Jinshi 進士 "presented scholar" was a title conferred upon graduates of the metropolitan and the palace state examinations. It was the prerequisite for a career in public service.
The word is first used in the chapter Wangzhi 王制 of the Confucian Classic Liji 禮記, where it is said that the Grand Director of Music (dayue 大樂), having fully considered who were the most promising of the "completed scholars" (zaoshi 造士), reported them to the king, after which they were advanced to be under the Minister of War (sima 司馬), and called "scholars ready for employment" (jinshi)(transl. James Legge). The great Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) scholar Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200) remarks that such a "scholar" was a person fit for rank and salary (juelu 爵祿).
Emperor Yang 隋煬帝 (r. 604-617) of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) introduced the term jinshi for use as a degree (kemu 科目) in the state examinations. The jinshi examination (jinshi ke 進士科) was also called wencai xiuming ke 文才秀美科 "examination of literary talent and refined beauty".
During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) it was expected of examinees (ju jinshi 舉進士) to write poems, rhapsodies (fu 賦), an essay including five short answers to questions about contemporary affairs (shiwu cewen 時務策問), and to interpret a phrase (tie jing 帖經) from one of the "greater" Classics (dajing 大經) Liji and Chunqiu-Zuozhuan 春秋左傳.
Examinees excelling in all parts were given the successful grade (cheng jinshi 成進士) with honours (jiadi 甲第) and were appointed to an office of rank 9A, those excelling in all but the Classics a regular grade (yidi 乙第) and obtained an office of rank 9B. The jinshi examination was highly estimated, to such a degree that even candidates were called jinshi, while graduates (dengdi zhe 登第者) were allowed to call themselves qianjinshi 前進士 "advanced scholars". Emperor Gaozong 唐高宗 (r. 649-683) added the composition of a prose essay (zawen 雜文) as a requirement, but poems and rhapsodies were still held in high esteem. The questions on poems, rhapsodies, and contemporary matters were from time to time replaced by the requirement to compile certain types of administrative texts, like adhortations (zhen 箴), discussions (lun 論), memorials to the throne (biao 表) or eulogies (zan 贊).
Emperor Taizong 宋太宗 (r. 976-997) of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) introduced in 983 the use of five different ranks for jinshi (wujia 五甲): Graduates of the first rank (yi jia) were given the title of metropolitan graduate with honours (jinshi jidi 進士及第) and obtained the prestigious title of gentleman-litterateur (wenlin lang 文林郎), such of the second rank a honorary title of gentleman for attendance (congshi lang 從事郎). Graduates of the third and fourth rank were given the title regular metropolitan graduate (jinshi chushen 進士出身), that of the fifth rank associate metropolitan graduate (tong jinshi chushen 同進士出身). During the Xining reign-period 熙寧 (1068-1077) the classicist examination (mingjing 明經) was abolished, and the jinshi examination gained importance. It tested the examinees' ability to interpret the Classics, write an essay (lun), or an argument on contemporary matters (ce 策). For some time the examination also included an interpretation of the Classics in a certain style (moyi 墨義). The tiejing 貼經 method, by which the examinee was shown a paragraph from a Classic and had to recite the surrounding text, was abolished in 1069. In 1089 the examination was divided into a poetry track with the grade of "poetry graduate" (shifu jinshi 詩賦進士) and a Classics track, with the grade of "Classics graduate" (jingyi jinshi 經義進士). In 1094 poems and rhapsodies were eliminated from the range of questions, but reintroduced during the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279).
Under the Liao 遼 (907-1125), Jin 金 (1115-1234) and Yuan 元 (1279-1368) dynasties, provincial graduates were allowed to take part in the metropolitan examination (huikao 會考), which was organized by the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部). Having passed the examination, they were allowed to take part in the palace examination (dianshi 殿試), in order to establish a ranking list (mingci 名次). Palace graduates with honours (yijia 一甲) obtained an office of rank 6B, regular graduates (erjia 二甲) one of rank 7A, and associate graduates (sanjia 三甲) one of rank 8A. Step by step the foreign dynasties allowed their own people to participate in the Chinese-style examination, so also Kitans and Jurchens could obtain the jinshi degree. The Jurchens introduced in 1171 a separate examination for their own people, the Nüzhi jinshi ke 女直進士科, written in Jurchen language. At first it just included an essay on contemporary matters (ce), later also a discussion (lun). Chinese subjects in the Jin empire could choose between a poetry-and-rhapsody examination (cifu ke 詞賦科), which required composition also of essays, and the Classics examination (jingyi ke 經義科), in which no poems were required. The Mongols created a "right list" (youbang 右榜) for Mongols and Semuren 色目人 (mainly Central Asians), the examination for which was easier than that for the "left list" (zuobang 左榜) of the Chinese. The Chinese examination allowed three tracks, one for Classics (jingyi ke), one for essays (lun ke 論科), and one for poetry (cifu ke). Examinees having failed to pass the metropolitan examination (luodi 落第) were called "presented scholars as tribute by the province" (xianggong jinshi 鄉貢進士).
The Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) dynasties followed these precedents, but only the passing of the palace examination allowed bearing the title (dengke 登科) of jinshi. Graduates having just passed the metropolitan examination were called recommendees having participated in the metropolitan examination (huishi zhongshi juren 會試中式舉人 or juren huishi zhongshi 舉人會試中式), or just "passed scholar" (gongshi 貢士).
The three best ones (rank one, yijia 一甲) were given the title metropolitan graduate with honours (jinshi jidi), rank-two graduates (erjia 二甲) that of regular metropolitan graduate (jinshi chushen), and third-rank graduates (sanjia) that of associate metropolitan graduate (tong jinshi chushen). In addition to that, the three best were granted the names of zhuangyuan 狀元, bangyan 榜眼, and tanhua 探花. Zhuangyuan were directly appointed senior compilers (xiuzhuan 修撰) in the Hanlin Academy 翰林官, while bangyan and tanhua were appointed junior compilers (bianxiu 編修) or examining editors (jiantao 檢討). The others were ranked according to their results in a repeated examination (fushi 復試) as part of the the palace or court examintion, and could be 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).
Many jinshi graduates rose to high offices, for which reason the examination was also called that for "generals and counsellors" (jiangxiang ke 將相科). The importance of the jinshi examination is already highlighted in the Tang period book Tang zhiyan 唐摭言, where it is said that even if members of the gentry (shenshi 縉紳) were eminent persons, they were not esteemed as admirable (mei 美), if not having passed the jinshi examination.