Xiucai 秀才 "cultivated talent" was a title bestowed on graduates of a certain examination in the state examination system that was created during the Sui 隋 (581-618) and Tang 唐 (618-907) periods. The term itself means that one's talents were outstanding. It first appears in the book Guanzi 管子 (ch. Xiaokuang 小匡).
The xiucai examination was invented during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) decreed that in each province (zhou 州) one "cultivated talent" was to be presented annually which was then to be examined and appointed to a post in the state administration. In the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) the title was called maocai 茂才 "flourishing talent", in order to avoid the personal name of the dynastic founder, Liu Xiu 劉秀 (Emperor Guangwu 光武帝, r. 25-57 CE). The system was inherited by the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420-589), and became one of the wide range of examination types (kemu 科目) created by the Sui.
The xiucai examination was one of the most important ones, apart from the classicist examination (mingjing 明經) and that for "presented scholars" (jinshi 進士). Examinees of the xiucai examination were to write an essay about matters of statecraft or the corpus of the Confucian Classics, with five parts (cewen 策問). There were four grades (A1 上上, A2 上中, A3 上下, and C1 中上), according to which the graduates were ranked when passing the examination (jidi 及第).
Successful candidates were appointed to minor official posts (8A, 8B, each according to his grade). During the whole Sui period, there were no more than 10 graduates, and during the early Tang period, the annual amount of graduates was but one or two persons. Emperor Taizong 唐太宗 (r. 626-649) introduced the rule that for those not succeeding in the examination, the head of their prefecture (zhouzhang 州長) was to be punished. This rule was abolished in 651.
During the Song period 宋 (960-1279) the term xiucai was widely used as a general title for graduates of the state examination. In the early Ming period 明 (1368-1644), it was still used as an official title for graduates working in the local administration, or for government students (shengyuan 生員) of the preparatory district and prefectural examinations. Yet officially, the grade of xiucai was obsolete after the Song.