Chinese Imperial examinations

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  • Chinese: 科舉 (kējǔ)

Imperial examinations served as the chief avenue for Chinese subjects to enter the ranks of the scholar-bureaucrat class, and to gain prestigious, stable, and economically elite positions within the Imperial bureaucracy.


The exams tested candidates chiefly on the Confucian classics, poetry, and the application of Confucian learning to matters of public policy and statecraft; in later centuries, the prominence of poetry in the exams declined significantly. Though in some periods exams were hand-copied by scribes in order to eliminate favoritism from judges who might recognize a candidate's handwriting, in most periods the candidate's calligraphy was also a major criterion. It was believed that one's characters reflected one's character, and that excellent calligraphy was an indication of a moral and upright individual.

Beginning in the Yuan or Ming Dynasty, the exam came to focus on the "Four Books" advocated by Zhu Xi, and on Zhu's own commentaries, which themselves came to be canonized texts to be memorized. The Four Books were the Analects of Confucius, the writings of Mencius, and two chapters Zhu excerpted from the Book of Rites: the Great Learning (Daxue), and The Mean.[1] In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the exam consisted chiefly of two essays, one drawing upon the "Four Books," and one upon the "Five Classics," in addition to policy questions, and from 1756 onwards, a section testing the candidate's knowledge of or ability in poetry. Individual emperors often added specific grand edicts or declarations to the exam, such as the Hongwu Emperor's addition to the exam of questions testing the candidates' knowledge of his "Great Announcement" (大誥, dàgào) and "Sacred Edict in Six Maxims" (聖諭六言, shèng yù liù yán).

The exams were a key element of producing a bureaucracy that was, in theory at least, a meritocracy. Bureaucrats could then be said to have earned their position not through heredity or nepotism, nor through bribes or personal connections, but through genuine aptitude. This marks a stark contrast with earlier periods of Chinese history, and with the Japanese system, in which official positions were, indeed, to a large extent determined by heredity, personal connections, and interpersonal politics. In China, anyone of any socio-economic background or status was eligible to take the exams, albeit with some significant exceptions: merchants, Daoist and Buddhist priests, and those of "mean" occupational backgrounds (i.e. the equivalent to the eta or hinin in Japan) were excluded, along with all women.[2] Of those permitted to take the exams, in theory, anyone of any status or background could pass, or even excel, thus earning themselves a prestigious bureaucratic position. The Court established several hundred schools across the country, in which young men would be trained in preparation for the exams; however, most of these schools were terribly underfunded, and the education they offered was ultimately sorely insufficient. One needed to hire a private tutor in order to obtain even a relatively basic education. Those from prominent or influential households thus continued to possess a distinct advantage. It was those from relatively well-to-do backgrounds who had the free time in which to study, the educated relatives who could serve as tutors, and the resources to obtain (or already possess) books and other study materials.

Even early on, the examination system and its associated state-sponsored schools (学校, C: xuéxiào) had their critics, however. Many argued that the system stifled intellectual inquiry and creative thinking, as it focused so heavily on rote memorization. Others were concerned that a system which focused so heavily on right/wrong answers in a written exam made it difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the candidates' moral character; many members of this camp advocated a system more closely tied to advancement (promotion) through the school system, in which teachers could account for their students' moral character and virtue. Many also established private schools, where alternative methods and doctrines were taught.

There were four levels of exams through which a candidate would have to pass in order to be eligible to proceed to the next level: one would need to pass exams in one's county (郷試, xiāngshì) to move on to the provincial exams (會試, huìshì), then on to the metropolitan (i.e. Beijing, i.e. nationwide/empire-wide) level (殿試, diànshì), before finally being selected or rejected by the emperor. In the Tang Dynasty, exams were only offered at the metropolitan & palace levels, with candidates being recommended to sit the exams by local elites. The exam system was expanded down to the provinces in the Song Dynasty, and then to the local level in the Ming Dynasty, with varying types of "qualifying" (科考, kēkǎo) and "licensing" (歳考, suìkǎo) exams being offered at that level roughly twice every three years. Licensing exams authorized one to move on to the next level of exams, while qualifying exams allowed one to renew or maintain that "license." In the Ming Dynasty, provincial exams were usually offered in the autumn (8th lunar month), with candidates taking the metropolitan exams the following spring (3rd lunar month) in either Nanjing (up until 1421) or Beijing (beginning in 1415).

Those who passed the local exams were known as shēng-yuán (生員). They were considered scholars and members of the gentry, and were entitled to exception from corvée labor obligations to the state. They were not, however, generally eligible for most official posts. Those who passed the provincial exams were known as jǔrén (舉人) and were eligible both for middle-level government posts at Lower Ninth Rank and above,[3] and for entry into the National Academy (guózǐjiàn), where one would receive a stipend to support him as he studied for the metropolitan exams. Those who passed the highest level of exams were known as jìnshì (進士), qualifying them for a fuller range of high-level government positions, at Lower Seventh Rank and above.[4][3] Jìnshì were ranked, however, with only the highest class of jìnshì being eligible for the highest levels of government positions, including appointment to the Hanlin Academy, where they could serve as Imperial advisors and diplomats. The top three individual jìnshì candidates in each iteration of the exam held especially exclusive status, and were often eligible for particularly exclusive positions. These top three individuals were known, respectively, as the zhuàngyuán (狀元), bǎngyǎn (榜眼), and tànhuā (探花) of that year's exam, and would retain that reputation throughout their careers. Many of the most prominent scholar-officials in history were among the top three candidates in their respective years.

Earning a licentiate degree, even at the county level, was for many people the result of extensive planning, encouragement, and education by one's parents and even grandparents, and in many counties it was typical for commemorative stone arches to be erected in front of the homes of degree-holders. Beyond the degree, however, one could also receive special honors or commendations from the Emperor; in these cases, the honor was extended backwards to one's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, retroactively bestowing honors upon them as well. For this reason, many officials often deferred promotions in favor of receiving such a commendation, which could then be shared with one's ancestors. New tombstones were often then erected, and new portraits commissioned, reflecting the newly, posthumously, elevated status.[5]

In the Qing Dynasty, provincial and metropolitan exams were held once every three years, though additional opportunities, known as "imperial grace exams" (恩科, C: ēnkē), were occasionally offered in conjunction with certain auspicious events.[6]

The Court instituted quotas at each level limiting the number of candidates who would be permitted to pass. This was done out of a fear that if there were too many degree-holders and not enough jobs, societal problems would result. An example of the size of the quotas can be seen in the statistic that of roughly 400,000 men who had taken the exams by the mid-13th century, a mere 800 were selected for positions within the government. In the early Ming period, the limits were set at 40 licentiates (shēng-yuán) per prefecture and 30 per county and department. The Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-1435) raised the limits for the capital regions (Beijing and Nanjing) to 60. Towards the very end of the Imperial period, in late 19th century Shandong province, the quota for jǔrén degrees was set at 70-80 for each triennial administration of the exam.[4] The average age at which one passed the exams and entered into government service was 31, representing a rather long period of study and preparation. It was not uncommon for a candidate to fail the exams at least once, trying again on numerous occasions; some of the most prominent figures in Chinese history failed numerous times, only finally earning admission into the bureaucracy late in life. Those who did pass the exams earned a stipend paid out in rice, and an exemption from tax obligations. Someone who did not advance to the next level, however, could still earn a position as a member of the gentry on a more local or provincial level; many became teachers, helping others to prepare for the exams.

The number of people who sat for the lowest level exams was always massive, and the pass rate quite small; in some periods as few as 0.1% of candidates passed the county exams and became shēngyuán. Even so, shēngyuán came to represent a rather significant proportion of society by the mid-Qing, though by that time, the jìnshì rank was all but required for someone to be considered a member of the elite. To illustrate this shift in demographics, there are estimated to have been roughly one shēngyuán per 2200 people in 1500, in contrast to a figure of one shēngyuán per 300 people two hundred years later.

The Ryûkyû Kingdom administered a similar system of examinations, directly based upon that of Ming Dynasty China, though reportedly easier to pass, in selecting members of its own scholar-aristocracy for positions in the kingdom's bureaucracy. The exam system was adopted in Korea, too, where it became in some respects even more extensive than in China. It may have been introduced to Korea by Korean scholar Ch'oe Ch'i-won, who spent 17 years in Tang Dynasty China, and passed the exams in Chang'an in 874.[7] Some sources say the exams were not implemented in Korea until the following century, under under King Gwangjong (r. 925-975) of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392),[8]. However, in any case, the Songgyungwan Confucian Academy was founded in Korea in 992, and by the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), there were almost ten times as many Confucian academies in Korea, per capita, as in China.[7]


Tang Dynasty

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), candidates were permitted to choose between two forms of the exam: a "classics" exam which tested rote memorization of the classics, and a more prestigious "literary" exam which also required a considerable degree of memorized knowledge of the classics, but which also tested candidates on their literary/poetic abilities.[9]

At this time, only roughly 10% of officials earned their positions through the examination system; most obtained their inclusion in the scholar-bureaucrat class via recommendations. Local magistrates recommended individuals, ostensibly, according to a variety of subjective criteria, including their personal virtue, and literary ability, though more often than not, one's family pedigree, and political influence, played crucial roles. While in later periods the exams were restructured to be judged, ostensibly, in an anonymous fashion (thus eliminating elements of favoritism, and helping to ensure that candidates were judged primarily on the basis of the written exams themselves), in the Tang Dynasty, it was quite common for candidates to meet with examiners multiple times prior to the exams, and to send samples of their writing, so-called "warming-the-exam" letters, to the examiners; while in later periods examiners judged candidates' calligraphy as indications of their personal moral character, at this time, it was through these personal relationships that examiners were able to get to know the personal and moral character of the candidates.[10]

Birth or marriage into a prominent or influential family was often extremely beneficial towards one's prospects of earning a recommendation. In fact, for a time, merchants, artisans, and their descendants were barred from taking the exams entirely; it was only in the 9th century that this ban was eased somewhat, and a wider range of people were first permitted to sit for the exams, including at least one Arab merchant, who took the exams at that time.[9] The ban on those from merchant families taking the exam was not fully lifted until the Ming Dynasty.

Song Dynasty

In the 11th century, the Song dynasty Imperial court made some efforts to reduce the direct influence of prestige and political influence, introducing stronger elements of anonymity into the structure of the exam. The examination system was expanded to make it, in theory, more directly meritocratic, rewarding those of any class or background who had superior talents or skills, and thus creating a bureaucracy of highly skilled, highly competent, officials. In addition, the system of appointments was somewhat fluid, allowing individuals to be appointed to posts above their rank. The system was not purely democratic or meritocratic, however, as the Court balanced these reforms with other means by which favoritism was allowed to continue, under the assumption that qualified and upright officials could recommend other upright and qualified individuals for service. A system called the "yin privilege" or "shadow privilege" also allowed those closely related to, or in the service of, high-ranking prominent officials to take a different, easier, exam, with a roughly 50% pass rate. The positions earned through such exams were low-ranking and not as prestigious, but, still, they provided entry into the bureaucracy without taking the more difficult standard exams. Through this system, and through careful intermarriage and the like, a group of roughly 100 prominent families was thus able to dominate the bureaucracy for a time, during the Song Dynasty.[11]

The system at this time functioned through six aspects: examinations, schools, appointment, protection privilege, sponsored appointment, and evaluation. The latter two were eliminated or severely curtailed in later periods as part of efforts to stem hereditary power and to strengthen the meritocratic aspect of the exam system.

Schools were established in each province, where students could receive instruction preparing them for the exams. Students were expected to enter the schools with a certain degree of competency already in classical language and classical texts; though the system was open to anyone in theory, regardless of class, in practice only those from families of some means were able to obtain the education (including even basic literacy) necessary to participate at these schools, and thus to have any chance on the exams.

Yuan Dynasty

Under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the exams were suspended for a time, but were re-instituted beginning in 1315. At this time, two types, or tiers, of examinations were offered. Han Chinese took an exam based on the Four Books designated by Song Dynasty Neo-Confucian founder Zhu Xi; each candidate was required to write several short essays roughly 300 characters in length on these subjects, as well as a five-hundred-character essay on a different set of texts, plus a one-thousand-character essay on a problem of contemporary governance. The exam for Mongols and members of other nomadic or Turkic peoples, meanwhile, was much less strenuous, involving detailed questions based on the Four Books, and a five-hundred-character essay on a contemporary topic. Even the version of the exam now taken by Han Chinese was much less strenuous than that advocated by Zhu Xi; his influence upon these and later exams would be immeasurable, but, so too would this easier format devised by the Mongols.[12]

Meanwhile, even after the exams were restored, many government positions continued to be filled by appointment or by heredity, as was more traditional within Mongol society. Those who did acquire their positions through the exam system were subject to quotas - 50% of those passing the exam each year were to be non-Chinese - making the odds of securing a position in this manner exceptionally difficult for Chinese scholars.[12]

Ming Dynasty

In the Ming Dynasty, efforts were made to strengthen the exam system's focus on merit-based appointments, eliminating or severely curtailing practices such as "sponsored appointment" common in the Song Dynasty. The Ming also instituted regional quotas in the metropolitan exams, in an attempt to achieve diversity of geographical origin amongst the bureaucracy. Candidates from northern, central, and southern China would be awarded jìnshì degrees in a ratio of roughly 55/10/35. Further, official posts became more strictly limited to those of appropriate court rank. These modifications would survive into the Qing Dynasty.

Over the course of the period, the jìnshì rank became more essential for elite status, with lower-level scholars (e.g. the jǔrén who had only passed the provincial exams, and those studying at the National Academy) becoming a sort of professional underclass, unable to secure official posts or to be well-regarded in elite society if they did not go on to pass the metropolitan & palace exams, and earn jìnshì rank.

The evaluation and appointment of aspiring officials was handled by the Ministry of Personnel, while the Ministry of Rites oversaw the education of potential exam-takers. The network of examination schools became extended down to the county level during the Ming period; however, the "dynastic," or highest level schools in this network became absorbed into the examination system itself, becoming more like checkpoints and private study halls, where students studied on their own rather than receiving structured instruction; students received a stipend to support them while they devoted their time to study, but entrance into these "schools" (and into receiving a stipend) was restricted by a system of quotas. The National Academy (guózǐjiàn) remained quite active, and open to jǔrén studying for the capital exams, but over the course of the period increasing numbers of candidates chose to return to their home provinces to study rather than enrolling in the Academy. In short, training for the exams became increasingly a private matter, and was no longer as extensively provided by the state.

Those from merchant families were permitted to take the exams beginning in the Ming period; however, many others, including Daoist and Buddhist priests, and those from "mean" occupational backgrounds, were still prohibited. Some foreigners, including Koreans, Vietnamese, and Ryukyuans, occasionally took the exams, but a young British man[13] was banned from doing so in the late 19th century despite his fluency in Chinese.

Military posts, meanwhile, were filled almost entirely from hereditary military households, even though the exams were ostensibly open to all qualified candidates. The performance portion of the exam focused on archery and horsemanship, while the written portion, devised by civil officials, focused on the Confucian canon and on simple literacy, touching little upon matters of strategy, tactics, or military science otherwise.[14]

Qing Dynasty

The examinations system of the Ming was maintained by the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty. Additional schools, and separate exams, however, were created for the eight banners[15] and for the Qing Imperial family, even before the fall of the Ming. Separate military and civil tracks for officials were created, and separate bureaucracies maintained for those within the banners (Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese military officials) and for Han Chinese from non-military families. The Ming quota system restricting numbers of candidates from different regions (esp. northern China vs. southern China) was now adapted into a quota system for a 4:6 ratio of Manchu to Han Chinese candidates, which was then changed to a 4:2:4 ratio of Manchus, Mongols, and Han Chinese. Despite various policies granting positions to Manchus and Mongols, and restricting somewhat Han Chinese access to the bureaucracy (at least, relatively speaking compared to during the Ming period), Han Chinese continued to dominate the top positions of the exams; the top three jìnshì positions were occupied by non-Manchus in every round of exams from 1655 to 1883. Han officials on the selection committees attracted blame for these results, however.

Later in the Qing period, quotas were also established for other ethnic minorities, allowing members of groups such as the Muslim Hui greater access to the bureaucracy. This system came to be abused, however, by Han Chinese who claimed to be native (土籍) in order to earn a position in the bureaucracy through these easier examinations.

At least initially, beginning in the 1640s, essay questions on the exams addressed the issue of Manchu-Chinese societal unification. Top-chosen answers included suggestions for elimination of separate systems or tracks based on ethnicity, and discussions of the differing natures of Manchus and Chinese, with one top-ranking candidate suggesting that Manchus stress substance (質) and so need culture (文) for balance, while Han Chinese are the reverse.

Exams for Mongols and Manchus generally consisted of one question on formal style of documents, and one based on quotations from the Four Books or the Five Classics. Beginning during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796), Manchus and Mongols were encouraged to begin taking exams in classical Chinese (rather than in Manchu or Mongol), in an effort to unite the bureaucracies.

Translation exams were also introduced, and scholars appointed to the Hanlin Academy, who would then serve as imperial secretaries, were required to learn Manchu.

The examinations system was abolished in 1905, as a more "modern" form of Chinese education, heavily influenced by Western and Japanese models, became dominant, following years of modernization and Westernization throughout other aspects of Chinese society. The Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, marking the final and complete end of the Imperial bureaucracy into which the exams had fed.


  • Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, University of California Press (2000), 125-172.
  • Bonnie Smith et al. Crossroads and Cultures. Bedford/St. Martins (2012), 430-431.
  1. Hansen, 357.
  2. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 11.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981), 54.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, U California Press (1987), 28-29.
  5. Huang, 54-55.
  6. Over the course of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the metropolitan & palace exams were offered 89 times, or roughly once every 3.1 years. During the Qing (1644-1911), these exams took place 112 times, or once every 2.4 years, including 27 "imperial grace" exams and two "additional" exams (加科). Roughly 5,555 jìnshì degrees, or 21% of those granted during the period, were obtained through "imperial grace" exams. (Elman, 129n10.)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Kang, David C. “Hierarchy and Legitimacy in International Systems: The Tribute System in Early Modern East Asia.” Security Studies 19, no. 4 (2010): 609.
  8. "The Arts of Korea," pamphlet, Pacific Asia Museum.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 230.
  10. Hansen, 206.
  11. Hansen, 267-268.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Hansen, 357-358.
  13. The son of customs inspector Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911).
  14. Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981),162.
  15. Comprised of Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese military families.