imperial examination 科举制度



imperial examination 科举制度

The Imperial examinations (Traditional Chinese: 科舉; pinyin: kējǔ) in Imperial China determined who among the population would be permitted to enter the state’s bureaucracy. The Imperial Examination System lasted for 1300 years, from its founding in 605 to its abolition near the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1905.


Before the system was introduced, most appointments in the Imperial bureaucracy were based on recommendations from prominent aristocrats and existing officials, and it was commonly accepted that recommended individuals must be of aristocratic rank. The origin of this system can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220).


Theoretically, any male adult in China, regardless of his wealth or social status, could become a high-ranking government official by passing the test, although under some dynasties members of the merchant class were excluded. In reality, since the process of studying for the examination tended to be time-consuming and costly (private tutors had to be hired), most of the candidates came from the numerically small but relatively wealthy land-owning gentry. However, there are numerous 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 abolished and official posts were simply sold, which increased corruption and reduced morale.


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 of holding office.


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 indoctrinated 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 study, self-indoctrination, and 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, then, 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.



Detail of the Examination


Examination hall with 7500 cells, Guangdong, 1873.There are a few degree types offered:


Shēngyuán (生員), also called xiùcái (秀才), licentiate; administered at exams held in the county level each year.

Anshou, a shēngyuán who ranked #1

Gongsheng (貢生), senior licentiate

Jǔrén (舉人) provincial graduate, administered at the provincial level every three years

Jieyuan (解元) jǔrén who ranked #1.

Huiyuan (會元), jǔrén who ranked #1 in prequalification

Gongshi (貢士), jǔrén who passed prequalification

Jìnshì (進士) metropolitan graduate, administered in the capital every three years

Jinshi jidi (進士及第) Jinshi who formally passed the Jinshi examination and who are eligible for enlistment as official.

Zhuangyuan (狀元), jìnshì who ranked #1 (in Jinshi examination).

Bangyan (榜眼), jìnshì who ranked #2.

Tanhua (探花), jìnshì who ranked #3.

Jinshi Chushen (進士出身) jìnshì who obtained jìnshì status by actually taking part in the Jinshi examination.

Tong Jinshi Chushen (同進士出身) jìnshì who did not take part in the Jinshi examination but who was conferred jìnshì status by the Emperor.

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":


Scholaric 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 CE, 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 is 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 recognised.



Candidates gathering around the wall where the results had been posted. This announcement was known as 放榜, a term that continues in modern use. (c. 1540)

End of Imperial Examination

The examination system was abandoned for a time under the Yuan Dynasty, and completely abolished a few years before the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1905?).


The Taiping regime was the first in Chinese history to admit women as candidates in the examination system, although the system itself was abandoned altogether later.


Under the Republic of China

After the fall of Qing Dynasty 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, although this was quickly suspended due to the turmoil in China between the two world wars, such as the War lords period and the Japanese invasion. The Kuomintang administration revived the Examination Yuan in 1947 after the defeat of Japan. However, it would move to Taiwan two years later due to the Communist Party of China’s victory in the Chinese Civil War. The Examination Yuan continues to exist as one of the five branches of government in Taiwan.




This system had international influence, and was modelled by the Goryeo Dynasty and Joseon Dynasty for the Yangban class in Korea (see Gwageo) until its annexation by Japan. This had also been modelled in Vietnam since 1075 to 1919. Japan modelled this in the Heian period; however, the influence was under minor nobilities only and was replaced by the hereditary system in the Samurai era.