I, like many, know the basics of China’s Imperial Examination that was created to give more people a chance at higher status and government posts. I knew the tests took years to prepare for and were arduous affairs. I also knew that, like many ideals, the exams in some respects they fell short of the meritocracy they aimed for. Here’s some more information by Justin Crozier:
In “On a Chinese Screen”, notes from his encounters during a journey on the Yangzi in 1920, Somerset Maugham relays his conversation with a great Confucian philosopher. The Chinese philosopher, who has studied in Berlin and Oxford, concludes that all wisdom is to be found within the Confucian canon. In a bitter mood, he denounces the modernity that is sweeping China, and extols the Confucian system of old: “Do you know that we tried an experiment which is unique in the history of the world? We sought to rule this great country not by force, but by wisdom. And for centuries we succeeded.” The philosopher is surely correct to draw attention to the uniqueness of the Chinese experiment.
China’s “Four Great Inventions”, gunpowder, paper, the compass and the printing press, are often trumpeted as the hallmarks of its civilisation. But these fruits of Chinese ingenuity are in many ways peripheral to the historical development of Chinese civilisation, and to Chinese society today. Gunpowder may have been discovered in China; but it was chiefly used for fireworks; the value of the compass was squandered by the insularity of the Ming government and its failure to capitalise on Zheng He’s explorations. Paper and the printing press were remarkable developments, but were really just perfections of technology already in use in various parts of the world from a very early age; papyrus or vellum, or the scriptoria of monasteries.
The most truly unique aspect of Chinese culture – and the one with the most powerful legacy – is the Confucian examination system with which the Son of Heaven’s empire was staffed with civil servants over the best part of two millennia. The Imperial examinations represented a remarkable attempt to create an aristocracy of learning, which in itself represent a remarkable advance over the warrior and hereditary aristocracies that dominated in the rest of the world. The Chinese examination system, archaic, laborious and daunting as it may have been, was nevertheless, was a glorious attempt at intellectual meritocracy.
The Imperial Examination
The origins of the exam system lie in the Han period, but the early scholarly examinations were consolidated during the Sui period, and began to be truly effective under the Tang Dynasty. Between the Tang period and the late Qing, the civil service examinations dropped out of use for short periods and underwent occasional reform. But the content remained remarkably constant. The core texts consisted of the Four Books and the Five Classics, works attributed to Confucius and certain of his disciples, along with a number of approved commentaries.
Until the Guanxu Reforms of 1898, the notorious eight-legged essay, a rigid traditional format, was the mainstay of the exam papers. Rote learning of the Confucian classics was fundamental to success in the exams, and the scholar who obtained the highest degree, the jinshi, would have his memory trained to a tremendous degree. Texts of a total of over 400,000 characters had to be thoroughly memorised if a candidate was to have any hope of progressing to a civil service position, and even at the district level, the pass rate was only 1 or 2%.
Joining the Imperial Civil Service
To obtain a civil service post, a candidate had to pass through several stages, starting with preliminary local exams, and progressing, if successful, through to district, provincial and palace examinations. Exams were held every three years. The district degree was the shengyuan, which entailed exemption from both corporal punishment and the corvee labour dues, the right to wear a scholar’s robes, and a small state salary. Essentially, a successful candidate became a member of the gentry.
To obtain a civil service position, a scholar generally required the juren provincial degree, which would take would take years of study, and even a candidate could not reasonably expect to do so before he was thirty. Many candidates who were eventually successful did not achieve office until they had reached a venerable age. The jinshi degrees were prospects for only a very few exceptional scholars. For the very highest ministerial posts, the best examination essays were selected by the Emperor himself.
A Meritocratic Aristocracy
Aristocracy-by-examination had far-reaching consequences. A high degree of national stability was ensured despite changes of emperor and dynasty because the civil service, fuelled by the exam system, could continue independently of the imperial regime. Even China’s foreign conquerors, the Mongols and the Manchu, realised the benefits of the examination system. Despite denigrating Han Chinese scholars as the “Stinking Ninth” in their social ranking, the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty retained the system. The Manchu tribesmen who captured Beijing in 1644 to found the Qing Dynasty restored the civil service examinations only two years later, and although they excluded Han Chinese from the highest echelons of the Civil Service, they clearly recognised the adhesive value of the exams in binding the Han intelligentsia to the Qing regime.
Most importantly, the civil examinations provided a conduit for the aspirations of able men from almost any social stratum. While there are a few famous literary instances of women dressing up as men to take the exams, in practice, women were entirely excluded from the system. But amongst men, the exams were generally open to all, with the exception of a few classes such as actors and slaves.
Undoubtedly, success in the examinations was easier for the well-off. In the late Qing period in particular, corruption was widespread; examiners could be bribed, and early stages of the exam process could be skipped for a fee. Tutors, books and brushes all cost money, so poor candidates were at a disadvantage even during periods when bribery was frowned upon. Despite this, many poor scholars did succeed in their ambitions. During the Qing period, over a third of jinshi degree holders came from families with little or no educational background. Nor was the system biased towards the inhabitants of the capital. Degrees were awarded to scholars from throughout China; indeed the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang boasted the greatest number of jinshi graduates. More . . .