举).[6][7]

Theoretically, any male adult in China, regardless of his wealth or social status, could become a high-ranking government official by passing the imperial examination, although under some dynasties members of the merchant class were excluded, and it was not until the Song dynasty that a majority of civil servants came into their positions via the examination system. Moreover, since the process of studying for the examination tended to be time-consuming and costly (if tutors were hired), most of the candidates came from the numerically small but relatively wealthy land-owning gentry. During the Tang Dynasty there was an oral section within the exam, which in practice allowed only elite members from the capital to attend the examination (speakers of other local dialects could not participate). However, there are vast numbers of examples in Chinese history in which individuals moved from a low social status to political prominence through success in imperial examination. Under some dynasties the imperial examinations were basically abolished and official posts were oftentimes simply sold, which increased corruption and undermined public morale.

A Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) portrait of the Chinese official Jiang Shunfu (1453–1504), now in the Nanjing Museum. The decoration of two cranes on his chest are a "rank badge" that indicate he was a civil official of the first rank.

In late imperial China, 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 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.

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 elites and ambitious would-be members of those elites across the whole of China were taught 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 studying and the 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, education was valued in part because of its possible pay-off 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 still underlies the nationalism that has been so important in China's politics in the 20th and 21st centuries,[citation needed] though it is based on different criteria.

Details of imperial examination

Examination hall with 7500 cells, Guangdong, 1873.

There were a number of degree types offered:

  • Shēngyuán (生员/生員), also called xiùcái (秀才), licentiate; administered at exams held in the county level each year.
    • Ànshǒu (案首), a shēngyuán who ranked #1
  • Jǔrén (举人/舉人) or "recommended man", a provincial graduate, administered at the provincial level every three years
    • Jièyuán (解元), jǔrén who ranked #1.
    • Huìyuán (会员/會元), jǔrén who ranked #1 in prequalification
  • Gòngshì (贡士/貢士), a national degree "tribute personnel"
  • Jìnshì (进士/進士) or "presented scholar", a graduate of the palace examination, administered in the capital immediately after the metropolitan examination every three years
    • Jìnshì jídì (进士及第/進士及第), jìnshì who were ranked first class in the palace examination.
      • Zhuàngyuán (状元/狀元), lit. exemplar of the state, jìnshì who ranked #1 first class (in the palace examination).
      • Băngyăn (榜眼), lit. eyes positioned alongside (the top-ranked scholar), the jìnshì ranked #2 overall.
      • Tànhuā (探花), lit. selective talent (in reference to the eponymous banquet), the jìnshì ranked #3 overall.
    • Jìnshì Chūshēn (进士出身/進士出身), jìnshì who were ranked in the second class, immediately after the tanhua, in the palace examination.
    • Tóng Jìnshì Chūshēn (同进士出身/同進士出身), jìnshì who were ranked in the third class in the palace examiniation.
Stone flagpole planted at the examiner's adode indicating Jìnshì (進士) imperial examination status

By 115, 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.

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.[8]

Military examinations

Military examinations were held for potential army officers. They were rewarded with military versions of Jinshi and Juren degrees like the regular examinations. Although the literati who took the civil exams sneered at their content, they had the same system 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 as well as Chinese military texts, especially Sun Tzu.[9]


Some people were barred from taking the imperial exam. The low class of ordinary people was divided into two categories- one of them, the good "commoner" people, the other "mean" people. Prostitutes, entertainers, and low-level government employees were the people in the "mean" class. The "mean" people were heavily discriminated against, and amongst other prohibitions, they are forbidden to take the imperial exam.[10][11][12][13][14] 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. [15]

Demise and legacy

The Imperial examination system was abolished with the foundation of the Yuan Dynasty, but was revived in 1315 by Emperor Renzong of Yuan. It thrived under the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which attempted to overthrow the Qing Dynasty in the middle of the 19th century, was the first in Chinese history to admit women as exam candidates, although they abandoned the system later. With the military defeats in the 1890s and pressure to develop a national school system, reformers such as Kang Yuwei 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 before the fall of the dynasty in 1911.[16]

Under the 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.


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 restricted to the Yangban class.

In Vietnam, the system provided the framework for examinations from the reign of the Lý Dynasty's Emperor Nhan Tong (1075) until that of the Nguyễn Dynasty's Emperor Khai Dinh (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.

The Chinese Imperial examination system had important influences on the Northcote-Trevelyan Report and hence on the reform of the Civil Service in British India and later in the United Kingdom.[17]

See also


  •  This article incorporates text from The Middle Kingdom: a survey of the geography, government, literature, social life, arts, and history of the Chinese empire and its inhabitants, 2 Volumes, by Samuel Wells Williams, a publication from 1883 now in the public domain in the United States.
  1. ^ Wu Xinwu (吴新武), Origins, development and culture of the imperial examinations (科举源流及其文化视野), April 2003.
  2. ^ China Institute for Confucian Studies (中华孔子学会), Collected papers from the international conference on the modern significance of Confucianian (儒学与现代化: 儒学及其现代意义国际学术研讨会论文集.人民教育出版社), People's Education Press 1994 ISBN 978-7-107-11220-1.
  3. ^ Kerr, George. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Revised Edition. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2000. p186.
  4. ^ Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd, 2010), 145-147, 198-200,
  5. ^
  6. ^ 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)
  7. ^ Keay, John (2009). China - A History. Harper Collins. ISBN 9780007221783.  p. 228
  8. ^ 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, ISBN 0804711933, 
  9. ^ Nicola Di Cosmo (2009). Military culture in imperial China. Harvard University Press. p. 245. ISBN 0674031091. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  10. ^ Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century (reprint, illustrated ed.). Yale University Press. 1989. p. 117. ISBN 0300046022.,+musicians,+actors,+and+some+yamen+employees+(gate+keepers&hl=en&ei=LEi4TvXkM8rL0QHX18XSBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=The%20latter%20category%20included%20remnants%20of%20aboriginal%20groups%20who%20had%20survived%20Chinese%20expansion%20and%20settlement%20and%20practitioners%20of%20occupations%20that%20included%20prostitutes%2C%20musicians%2C%20actors%2C%20and%20some%20yamen%20employees%20(gate%20keepers&f=false. Retrieved 2011 October 31. 
  11. ^ The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 16 (15 ed.). Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2003. p. 122. ISBN 0852299613. Retrieved 2011 November 7. 
  12. ^ Britannica Educational Publishing (2010). Kenneth Pletcher. ed. The History of China. The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 226. ISBN 161530181X. Retrieved 2011 November 7. 
  13. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc (1998). The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 8; Volume 16 (15 ed.). Encyclopaedia Britannica. p. 122. ISBN 0852296339. Retrieved 2011 November 7. 
  14. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc (1991). The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Marcopædia. Volume 16 of The New Encyclopædia Britannica (15 ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. p. 122. ISBN 0852295294. Retrieved 2011 November 7. 
  15. ^ Samuel Wells Williams (1883). The Middle kingdom: a survey of the ... Chinese empire and its inhabitants ... (revised ed.). New York: Wiley & Putnam. p. 321, 412. Retrieved 2011-5-08. 
  16. ^ Wolfgang Franke, The Reform and Abolition of the Traditional China Examination System (Cambridge, Massachusetts: East Asian Research Center, 1968): 70-71.
  17. ^ Ssu-yu Teng, "Chinese Influence on the Western Examination System", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 7 (1942-1943): 267-312.


  • Elman, Benjamin. (2002) A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. London: Univ. of California Pr.ISBN 0-520-21509-5
  • 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.
  • This article incorporates material from the Library of Congress that is believed to be in the public domain.
  • Man-Cheong, Iona (2004). The Class of 1761: Examinations, the State and Elites in Eighteenth-Century China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • YANG Guo-yi. Anhui Normal University. New Great Achievements on the Research of the Number One Scholars in the Tang Danasty. Journal of Xiaogan Vocational-Technical. CNKI:SUN:XGZJ.0.2002-04-013.

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