The Examination System
- LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0078
- LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0078
The examination system, also known as “civil service examinations” or “imperial examinations”—and, in Chinese, as keju 科舉, keju zhidu 科舉制度, gongju 貢舉, xuanju 選舉 or zhiju 制舉—was the imperial Chinese bureaucracy’s central institution for recruiting its officials. Following both real and idealized models from previous times, the system was established at the beginning of the 7th century CE evolving over several dynasties into a complex institution that prevailed for 1,300 years before its abolition in 1905. One of the system’s most salient features, especially in the late imperial period (1400–1900), was its meritocratic structure (at least in principle, if not necessarily in practice): almost anyone from among the empire’s male population could sit for the examinations. Moreover, candidates were selected based on their performance rather than their pedigree. In order to be accessible to candidates anywhere in the empire, the system’s infrastructure spanned the entire territory. In a long sequence of triennial qualifying examinations at the local, provincial, metropolitan, and palace levels candidates were mainly required to write rhetorically complicated essays elucidating passages from the Confucian canon. Most candidates failed at each level, and only a couple of hundred out of a million or often more examinees attained final examination success at the metropolitan and palace levels. Due to its accessibility and ubiquity, the examination system had a decisive impact on the intellectual and social landscapes of imperial China. This impact was reinforced by the rule that candidates were allowed to retake examinations as often as they needed to in order to reach the next level. It was therefore not uncommon for individuals in imperial China to spend the great part of their lives, occasionally even until their last breath, sitting for the competitions. Indeed the extant sources reveal, by their sheer quantity alone, that large parts of the population, not only aspiring candidates, were in fact obsessed with the civil service examinations in the same way that modern societies are fascinated by sports leagues. To a great extent, it was this obsession, along with the system’s centripetal force constantly pulling the population in the different regions toward the political center in the capital, which may have held the large territory of imperial China together, providing it with both coherence and cohesion. Modern Historiography has tended to have a negative view of the examination system, singling it out, and specifically its predominantly literary curriculum, as the major cause for traditional Chinese society’s failure to develop into a modern nation with a strong scientific and technological tradition of its own. In the late 20th and early 21st century, this paradigm has become gradually more nuanced as historians have begun to develop new ways of approaching the extant sources, in particular the large number of examination essays and aids.
This section addresses readers who have little or no knowledge of the examination system and need both readable and reliable introductions to the subject. These works tend to highlight and describe extensively the Qing civil examinations during the 19th century, thus often creating among readers the impression that the system worked more or less the same in previous periods. While this was clearly not so, it is undeniable that no period in the long history of the civil examinations happens to be as well documented as the 19th century. Readers who desire to obtain a historically more nuanced sense of the system are referred to the sections General Overviews and Overviews by Period. Another problem with introductory works concerns the ideal balance between information and narration. Miyazaki 1981 and especially Jackson and Hugus 1999 are focused on telling a good story rather than providing copious evidence in dense footnotes. By contrast, Wilkinson 2012 and Zi 1894 are overtly technical, requiring a slow reading pace. The best way to strike a balance is to combine both approaches by, ideally, pairing Jackson and Hugus 1999 and Wilkinson 2012. A problem that concerns Wang 1988, Qi 2006, and Li 2010, all introductory works written by Chinese scholars in Chinese, is that they often quote passages from original Primary Sources in classical Chinese without providing a modern Chinese translation. One way to access these passages linguistically is to work directly with the literature cited under Terminological Issues. Finally, even though often neglected, the examination system also included a military branch, of which Zi 1896 provides the most readable account. Compared to their civil counterparts, the military competitions were of minimal significance, but they often served as a platform to obliquely move up the civil examination ladder.
Jackson, Beverley, and David Hugus. Ladder to the Clouds: Intrigue and Tradition in Chinese Rank. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed, 1999.
Follows the trajectory of a late Qing examination candidate from his birth to his official position. Even though often leaning toward the fictitious, it is definitely a good read and one of the best illustrated books about the late imperial examination system and officialdom.
Li Bing李兵. Qiannian keju (千年科举). Changsha, China: Yuelu shushe, 2010.
Written in a rather colloquial and therefore accessible style, this well-illustrated book by a renowned expert of the examination system gives answers to questions most frequently asked about this topic, such as whether women were allowed to sit for the examinations. Has a good and sizable list of further readings.
Miyazaki, Ichisada. China’s Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China. Translated by Conrad Shirokauer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.
Originally published in 1963 in a longer and more academic version, this is a popular work by one of the most prominent Japanese scholars of the examination system. Packed with vivid anecdotes, this brief and captivating text describes all examination tiers. It is focused on the circumstances of the late Qing period, albeit not always explicitly.
Qi Rushan 齐如山. Zhongguo de keming (中国的科名). Shenyang, China: Liaoning Jiaoyu chubanshe, 2006.
Originally published in Taipei in 1956, this is a very accessible introduction arranged according to key terms used at the examinations.
Wang Daocheng 王道成. Keju shihua (科举史话). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1988.
This is a short, easy to read, yet very informative introduction to the topic by a leading expert. While mainly focused on describing the Qing period, it also devotes a chapter to the system’s history. Has a very valuable appendix containing samples of all Qing examination genres. There are several books with an identical title, so make sure to use the one authored by Wang Daocheng.
Wilkinson, Endymion. Chinese History: A New Manual. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012.
Chapter 22 “Education and Examinations” (pp. 292–304) of this monumental work contains a systematic introduction to the structure and curriculum of the late imperial examination system. Has also a section on primary and secondary sources. There are several editions of this manual; the 2012 version is the one you should use.
Zi, Étienne. Pratique des examens littéraires en Chine. Shanghai: Imprimerie de la Mission Catholique, 1894.
This is the most thorough and reliable description of the late Qing examination system. Has a copious amount of high-quality illustrations, which have been recycled in many other publications. Even though this book is now available online, try to use the original edition if you want to consult or reproduce the illustrative material, in particular the large-scale map of the Jiangnan examination compound. Also available in a 1971 reprint (Taipei: Chengwen, 1971).
Zi, Étienne. Pratique des examens militaires en Chine. Shanghai: Imprimerie de la Mission Catholique, 1896.
This is the best account of the late Qing military examination system available in any language. Describes all tiers and provides samples of examination topics. Richly illustrated, it also includes images of the weaponry used for testing the military candidates. Like the previous text, available in a 1971 reprint (Taipei: Chengwen, 1971).
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