Chinese parents place a lot of emphasis on academic success upon their children. This belief in getting ahead in life is steeped in the tradition for thousands of years.
Origin of the imperial examination system
The origin of the imperial examination system can be dated back to the village examination system 乡举里贡制度 in West Zhou Dynasty 西周. In Han Dynasty 汉代, the election system 察举制度 was implemented, namely the official selection system combining recommendation and examination. In term of talent selection and imperial mandarin system, it created a new epoch in Chinese civilisation by introducing office holders that were not from the nobilities. The system of recommendation by administrative executives is the precursor to the imperial examination.
Establishment of the imperial examination system 科举制度
After Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) unified China for the second time since Qin Dynasty, it abolished the official selection system that had nine classes based on family status 九品中正制. Emperor Wen of Sui Dynasty 隋文帝 (c. 541-601 AD, r. 581-601 AD) issued an edict to select officials through examination. Emperor Yang 隋炀帝 (c. 569-618 AD, r. 604-618 AD) established Jinshi system 进士科 to select the scholars, where the imperial court set the test subjects and the scholars sat in for the examination at their own will. Selection was based on achievement in the examination.
Such imperial examination system 科举制度 linking study and official selection through examination was a milestone in the Chinese history and it was termed by the western scholar as the fifth great invention after Four Great Inventions of Ancient China. This system would last for the next 1,300 years.
Development of the imperial examination system
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD, with interregnum 690-705 AD), the imperial examination system entered the period of rapid development. The contents of the examination got enriched gradually and regulations on the examination became stricter, especially after the reign Emperor Wu of Zhou Dynasty 武周政权 (690-705 AD), the only female Emperor of China.
Tang Dynasty was the foundation period for the imperial examination. Nearly all the intellectual of that period experienced the imperial examination and numerous politicians came onto the historical stage through the imperial examination. The imperial examination in following dynasties was developed on the basis of system implemented during the Tang Dynasty.
Students of Confucian studies were candidates for the imperial examinations, which qualified their graduates for appointment to the local, provincial, and central government bureaucracies. Two types of exams were given, mingjing (明經; “illuminating the classics”) and jinshi (進士; “presented scholar”). The mingjing was based upon the Confucian classics and tested the student’s knowledge of a broad variety of texts.The jinshi tested a student’s literary abilities in writing essays in response to questions on governance and politics, as well as in composing poetry.
One feature of the Tang examinations was that it did not restrict the entrance to only the Han people (or the Chinese race). In fact, there were documentary evidence of foreigners gaining successful civil service careers through these examinations.
Tang Dynasty was not just about being serious and empire building. Newly minted jinshi were expected to participate in the games of the nobilities, like this pop game.
Maturing of the imperial examination system
In Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the imperial examination was in the rapid development period and the fairness of examination was emphasised; the rules and regulations were improving, various law making systems tended to completion, and the official selection through examination tended to legitimised and normalised.
The examination system, used only on a small scale in Sui and Tang times, played a central role in the fashioning of this new elite. The early Song emperors, concerned above all to avoid domination of the government by military men, greatly expanded the civil service examination system and the government school system. Like this Zhuangyuan 状元 (Top Scholar) of 宝祐四年 (1256 AD), Wen Tianxiang 文天祥, he became an official of the Song Dynasty and was one of the recognised patriot who refused to surrender to the new Yuan Dyansty. His acceptance notice is shown on the right.
Wen Tianxiang was martyred by the Yuan (executed by Kublai Khan).
During a period of 320 years in Song Dynasties, the imperial examination became the most important approach for the intellectual to become officials. Both educational and cultural activities were centred on the imperial examination and oriented by the imperial examination.
Imperial examination in Liao, Jin and Yuan Dynasties
China was ruled by foreign invaders and these rulers of the ethnic minorities in Liao 辽 (916-1125 AD), Jin 金 (1115–1234 AD) and Yuan 元 (1279–1368 AD) Dynasties continued the imperial examination system to select the mandarin required to run the civil service during their rule.
They further evolved the imperial examination system of Tang and Song Dynasties in terms of the imperial examination procedures, regulations on the examination hall and the examination by focusing on the subjects. Thus they had not only formed the imperial examination system with special features of the ethnic minorities, but had provided reference to further improvement of the official selection system based on the imperial examination in Ming and Qing Dynasties.
For example, it was during the Jin Dynasty, the mingjing exams were discontinued because it was not practical to get mandarins into the civil service; and the Yuan introduced rules to prevent cheating in exams, like these examination sheds.
The imperial examination system in Ming-Qing Dynasties
By the Ming Dynasty, the subjects and textbooks used for the examinations were standardised and formalised.
Rules of the examinations were highly formalised, from the number of invigilators right down to the number of candidates that would be going into the final examinations.
Making the Journey to Beijing 赴京赶考
Imagine going to Beijing for your final examinations from Shanghai on foot, that’s how most of the candidates of the imperial examinations had to endure because there were no modern (or for that matter, ancient) transportation available. Along the way, the candidates would have to rely on help from relatives or stay at inns along the way. And when they finally reached Beijing, they could stay at the Huiguan 会馆 setup by their province, no different from the modern day Provincial Guest House 在京省办招待所
Taking the Final Examinations
Achieving Jinshi 进士, equivalent to getting the University bachelor’s degree, was the dream of every student in ancient China. These required the student to go through different levels of examinations starting from their own village or town, followed by the provincial examinations or Xiangshi 乡试.
Only a limited number will be selected to go to the capital for the Huishi 会试. Huishi was hosted by the Ministry of Rites 礼部 and was a national-level central examination.
Taking the Huishi 会试
Exams were centrally conducted in these sheds called gongyuan 贡院. In the past, the sheds were made of wood with thatched roofs. Because of a fire in 1463 that killed 130 candidates, Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty ordered the sheds to be built from concrete bricks. When the examinations were abolished in 1905, the bricks were dismantled for other uses.
The examinations were conducted in three parts and may take days. So the candidates would all prepare food and enough sustenance to last through the examinations. Of course with exams, there would always be cheats. And there were evidence of cheating confiscated from the candidates.
Marking the Answers
The names on the answer papers were sealed to prevent nepotism among the invigilators and the candidates. A duplicate copy was made for marking. A circle meant a good answer, a cross meant a bad answer. The total number of circles and crosses were counted and the papers with the least circles will come up tops.
The Examination Before the Emperor
Dianshi 殿试, or “examination in the throne room”, was the final imperial examination presided over by the emperor. It was more to determine the grades, as all that attended the dianshi would minimum get a Jinshi.
Although it started formally in the Tang Dynasty by Empress Wu Zetian in 690 AD (even if her husband Tang Gaozong 唐高宗 did held one informally in 659 AD, making it the first dianshi in history), it did not become a standard affair until Song Dynasty.
The test questions were set by the ministers and picked by the emperor. Then the ministers read the question in time and let the candidates answer impromptu in front of the emperor. The finished answers were then evaluated for the grades. Finally, the top 10 answers were presented to the emperor to read (not on the same day) and he then determined the final positions of the candidates in the examination.
殿试策题 (“Court exam strategy paper”) or 策论 (“policy thesis”) is equivalent to the liberal art degree and the topic can be from anything that the emperor decided to ask. Usually it would be about political ideology or public administration, so that the emperor can select talented candidates to assist him to run the country.
Awarding the Grades
It was also afterwards the candidates were given the grades – the top three were called Zhuangyuan 状元 (1st), Bangyan 榜眼 (2nd) and Tanhua 探花 (3rd) and were granted the top honour of “进士及第”; and those that graduated with honours are given Jinshi with honours “进士出身”; the rest simply graduate with “同进士出身”, equivalent of a Bachelor’s Degree. All would be generally referred to as the jinshi of the same batch 同科进士.
Top Scholar 状元
Success in examinations is a highly sought after achievement among Chinese parents. We often use the term 中状元, or “achieving the status of Zhuang Yuan”, to signify success academically, and often as the top achiever.
As much as the system was meant to be fair and open, the selection of the Top 3 was usually not. It really depended on the whim and fancy of the emperor (or empress depending on who was in power then).
Military Top Scholar 武状元
Martial arts examination 武举 was a variation of the imperial examination system with the purpose of selecting military talents. It was implemented by Empress Wu Zetian in 702 AD.
The examination content includes archery, sabre, dagger, weights, etc. There were about 500 imperial martial arts examinations in Chinese history. Compared with the imperial examination, the martial arts examination was less emphasised.
Manchu-Mongol Scholar 满蒙榜状元
There’s a special Imperial examination for the Mongol and Manchurians that emphasised on the translation of Chinese to Mongolian-Manchurian, and vice-versa. The policy thesis was also written in Mongolian or Manchurian.
These scholars were usually assigned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 理藩院 to take care of Manchurian and Mongolian affairs.
End of the imperial examination system
The imperial examination during the Qing Dynasty integrated previous successes and came to a completion. However, the imperial examination system conducted for over thousand years had gradually exposed its defects. And at the end of Qing Dynasty, the abolishment of the imperial examination had become inevitable.
For the purpose of pursuing practical learning and cultivating talents, the last two batches of jinshi in the late Qing Dynasty were required to enter the Imperial University of Peking to accept western education before taking service. As a result, Jinshi Guan 进士馆 (“School of Jinshi“) was established in the university.
In August 1905, the government of Qing Dynasty announced abolishment of imperial examination system. Due to abolishment of the Imperial Examination, the last batch (Jiachen batch 甲辰科, 1904) of jinshi was sent to Japan to pursue their studies. Guimao batch 癸卯科 (1901) jinshi were still in residence until graduation. In 1907, the Guimao batch 癸卯科 of jinshi graduated from Jinshi Guan. The particular generation who were affected by both traditional and modern reflects China’s conflict and integration in the tumultuous age.
Customs Around the Imperial Examinations
After years of conducting imperial examinations, certain customs and superstitions arose from the mainly feudal and backward population.
Teasing the Wu Kui 闹五魁
Wu Kui 五魁 refers to the top 5 scholars of the imperial examinations. Kuixing 魁星 is the god in ancient Chinese myths and legends that is in-charged of the fortunes of the scholars. Kuixing originally refers to the first star of the Big Dipper 北斗七星 in ancient Chinese astronomy, and later also refers to the first four stars of the Big Dipper – Tianshu 天枢, Tianxuan 天璇, Tianji 天玑 and Tianquan 天权. These stars represents the gods who dominate the rise and fall of the literati. It was believed that the top scholar was the reincarnation of Kuixing.
On the day before the results were announced, the scribes would follow tradition and start from No.6. And by the time they finished, it would be dark and all the staff involved in that year’s examinations will light up candles and circled the table to see the last five names written on the notice. The unfinished candles were thought to be auspicious and fetched a good sum in the black market by parents with learning kids.
The Abode of the Top Scholar 状元府第
After years of hard study, being able to be the top scholar in the imperial examinations was the pursuit of students. The home of Zhuangyuan 状元 was mostly decorated with auspicious objects that imply the success obtained at the imperial examination, but also wished that future generations can continue the academic success.
But this was not always assured. Like the owner of this plaque was the Top Scholar in 1760. Bi Yuan 毕沅（173—1797年 AD） had a very successful political career, and was given many gifts and rewards from the emperor Qianlong. But because of a fault that he committed when alive, his fortune was confiscated by Qianlong’s son, Emperor Jiaqing, and was raid of all the burial goods.
Beyond Academic Success
Many of these jinshi were successful in their individual fields, even though they did not get the top scholar. Like the Father of Forensic Science, Song Ci 宋慈 (1186–1249) was a Song Dynasty jinshi 2nd Class Lower 进士乙科. The Chief Editor of the most comprehensive encyclopaedia of ancient China 《四库全书》, Ji Yun 纪昀(1724- 1805AD) was 2nd Class Upper 二甲进士出身.
Because of the way the examinations work, a lot of emphasis was mainly on how well they know thew their Confucian studies and the classics. Many of the Jinshi were accomplished authors and calligraphers, only to find success later of their artistic and literary talents after they left the civil service.
There’s another interesting Jinshi that was featured that was vaguely related to me. Han Yu 韩愈, aka Han Changli 韩昌黎 posthumously, was Tang dynasty jinshi that was banished to Chaozhou to become the magistrate. He did such a great job there that the people of Chaozhou renamed the river as Hanjiang 韩江.
About the Confucian Temple 孔庙 and Imperial College 国子监
Beijing Confucian Temple and the Imperial College are located at Guozijian street of Dongcheng District. They were built in Yuan Dynasty, with a long history of more then 700 years. Emperors of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties came here to pay the respects to the great thinker and sage, Confucius.
The Imperial College was the highest learning institution in ancient China. Most of the current buildings were built during the Ming Dynasty. It is the last Imperial College in China and the predecessor of Peking University. Today, these buildings are opened for public to learn how our forefathers study and gain academic success in imperial China.
The ticketing office is beside the main gate of the Confucian Temple. After buying the ticket, you may enter the Confucian Temple, and then continue the tour to the Imperial College through the Chijing Gate 持敬门 beside the Stele Pavilion 石径.
Opened daily between 8.30am – 4.30pm, except Mondays. Tickets must be bought through WeChat mini apps. Remember to bring your passport to visit.
Confucian Temple and Imperial College 孔庙 国子监
Guozijian Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing
Visited May 2023
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