Background
• INTRODUCTION
• WHAT IS THIS THING?
• ABOUT THE GENRE
 
Content
• HOW TO READ IT
• HISTORY
• GLOBAL CONTEXT
• SOCIAL FUNCTION
• CRITICAL ASSESSMENT
• NOW AND THEN
 
References 
• BIOGRAPHIES
• BIBLIOGRAPHY
• Link to: OVERVIEW
  OF CHINESE HISTORY
 
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Civil Service Examination System in China

HISTORY

With a history of more than 1300 years—from 587 AD to their abolition in 1905—China’s civil service examinations occupy an important place in world history. The idea that a country’s officials—and governing class, by extension—should be selected through competitive written examinations originated in China, and only in modern times was it used elsewhere. Antecedents to the examination system did exist in China, most notably a practice during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 AD) of testing men of outstanding virtue and worthiness who had been recommended by their localities, but it was the founding emperor of the Sui Dynasty (581-617 AD) who initiated written competitive testing and thereby institutionalizing the civil service examinations.


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, and even public spaces (prefectural examination halls became common during the Southern Song) was created.




Diagram of an examination hall from The Thorny Gates.
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The examinations underwent continued evolution after the Song Dynasty had XX. There was a hiatus during the early decades of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), and even after they 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 to those of the Song Dynasty.


For a broader perspective on the civil service examination, check out GLOBAL CONTEXT.