Detail from the eighth-century painting Literary Gathering, by Tang dynasty artist Han Huang. Ink and color on silk. One component of the civil service examination was the writing of an “Eight-Legged Essay” that adhered to rigorous structure and exactitude. One slip of the pen in the formation of a written classical Chinese character was cause for failure.
The civil service examination system, a method of recruiting civil officials based on merit rather than family or political connections, played an especially central role in Chinese social and intellectual life from 650 to 1905. Passing the rigorous exams, which were based on classical literature and philosophy, conferred a highly sought-after status, and a rich literati culture in imperial China ensued.
Civil service examinations connected various aspects of premodern politics, society, economy, and intellectual life in imperial China. Local elites and the imperial court continually influenced the dynastic government to reexamine and adjust the classical curriculum and to entertain new ways to improve the institutional system for selecting civil officials. As a result, civil examinations, as a test of educational merit, also served to tie the dynasty and literati culture together bureaucratically.
Premodern civil service examinations, viewed by some as an obstacle to modern Chinese state-building, did in fact make a positive contribution to China’s emergence in the modern world. A classical education based on nontechnical moral and political theory was as suitable for selection of elites to serve the imperial state at its highest echelons as were humanism and a classical education that served elites in the burgeoning nation-states of early modern Europe. Moreover, classical examinations were an effective cultural, social, political, and educational construction that met the needs of the dynastic bureaucracy while simultaneously supporting late imperial social structure. Elite gentry and merchant status groups were defined in part by examination degree credentials.
Civil service examinations by themselves were not an avenue for considerable social mobility, that is, they were not an opportunity for the vast majority of peasants and artisans to move from the lower classes into elite circles. The archives recording data from the years 1500 to 1900 indicate that peasants, traders, and artisans, who made up 90 percent of the population, were not a significant part of the 2 to 3 million candidates who usually took the local biennial licensing tests. Despite this fact, a social byproduct of the examinations was the limited circulation in the government of lower-level elites from gentry, military, and merchant backgrounds.
One of the unintended consequences of the examinations was the large pool of examination failures who used their linguistic and literary talents in a variety of nonofficial roles: One must look beyond the official meritocracy to see the larger place of the millions of failures in the civil service examinations. One of the unintended consequences of the examinations was the creation of legions of classically literate men who used their linguistic talents for a variety of nonofficial purposes: from physicians to pettifoggers, from fiction writers to examination essay teachers, and from ritual specialists to lineage agents. Although women were barred from taking the exams, they followed their own educational pursuits if only to compete in ancillary roles, either as girls competing for spouses or as mothers educating their sons.
es and five hundred years of an empirewide civil service examination. A social, political, and cultural nexus of classical values, dynastic power, and gentry status unraveled as Manchu rulers meekly gave up one of their major weapons of cultural control that had for centuries induced popular acceptance of the imperial system. The radical reforms establishing new schools initially failed, however, because they could not readily replace the public institutions for mobilizing millions of literati in examination compounds based on a classical education.
Traditionalists who tried to reform classical learning after 1898 paid a form of symbolic compensation to classical thought by unilaterally declaring its moral superiority as a reward for its historical failure. The modern invention of “Confucianism” was completed in the twentieth century despite the decline of classical learning in public schools after 1905. In China and the West “Confucianism” became instead a venue for academic scholarship, when the “modern Chinese intellectual” irrevocably replaced the “late Qing literatus” in the early republic. However, the demise of traditional education and the rise of modern schools in China were more complicated than just the end of imperial examinations and the rise of modern education because the latter would also subordinate examinations to new forms of schooling. The ghost of the civil service examinations lived on in Chinese public school and college entrance examinations, which have now become universal and are no longer unique to imperial China.
Source: Elman, Benjamin A. (2009). Civil Service Examinations. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 405–410. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.