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Imperial Examination System

Last updated by fabiowzgogo at 2016/12/16

The Origin of The Imperial Examination System

The Imperial Examination System for recruiting civil servants originated during the Sui Dynasty. The system, known as "Kai Ke Qu Shi", involved standardized, nationwide examinations held on a regular basis to select out the best candidates for the civil service from among the population.

In the slave-based society the Sui Dynasty, all of the best positions in the civil service were hereditary; passed down from noblemen fathers to their sons. In the period of Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties, this system shifted slightly. Open examinations were held, and the selection processes were conducted according to Nine Grade Official Ranks by local official departments, but the required standard varied according to the background of the candidates. This meant that while anyone could sit the examination and gain entry to the civil service, candidates who were born into noblity were generally given higher positions than those from working class families. Therefore of all of the high-ranking officials serving the imperial state, virtually none were from a working class background. And the reverse was also true; very few people of noble blood occupied any lower-ranking positions.

In step with the development of agriculture in the feudal society, and the consequent positive effects on the economy, the economic strength of the landed social class increased and so did their numbers. This allowed them to quickly develop into a powerful political force in China that corresponded to their economic muscle. This led to a clash of interests as the old Nine Grade Official Ranks examination system, which traditionally locked in noble families into positions of power, became a barrier to the political aspirations of the landed class and became more and more in contradiction with the interests of the ruling, feudal empire.

Tourist Imitating Ancient Examinations

Tourists Imitating Ancient Examinations

After the establishment of the Sui Dynasty, Yang Jian, known as Emperor Wen Di, abolished the Nine Grade Official Ranks to consolidate the concentrated state power and expand the power basis of landed class. Following this, the right of selecting civil servants was returned to the central regime and systems were set in place to restore the balance of noblemen vs the landed classes in the civil service. It was decreed that every year, three people would be selected and removed from civil service based on the garishness of their clothes. Also, civil servants who were above the 5th rank of official position in the capital, managers of local officials, or were Prefects, were required by law to recommend candidates who had performed outstandingly in their examinations for high-ranking government positions.

When Emperor Yang Di ascended the throne, he invented and implemented the Jinshi Examination (which translates as “successful imperial examination candidates to the top”). From then on, the state selected candidates through examinations and invited them to serve as central or local civil servants. This marks the beginning of China’s history of imperial examinations.

The establishment of Imperial Examination System was an important reform of the ancient system of selecting social officials. It adapted to the needs of the rising landed class and opened the way for all ranks of the social classes to participate in government. Later feudal dynasties retained the Imperial Examination System for Recruiting Civil Servants, and developed and improved it. Compared with the recruiting system of social servants before Sui Dynasty, it facilitated the selection of talented people, increased the efficiency of the administration and played a key role in consolidating the reign of feudal regime with concentrated state power. In 1905, after 1,300 years of operation, the Imperial Examination System for Recruiting Civil Servants was finally abolished.

Examination Procedures

The procedures of the Imperial Examination System for recruiting Civil Servants could be basically divided into two types; Local and Capital examinations.

In the periods of Five States, Ten Dynasties and the Tang Dynasty, the imperial examination system comprised of “Xieshi” (examination in counties) and “Shengshi” (examination in provinces). In 973 AD, the Emperor added “Dianshi” ( the Imperial Palace Examination) to this list. This system of three examination types carried on through many generations.

During the ruling period of Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, the system was changed to encompass “Xiangshi” (Provincial Examination), “Huishi” (Metropolitan Examination) and “Dianshi“ (Imperial Palace Examination). Regulations varied on whether candidates who passed by the Provincial Examination could become social servants. However, candidates who passed the Imperial Examination with honors were automatically put forward for official positions.

Tong Shi

Tong Shi refers to the examinations for recruiting students in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. This was the best chance for candidates to pursue further study and qualify for future examinations. All members of the public, no matter what their age, had the right to take Tongshi. Candidates for these examinations were therefore called Tongsheng.

The Tong Shi Examination had three sections; Xiangshi (Examination in the provinces), Fushi (Examination in the Prefectures), and Yuanshi (Examination in the Gongyuan Court).

Candidates who passed the third section would be enrolled as students in different counties, prefectures, and regions. They were generally called Xiucai, the same name as candidates who passed the imperial examinations at the county level, but they were divided into three streams; Linsheng, Zengsheng, and Fusheng Students. Those who passed the Keshi Examination were put forward as candidates for the Provincial Examination, a part of overall Imperial Examinations.


Xiangshi (Provincial Examination) was the name for locally organized examinations. During the Tang and Song Dynasties they were named Xianggong or Xieshi, By the Ming and Qing Dynasties these examinations were held every three years, always in August, for which they also gained the name also called “Qiushi” (Autumn examinations).

When a new emperor ascended to the throne, another discipline was always added into the exam, named Enke ("En" means favor and "Ke" means discipline). The examination normally had three disciplines, each of which lasted three days and the emperor chose the public official in charge of the examination. Each candidate who was classified as a student in the province, and who had passed the Keshi Examination, was allowed to take the Provincial Examination.

Candidates who were successful in the imperial examination at the provincial level were honored with the name “Jieyuan”, and those who passed the Provincial Examination were called “Juren”. They were allowed to take the Metropolitan Examination but whether the passed it or not, they were still qualified to be positioned as civil servants.

Huishi and Dianshi

“Huishi” (Metropolitan Examination) and “Dianshi” (Imperial Examination) were examinations organized by the central regime.

These two examinations were held in the spring of the second, fifth, eighth, and eleventh of the twelve Earthly Branches. Numerous Juren would take the Metropolitan Examinations, known as Ligun or Chungun, which were set by the Ministry of Rites. The examinations were conducted in three sections or disciplines and lasted three days. Those who passed the examination were honored as “Gongshi” and the most outstanding candidate as “Huiyuan”.

After the Metropolitan Examination, Gongshi would sit the Imperial Examination, which was set by the Emperor. This examination decided who would be eliminated and who would receive civil honors. This examination lasted only one day and candidates were ranked according to their performance.

Classifications of First Rank, Regular or Associate Metropolitan Graduates were awarded along with official positions appropriate to the rank obtained. Among the First Rank of Candidates, the most outstanding candidate was called “Zhungyuang” or “Bangshou”, the second, “Bangyan” and the third, “Tanhua”. The most outstanding candidate among the Regular Metropolitan Graduates and Associate Metropolitan Graduates were respectively called “Jindian chuanlu” and “Yudian chuanlu”.

The Gongyuan Court

The Gongyuan Court (also called The Gongshiyuan Court) was a special venue for Imperial Examinations. In the early period of the Imperial Examinations, there was no specific examination venue and the Provincial Examinations were generally held in the Nanyuan Court.

In the 24th year of Emperor Xuan Zong’s rule (736 AD), when the Imperial Examinations were set by Ministry of Rites, construction of the Gongyuan Court began, albeit with a simpler structure than later iterations.

After Emperor Zhe Zong, the Ministry of Rites and various prefectures elaborated the Gongyuan Courts. In the Yuan Dynasty, Xifang (separate rooms) were added, and during the Ming Dynasty equipment and systems were improves to a basic level.Shishe (examination houses) were built during the Qing Dynasty, in prefectures and counties as well as in the Gongyuan Court itself.

The Gongyuan Court covered a huge area, neatly laid end encircled by two rings of walls. These walls were covered with brambles, from which the court earned the nickname “Jiwei”  ("Ji" meaning brambles and "Wei", cover). In it’s illustrious history, huge numbers of candidates have passed through the Gongyuan Court.

The Shun Tian Gongyuan Court was the site for Metropolitan and Provincial Examinations during the Qing Dynasty. Inside the front gate were the Yimen Gate, Longmen Gate, and the Yuanming Turret on which examination patrollers could gain a bird’s-eye view of the candidates at work. The Zhigong Hall was situated at the back of the Court and the space at either side of the hall served has the residences for the managers of the court, with the remaining side being the dormitory of examiners.

Each line of the separate rooms, about 9000 in total, that housed the candidates during the examinations was numbered according to “The Book of a Thousand Characters”. Each lane had a fence door and a washing room at its end and when all of the candidates of a given lane were in their place, the examiner would close the fence door until the examination was finished.

Baguwen Style

Baguwen was a special examination style practiced during the Ming (1368 AD—1644 AD) and (1644 AD—1911 AD) Qing Dynasty. The name “Baguwen“ derives from the requirement for candidates to write four paragraphs of antithesis and four paragraphs of parallelism in their articles; "Ba" refers to eight, "Gu" means paragraph, and "Wen" means article.

The topics of the Baguwen examinations mainly came from the two most ancient books in Chinese history; Si Shu and Wu Jing. Si Shu is the Analects of Confucius, Mencius, Great learning, and Doctrine of the Mean. The articles written by the candidates were required to include the annotations of historical philosophers as standard, and their genre and structure had adhere to strict regulations. There were also restrictions on the total number of words in the article and strict requirements with regard to punctuation and format.