What Was Imperial China's Civil Service Exam System?

Judges and other officials in Qing China were scholars of Confucius first.
Photo of the highest judge in Shanghai, China, c. 1870. John Thomson / Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

For more than 1,200 years, anyone who wanted a government job in imperial China had to pass a very difficult test first. This system ensured that the government officials who served in the imperial court were learned and intelligent men, rather than just political supporters of the current emperor, or relatives of previous officials.

Meritocracy

The civil service exam system in imperial China was a system of testing designed to select the most studious and learned candidates for appointment as bureaucrats in the Chinese government.

This system governed who would join the bureaucracy between 650 CE and 1905, making it the world's longest-lasting meritocracy.

The scholar-bureaucrats mainly studied the writings of Confucius, the sixth-century BCE sage who wrote extensively on governance, and of his disciples. During the exams, each candidate had to demonstrate a thorough, word-for-word knowledge of the Four Books and Five Classics of ancient China. These works included among others the Analects of Confucius; Great Learning, a Confucian text with commentary by Zeng Zi; Doctrine of the Mean, by Confucius's grandson; and Mencius, which is a collection of that sage's conversations with various kings.

In theory, the imperial examination system insured that government officers would be chosen based on their merit, rather than on their family connections or wealth. A peasant's son could, if he studied hard enough, pass the exam and become an important high scholar-official.

In practice, a young man from a poor family would need a wealthy sponsor if he wanted freedom from work in the fields, as well as access to the tutors and books necessary to successfully pass the rigorous exams.  However, just the possibility that a peasant boy could become a high official was very unusual in the world at that time.

The Exam

The examination itself lasted between 24 and 72 hours. The details varied throughout the centuries, but generally the candidates were locked into small cells with a board for a desk and bucket for a toilet. Within the allotted time, they had to write six or eight essays in which they explained ideas from the classics, and used those ideas to solve problems in government.

Examinees brought their own food and water in to the room. Many also tried to smuggle in notes, so they would be thoroughly searched before entering the cells. If a candidate died during the exam, the test officials would roll his body in a mat and throw it over the test compound wall, rather than allowing relatives to come into the examination zone to claim it.

Candidates took local exams, and those who passed could sit for the regional round. The very best and brightest from each region then went on to the national exam, where often only eight or ten percent passed to become imperial officials.

History of the Exam System

The earliest imperial exams were administered during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), and continued in the brief Sui era, but the testing system was standardized in Tang China (618 - 907 CE).

The reigning empress Wu Zetian of Tang particularly relied on the imperial examination system for recruiting officials.

Although the system was designed to ensure that government officials were learned men, it grew corrupt and outdated by the time of the Ming (1368 - 1644) and Qing (1644 - 1912) Dynasties. Men with connections to one of the court factions - either the scholar gentry or the eunuchs - could sometimes bribe the examiners for a passing score. During some periods, they skipped the exam entirely and got their positions through pure nepotism. 

In addition, by the nineteenth century, the system of knowledge had begun to seriously break down. In the face of European imperialism, Chinese scholar-officials looked to their traditions for solutions.  However, some two thousand years after his death, Confucius did not always have an answer for modern problems such as the sudden encroachment of foreign powers on the Middle Kingdom.

The imperial examination system was abolished in 1905, and the Last Emperor Puyi abdicated the throne seven years later.