Jiu-hwa Lo UPSHUR

Testing room of the Imperial examination system. Each test-taker would be confined to one of these tiny cubicles for the duration of the examination Students would usually come from families wealthy enough to support a non-working family member, as studying would leave little time for anything else. China was the first civilization to develop a civil service recruited on the basis of merit, not birth, and the examination process that sought to establish a person’s worth was extremely rigorous. The system was reported in glowing and admiring terms by Jesuit missionaries who came to China in the seventeenth century. PHOTO BY JEFF WANG

The term bureaucrat did not always have the same pejorative attachment it has today. Before the twentieth century, China was administered by highly respected, and thoroughly tested, professional bureaucrats, or civil servants.

China was the first civilization to develop a civil service recruited on the basis of merit, not birth. This led to the development of a meritocracy (social esteem and position based on learning) millennia earlier than any other civilization. This system was reported in glowing and admiring terms by Jesuit missionaries who came to China in the seventeenth century. It was later copied by European nations. Thus the recruitment of a civil service based on learning and tested through the civil service examinations was one of the glories of the Chinese civilization.


The notion of a professional bureaucracy based on merit rather than birth began late in the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 bce) during the Warring States era (770–221 bce). Its adoption by the Qin state contributed to Qin triumph in 221 bce. The succeeding Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) adapted the practice and combined recommendation, testing, and performance rating to recruit a civil service. These practices persisted until the early twentieth century. But it was the reunified Sui (581–618 ce) and Tang empires (618–907 ce) that made civil service examinations a full-fledged system.

Tang Contributions

Like the Han before it, the Tang government established two state universities, one at Chang’an, the principal capital city, the other at Luoyang, the auxiliary capital. The universities admitted mainly sons of the nobility and bureaucracy, and prepared them for the doctoral exams held at the capital. But men educated in private academies and recommended by local officials after preliminary screening exams could also participate in these prestigious exams. Five types of exams were administered, two of them, for literary composition and for knowledge of the classics, were the most prestigious. Those who passed were called presented scholars, a degree equivalent to the modern doctorate. The remaining three exams—for law, mathematics, and calligraphy—were less esteemed.

The exams were initially administered by the Ministry of Personnel because many of the passing candidates became government officials. After 736 CE, the Ministry of Rites became responsible for administering the exams, making them a ritual of the Confucian state and adding to their prestige. Men who passed the doctoral exams underwent further testing on their practical skills, appearance, and speaking abilities and had their personal files checked for moral uprightness. Only then were they eligible for suitable appointments when vacancies occurred. Appointments were made in the name of the emperor. Civil service positions and civil servants were ranked by nine grades, with ascending salaries as one rose on the bureaucratic ladder. All civil servants were subject to annual ratings by their superior officers.

Song Refinements

The greater egalitarianism of Song dynasty (960–1279) society was reflected in the opening of the examination system and the civil service to men of more varied social backgrounds. With a printing press in operation, books became cheaper and more widely available. Objective procedures were also adopted, for example, having three examiners read each paper and having a piece of paper pasted over the candidate’s name to prevent favoritism. Men who passed the metropolitan exams then underwent a palace exam presided over by the emperor, in theory, to confirm the results. Other innovations the Song government undertook were to give the exams every three years and to narrow the scope of the exams to literary composition and interpreting the classics. About two hundred men received the doctoral degree annually during the Song dynasty. These men filled about half of the top government positions. Lower government posts were increasingly filled by the prefectural graduates.

Ming and Qing Bureaucracy

During the nomadic Liao, Jurchen Jin, and Yuan dynasties (916–1368) rulers relied on ethnic minorities and military force to rule China. Although they were compelled to institute the examinations to recruit officials to rule the Chinese, the Chinese so recruited had only limited career opportunities open to them and served only in subordinate positions.

The Ming (1368–1644) government sponsored the most extensive educational system in premodern China. The state sponsored at least one school in every county and prefectural city with a quota of state-supported students. Beginning in 1370 the Ming government held regular exams so that by the 1400s degree holders again dominated the bureaucratic elite. There was a great increase in enrollment in both private academies and family schools during the prosperous Ming and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, which produced an ever-increasing number of educated men. Neo-Confucianism of the Zhu Xi School had become orthodox around the end of the Song, and this was the basis of the school curriculum and the exams. Students were taught to write their essays according to a standard form that organized them in an eight-part structure. This form became known as the Eight-Legged Essay.

Triennial examinations at three levels became the rule. Aspiring young men first had to pass the county-level exams. Those who did earned the cultivated talent degree, equivalent to a bachelor of arts degree in modern terms. This entitled them to wear a designating sash, exempted them from unpaid labor owed to the emperor (corvee), and made them eligible to teach and to serve in minor government posts. They could also take the three-day-long provincial examinations on the classics and history, in which they had to be able to relate philosophical principles to current political issues. Those who passed became elevated men, equivalent to master of arts degree. They were eligible to enter government service, teach, or compete in the metropolitan exams held at the capital. About 1,200 men received this degree triennially in early Ming times; the figure had risen to approximately 1,800 by mid-Qing. Those who passed the difficult metropolitan exams took a final palace exam that ranked them in order of excellence. They were called presented scholars, or doctors. These men became national celebrities equivalent to modern sports heroes. Many entered the civil service, starting at relatively high positions.

The Ming government also set a geographic quota for the number of passing doctoral candidates: 35 percent was reserved for northerners, 10 percent for westerners (mainly for candidates from Sichuan), and 55 percent for southerners. The Qing refined the quota on a provincial basis. The quota system was aimed at producing a bureauc
racy that was nationally based. Without a quota southerners would have dominated because since the Song dynasty, southern China had become economically more prosperous than the north and. as a result, had better schools that produced better prepared students.

The Qing government founded by the Manchus, an ethnic minority from northeastern China, did not discriminate against the Han Chinese to nearly the same degree as previous nomadic dynasties had. The Qing bureaucracy relied almost entirely on the examination system for its recruits. Sinicized Manchus took the exams as everyone else did. However, at the metropolitan, or presented-scholar, level, a special and easier exam was also scheduled for the Manchu, Mongol, and Han bannermen. The rise of the Manchus was due to a military organization called the banner system, which enrolled Manchus, Mongols, and Han Chinese who joined the Manchu cause prior to 1644 into separate, elite hereditary military units. Although Manchu, Mongol, and Han Chinese bannermen were eligible to take an easier exam, many Chinese chose not to do so because the more easily earned degrees were perceived as less prestigious.

The personnel administration practices established by the Tang continued during the later dynasties. They included annual merit ratings, triennial appointments, reappointments that could extend a term for up to nine years in a single post, the principle of seniority, and the law of avoidance, which precluded any man from serving in his home province.

The traditional exam system lasted until the early twentieth century. The exams became less relevant in the late nineteenth century as China struggled to adapt to the modern world. Modern schools, introduced by Chinese missionaries, began teaching the sciences, foreign languages, and world history, and were followed by Chinese public and private schools and universities that adopted modern, Western curricula. The exam system was abolished in the last years of the Qing dynasty. Schools for girls proliferated after the establishment of the Republic in 1911. Universities became coeducational after 1920.

Further Reading

Ho, Ping-ti. (1962). The ladder of success in Imperial China: Aspects of social mobility, 1368–1911 New York: Columbia University Press.

Kracke, E. (1953). Civil service in early Sung China, 960–1067. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Menzal, J. M. (Ed.). (1963). Chinese civil service—Career open to talent Boston: D. C. Health and Company.

Miyazaki, I. (1981). China’s exam hell: The civil service exams of imperial China. Conrad Schirakauer (Trans.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

Twitchett, D. (1976). The birth of Chinese meritocracy: Bureaucrats and examinations in T’ang China. London: The China Society, The China Society Occasional Papers.

Source: Upshur, Jiu-hwa Lo. (2009). Examinations, Imperial. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 781–783. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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