Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Imperial Examination

Imperial Examination

Have you ever heard the adage, “It's not what you know, but who you know?” It turns out that in imperial China, this was largely untrue. The imperial Chinese civil service exam ensured that future government workers were assigned positions based on merit instead of personal connections. Keep reading to learn about the long history of the civil service exam, how it was adapted over time, and how it influenced imperial society.

Photo of Xu Yang Examination Hall. Revival of Civil Service Exam. StudySmarter.Fig. 1: Photo of Xu Yang Examination Hall

Imperial Examination Meaning

Imperial examinations refer to civil service exams, which are tests many governments have relied on to find well-qualified employees.

Civil Service Exam

A civil service exam is a test one must take to get a job in the civil service

Civil Service:

The administrative section of a government

In ancient and imperial China, civil service exams were given to young men to become part of the government bureaucracy.

Did you know? Civil service exams were given to young men of all economic backgrounds, giving men of all social classes an opportunity to join the government.

Imperial Examination Purpose

Imperial China's civil service exams had a straightforward purpose-to help find well-qualified individuals to participate in the regime that governed China.

Chinese Confucian Civil Service Exam. Revival of Civil Service Exam. StudySmarter.  Lucky Coin.. Fig. 2: Chinese Confucian Civil Service Exam Lucky Coin.

Imperial Examination History

Chinese civil service exams have a lengthy history. These exams have been in place for a thousand years and are thought to be one of the main reasons education is prized in Chinese culture today.

Imperial Examination History

Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)

  • The beginning of Civil Service Exams.

  • The Han established an imperial academy around 124 BCE to educate future civil servants.

  • The imperial academy required its students to study Confucian and Taoist ideas.

  • The imperial academy prepared tens of thousands of students a year.

The Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE)

  • The Sui Dynasty continued the tradition of the civil service exam.

  • The Sui Dynasty emphasized a potential candidate's social class and the class of those who recommended the candidate.

  • By the end, people began to see that the candidate's abilities, as demonstrated by their performance on the exam, were the most important.

  • The exams given by the Sui dynasty used a combination of questions evaluating a candidate's knowledge of government, classic literature, and Confucianism.

The Tang Dynasty (618-626 CE)

  • The Tang Dynasty continued using a civil service examination to source the best-qualified candidates for government positions.

  • The civil service exam changed under the Tang Dynasty. The test examined a candidate's capacity for public speaking, calligraphy, and writing skills.

  • The civil service exam also tested a candidate's knowledge of classic literature, poetry, law, and math.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279)

  • The civil service exam was modified to meet the high demand for testing opportunities.
  • The Song Dynasty began giving a pretest to determine who would qualify for the civil service exam. Those who did well would move on to the annual exam.
  • The annual exam would attract thousands of participants, with just a few candidates passing the exam. The handful that did give would go on to a third exam.
  • The third exam would take several days to complete. Sometimes the exam was proctored by the emperor himself.

The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE)

  • The Mongols ruled China during the Yuan dynasty.
  • The Mongol government initially canceled civil service exams. When they were revived, there was an added stipulation regarding quotas, limiting how many men of a particular ethnicity were allowed to participate.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

  • The Ming dynasty improved the exam by establishing a quota system based on geography instead of ethnicity.

  • The Ming also moved to administer the exam every three years rather than every year.

  • The number of interested applicants grew significantly during this time, but only a low percentage of candidates passed the exam.

  • The Ming exam changed to include some ideas of Neo-Confucianism. The exams also became longer and more complex, with essay portions appearing on the exams.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 CE)


  • The Qing dynasty was the last imperial dynasty to use the civil service exam.

Confucianism

a philosophical theory developed from the thoughts of Confucius; it promotes loyalty and treating others well

Taoism

a philosophical theory developed from the ideas of Lao Tzu; it promotes simplicity and living in agreement with nature

Neo-Confucianism

the revival of Confucian teachings, emphasizing individual will, the will of the universe, and the virtue of Confucian teachings

Imperial Examination Qing Dynasty

The Qing dynasty made the exams more complicated as well. They added an exam for younger boys, which had to be taken before participating in the regional pretest. The Qing dynasty also implemented another exam, taken after the third exam, which was given in the capital.

The Qing dynasty eliminated the exam in the early 1900s.

Qing Paper of Imperial Exam. Revival of Civil Service Exam. StudySmarter. Fig. 3: Qing Paper of Imperial Exam.

Imperial Examination System

The imperial civil service exam had multiple levels and was known for being difficult to pass. Those who wanted to be successful on the test had extensive knowledge of Confucian ideals, government, and law.

The civil service exam system provided intelligent and well-qualified candidates. If they were selected for a position within the bureaucracy, they were selected based on their merit.

Under the Tang Dynasty, civil service exams were facilitated by the Board of Civil Office and later the Board of Rites.

Did you know? During the Tang dynasty, young men who wanted to take the civil service exam had to present themselves as worthy of a bureaucratic position. This barred young men who were actors, criminals, or enslaved from taking the exam.

The Song Dynasty worked to eliminate corruption and bias in the testing system. Officials implemented some new tactics to combat cheating and other poor behavior. These included copying penmanship styles, assigning participants numbers instead of using their names, and masking the identity of those who graded the exams.

The Yuan dynasty capped how many people of a particular ethnicity could take the exam. In contrast, the Ming dynasty limited how many people from a geographic region could take the exam. This was done to create equity and prevent the wealthier parts from taking all the available positions.

Did you know? Under the Yuan dynasty, only 25% of Han men were allowed to sit for a civil service exam.

A move towards equity wasn't the only significant change the Ming made. They changed the frequency that the exam was given. It had once been an annual examination, but under the Ming, it was given every three years. There was originally no limit to how many men could participate. Eventually, the number of interested participants grew too large, and the government had to limit how many candidates could participate.

The Qing added two exams to the civil service process. There was one for young boys, which qualified them for taking the regional pretest. The other was added at the very end of the process.

Imperial Examination Influence

The imperial civil service exam had a significant impact on Chinese society. One way it impacted culture was that, through the exam process, the idea that one's ability was more important than one's background.

It also showed men that they did not have to have the same life path as their fathers.

The imperial civil service exam provided limited opportunity for the movement to a higher social class. While there were often limited opportunities to test, and a man had to have at least a primary education to be successful, it allowed some lucky men to move upward on the social ladder.

The emphasis on merit rather than connections diminished the power of the hereditary aristocracy. It also reduced government corruption, as aristocrats had to employ those who did well on the civil service exams instead of people who had influential connections.

It is thought that the exam prevented progress in some ways, one of which is that the test only assessed one's knowledge of the humanities. The test did not evaluate their math, science, or engineering knowledge.

Many historians suggest that the civil service exam greatly improved social mobility in imperial China. Others look at the civil service exam and see it as a way of continually reproducing loyal officials. Let's take a look at why.

Imperial China used education as a means of maintaining public order. It allowed schools to keep turning out loyal officials well-versed in Confucian ideals. As long as schools continued to churn out students qualified to take the exam, the imperial government would continue to support the schools. A Confucian education would lead to the types of employees needed to further the government's agenda.

Anyone who could afford the civil service exam wanted to; there was a certain sense of prestige connected to becoming a government official. However, participating in the exam and passing the exam are two different ideas.

Those who passed were almost guaranteed a job, but things like a participant's ranking would determine what they would do and how much they would make.

In the beginning, the Song dynasty's civil service exam system did help transition the government from an aristocracy to a meritocracy. This was not the case for later dynasties. Many of these no longer wanted to utilize education to change society. They wanted education to reinforce the ideals that the government thought were critical.

This was significant because it led to the government being able to produce both the types of officials and the types of elite members of society it wanted

Remember, the men who participated in the civil service exam did so to ensure their success. Men who were artisans or peasants usually could not do well on the exam. When the exam tested their reading and writing capacity, it looked to see if they could do it in a different dialect. Unless you had a specific type of Confucian education, you weren't successful on this part of the exam.

Those who could achieve the special status of being one who passed the civil service exam were referred to as the gentry. As the group gentry became more extensive, they became their own cultural group. They had a specific education and a specific set of skills. If you were a boy born into a gentry family, you had the advantage of passing the civil service exam later. This demonstrates the argument that the exam didn't increase social mobility; it only reproduced the traits the government wanted in its future officials.

What do you think? Do you agree that the exam was purely to increase social mobility, or was it to create a specific type of government official?

Revival of Civil Service Exam(China) - Key takeaways

  • Imperial examinations refer to civil service exams, which are tests many governments have relied on to find well-qualified employees.
  • Civil service exams appeared under the Han dynasty and evolved for hundreds of years.
  • The imperial exam was abandoned in the early 1900s.
  • The imperial civil service exam impacted imperial society in many ways. The exam demonstrated that one's ability was more important than one's background. The imperial civil service exam provided limited opportunity for the movement to a higher social class. The emphasis on merit rather than connections diminished the power of the hereditary aristocracy. It also reduced government corruption.

Frequently Asked Questions about Imperial Examination

In ancient and imperial China, civil service exams were given to young men so they could become part of the government bureaucracy.

 The Chinese imperial service exam was an assessment of one's knowledge to see if the man who took it was knowledgeable enough to join the Chinese bureaucracy. 

The administrative section of a government.

Civil service exams were given to young men of all economic backgrounds, giving men of all social classes an opportunity to join the government. They provided an opportunity for men to move upwards toward a different social class, although it was difficult for those with limited resources to pass the exam. 

It is thought that the exam prevented progress in some ways, one of which is that the test only assessed one's knowledge of the humanities. The test did not assess their knowledge of math, science, or engineering.

Final Imperial Examination Quiz

Question

A civil _____ ____ is a test one must take to get a job in the civil service

Show answer

Answer

service exam

Show question

Question

_____ _____ describes the 

administrative section of a government

 

Show answer

Answer

civil service

Show question

Question

True or false: In ancient and imperial China, civil service exams were given to young men and women so they could become part of the government bureaucracy.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or false: Civil service exams were only given to young men and women in the highest social class.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false: Civil service exams were given to young men of all economic backgrounds, giving men of all social classes an opportunity to join the government. 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Which of the following are true of civil service exams? 

Show answer

Answer

They have been in place for thousands of years.

Show question

Question

Which of the following are true about civil service exams under the Han Dynasty?

Show answer

Answer

Civil service exams began under the Han Dynasty. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following are true about civil service exams under the Song Dynasty?

Show answer

Answer

The civil service exam was modified to meet the high demand for testing opportunities.

Show question

Question

Which of the following are true about civil service exams under the Ming Dynasty?

Show answer

Answer

The Ming dynasty established a quota system that was based on geography instead of ethnicity. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following are true about civil service exam system? 

Show answer

Answer

The imperial civil service exam had multiple levels and was known for being difficult to pass. 

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Imperial Examination quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.