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The Examination System of Imperial China

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The history of the examination system in Imperial China took place mainly over thirteen hundred years. The civil service was one of the central institutions of the state and the scholarly tradition continued through many dynasties. Known for exacting standards, extreme intimidation, and likely rejection, millions of men have devoted their lives to examination pursuits to impress their government and attempt to receive degree titles and civil service appointments by which their ancestors, families and future descendants may be honored. Emperors may have administrated according to their own motivations and the titled scholars may not have been effective officials, but certainly thousands of people were required to manage a country as large as China. A long culture of literature and philosophy created a Chinese national identity with common values and understanding. Civil service examinations, as a test of educational merit, also tied the dynasty and the literati culture together bureaucratically.1

Feudal China saw the appointment of government officials though aristocratic inheritance or submission of recommendation of sons from wealthy families. During the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. - A.D. 220), a Han emperor believed that administration of a system of competency examinations of recommended scholars would reduce the number of submissions which had become overwhelming. Civil Service examinations were first employed in 165 B.C. to assess the quality of candidates according to the Confucian, rather than Legalist tradition. Confucianism was declared the official ideology of China by emperor Wudi which further cemented the criteria required for a civil servant including skills in calligraphy, writing ability, history, and Confucian understanding and recitation. The honor of attending the emperor as trusted counsel brought loyalty and a vested interest in the preservation of the Empire, according to Richard Sterba.2 The system was still less than objective; bribery (or outright purchase of a post) and nepotism were common in the appointment of government positions.

The Civil Service Examinations during the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 589-618) and the subsequent Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) of Middle Imperial China became sophisticated and rigorous assessments of men as intellectual and upright individuals, worthy of bureaucratic positions. Tang culture and society centered upon the annual examinations and ensured that the government was served by the meritorious, not the aristocratic or favourite. In addition, regional government officials were appointed by the central government, not by the local prefecture. To prevent the possibility of corruption, Tang officials were systematically titled, salaried, promoted and moved between jurisdictions, generally providing the upward mobility sought by scholars and their families. The rotation was known and understood by central and regional officials, a benefit to each being a strong, visible political regime and widespread public recognition and prestige of the scholarly statesman. Alternatively, three years is not a reasonable amount of time to learn the assignment well, let alone to become accustomed to the region and language. Additionally, the effectiveness of a government official, especially in areas outside the capital cities could be questioned. While a man might be a great scholar, he may only be a fair or mediocre bureaucrat, influenced by clerical sub-bureaucracy.

"The system was particularly vulnerable to this sort of manipulation by virtue of two circumstances. First, civil service officials were so thoroughly indoctrinated with the moral, social and political philosophy of Confucianism that, to anyone conversant with the doctrine, their decisions were highly predictable. Second, officials made decisions in the seclusion of their chambers on the basis of information provided in documentary form. The documents were prepared by attendant clerks who - by omission, exaggeration and outright falsification, and by anticipating responses - could preordain the decisions of their superiors."3

Still, this practice remained for several hundred years through subsequent dynasties. The quality of government officials chosen for their scholarly merit based upon the rigors of the examination system cannot be verified. However, the large numbers of failures contributed to Chinese culture in non-official roles, "...from physicians to pettifoggers, from fiction writers to examination essay teachers, and from ritual specialists to lineage agents". 4

The end of the Tang Dynasty was marked by an unstable time of civil wars lasting about 53 years known as the period of the Five Dynasties. Constant northern invasion of the Mongols, Jurchens and Kitans split China into northern and southern provinces. A new capital was established at Kaifeng when military general Zhou Kuangyin, also known as Taizu, declared himself emperor of the Song Dynasty in 960 AD. Taizu sought to reunify China through conquest of the southern provinces and reclamation of the northern provinces still held by the Kitans.

Taizu deliberately weakened military authority and strengthened the civil government presumably to lessen military threat to his own autonomy. Given that he himself had gained power through insurrection against the child emperor of the last of the Five Dynasties, he could predict that a successful regime was not guaranteed without proactive measures. The result was poor quality military protection (favouring diplomacy and paying tribute to enemies) in exchange for the advancement of sophisticated government administration, technology and culture for the following three hundred years. Colleges and universities became increasingly important, and expanded in number and size.5 Education was geared toward the examinations and therefore was designed around Confucian thought, the arts and humanities. Considering the ultimate position was one in government, the orientation was not toward fiscal, administrative or managerial competence. The provinces of the Song were south of the Great Wall by 1127 due to continuous harassment from the Jurchins (Jin Dynasty) and a new capital formed at Hangzhou on the East China Sea, shifting the centre of Chinese culture from the north to the south. Weak military in a state as large as China with a long history of revolution is contradictory to a strong central government. While the science and technique of war during this time included the use of gunpowder, crossbows, pontoon bridges and flame-throwers, military soldiers were still seen as lesser members of society when compared to academic scholars.

The Song system was inherited from the Tang, effectively setting the requirements for the



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