The Traditional Examination System ( -
An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Traditional Examination System

Nov 26, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The examination system (keju zhi 科舉制) was the common method of selecting candidates for state offices. It was created during the Tang period 唐 (618-907) and became during the Song period 宋 (960-1279) the prevalent form of choosing appointees. The examination system was the regular path (zhengtu 正途) into officialdom, in contrast to irregular ways (yitu 異途) like the purchase of a student status.


The first standardized method for the selection of candidates was introduced during the Wei period 曹魏 (220-265). This was the nine-rank selection method (jiupin zhongzheng zhi 九品中正制). All offices were given a certain rank, one being highest, and nine the lowest one. Similarly, all important families within the empire were ranked according to "moral" criteria into one of nine ranks. Sons of these were thus eligible for an official post with the same rank. Yet in fact, the system was dominated and of course also influenced by mighty families, who tried everything to have their rank raised as much as possible. There was word that "no humble man was to be found in high positions, and no eminent family would produce low-ranked officials" (shangpin wu hanmen, xiapin wu shizu 上品無寒門,下品無勢族).

Sui Period

While this system continued in the time of the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589), family background became less important in northern China. The Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386-581) selected their personnel by merit and competence, regardless of the "purity" of the family (xuan wu qing zhuo 選無清濁). The Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) promoted the recommendation system in the first few decades, in order to have more selectees at hand to staff the administration system of China, but they abolished the selection of appointees by the nine-rank system, while retaining another means of selection, namely the examination of "classicists" (mingjing ke 明經科) and that of "cultivated talents" (xiucai ke 秀才科). Classicists were experts in one or several of the Confucian Classics, and were tested whether they knew the texts by heart. As the examination was relatively easy, they were just appointed to relatively low posts in the hierarchy of the officialdom. Emperor Yang 隋煬帝 (r. 604-617) of the Sui dynasty added to these two the examination of "presented scholars" (jinshi ke 進士科). These three types of examination, with ten fields (ke 科) of "scholarship" (i.e. examination modes), were the germs of the infamous examination system that was only abolished in 1905. Promotion of "experts" (keju 科舉) and examination (kaoshi 考試) were unfied in one system (keju kaoshi 科舉考試). States influenced by Chinese culture, like Korea or Vietnam, imitated the examination system.

Tang Period

The Tang dynasty perfected the examination system continuously in the 7th century. There were two types of examinations, namely regular ones (changke 常科) and irregular ones (zhike 制科). The latter were held on extraordinary occasions proclaimed by the emperor, and aimed at selecting "outstanding talents" (fei chang zhi cai 非常之才). During the examinations, the candidates answered specialized questions (duice 對策) of a wide range of themes (ke 科). Successful candidates could obtain a "beautiful" office (meiguan 美官), second-rank graduates were "excelling" (chushen 出身). The participation was also allowed to persons already working in an office. The regular examinations were held for the Cultivated Talents, Classicists, Presented Scholars, experts in law (mingfa 明法), in writing (mingshu 明書), or in arithmetics (mingsuan 明算). Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) added to these an examination in Daoism (daoju 道舉) and "apprentice" examinations (tongzi ju 童子舉) for young students. Of all the regular examinations, the difficult one of Presented Scholars gained more and more prominence, while the easier one for Classicists lost its importance. By the late Tang period, the title of Presented Scholar became a prerequisite for the appointment into higher offices. While the nine-rank system had promoted candidates just on a basis of recommendation, the introduction of examinations for all, even for recommendees (juren 舉人), became obligatory in the mid-Tang period. The procedure of distinguishing recommendees as a separate category of examinees (ke ju 科舉) gave the new system its name. It did away with the ancient prerequisite of grand families to have their sons automatically appointed to respectable offices.

Examinations were held annually, and the candidates (shengtu 生徒) hailed from all types of schools (xueguan 學館), but were only eligible if sent on recommendation by their schools. The examinations were organized directly by the Department of State Affairs (shangshu sheng 尚書省). Another type of candidates, the prefectural nominees (xianggong 鄉貢), registered at their home prefecture, where they were tested and then sent to participate in the examination held by the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部, before 736 by the Ministry of Personnel libu 吏部) and organized by the Department of State Affairs. The examination was therefore called "Department examination" (shengshi 省試).

The Classicists were just tested by being presented phrases from a Classic (tiejing 帖經), to which they had to recite the full paragraph. This examination, passed when correctly answering five of ten questions, was so easy in contrast to the other ones that it was said that "with 30 sui of age, a classicist candidate is old, but a candidate for the examination of Presened Scholars is young". A similar type of examination was called moyi 墨義. The examiner brought up on theme dealt with in the Classics, and the exminee had to quote literally from the original text, yet without commenting on or explaning it. Because this type of examination was usually an oral one, it was also called kouyi 口義. This examination consisted of up to one hundred questions. The raising number of candidates and the low intellectual level of these two types of questions later inspired the reformer Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086) to replace them by more complex types of examination.

Presented Scholars were tested in the full set of Confucian Classics, but also in history, and in the proficiency to compile official documents ("miscellaneous writings", zawen 雜文) like admonitions (zhen 箴), inscriptions (ming 銘), discursive treatises (lun 論) or memorials (biao 表), and from the Tianbao reign-period 天寶 (742-755) on also the writing of regular poems (shi 詩) and rhapsodies (fu 賦). The annual number of examinees ranged from 800 to 1,200 persons, but those passing (jidi 及第) were just a dozen or a few dozen people. The examination consisted of three parts (shang 上, zhong 中, xia 下). Whoever passed the middle part was spared the "lower" (last) one. Because the number of persons who were ever able to pass the jinshi examination was so low, the successful ones were highly admired and had a high social standing, as persons with a "distinguished name" (chengming 成名) or such "ascended to the Dragon Gate" (deng longmen 登龍門). Graduates of the judicial (mingfa), the arithmetical (mingsuan), or the clerical (mingshu) examinations were only employed in specialized agencies. The number of xiucai graduates was extremely low during the Tang period.

During the examination, the names of examinees were known to the chief examiners. It was even custom that candidates sent to the chief examiner beforehand showpieces of their literary works, in order to impress him or to attract his attention. In the early Tang, the examinations were overseen by an evaluation director (kaogong langzhong 考功郎中) of the Ministry of Personnel. During the Zhenguan reign-period 貞觀 (627-649) a sectional vice director (kaogong yuanwailang 考功員外郎) was entrusted with the duty, yet Emperor Xuanzong thought this office to low with regard to the importance of the task, and further on entrusted it to the hand of the Vice Minister of Rites (libu shilang 禮部侍郎). If the office was vacant or the duty taken over by another person the president of the examination was called examination administrator (zhi gongju 知貢舉). Graduates of the jinshi examination called the examiner zuozhu 座主, and referred to themselves as mensheng 門生 ("retainers"). Fellow graduates were called tongnian 同年, and they addressed each other as xianbei 先輩.

The examination of the Ministry of Rites was carried out annually, in the first lunar month. In the second month the results were published in a list (fang bang 放榜). Before publication, the list was submitted to the Counsellor-in-chief for attention (cheng bang 呈榜). He had the right to alter the list. On some occasions it was additionally submitted for detailed inspection (xiangfu 詳覆) to the Secretariat-Chancellery (zhongshu menxia 中書門下). The emperor had also the right to announce a repetition of the examination (fushi 覆試).

The nominees for office (gongshi 貢士) were not automatically granted the status of appointee when having passed the examination. Only when subjected to a quality evaluation by the Ministry of Rites (libu quanshi 吏部銓試, libu quanxuan 吏部銓選) they were eligible for an office. The central examination was therefore also called the "test to duff the rough serge" (shihe shi 釋褐試), allowing them to assume official robes. It consisted of an assessment of the figure (shen 身) of the candidate, his speech (yan 言), his calligraphy (shu 書), and intelligence (pan 判). A common principle was that competence was more important than moral conduct.

Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 (r. 690-704) introduced a palace examination (dianshi 殿試) and a military examination (wuju 武舉). From 702 on the names of examinees were were masked so the examiners did not know who was tested. During the military examination candidates were tested in shooting at great distances (changduo 長垛), shooting from horseback (mashe 馬射), shooting while marching (bushe 步射), parallel shooting (? pingshe 平射) and "pipe shooting" (? tongshe 筒射). Likewise, skills in riding and handling polearms (ma qiang 馬槍) was tested, as well as the physical stamina in various exercises like lifting and carrying heavy objects (qiaoguan 翹關, fuzhong 負重, shencai 身材). Unlike the civilian appointees, graduates of the military examination could be directly appointed to a post. Even if it was regularly held, the military examination had a far less prominent status in comparison to the civilian ones.

The monopoly of the grand families on the occupation of offices was thus finally shattered at the end of the Tang period, yet the procedure of the examination brought about new difficulties, mainly the forming of court factions (pengdang 朋黨) consisting of examiners and their protégé graduates (mensheng). The fellow graduates Niu Sengru 牛僧孺 (779-848) and Li Zongmin 李宗閔 (d. 846), for instance, fought for decades for dominance at the court, likewise Linghu Chu 令狐楚 (766-837), Xiao Mian 蕭俛 (d. 842) and Huangfu Bo 皇甫鎛 (d. 820). The control of the influential families over careers had not ceased. Emperor Muzong 唐穆宗 (r. 820-824) even proclaimed a law exempting officials and their families from all taxes, thus cementing their status as "households of the official robes" (yiguanhu 衣冠戶). They were later called households of officials (guanhu 官戶).

The political turmoils of the first half of the 10th century were the most critical factor for the interruption of the examination system during the Five Dynasties period 五代 (907-960).

Song Period

The Song dynasty did away with some critical shortcomings of the examination system of the Tang period. The first step of Emperor Shenzong 宋神宗 (r. 1067-1085) in 1071 was to abolish the Classicist (mingjing) examination and the "various examinations" (zhuke 諸科) on law and arithmetics. All those wishing to become a state official had to undergo the jinshi examination. The gongju 貢舉 examination, formerly consisting of the jinshi and the mingjing examination, was from then on identical to the jinshi examination. Shortly later, a specialized examination was introduced for judicial matters, and the irregular examinations (zhiju 制舉) were abolished. During the Yuanyou reign-period 元祐 (1086-1094) the jinshi examination was divided into two classes (ke 科), namely one for examinees in poetry and rhapsodies, and one for examinees in the interpretation of the Confucian Classics (jingyi 經義). Apart from these two, some smaller, specialized examinations were offered for classicists on behaviour (mingjing xingxiu 經明行修), on the eight moral conducts (baxing 八行), or for erudites literati (hongci 宏詞, boxue hongci 博學宏詞). The participants in the latter were not many, and the jinshi examination became the common gateway in the pursuit of career.

The Song arranged the examination system into three steps, beginning with the prefectural examination (jieshi 解試), advancing with the metropolitan examination (shengshi 省試), and ending with the palace examination (dianshi 殿試, yushi 御試). There were several institutions offering a prefectural examination, so that the government offered various ways for future career, namely the "prefectural" (zhoushi 州試) or "home examination" (xiangshi 鄉試), the "tribute grain examination" (caoshi 漕試) or examination of the transport commission (zhuanyunsi shi 轉運司試), and the examination of the National University (taixue shi 太學試) or the Directorate of Education (guozijian shi 國子監試). The examination session (kechang 科場) of the latter began on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month and took three days. Graduates of the prefectural examination were called prefectural nominees (xianggong 鄉貢). "Qualified" (hege 合格) for further steps, they were sent as recommendees (juren 舉人) in certain quota to the capital. The metropolitan examination was organized by the Ministry of Rites and the Department of State Affairs. The date was not fix, but the examination took place in Spring, and also lasted three days. Graduates were then sent to participate in the palace examination.

From 973 on the emperor had the prerogative to change the name order (mingci 名次) on the list of examinees for the palace examination. Candidates whose position had been altered were only considered as having passed rightfully and were thus listed (dengke 登科, dengdi 登第) when their results of the palace examination were meeting their results as metropolitan graduates. During the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279), an extraordinary metropolitan examination was carried out in the circuits of the Sichuan Basin, to save candidates the long way to the capital Hangzhou 杭州 (today in Zhejiang).

In order to prevent interference into the examination results, it was from 1037 on not allowed that examiners hailed from the prefecture where they supervised an examination. This rule of "avoidance of return" (huibi 回避) made it necessary to carry out "examinations by different heads" (bietou shi 別頭試).

Apart from the large examination (keju kaoshi 科舉考試), there were some smaller, specialized examinations offered, namely examinations of family or household members of officials (dieshi 牒試, zhoushi 胄試), internal examinations in the Ministry of Personnel (lianshi 簾試), examination out of terms (fushi 附試), translator examinations (tongwenguan shi 同文館試), examinations for persons who already held an office (suotingshi 鎖廳試), contest examinations in riding and archery (bishi 比試, jiaoshi 較試, paishi 拍試), or judicial examinations (xingfashi 刑法試).

During the metropolitan examination, the team of examiners moved completely into the examination compound (gongyuan 貢院) a few days before the beginning of the test, to carry of the necessary preparations. For the examinees, it was forbidden to leave the compound or to meet parents of friends: the compound was sealed closely (suoyuan 鎖院). The examinees had to use stationery and paper provided by the examiners, all stamped with an official seal. They were placed in individual cells according to their number in a public list of examinees, and marked with their names. When the answers were collected at the end of the examination, the sheets were processed by persons in the sealing office (fengmiyuan 封彌院). They erased any information about the candidate that was written on the paper, and instead gave the set a registrated number. Persons in the copy office (tengluyuan 謄錄院) then copied the full text of what each single candidate had written. In this way, the examiners would impossibly find out who had written what text, and could not give an edge to any candidate. The first review was carried out by an examining official (kaoguan 考官, chugaoguan 初考官), and the papers were then handed over to a secondary examining official (fukaoguan 復考官) and to an examiner (zhijuguan 知舉官), either the chief examiner (zhi gongju 知貢舉) or one of several vice examiners (tong zhi gongju 同知貢舉). For the palace examination, the judgments by the first and second examining official were counterchecked by a determing official (xiangdingguan 詳定官), who fixed the final grade. The team of examiners was supported by gate supervisors of the examination compound (gongyuan jianmen guan 貢院監門官), registrars (bianpai shijuan guan 編排試卷官), sealers (fengmi juanshou guan 封彌卷首官), copyists (tengluguan 謄錄官) and specialist and vice specialist assessors for literary genres (dianjian shijuan guan 點檢試卷官, canxiangguan 參詳官).

Participants in the examinations were called candidates or examinees (juren). Once listed as successful graduates, they lost this title and were called jinshi, or with that of their office. Candidates not having excelled (chushen) were at least exempted from all taxes and corvée labour. Having participated in the metropolitan examination, graduates were also allowed, in case of being sentenced, to buy themselves free from the verdict of exile (tu 徒) in case of crime in office (gongzui 公罪), and to mutate in money blows with the stick in case of private crime (sizui 私罪). Graduates were ranked according to their performance and given five grades, the highest being metropolitan graduate with honours (jinshi jidi 進士及第), the second rank that of regular metropolitan graduate (jinshi chushen 進士出身), and the third that of associate metropolitan graduates (tong jinshi chushen 同進士出身). The first three ranks were called principal graduate (zhuangyuan 狀元), second graduate (bangyan 榜眼), and third graduate (tanhua 探花). When the list was published, an announcement ceremony (changing yishi 唱名儀式) was held, in the presence of the emperor. Everyone's name was read aloud by the chief examiner, and graduates were presented a green purse (lüpao 綠袍), a tablet as a symbol of the status (hu 笏), and boots (xie 靴). The names of graduates of the metropolitan examination were recorded and belonged to the archival documents of the dynasty. Of course, they also had an important place in the family registers of the graduates.

In principle, the examinations were open to anyone, barring close relatives of traitors, criminals, subofficial clerks (lixu 吏胥), re-laicized Buddhist or Daoist monks (seng-dao huan su 僧道還俗), or persons being unfilial, or performing a "dishonourable" job as a tradesman or craftsman. The only requirement for participation was education. The number of participants in the palace examination had increased ten times in comparison with the Tang period, not least because the officialdom had also become much larger since. Theoretically, social rise was possible for everyone, and not just members of eminent families. The social status of graduates was at least as high as that of uneducated magnates and rich merchants.

The Song court also tried everything to prevent the emergence of court factions consisting of examiners and fellow graduates. It was thus also forbidden for high officials to have contact with nominated examiners before the examination took place, so they could not personally recommend (gongjian 公薦, zhuqing 囑請) a particular person to the chief examiner. The tendency to ensure objectivity in a system selecting the best was clearly charted during the Song period.

Not mentioned yet is the cewen 策問 examination which focused on contemporary matters, like politics, economy, or military affairs. It was an excellent tool to test the abilities of candidates to respond to practical matters of administration and policy. Yet because the range of questions was quite limited, the cewen examination fell into oblivion during the Song period (even if it was then and when revived). Concerning poems and rhapsodies, the reformer Wang Anshi brought forward the argument that they were of no use for administration, and the great philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 saw no use in poetry for the cultivation of virtue, so the examination in poetry was also given up after the Southern Song period. The Southern Song likewise abolished the tiejing and moyi examinations and replaced if fully by the jingyi 經義 style of examination, in which a deeper understanding of the meaning of the Classics in general, and the Four Books in particular, was required. The commentaries of Zhu Xi, Sishu zhangju jizhu 四書章句集注, served as the basis text of interpretation.

Liao, Jin and Yuan Dynasties

The Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) adopted the examination system for regions with large Chinese populations as early as the mid-10th century. In 988 it became official standard for Chinese subjects, yet in contrast to the Song dynasty, the Liao preferred a focus on lyric-metre poetry (ci 詞) and rhapsodies (fu 賦). In a rough imitation to the Song system, the Liao knew prefectural examinations of lower grade (xiangshi 鄉試, zhouxiangshi 州縣試), which produced "township recommendees" (xiangjian 鄉薦, the analogon to juren), prefectural examinations of first grade (fushi 府試), producing prefectural candidates (fujie 府解), the metropolitan examination (shengshi 省試 or libushi 禮部試), and also the palace examination (dianshi 殿試). In the early years of the dynasty, there were but a dozen of participants, but later on, more than a hundred candidates underwent the metropolitan examination, which took place every three years. It was not allowed for Kitans to participate in an examination, but from about 1115 on there were also cases of Kitans choosing this way for career.

The Jurchens of the Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234) made likewise a difference between ethnicities. From 1128 on there were northern examinations (beixuan 北選) for the former subjects of the Liao empire, checking the expertise in the composition of lyric-metre poetry and in rhapsodies, and southern examinations (nanxuan 南選) held for the former subjects of the Northern Song 北宋 (960-1126), being tested in the Confucian Classics. From the reign of Emperor Xizong 金熙宗 (r. 1135-1148) on the content of both types of examination was unified, and examinees were tested in both genres. The examination were held in a three-years' turn, and consisted of prefectural examinations (xiangshi), provincial examinations (fushi 府試) and the metropolitan exmination (huishi 會試 or libushi 禮部試). Prince Hailing 海陵王 (r. 1149-1160) initiated the palace examination and officially abolished the distinction between a northern and a southern examination. Emperor Zhangzong 金章宗 (r. 1189-1208) abolished the xiangshi examination, and redefined the places where fushi were held. From 1160 on the annual quota of examinees was more than 500 persons, in some years even more than 900. Apart from the regular examination (zhengke 正科), there were also irregular examinations (zhiju 制舉), literati examinations (hongci ki 宏詞科), miscellanous examinations (zake 雜科) for young boys (jingtong 經童), examinations in judicial matters (lüke 律科) and in discussing contemporary affairs (ceshi 策試), as well as military examinations (wuju 武舉). Emperor Shizong 金世宗 (r. 1161-1189) created the first examination for Jurchens, held all three years, and probing, in Jurchen language, the proficiency of candidates in political writings and in poetry. The Jurchen graduates were therefore also called treatise graduates (celun jinshi 策論進士), in order to dintinguish their proficiency from the Chinese candidates who were tested in poetry and the Classics.

The Mongols deliberated for a long time on the introduction of an examination system, but the first one was carried out as late as 1314, with a cycle of three years. The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) introduced the structure of provincial examinations (xiangshi 鄉試), the metropolitan examination (huishi 會試) and the palace examination (dianshi 殿試). In the whole empire, 17 examination compounds (kechang 科場) were built, and a quota of 300 persons fixed for all provincial examinations, with 75 persons for each of the four social groups of the Mongols, the Semuren 色目人, Northern Chinese (hanren 漢人) and Southern Chinese (nanren 南人). The metropolitan examination was held one year later than the provincial ones, so the canditates could prepare. The quota was 100 persons, with 25 per social group. The palace examination followed one month after the metropolitan one. The candidates for it were enrolled on two lists, with Mongols and Semuren on the "left", and the two classes of Chinese on the "right" one. Successful candidates were given one of three ranks (san jia 三甲), first, one metropolitan graduate with honours (jinshi jidi 進士及第, yijia 一甲) per list, second, regular metropolitan graduates (jinshi chushen 進士出身, erjia 二甲), and third, associate metropolitan graduates (tong jinshi chushen 同進士出身, sanjia 三甲). All graduates were eligible for official posts. The questions of the examinations were based on the interpretation of Confucianism by the brothers Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107) and Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), i.e. Neo-Confucianism.This was quite novel in contrast to the Song period. Mongols and Semuren were obliged to read and write Chinese, but their questions were easier than those for Chinese. The social status of jinshi graduates was, nevertheless, not as high as before.

Ming Period

The jinshi regained its prominence under the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644), even if there was still a small number of tribute students (suigong 歲貢) or recommended students (jianju 薦舉) enrolling at the National University. Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (Emperor Taizu, 明太祖, r. 1368-1398) adopted an examination system for civilian and military posts just after his proclamation as King of Wu 吳, and in 1370 decreed the empire-wide introduction of the examination system. A year later, the frequency was fixed at once every three years, but in 1372 the system was again abolished because the emperor preferred a system of recommendation. The examinations were revived ten years later, and in 1384 the final shape was fixed. The first palace examination (tingshi 廷試) was carried out in 1385. Graduates with the rank of metropolitan graduate with honours (yijia jinshi 一甲進士) were directly appointed senior compilers (xiuzhuan 修撰) of the Hanlin Academy 翰林院, and regular metropolitan graduates (erjia jinshi 二甲進士) were appointed junior compilers (bianxiu 編修) or examining editors (jiantao 檢討) of that institution. This became custom, so that the largest number of careers began in the Hanlin Academy. Ninety per cent of all Counsellors-in-chief had passed the Academy. In 1458 it was even ordered that only jinshi graduates could serve in the Hanlin Academy or the Grand Secretariat (neige 内閣) or be appointed ministers or vice ministers of rites (libu shangshu 禮部尚書, libu shilang 禮部侍郎) or right vice ministers of personnel (libu you shilang 吏部右侍郎). Their practical training in the Hanlin Academy allowed them insight into a wide range of central government agencies, leading to the term observer graduates (guanzheng jinshi 觀政進士). In the Academy itself, jinshi graduates had the title of bachelors (shujishi 庶吉士), and it was custom to name them still jinshi when they began serving in the Six Ministries (liubu 六部), the Censorate (duchayuan 都察院), the Office of Transmission (tongzhengsi 通政司) or the Court of Judicial Review (dalisi 大理寺).

Like before, the examination was organized in the three-step mode, beginning with the provincial examinations (xiangshi), proceeding to the metropolitan examination (huishi) and ending with the palace examination (tingshi).

The provincial examinations were held in the capital of each province. That of the provinces Nanzhili 南直隸 (around the southern capital Nanjing 南京, i.e. modern Jiangsu) and Beizhili 北直隸 (around the northern capital Beijing, modern Hebei) were organized by the metropolitan prefectures (jingfu 京府), that of the other provinces by the local administration commission (buzhengsi 布政司). Regular provincial examinations (zhengke 正科) were held in the 8th lunar month of years with the cyclical signs zi 子, wu 午, mao 卯, and you 酉. They were therefore also called "autumn palace gate [for career]" (qiuwei 秋闈) or "autumn examinations" (qiushi 秋試). In years when important celebrations occurred, like the birthday of the Empress Mother, extraordinary "celebratory" examinations (qingdian jia ke 慶典加科) might be held, called "examination by grace" (enke 恩科). Registration was possible for all students of the Schools for the Sons of the State (guozixue shengyuan 國子學生員) under the Directorate of Education (guozijian), students in prefectural and district schools (fuxue shengyuan 府學生員, zhouxue shengyuan 州學生員, and xianxue shengyuan 縣學生員), as well as for Confucian scholars without an academic title, sub-officials in the local administration (wei ru liu 未入流). Participation was forbidden for educational officials (xueguan 學官), retired officials or such on leave, actors and showmen, yamen runners (lizu 隸卒), and persons on mourning leave (three years after a father's death, and two after a mother's).

Average graduates were called "candidates [for the metropolitan exam]" (juren 舉人), and the best was given the title of prefectural graduate with highest honours (jieyuan 解元). From 1526 on, the regular registration for the provincial exam (zhengjuan 正卷) was enlarged by an additional registration with a relatively low quota. This was the "addenda list" (fubang 副榜 or beibang 備榜). The exam was presided (dianshi 典試) by two chief examiners and four examiners. In the early Ming period, only the examiners of the two capital cities were dispatched from the Hanlin Academy. In all other provinces there were provincial educational officials (jiaoguan 教官). Only from the Wanli reign-period 萬曆 (1573-1619) on all examiners were members of the Hanlin Academy or were members of various sections in the Ministry of Rites. In the capital cities, they were assisted by educational officials (xueguan 學官), and by administration commissoners (buzhengsi guan 布政司官) in the provinces. The quota of the provincinal examinations was only fixed in 1425, but later changed over time. In the two metropolitan provinces, for instance, it was about 130 persons, in other provinces less than 100.

The metropolitan examination was held always a year later than the provincial ones. In case of an extraordinary exam, the metropolitan step was also taken "by grace", a year later. The exam was organized by the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部). It took place in the second lunar month and was therefore also called "spring palace gate" (chunwei 春闈) or "spring exam" (chunshi 春試). Graduates were given the title of passed scholar (gongshi 貢士), and the best one was called huiyuan 會元. From 1406 on there was also an addenda list for participants. During the Zhengtong reign-period 正統 (1436-1449) it was ordered that examinees from the addenda list having successfully passed the exam, were spared the palace examination. Those who did not pass (bu di 不第) could nevertheless be evaluated and be appointed to minor posts in the central or local administration. The metropolitan exam was presided by two deputees from the Hanlin Academy, and after 1622, by two counsellors (fuchen 輔臣). The common examiners were in the beginning 8 persons, later 17, and finally 20. Twelve of them hailed from the Hanlin Academy, and 4 from various sections in the Ministry of Rites. The quota of graduates was fixed at 300 in 1475 (not including those of exams by grace). The participants were arranged according to their place of origin. In 1425 group for the southern and a northern palace gate (nanwei 南闈, beiwei 北闈) were created, during the Xuande reign-period 宣德 (1426-1435) also one called "[destinated to enter the] central palace gate" (zhongwei 中闈). The southern one represented Yingtian 應天 (Nanjing) and the prefectures Suzhou 蘇州 and Songjiang 松江, and the provinces Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Fujian, Hu-Guang and Guangdong. The northern palace gate "allowed entrance" to people from Shuntian 順天 (i.e. Beijing), Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, and Shaanxi, and the central gate Sichuan, Guangxi, Yunnan, Guizhou, and the perfectures Fengyang 鳳陽, Luzhou 廬州, Chuzhou 滁州, Xuzhou 徐 and Hezhou 和州. The southern gate had a quota of 165 graduates, the northern one of 105, and the central one of 30.

The palace examination was held on the 1st day (later the 15th) of the the third lunar month, just after the spring examination. All those who had passed the metropolitan examination, were allowed to participate in the palace exam. Graduates could be given three ranks (yijia 一甲, erjia 二甲, sanjia 三甲). The first rank was given to only three graduates, namely the zhuangyuan 狀元, who was appointed senior compiler in the Hanlin Academy, and the bangyan 榜眼 and tanhua 探花, who were directly appointed junior compilers in that institution. Graduates of the second and third rank were granted the title of regular metropolitan graduates (jinshi chushen 進士出身). The primus of them was usually called list leader (chuanlu 傳臚). Second- and third-rank graduates were then evaluated and the best were appointed bachelors in the Hanlin Academy. Others were were made supervising secretaries (jishi 給事), censors (yushi 御史), secretaries (zhushi 主事, zhongshu 中書), messengers (xingren 行人) in the Ministry of Rites, case reviewers (pingshi 評事) in the Court of Judicial Review (dalisi), erudites in the Court of Imperial Sacrifices (taichangsi 太常司), erudites in the Directorate of Education (guozi boshi 國子博士), prefectural judges (tuiguan 推官) or other officials in the prefectural or the district administration.

The palace examination was presided by the emperor in person, supported by high officials from the Academy, or from the court, who were good in literature. They formulated the questions and evaluated the performance of the examinees.

The provincial and the metropolitan examinations were organized in three sessions (chang 場). During the first session the three questions (dao 道) on the interpretation of the Four Books (sishu 四書) were asked, and four on the Classics corpus. Three days later, the second sesson took place, with the challenge to compose one discursive essay (lun 論), five critical judgments (pan 判), and one in the style of an edict (zhao 詔), an announcement (gao 誥) and a memorial (biao 表). Again three days later, the third session was held, in which five essays were to be compiled on the Classics, historiography, and contemporary affairs. It was regulated which commentaries on the Classics would have to be consulted and quoted. During the Yongle reign-period 永樂 (1403-1424), the compendia Sishu daquan 四書大全 and Wujing daquan 五經大全 were particularly compiled for preparing the examinations. The palace exam consisted of just one session, with questions on critical matters in the Classics or current affairs (cewen 策問). Written answers were expected to be compiled in a paired-sentence style (pai'ou 排偶) and according to a predefined structure, with eight parts. This was the infamous eight-legged essay (bagu wen 八股文). It was also called shiwen 時文, zhiyi 制義 or zhiyi 制藝, and consisted of the eight parts opening (poti 破題), amplification (chengti 承題), preliminary exposition (qijiang 起講), initial argument (qigu 起股), central argument (zhonggu 中股), latter argument (hougu 後股), final argument (shugu 束股), and conclusion (dajie 大結). The length of the essay ranged between 550 and 700 characters, and was fixed from time to time. Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-1682) once wrote in his Rizhilu 日知錄 that the eight-legged essay was worse than the bookburning by the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE), and his alleged burying alive 460 Confucian scholars.

The examination compound was called gongyuan 貢院, the cells the examinees were lodging and working in, were known as haofang 號房.

The military examinations (wuke 武科) played just a minor role during the Ming period. They consisted but of provincial and metropolitan examinations (before 1504 only held all six years), but in 1631 a military palace examination was introduced. From 1519 on the following regulations were issued: In the first session, an archer had to shoot from horseback at a distance of 35 paces. In the second one, a footed archer targeted at a distance of 80 paces, and in the third session, one set (yi dao 一道) of questions was asked. The provincial military exam was held in the same years as the civilian one. The Jiajing Emperor 嘉靖 (r. 1521-1566) ordered that in the 10th lunar month, a touring censor (yushi 御史) carried out the examinations, while in the two capitals, a commissioner of the Ministry of War (bingbu 兵部) was responsible. The metropolitan examination was performed a year later, in the 4th lunar month, and presided by two members of the Hanlin Academy, supported by four supervising secretaries (jishizhong 給事中) or members of sections (bucao 部曹) of the Ministry of Rites. The exact dates of the sessions of the provincial and metropolitan examinations were the 9th, the 12th, and the 15th day of the respective month. In 1610 the quota of the metropolitan military exam was fixed at 100 graduates.

The Ming dynasty introduced an examination for the imperial clan (zongke 宗科). They were created after a request in 1595 by Prince Zhu Zaiyu 朱載堉 (1536-1610), who was famous for his studies in music (see Yuelü quanshu 樂律全書). The examination was open for all princes above the rank of Supporter-commandant of the state (fengguo zhongwei 奉國中尉, the lowest rank of nobility for imperial princes, see titles of nobility) and below the rank of Bulwark-commandant of the state (fuguo zhongwei 輔國中尉, the 7th-highest). The first event took place in 1622. Prince Zhu Shenyun 朱慎鋆 obtained the title of jinshi, and in 1631, Prince Zhu Tongbu 朱統鈽 won his academic honours.

During the Ming period, schools (xuexiao 學校) became the main institution where candidates prepared themselves for the state examinations, because enrolment at a school was the prerequisite for nomination for the prefectural and provincial examinations. Yet in practice, candidates studied for themselves, and did not attend classes any more. Schools thus became just an annex to the examination system, instead of providing widespread education.

Qing Period

Immediately after their conquest of Beijing, the Qing dynasty introduced the examination system. It was based on the pattern used during the Ming period, with minor changes.

The first change was the institutionalization of an *apprentice examination (tongshi 童試) below the level of provincial exams. The tongshi was taken by government students (shengyuan 生員) in district or prefectural schools, or by private scholars. They were called Confucian apprentices (rutong 儒童 or tongsheng 童生), regardless of their age. The prerequisite for obtaining the title of government student was the participation in one of the apprentice examination, namely a district examination (xiangshi 縣試), a prefectural examinaton (fushi 府試) or a "commission examination" (yuanshi 院試) organized by the provincial education commission (tidu xueyuan 提督學院). Candidates of these examinations were called fuxue shengyuan 府學生員, zhouxue shengyuan 州學生員, and xianxue shengyuan 縣學生員. Apart from local candidates (ying shi zhe 應試者) there were candidates hailing directly from the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監). Its students were either so-called tribute students (gongsheng 貢生) or university students (jiansheng 監生; this title was easy to purchase). If enrolled (yiye 肄業) at the Directorate, they were in fix intervals tested by their tutors, and were automatically registered for the provincial examination. The quota for graduates was 10 persons in prefectures of larger provinces, and 5 for smaller ones. Like the "apprentices", students from the Directorate had to pass through the district and the prefectural examinations.

The provincial examinations were, as during the Ming period, held all three years. In addition to the regular exam (zhengke), there were "exams by grace" (enke). The chief examiners were called zhukao 主考 and were dispatched on imperial order. Candidates from the province of Zhili 直隸 (modern Hebei) participated in the district examination of Shuntian 順天 (i.e. Beijing). The provincial exams consisted of three sessions (chang), the first taking place on the 9th, the second on the 12th, and the third on the 15th of the 8th lunar month. The questions were mainly testing the expertise in the individual texts of the Four Books and the Five Classics, but before the end of the 18th century, there were also specialized questions going beyond the texts and their interpretation. Yet in 1788 the Qianlong Emperor 乾隆 (r. 1735-1796) decided that questions on one single text would not be sufficient to test whether candidates had really understood the meaning of the Classics corpus, and the examination was therefore organized in a new way. Questions were then compiled according to a prescribed pattern, testing the knowledge of the text and the exegis of the five disciplines (wuke 五科) or books Shijing 詩經, Shangshu 尚書, Yijing 易經, Liji 禮記 and Chunqiu 春秋. The second session was also focusing on the texts of the Classics, while the earlier test on writing an essay was abolished. The quota of graduates in each province was different and changed over time. Like before, there was also a principle list of graduates (zhengbang 正榜), and an additional one (fubang 副榜) listing graduates out of the quota. Graduates were called candidates (juren 舉人), and the primus was given the title "with highest honours" (jieyuan 解元).

The metropolitan exam was organized by the Ministry of Rites, and was therefore also called "the gate of the Rites" (liwei 禮闈). In the early Qing the date of the metropolitan exam was the 2nd lunar month, from the mid-Qing on the 3rd month. The curriculum to be studied, and the questions asked, drew from the same textual basis. The chief examiner was called Director-General (zongcai 總裁). He and the assistant examiners were dispatched on imperial order from the Ministry of Rites. Once their appointment was known, they were sent to the examination compound and had to take over organization, without contact to the "outer world". There was no fix quota for the number of graduates of the metropolitan exam. This highest number ever was reached in 1730, with 406 graduates. The lowest number was 96, reached in 1789. Graduates were given the title of passed scholar (gongshi 貢士), and the first one was named huiyuan 會元. The emperor had the prerogative to arrange the name order (mingci 名次) of the ten best graduates.

The palace examination was held on the 21st day of the 4th lunar month. It consisted of a series of questions on the Classics, history, or current affairs. The scripts (juanshi 試卷) were collected, sealed and handed over to the palace examiners (dujuanguan 讀卷官) for gradation. The scripts of the ten best results were handed over to the emperor, who then in person decided over the name order. This finished, the final list (dianbang 填榜) was compiled. The day after the completion of the final list, the emperor in person presided the graduation ceremony (chuanlu dadian 傳臚大典) in the Hall of the Utmost Harmony (Taihedian 太和殿) in the Imperial City. The ceremony was attended by all princes and nobles, the highest state officials, and also all appointees (gongshi). The emperor then announced the results of the exam. The three best, having the first rank (yijia 一甲) were given the titles of zhuangyuan 狀元, bangyan 榜眼, and tanhua 探花, and the grade of metropolitan graduate with honours (jinshi jidi 進士及第). Graduates (zhong shi zhe 中試者) of the second rank (erjia 二甲) obtained the grade of regular metropolitan graduate (jinshi chushen 進士出身), and that of the third rank (sanjia 三甲) that of associate metropolitan graduates (tong jinshi chushen 同進士出身).

When the ceremony was over, the graduates took part in a court examination (chaokao 朝考) in the Hall of the Preservation of Harmony (Baohedian 保和殿), and were asked questions formulated by the emperor himself, and asked to compile an essay (lun 論), a memorial (shu 疏), and a poem (shi 詩). The test scripts (shijuan 試卷) were collected on the same day and rated by a Grand Minister Examiner (yuejuan dachen 閱卷大臣), who ranked the examinees in three grades. The ten best were listed, and their name order again determined by the emperor. The best was given the title of chaoyuan 朝元. The jinshi jidi graduates were directly appointed to an office: The zhuangyuan was made senior compiler (xiuzhuan) in the Hanlin Academy, the bangyan and tanhua junior compilers (bianxiu). The others were ranked according to their results in a repeated examination (fushi 復試), and in the palace or court examintion, and appointed to offices like Hanlin bachelor (shujishi 庶吉士), secretaries (zhushi 主事, zhongshu 中書), messengers (xingren 行人) in the Ministry of Rites, case reviewers (pingshi 評事), erudites (boshi 博士) prefectural judges (tuiguan 推官), prefects (zhizhou 知州) or district magistrates (zhixian 知縣). All others were made appointees for the office of district magistrate (zhixian guiban 知縣歸班).

The literary form of the examinee's answers was the eight-legged essay (bagu wen 八股文), and the questions were based on a fix canon, the Four Books (sishu 四書) and the Five Classics (wujing 五經), with a focus on the former. In addition to these, the curriculum for the preparation to the exams included certain commentaries, namely that of Zhu Xi on the Four Books (see Sishu zhangju jizhu 四書章句集注), that of Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi on the Yijing, Cai Shen's 蔡沈 (1167-1230) commentary on the Shangshu (Shujing jizhuan 書經集傳), Zhu Xi's comments on the Shijing 詩, Hu Anguo's 胡安國 (1074-1138) on the Chunqiu, and Chen Hao's 陳澔 (1260-1341) collected commentaries on the Liji. In the mid-Qing period, the Chunqiu text was replaced by the Zhuozhuan 左傳 and the commentaries Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 and Guliangzhuan 穀梁傳. The curriculum was changed in 1901. The provincial and metropolitan examinations tested thereafter knowledge in political history during the first session, the government structure of foreign countries in the second, and the Classics only in the third session. The pressure for thorough reform became stronger and stronger. In 1905, after critical suggestions by Liu Kunyi 劉坤一 (1830-1902) and Zhang Zhidong 張之洞 (1837-1909), the reigning Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后 (1835-1908) proclaimed the end of the traditional examination system.

The design of the military examination (wuke 武科) imitated the civilian one (wenke 文科). There were likewise four levels, all of them organized every three years. The first session (touchang 頭場) of the apprentice examination tested mounted achery (mashe 馬射), the second one shooting on foot (bushe 步射), and the third one theoretical knowledge in the early years of the Qing, and then required the compilation of an essay called "military classic" (wujing 武經). Graduates were called military students (wusheng 武生), and the best ones could participate in the provincial military exam in the 10th month of every third year. Graduates were given the title of military candidates (wu juren 武舉人) and were sent to the metropolitan military exam in the 9th month of the following year. Metropolitan military graduates (wu jinshi 武進士) were one month later participating in the palace military examination. They were tested theoretically in the Hall of the Utmost Harmony (Taihedian), and performed their skills in archery and other weapons in the Western Park 西苑 (today Zhongnanhai 中南海). The emperor in person then arranged the order of success, and it was proclaimed in a graduation ceremony. The three best ones (rank one, yijia 一甲) were given the title metropolitan military graduate with honours (wu jinshi jidi 武進士及第), rank-two graduates (erjia 二甲) that of regular metropolitan military graduate (wu jinshi chushen 武進士出身), and third-rank graduates (sanjia) that of associate metropolitan military graduate (tong wu jinshi chushen 同武進士出身). In addition to that, the three best were granted the names of wu zhuangyuan 武狀元, wu bangyan 武榜眼, and wu tanhua 武探花. The rules of the military examination were more elaborate during the Qing than ever before. Yet because the Qing had a professional military class with the Eight Banners (baqi 八旗) and the Green Standards (lüying 綠營), both with their own rules of promotion, the military examination had not a great importance. It was abolished in 1901.

Extraordinary examinations "on imperial order" (zhike 制科) were carried out from time to time, yet they were restricted to exams yielding extraordinary recommendations, namely that for erudites literati (boxue hongci ke 博學宏詞科), the filial, incorrupt, straightforward and upright (xiaolian fangzheng ke 孝廉方正科, only on accession to the throne) or guaranteed recommendation for eruditeness in the Classics (baoju jingxue 保舉經學, only local). There were examinations decreed during imperial inspection tours (xunxing zhaoshi 巡幸召試, only local), and in 1901 also extraordinary examinations for experts in statecraft (jingji teke 經濟特科). Extrordinary exams were commonly proclaimed by the emperor and organized by ministerial and local personnel. Candidates then travelled to the capital to undergo the tests, answering questions to current affairs or writings poems and rhapsodies. Graduates might obtain minor posts in the local administration.

Thoroughly novel were translation examinations (fanyike 翻譯科). They were designed for young men from the Eight Banners who were not given a military post ("sons and brothers", zidi 子弟, of persons with a post). Manchus, Mongols and Chinese Bannermen were allowed to participate in the Manchu examination (Manzhou fanyi 滿洲翻譯), while the Mongolian examination (Menggu fanyi 蒙古翻譯) was restricted to Mongol Bannermen. The term "translation" did not mean that they became professional translators, but that they were tested in the Manchu or Mongol versions of the Four Books and the Five Classics, and only a minor part of the exam consisted of a translation to do, from Chinese into Manchu or Mongolian, respectively. The exam was held on three levels, but there was no palace examination. The quota on the provincial level was 33 persons for the Manchu, and 9 for the Mongolian examination in the high Qing period, yet it declined and was but 7 and 3 persons, respectively, in 1828, and 4 and 1 in 1837. In 1840 the Mongolian exam was abolished because there were only 6 candidates. Graduates of the metropolitan translation examination were all given the title of regular metropolitan translation graduate (fanyi jinshi chushen 翻譯進士出身), without further gradation or extraordinary designations. Yet excellent graduates of the Manchu exam were directly appointed secretaries (zhushi 主事) in one of the Six Ministries, those of the Mongol one were commonly made officials in the Court of Colonial Affairs (lifanyuan 理藩院).

Ru Lin 如雷, Zhu Ruixi 朱瑞熙, Yao Dali 姚大力, Yang Zuxi 楊祖希, and Wang Daocheng 王道成 (1992). "Kejuzhi 科舉制", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 527.
Xu Chusheng 許椿生 (1992). "Keju zhidu 科舉制度", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Jiaoyu 教育 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 202.

Further reading:
Elman, Benjamin (2000). A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).
Lui, Adam Yuen-Chung (1974). "Syllabus of the Provincial Examination (hsiang-shih) under the Early Ch'ing (1644-1795)", Modern Asian Studies, 8/3: 391-396.
Chafee, John (1995). The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China (Albany: State University of New York Press).
Franke, Wolfgang (1968). The Reform and Abolition of the Traditional Chinese Examination System (Cambridge, MA: East Asian Research Center).
Gilbert, S.R. (2009). "Mengzi's Art of War: The Kangxi Emperor Reforms the Qing Military Examination", in Nicola di Cosmo, ed. Military Culture in Imperial China (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press), 243-256.
Ho, Ping-Ti (1962). The Ladder of Success in Imperial China Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368-1911 (New York: Columbia University Press).
Kracke, E. A., Jr. (1967). "Region, Family, and Individual in the Chinese Examination System", in John K. Fairbank, ed. Chinese Thoughts and Institutions (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press). [1957]
Lee, Thomas H.C. (1985). Government Education and Examinations in Sung China (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press/New York: St. Martin's Press).
Liu, Haifeng (2007). "The Influence of China's Imperial Examinations on Japan, Korea and Vietnam", Frontiers of History in China, 2/4: 493-512.
Liu Haifeng 劉海峰, Li Bing 李兵 (2006). Zhongguo keju shi 中國科舉史 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin).
Liu Zhaobin 劉兆殯 (1977). Qingdai keju 清代科舉 (Xianggang: Dongda tushu gongsi).
Man-Cheong, Iona (2004). The Class of 1761: Examinations, the State and Elites in Eighteenth-Century China (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
Miyazaki Ichisada, transl. by Conrad Schirokauer (1976). China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China (New York: Weatherhill).
Ren Lida 任立達, Xue Xihong 薛希洪 (2003). "Zhongguo gudai guanli kaoxuan zhidu shi 中國古代官吏考選制度史" (Qingdao: Qingdao chubanshe). XXX
Teng, Ssu-yu (1942). "Chinese Influence on the Western Examination System", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 7: 267-312.
Wang, Rui (2013). The Chinese Imperial Examination System : An Annotated Bibliography (Lanham: Scarecrow).
Zi (Siu), Etienne (1896). Pratique des examens militaires en Chine (Chang-Hai: Imprimerie de la mission catholique à l'orphelinat de T'ou-sé-wè).