a history of more than 1300 years—from 587 AD to their abolition in
civil service examinations occupy an important place in world history.
governing class, by extension—should be selected through competitive
written examinations originated in China, and only in modern times was
elsewhere. Antecedents to the examination system did exist in China, most
practice during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 AD) of testing men
of outstanding virtue and worthiness who had been recommended by their
it was the
founding emperor of the Sui Dynasty (581-617 AD) who initiated written
competitive testing and thereby institutionalizing the civil service
During the Song Dynasty, the examinations underwent a series of major transformations.
In the late tenth century, the number of degrees awarded was increased dramatically,
making the examinations the single most important source of recruitment into
the civil service. Local qualifying examinations were instituted, primarily at
the prefectural level, and also a final palace examination, so that candidates
thereafter had to undergo three levels of examination: prefectural, departmental
(an examination at the capital administered by the Board of Rites), and the palace
examination. In the mid-eleventh century, the periodicity of examination was
regularized to one cycle every three years, and the multiple degrees were dropped,
so that only the jinshi (“advanced scholar”) degree was awarded. Thus,
an empire-wide system with its own complex set of rules, practices,
public spaces (prefectural examination halls became common during the Southern
Song) was created.
Diagram of an examination hall from The Thorny Gates.
The examinations underwent continued evolution after the Song Dynasty
hiatus during the early decades of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), and even
were revived in 1315, degree numbers were kept low and many spots were reserved
for Mongols. Examinations again flourished during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)
and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). Three levels of examination were added,
so that candidates had to pass a total of six examinations to achieve the jinshi degree.
In most respects, however, the late imperial examinations were quite similar
of the Song Dynasty.
For a broader perspective
on the civil service examination, check