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Ancient Systems

Last updated by fabiowzgogo at 2016/12/16


The printing press, gunpowder, paper and compass are the Great Inventions of China.  But these inventions are inconsequential compared to the historical and cultural development of Chinese civilization.  The ancient Chinese believed that a truly great nation ought to be ruled by wisdom and not force.  For thousands of years, China was ruled by feudal dynasties.  Emperors and officials were expected to be effective, virtuous and exemplary models to the Chinese. Confucianism, which is a philosophy that emphasizes virtue, merit-based endorsement and good governance, was developed and practiced in China.   A powerful and unique legacy of ancient China is Confucian Examination System called Imperial Examination System.

Ancient Chinese Compass

Ancient Chinese Compass

Imperial Examination System

The imperial Examination was Imperial China’s attempt to select the best officials or persons to work in various positions in service to the emperor and the people.  This examination system was daunting and arduous but it was a great endeavor to achieve an intellectual system based on ability.  This examination was intended to select the best persons to hold administrative positions for the government. Important government positions were not limited to the warriors and aristocrats as the Imperial Examination System was open for all men, except for slaves and actors.  The Imperial Examination in a sense, created the class of scholar-officials.

Ancient Imperial Examination

Imitation of Ancient Imperial Examination

Origin of Imperial Examination

The origin of the Imperial Examination was during the Han period; consolidated during the Sui dynasty and later became truly effective under the Tang Dynasty. Though the examination system was interrupted on occasions the core teachings centered on the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucius never changed.  Other subjects Included in the examination were: writing; arithmetic; music; archery; horsemanship; knowledge of public and private ceremonies and rituals;  civil law; military strategy; revenue and taxation; geography and agriculture. For thousands of years, the Imperial Examination, until its abolition in 1905 during the Qing Dynasty, was the protocol in selecting civil service staff for Imperial China.

Imperial Examination Degrees

Though it was possible to rise from low social status to political prominence by qualifying in the Imperial Examination, most of the qualifiers came from small landed gentry as studying for the examination took time and required personal tutors.  There were several degrees conferred: Shēngyuán (county  level), Jǔrén (provincial level), Gòngshì (national level) and Jìnshì (presented scholar) with the latter as the highest. A Jinshi would have memorized 400,000 Chinese characters in order for him to hold a civil service position.  Examinations were held in isolated cubicles or rooms. It usually lasted from 24 to 72 hours.  Military Examinations were given only to potential army officers. Overall, the passing rate was only 1-2%.

System of Local Civil Servants

The Chinese Civil Service was the administrative system of Imperial China. Its members were rigorously selected through very competitive examinations. The System of Local Civil Servants gave the Imperial China more than 2.000 years of stability and social mobility. 

Weakness of the System of Local Civil Servants

During the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) the need for civil servants arose due to the establishment of the first centralized Chinese bureaucracy. Inclusion to the roster of civil servants was based on recommendations. During the Han Dynasty (206-23 BC) examinations were employed to grade those who were already in position as public officials.  During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the civil service examination was intended for members of the aristocrat and elite.

It was only during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and onwards when the civil service examination was opened to the masses. However, in the span of 300 years, the examination became less important in gaining public office as the prestige, power and wealth of big families pushed their sons into gaining civil service posts. The civil service exam was temporarily abolished. It was reinstated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In Emperor Yung-lo’s reign the previous selection process was abolished so that only the top examinees from Hanlin Academy were given civil service positions.

Strength of the System of Local Civil Servants

Though this System of Local Civil Servants had its share of disadvantages, these were comparatively minor against its advantages. Emperors were always faced with the dilemma of ruling the country. The fear of a decentralized power of the ruler and military takeover was imminent if there was a lack of qualified and loyal civil servants.  Thus the traditional system of examination was the means for an institutionalized and objective method in enlisting civil servants or officials loyal to the throne. The great emperor Han Kao-tsu of the Han Dynasty was taught by the scholar Lu Chia that a truly peaceful, effective and powerful kingdom must be ruled by wisdom and not by force.

The vying scholars had to learn the works and ideology of Confucius which further stressed the loyalty and support o the civil officials to the reigning dynasty. Emperor Han Wu-din and the Sung emperors deemed education as a means to strengthen the emerging upper class.  The Empress Wu Tze-tian utilized the system of local civil servant examination as means to remove undesirables from public seats and power. Social mobility was supported in this system as seeking classical education and taking (and passing) the civil service examination became in effect a guarantee of improved social status.

Systems of Social Servants

Understanding the Ancient China’s Systems of Social Servants is not as easy as it was quite complicated. At the onset of the administrative system during the Shang Dynasty there were no  officials responsible for the religion and political affairs.  By the Zho Dynasty a simplistic central administrative system was established. This consisted of three Dukes and six Ministers. The three Dukes were the Grand Guardian, Grand Perceptor and Grand Mentor took care of state affairs whereas the Ministers took care of assigned tasks.  The offices of the Ministers during the Xia Dynasty were:

• Minister of Works: Sikong
• Minister of Agriculture: Houji
• Minister of Education: Situ
• Minister of Justice: Dali
• Minister of Construction: Gonggong
• Minister of Farming and Animal Husbandry: Yuren

Development of the Systems of Social Servants

With each change of Dynasty, modifications were done.  In the Shang Dynasty the power  was centered to the emperor. During the West Zhou Dynasty, the emperor was supported by three Dukes and three Censors-in-Chief.  At the height of the Qin and Han Dynasties there were three Dukes and nine Ministers assisting the emperor.  The Dukes were in charge of supervision, administration and the military.  In the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the administrative system comprised of six Boards and three Councils - Secretariat, Chancellery and Department of State Affairs. The six boards handled the boards of revenue, civil service, rites, justice, works and war. This set up developed into a feudal society.

In the Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhu abolished the Chief of Councilors and replaced it by a Council of Ministers comprised of three Hanlin Academics. This became the basis of the state administration.  In the Qing Dynasty the Privy Council was establish for managing military affairs.

Over the centuries, the strength and power of the six boards diminished. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Five Imperial Courts were established: Taichang, Dali, Guanglu, HongLu and Taipu.  The Imperial Clan’s power was greater than the Six Boards. In time the Six Boards were no longer the center of Imperial China’s administration.