The state examination system (keju 科舉) with its 1500 years long history was the most important means of recruiting state officials in the large administration system of the Chinese imperial state. Still today, the Republic of China 中華民國 perpetuates this institution in the shape of the Examination Yuan (Kaoshiyuan 考試院), altough the Taiwan government thinks about abolishing this institution because of its uselessness in a modern state. The method to recruit state officials by subjecting them to an examination on the one side opened access to higher posts to everyone who had fortune enough to finance ten years or more of intensive studies, but on the other side tied up manforce and capital that could otherwise serve for investment in business or in politics. And the intensive studies of Confucian Classics that was imposed on the candidates could also divert their thoughts and activities from critique or even rebellion - not always successful, like the case of the successless and disappointed candidate Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全, leader of the Taiping rebellion 太平起義, proves.
Before the introduction of the examination system, men were recruited into state offices because of their membership of the class of aristocracy, as relatives of high officials, or as meritorious people. Access to high offices was reserved for members of the aristocracy, especially after the consolidation of the imperial state. But this system of recommendation or relationship (what is expressed today by the words "Ta you guanxi.." 他有關係... "He has some connections...") was not the only method to gain access to a post within the large administration system. Already during the Western Han 西漢, erudite scholars specializing in the studies of one of the Confucian Classics were recommended to enter civil service, but it was only in 85 AD that an annual quota of candidates was required by the emperor. These candidates were proposed by the magistrates or princes
and were assessed to an appointment through a kind of examination called "lot strip" (shece 射策) because the candidate had to pick out a bamboo strip on that an examinational question was written. After passing the examination, the candidate was given an office or a post within a state academy. During the Cao-Wei 曹魏 and
Jin 晉 period this system of recommending candidates was not in use. It was only resumed during the Southern Dynasties (Nanchao 南朝) period and should be perpetuated until its final abolishment at the begin of Song 宋. Because all candidates of the recommendation system were specialists in one field of the Confucian Classics (hence called mingjing 明經 "comprehending the Classics"), they were examined exclusively in this field, and their degree was accordingly estimated lower than that of candidates of the free state examinations.
Cao Pi 曹丕, founder of the Cao-Wei Dynasty, introduced the Nine-Rank system (jiupin zhongzheng zhi 九品中正制) to classify state offices and people that could be allowed access to certain offices. In every commandery (jun 郡) and region (zhou 州) the central government installed so-called "rectifiers" (zhongzheng 中正) who had to register every person eligible for service in government. On the basis of their social status but also of their moral integrity (daode 道德) and their abilities (caineng 才能), they were estimated (zhuang 狀) and assigned one of 18 ranks (nine ranks, jiupin 九品, with half-ranks, shang-xia 上下), with often even more distinctions. People were thus classified as "pure" (qing 清, later qingwang 清望 "with high expectations") or impure (zhuo 濁), people with least expections for access to higher offices even as "humble men" (hanren 寒人). Of course, the influence of a person's social background proved far the most important factor for access to government offices, and because only these persons could fill the posts of "rectifiers" and in consequence proposed their own relatives and clients for higher offices, this kind of official-aristocracy was able to preserve their position for hundreds of years. But the influence of the mighty clans (menfa 門閥) nontheless retreated gradually, especially in the north where foreign, non-Chinese dynasties ruled (Sixteen States, Northern Wei 北魏 and successor states) whose social structure was different from that of the traditional Chinese elites from the Han and Jin periods: the "barbarians" had no family registers (pudie 譜牒 or jiapu 家譜) that could serve as base for a rank assessment. With these experiences, the second ruler of Sui 隋, a man from the north, abandoned the Nine-Rank system and introduced state examinations independent from the social background, but without totally abolishing the mingjing system of recommendation candidates.
Instead of giving an account of the frequent changes in the system of state examinations, its abolishings and reintroductions, alternations concerning the ruling elite of Jurchen (Jin Dynasty 金) and Mongols (Yuan Dynasty 元) - that should be given access to state offices without being bothered with intense literary studies - its perfect state during the Qing period 清 shall be described here.
Although a merchant could gain much more wealth than even the highest state official, it was a question of social status to participate in the examination and to strive to become at least magistrate (zhixian 知縣). Whole families invested in the education of promising candidates and expected one day to be rewarded when their capital came back from the hands of a successful official, especially in the shape of profitable posts and business contracts.
Education began very early, either in state schools (xuexiao 學校) or in private academies (shuyuan 書院). To obtain the degree (zige 資格) of government student (shengyuan 生員, better known as xiucai 秀才 "cultivated talent") the candidates ("Confucian apprentices", rutong 儒童, tongsheng 童生) had to pass a three-stage examination, the "infant or apprentice examination" (tongshi 童試), that was composed of a district examination (xianshi 縣試), a prefectural examination (fushi 府試) and an academic examination (yuanshi 院試). The highest-ranked school was the "School for the Sons of the State" (guozixue 國子學) that directly understood the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監).
The next step to career was the provincial examination (xiangshi 鄉試 "home examination") that was held once in three years. The examiners were called zhukao 主考 "examination regulators" and were selected by the emperor. The provincial examination was partitioned into three parts organised on three different days in the eighth month of the year. The content of these tests was an interpretation of the Five Confucian classics (Wujing 五經). The quota for selecting successful candidates of every province was different through the decades and depended on the need of the government, but also on the success of the candidates. Southeners were often better literati than their northern compatriots. Success was rewarded with the degree of "presentable man" (juren 舉人) and the permission to participate in the next step, the metropolitan examination (huishi 會試).
The metropolitan examination was held in the 3rd month of every year, not least because this difficult examination time and again ("repeated examination" fushi 復試) forced candidates to undertake this stressful situation of the "examination hell". The examination in the capital was organized by the Minitry of Rites (libu 禮部) and observed by a staff of examiners headed by a director-general (zongcai 總裁) selected by the emperor. Once appointed, the examiners were obliged to go into recluse for preparation, without contact to the outer world. The contents of the metropolitan examination were quite similar to the provincial examination, exhausting in the interpretation of Confucian classics. The number of successful candidates was also different in each year, the highest being 406 during the Yongzheng period. Successful candidates were bestowed the rank of "presented scholar" (gongshi 貢士), the ten best were allowed to bear their rank, the primus was called "metropolitan principal" (huiyuan 會元).
The final step of scholarly career was the palace examination (dianshi 殿試, tingshi 廷試) that was presided by the emperor in person and was held on the 21st day of the 4th month each year. Content of the examination were again the Four Books (Sishu 四書) and Five Classics, with an interpretation that was bound to strict rules in shape and content. It was not enough to know these writings by heart - which is much enough - but also their most important intepretations. The essay being written by the candidates had to be composed according to a strict pattern called the eight-legged essay (baguwen 八股文), with introduction, exposition, argumentation, and conclusion, both in two sections. Each "leg" had to be written in words that paralleled its counterpart in the corresponding section. Even the number of characters or words to be used was regulated. The eight-legged essay hence has the meaning of pedantry or triteness. A candidate had to work through three to five themes within one single day. His essay was then sealed and copied to make it impossible that an examiner could recognize a candidate by his calligraphy. The ten best were then ranked by the emperor in person, the three best (yija 一甲) were given the rank of "metropolitan graduate with honors" (jinshi jidi 進士及第). The best candidate was also called "principal graduate" (zhuangyuan 狀元), the second was called bangyan 榜眼, the third tanhua 探花. Nos. 4-6 (erjia 二甲) were called "regular metropolitan graduates" (jinshi chushen 進士出身), Nos. 7-9 (sanjia 三甲) were called "associate metropolitan graduates" (tong jinshi chushen 同進士出身), all other simply "metropolitan graduates" (jinshi 進士, literally "advanced scholar"). The list leaders were made public during a large ceremony (called chuanlu dadian 傳臚大典) in the imperial palace.
After this ceremony, a second stage of the palace examination took place, the audience examination (chaoshi 朝試) with themes selected by the emperor himself. Again, the results were ranked, the primus was called "audience principle" (chaoyuan 朝元). The three highest candidates immediately obtained posts and honors in the Hanlin Academy 翰林院, the others obtained offices in the civil administration, each according to his profile in the particular examinations. Career could begin. For the others, there were people trying ten times to pass the highest examination, others gave up, and we have even reports of suicides.
It was only in 1903 that under the influence of the self-strengthening movement the Guangxu Emperor 光緒 radically changed the content of the examination and reduced the scholarly interpretation of the Confucian Classics to only a third of the total examination, while for the other parts, essays about the political history of China and of other states was introduced, the eight-legged essay was abolished. Under the influence of Liu Kunyi 劉坤一 and Zhang Zhidong 張之洞 the Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后 abolished the whole examination system in 1905. In the same year, a Ministry of Education
was installed that observed the growing of a thorough new system of primary, middle and high schools in China.
Besides this civil examination (wenke 文科) system, there was also a military examination (wuke 武科) system that was quite similar to its civilian counterpart. It was abolished in 1901. Very talented scholars or doctors (boshi 博士) were recruited by a special examination system (zhike 制科) personally observed by the emperor. For Manchus and Mongols, the Qing government had installed a translation examination (fanyike 翻譯科) with provincial and metropolitan examination. Chinese were also allowed to participate in this test for translating Confucian classics into Manchu and vice versa. The number of participants in this examination was far less and amounted only about 30 Manchus and 9 Mongols.
Benjamin Elman (2000). A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Miyazaki Ichisada (1981). China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China. New Haven/London: Yale University Press. [Original 1963 published with the title Kakyo: Chugoku no shiken jigoku.]