The origin of the China’s historic examination system
For thousands of years, a select few in China would spend their entire life struggling to do one thing: pass the Imperial Examination (科举, keju). Organized by the imperial government, this exam could open key doors for those wanting to enter the state’s bureaucracy, especially for those who lacked wealth and high-level contacts.
Sometimes referred to as the “fifth Chinese invention” (along with paper, the compass, the printing press and gunpowder), the Imperial Exams were the official selection system in which any male adult, regardless of wealth or social status, could gain a place in the government. Divided into three levels, the imperial exam included the Village Exam (乡试, xiang shi), held in provinces every three years; Country Exam (会试, hui shi), held the year after each village exam; and the Palace Exam (殿试, dian shi), administered after each country exam and overseen by the emperor himself. Candidates who passed this last exam would be called “metropolitan graduates” (进士, jin shi). The system also included the General Exam (武试, wu shi), which focused on a candidate’s horsemanship, kung fu and archery skills.
The Imperial Examination system was founded in 605 AD, during the Sui dynasty (581-618), a time in which China was growing further away from being a land of many kingdoms and gradually becoming a more stable and centralized country. The last Sui emperor, Sui Yangdi (隋炀帝), was dissatisfied with the fact that most officials inherited their posts from their fathers, so he decided to offer open examinations to fill these positions. The system was further developed during the Tang dynasty 618-907 AD) when Emperor Li Shimin (李世民) further eradicated the entry qualifications that, under Emperor Sui, had been very strict.
Foreigners, mainly individuals from nearby Asian countries, were gradually allowed to take the examinations, starting in the Tang dynasty. Some of those who passed would stay in China as officials for considerable lengths of time. Guozijian (国子监), the Imperial College of Beijing, was one of a small number of schools that accepted foreign examinees. Located next to a major Confucian temple, it was considered the best school of Confucian thought in China, and its graduates were so well-respected that they were often given posts without taking the Imperial Exam.
An unusual feature of the testing was the “eight-legged essay” (八股文, bagu wen), which came into being during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) and persisted during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 AD). Allegedly, the invention of this portion of the exam is associated with Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元障), the first Ming emperor. A bureaucrat called Ru Taisu (茹太素) wrote him a 10,000-character essay, whose meaning remained unclear to Zhu even after he spent four hours trying to decipher it. Subsequently, Zhu lost his patience and punished Ru Taisu with a beating. Afterwards, Zhu realized it was an issue with the structure of the essay, so he asked his scholars to find a clear and simple way of writing; soon after came the birth of the “eight-legged essay,” in which the essays that scholars would be required to write – usually on topics or themes chosen from among the classical Chinese texts – would be broken up into eight key sections.
Cheating the System
In the Shanghai Imperial Examination Museum (上海嘉定科举博物馆), the most precious relic on display is a linen waistcoat worn by one candidate who attempted to get an unfair advantage by lining the inside of his garment with possible answers. Another artifact featured is a mass-produced book the size of a matchbox; it includes all of the content of – and notes on – the Four Books (四书, sishu), one of the exam texts. The characters in this cheating aid are so small that if an ant crawled across one of its pages, it might cover eight Chinese characters!
In fact, the business of cheating had a long history. Early in ancient times, you could even pay people to take an exam for you. It is said that in the Republic era (1911-1949), a very important politician named Hu Hanming took the village examination twice for other people and passed both times. A collection of cheating tools can be viewed at the Beijing Imperial Examination Museum (北京科举匾额博物馆).
In the past, individuals caught cheating would be tied up outside the examination room, humiliated in public and banned from ever becoming an official. If the examiner was discovered aiding the cheater, their property would be confiscated and they could have their head chopped off. Nowadays, cheating won’t get anyone killed, but they won’t be able to avoid punishment from their parents!
To learn more about the Imperial Examination, visit:
Confucius Temple and Guozijian
Daily 8.30am-5pm (last ticket at 4.30pm). RMB 10, RMB 3 (students). 13 Guozijian Jie (near the Lama Temple’s main gate), Dongcheng District. (8401 1977) 孔庙和国子监, 东城区国子监街13号
Beijing Imperial Examination Museum. Gaobeidian Village (8773 9655) 北京科举匾额博物馆, 朝阳区高碑店