The Examination System


Chinese administration was based to a great extent on the formidable examination system. This came into being during the Tang period – the first examination was said to have been held in AD 606 – but it did not really get going until the Song period in the late 10th to the 11th century. It flourished during the succeeding Ming and Qing periods, though it tended to fall back in the periods of foreign rule by the Mongols or the Manchurians at the beginning of the Qing period.

The exams took place on four levels. First there was a preliminary entry-level exam that took place locally. The next exam was taken at the prefecture, that is the provincial capital. Those who got through that then moved on to the Metropolitan exams which took place in the capital where they were supervised by the Imperial secretariat.

Beijing Preserving Harmony

The ‘Preserving Harmony’ hall in the Forbidden City, where the final exams took place

Finally the top candidates went for the Palace exams, which took place in the Palace, that is the Forbidden City, in the presence of the Emperor. The exams took place every three years and great efforts were made to make them anonymous, – even to the extent that all the answers submitted were copied out again so that the examiners would not recognise the examinees by their calligraphy.

Cheating or attempts at cheating were not unknown, but large chunks of texts were supposed to be memorised, and sometimes special garments were prepared with the best known texts written on them, and specimen answers: these are now prize museum exhibits. There were special exam rooms where the candidates were shut up in individual cells.

Official 931 red

A learned civil servant from the Tang period, in the BM

The main subject was a study of the classics of Confucius, known as the Five Classics and the Four Books. The Five Classics were the books said to be written or compiled by Confucius himself, while the Four Books were the commentaries and new interpretations written by Zhu Xi (1130 to 1200). Students were expected to memorise large chunks of the texts and regurgitate often in the form of what was known as the Eight-legged Essay, an elaborate formula laying down the beginning, the middle, and the end. In addition, law, in the form of the Imperial rescripts was studied, prose style was examined, and sometimes poetic composition. The final Palace exam, which took place over three days, included a Policy Essay in which advice was submitted to the Emperor. Within the system there were further subdivisions, and the top level were known as the jinshi, that ‘Presented Scholars’ who had been presented to the emperor. There were also other exams in medicine and mathematics, but these useful subjects did not have quite the prestige of the classical exams. There are also tests for the military and for translators. The exams were finally abolished in 1905 when the Western concept of the University began to take over and university exams began to take over.

The influence of the exams was enormous. It was not just that they produced good administrators: one of the Four Books in the Confucian system is devoted to the Doctrine of the Mean, which is similar to Aristotle’s doctrine of the Golden Mean, and administrators and civil servants were encouraged to pursue concepts of fairness and the well-being of those whom they administered. But it also established the image of the scholar-gentleman, so that wealthy country landowners who spent their mornings managing their estates, nevertheless tried also to maintain the image of the scholar gentleman and spent their afternoons practising their calligraphy, writing poetry and playing chess.

The exam system has been one of China’s most successful exports. When Westerners began to visit China, they were secretly most impressed by the examination system and set out to imitate it. In England we saw the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms carried out in 1854 which its critics alleged was an attempt to ‘Chinesify’ the civil service. However it was one of the successes of late Victorian England and other countries have followed. And if today the civil service is becoming dangerously political, nevertheless  the concept behind the Chinese concept that the civil service should be neutral and based on merit still holds enormous sway.




2nd August 2015