Chinese civil servant examination during the Qing Dynasty

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Civil servant examination in the Song Dynasty

The system of the Chinese official examination ( Chinese  科舉  /  科举 , Pinyin kējǔ ) formed a complex of competitions in Imperial China from the year 606 to 1905, which were used to select candidates for public functions. The exams represented the most important path to social advancement and thus a central aim in life for the members of the educated classes. Due to their focus on performance, they gave the largely absolutist empire meritocratic traits.

Unless otherwise stated, the statements in this article refer to the situation in the late Qing Dynasty in the 19th century.


Originally, the selection of officials was mainly based on aristocratic criteria, so the descendants of the noble families were taken into account. The first approaches to the introduction of the performance principle could be observed in the Han dynasty , but they did not last.

The examination system was finally established in the Sui dynasty ; According to tradition, the first exams were held in 606. At that time, as in the subsequent Tang dynasty , aristocratic elements were still very pronounced: On the one hand, the capital city examination, which was at the end of the examination hierarchy and has been carried out under the aegis of the Ministry of Rites since 736, was followed by an "employment test" by the Ministry of Personnel , which instead of Rather, knowledge tested traditional “aristocratic” characteristics such as appearance, appearance and speech. Incidentally, at that time academic degrees were by no means the only or even the most important way to obtain a civil service post. Many candidates continued to enter the civil service through referrals, personal relationships, and buying offices.

In the Song Dynasty , the recruitment test was abolished and replaced by the palace exam, which was also purely knowledge-centered. For the first time, the majority of civil servants were selected through the exams, although the alternative options mentioned continued to some extent at all times. The meritocratic principle was finally brought to a breakthrough. Theoretically, every peasant has been able to rise to the highest minister of the empire via the examination system since the 11th century. In Europe, which was firmly established by estates, it would take until the 19th century for similar principles to prevail in the appointment of public offices.

In the centuries that followed, the examination system was largely retained, but continuously modified and further developed. In 1905 the regent Cixi abolished it under pressure from the reform forces.

Admission requirements

According to the patriarchal system of ancient China, only boys and men were admitted to the official exams. Formally, the candidate's class or social class did not matter for admission . In fact, only the sons of the higher classes brought with them the extensive prior training that is essential for passing the exam. Also, only wealthy families could afford to release their sons from paid work for such a long time and, on top of that, to finance the feasts and thank you payments that were expected at the end of each passed exam round.

There was no age limit. The first start was usually after completing the classic school education around the age of 15. Because of the enormously high failure rates and the associated repetitions, forty or fifty-year-old men were not infrequently among the candidates. In the lower exams they were discriminated against in that they were sometimes asked more difficult questions and the work was assessed more strictly. In the capital or palace exams, however, they had a bonus.

In addition, the candidate only had to prove that no one in his family had pursued a “minor trade” (e.g. brothel business) for three generations, and he was not allowed to be within a mourning period prescribed by the rites. Certain groups (e.g. disabled, sick, prisoners, women, monks ...) were excluded from the exams in advance.

The hierarchy of exams

The highest level of the examination system: the palace examination before the emperor

The lowest level of the system of the Chinese civil servant examination were the university entrance exams (district, prefecture and qualification exams ) held at the local level , which with the acquisition of the licensed status ( 秀才 , Xiùcaí  - "outstanding talent" or 生 員  /  生 员 , Shēngyuán  - " Student ") ended. This did not entitle to entry into civil service, but only to attend a university and then take part in the higher exams, namely the provincial, capital and palace exams. Successful graduates of these were awarded the title Magister ( 舉人  /  举人 , Jǔrén ) or Doctor ( 進士  /  进士 , Jìnshì ).

The university entrance exams

District examination

The district exams ( 縣 試  /  县 试 , xiànshì ) were held simultaneously in all districts in two out of three years . They took place in the examination hall of the district capital and consisted of a total of five one-day sessions, with the vast majority of the candidates being screened out in the first of them. Overall, the success rate in the district examination was mostly in the single-digit percentage range.

Prefectural exam

In the prefectural exams ( 府 試  /  府 试 , fǔshì ) held in the examination halls of the prefecture capitals , the candidates competed in groups sorted by district, which were given different examination tasks and were assessed separately. The prefectural exam consisted of three test days. Usually, the prefectural exam halved the number of successful graduates of the district exam.

Qualification exam

The four-day qualification examination ( 院 試  /  院 试 , yuànshì ) as the third and final stage of the university entrance exams also took place at the prefecture level. The leadership was not with the prefect, but with the provincial director of studies , who regularly traveled to all prefectures for this purpose - one of the highest officials in the province, who had extensive independence from the governor and was allowed to report directly to the imperial court. Corrections were made by the provincial study director himself, who was supported by at least five or six, and in the case of larger prefectures by more than ten secretaries. His personal views and ideas had a great influence on the evaluation and thus ultimately shaped the cultural and literary development of the respective province. The number of candidates was halved again by the qualification examination, the successful candidates received the title of licentiate (Xiùcaí or Shēngyuán). This did not entitle to entry into civil service, but primarily only to participation in the higher exams. He was also associated with certain privileges. Licentiates, for example, could not be sentenced to flogging .

In the late Qing Dynasty, the title was increasingly sold for money; In this respect, the chronically scarce Emperor Daoguang was particularly notorious . In 1830 the licentiate class comprised around one million people, about 0.3% of the total Chinese population; it is estimated that a third of those who had the title bought it.

Provincial exams

The provincial exam ( 鄉試  /  乡试 , Xiāngshì ) only took place every three years, namely in the 8th month of the lunar calendar (roughly corresponds to September) of the year of the rat, the hare, the horse and the rooster . In addition, extraordinary provincial exams were held on special occasions such as imperial accession to the throne or anniversaries. The provincial exam consisted of only three sessions, each lasting three days, during which the candidates had to work in single cells in the strictest of secrets.

Since the Yuan dynasty , they have been led by high-ranking imperial officials specially sent from Beijing who - depending on the distance from the respective province - were on the road for 20 to 90 days. They were supported in their work by 8 to 18 regional examination officers.

Test cells (approx. 7500 pieces) near Guangdong around 1873

In the provincial capitals, there were huge, walled areas the size of a district, specially laid out for the exams. These were only accessible via a single, strictly guarded main entrance, which consisted of a series of consecutive gates. In the middle there was a central tower (Mingyuan Lou) , from which the obligatory gun shots and other acoustic signals were given. From the main avenues (Yongdao) leading away from it, numerous narrow, endlessly long alleys (Haodong) , marked with characters, branched off, in which thousands of numbered examination cells ( 考 舍 , kǎoshè , 考 房 , kǎofáng ) were lined up close together. The cells were separated from each other by side walls and consisted only of three movable boards that served the candidates as a seat, desk and shelf. There were no doors. There was also an examining district that was once again walled for itself on the examination site, which itself was divided into strictly separated areas for the inspectors and the examiners.

The number of successful candidates was fixed for each province. It was between 40 and 90, at best one percent of the candidates. The contingent thus available was replenished with the candidates according to the average grades achieved. In particular, the rich and culturally leading provinces of Jiangsu or Zhejiang usually had a much higher number of talented young men to offer than the quota the province was entitled to. The strict adherence to the quotas made it possible for the central power in Beijing to limit the influence of the self-confident nobility on the lower Yangzi .

Finally, the work of the successful candidates was submitted to a forty-member commission of the Ministry of Rites in Beijing, which could veto the existence of the person concerned in individual cases. The candidates who passed the provincial examination acquired the title of Magister (Jǔrén, 舉人  /  举人 ), which not only entitles them to take part in the capital city examination, but also to hold certain subordinate civil servant posts. There were also "consolation prizes" (Fupang) for the next best 8-18 candidates, who brought a number of privileges with them.

Capital city exam

The capital city examination ( 會 試  /  会 试 , Huìshì ) also took place every three years, this was in the third month of the year following the provincial examination , i.e. in the year of the buffalo, dragon, sheep and dog . Since the Yuan Dynasty, the examination location has been the central examination hall in Beijing . It also consisted of three sessions lasting several days and was chaired by the Minister of Rites, who was assisted by 22 examiners. The best ten works were presented to the emperor for review.

In contrast to the provincial exam, there were no fixed contingents for successful candidates in the capital exam. Rather, it was measured against absolute quality standards - the amount of which could vary depending on the current need for officials. In the early Qing period there were sometimes up to 400 candidates, under Emperor Kangxi there were around 150. Later on, provincial quotas were introduced to a certain extent. Older candidates, who had already taken their capital city exams many times, were granted a bonus and the bar was lowered a little for them.

Originally, in the Tang Dynasty, the capital city exam completed the exam sequence; the candidates received a doctorate ( 進士  /  进士 , Jìnshì ) and could enter the civil service. After the introduction of the even higher-ranking palace examination, the capital city examination did not give the successful lawyers additional titles or rights, but only allowed them to take part in the palace examination - since Emperor Qianlong this only after passing another, comparatively simple intermediate examination.

Palace exam

The palace exam ( 宮 試  /  宫 试 , Gōngshì ) was only introduced by the first Song Emperor Taizu . It superseded a recruitment process that was still in use in the Tang period, which after completing the capital city exam had put the budding civil servants through a "practical" aptitude test, which examined appearance, demeanor, speech, handwriting and judgment.

It was a thorn in Taizu's side that the recruitment process was in the hands of the Ministry of Personnel and thus the traditionally dominant aristocratic clique there. By replacing this procedure with the palace exam, he wanted on the one hand to strengthen his influence as emperor on the examination system and at the same time secure the loyalty of the highest officials. Formally, the recruitment process continued, but in view of the palace exam it increasingly became an empty formality. Towards the end of the Qing period, the emperors' involvement in the palace exams declined noticeably.

According to its name, the palace exam took place in the Imperial Palace in Beijing and was personally directed by the Son of Heaven. He was supported by eight high court officials, who only read the work and made suggestions for decisions to the emperor. The assessment was made solely by the emperor himself.

Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Imperial Palace

After completing the examination held in the Hall of Supreme Harmony , the Emperor gathered the court officials who supported him in the Wenhua Hall . The works were passed around to the “readers” in turn, who marked them with one of the following symbols: empty circle (100%), full circle (80%), triangle (60%), line (40%) or cross (20%). Finally, the ten best works were presented to the emperor, who each gave a final vote and ranked them. Unlike all other examiners in the imperial examination system, the Son of Heaven himself was not bound by any instructions or specifications and was completely free in his decisions. For example, it did happen that Emperor Qianlong appointed an officer who was barely literate as the examiner for the palace exam in 1761. Another time he arbitrarily swapped the positions of the first and third placed candidates simply because the latter came from Henan Province , to which he owed a favor for making special sacrifices.

Upon passing the palace exam , the candidates received the academic degree of Jinshi ( 進士  /  进士  - "Doctor"), which entitles them to be appointed to higher official ranks. It existed in three grades:

  • 進士 及第  /  进士 及第 , jìnshì jídì , chinshih chiti (Jinshi Jidi),
  • 進士 出身  /  进士 出身 , jìnshì chūshēn (Jinshi Chushen) and
  • 同 進士 出身  /  同 进士 出身 , tóng jìnshì chūshēn (Tong Jinshi Chushen)

The three best-placed graduates received the titles

  • 狀元  /  状元 , zhuàngyuán ( Zhuangyuan )
  • 榜眼 , bǎngyǎn (Bangyan)
  • 探花 , tànhuā (Tanhua)

For the Ming and Qing periods, it is assumed that only one in thirtieth law students who took the capital and palace exams - and thus every three thousandth licentiate - obtained the Jinshi degree.

The special exams

The special exams were outside the official examination hierarchy. At all times, able and talented men stayed away from imperial exams and civil servants for a variety of reasons. Many withdrew physically to forests, mountain valleys or remote areas. The reasons for this lay partly in an unworldly, often Daoist or Buddhist lifestyle, in an extreme dissatisfaction with the prevailing political conditions - which can be observed especially after a change of dynasty - but sometimes also simply because the people concerned in their youth because of poverty, war, etc. had to forego formal training, but later no longer wanted to face competition with men who were considerably younger in life.

In order to be able to politically use the talent potential that was lying idle in this way, many emperors conducted so-called special exams, which enabled candidates to gain access to civil servant careers in a simplified way. In the Tang and Song dynasties, for example, there were exams “for men in remote seclusion” or those for “those who hide in the mountains and forests”. In the early Qing period, an attempt was made to win over the supporters of the past Ming dynasty , who were not very loyal to the new regime, with the examination “for great scholars of extraordinary education”; the first took place in 1678 under Emperor Kangxi . The successful graduates of the special exams were at best ridiculed by their colleagues who had emerged from the regular examination system, but were often harassed with a mixture of arrogance and envy.

Examination material


Central to all exams: the writings of Confucius

At all levels of the civil examination system, candidates have been writing essays on topics from the Four Books (Daxue 大學 - The Great Learning , Lunyu 論語 - The Analects of Confucius , Zhongyong 中庸 - Middle and Measure, and Mengzi 孟子Book of Menzius ) as well as the five classics ( Book of Changes , Book of Songs , Book of Rites , Book of Documents , Spring and Autumn Annals ). As a schoolboy, she had learned these works of 431,000 characters by heart . In 1738, for example, the sentence of Confucius from the Lunyu "Be conscientious in your behavior and only indulgent in dealing with the people" had to be discussed.

The candidates also had to write poems on given topics and according to given meter. As the exam ranks higher in the hierarchy, the importance of writing essays on historical or political topics or problems also increased. Sometimes these were used to test the candidates' loyalty to the ruling Qing dynasty. The art-loving Song Emperor Huizong temporarily introduced additional painting competitions for the palace exams.

In the university entrance exams, especially the questions about the classics to prevent purely reproductive answers based on model solutions learned by heart were mostly formulated in a cumbersome, unusual or even misleading manner; the examiners developed a real ambition to "trick" as many candidates as possible in this way. Conversely, the provincial examiners were notorious for asking undemanding questions that already implied the desired answer.

In the college entrance exams , candidates also had to memorize one of the 16 chapters of Shenglun Kuangxun . This is a pamphlet on educational issues from the pen of Emperor Yongzheng . Therefore, the chapter was true to the original and without writing down a single wrong character. An exception was made for characters that appeared in the name of one of the emperors of the ruling dynasty: there was a name taboo for these and they had to be replaced by characters of the same sound for reasons of respect. A violation of these two rules was considered a libel of majesty and, regardless of all previous achievements and successes of the candidate, resulted in his exclusion from the examination and, if necessary, the suspension for a number of further appointments.

During the qualification examination, the candidates had to write down the first lines of their essay from the 1st day by heart again on the 3rd day to check their identity.

Exam critic Wang Anshi

The criticism of the content of the Chinese civil servant exams is almost as old as the exams themselves. The song scholar and politician Wang Anshi, who is otherwise known for his critical spirit, worked it out in his famous Memorandum of Ten Thousand Words from 1058 The exams would unilaterally test the detailed knowledge of the classics as well as certain stylistic skills. In this respect, they provided only very inadequate preparation for the actual requirements of the civil service. Furthermore, the exam system only trains generalists, while the diverse tasks of the state administration also require specialists, for example in finance, agriculture or road construction.

Nevertheless, the contents of the examination remained largely untouched for another eight centuries; It was not until the end of the Qing Dynasty that criticism rose again, not least under foreign influence - which, after tentative reform attempts under Emperor Guangxu, finally led to the abolition of the exams in 1905.


At all examination levels, extremely high value was placed on compliance with formalities. Above all, the poems, but also the essays and prose pieces, had to be made according to certain rhyme and meter laws , whereby no compromises were tolerated. The most formalized was the eight-part essay (ba gu wenzhang) introduced by the Ming in 1487 , which required the antithetical treatment of the topic in eight chapters of 700 characters.

The characters basically had to be written in a square style, with the lines filling an imaginary square - so that the characters looked as if they had been printed. Corrections or stains were not allowed; the final fair copy to be submitted had to be flawless.

The candidates suffered great hardship in this respect at the provincial examination. In the open cells, only protected by a curtain from the rigors of the autumn weather, the fair copies always threatened to be disheveled by the wind or blown to the earth or soaked by the rain - which the authors often enough only do with the use of their own body and health protect knew. The test subjects were also always worried that the candles required in the evening could fall over and cause burn marks. At the time of submission, the inspectors checked the work for formal defects such as cut-out incorrect characters, blank fields, skipped pages or the like, which inevitably led to the candidate being excluded.

Exam question at the capital city exam 1894

The formal requirements of the final palace exam were particularly strict: In view of the leadership of the emperor, both the questions, which were written in the style of palace scripts, and the candidates' answers were subject to strictly defined formulation requirements.

The questions usually started with the words:

You lawyers have demonstrated your talents in numerous exams and now, in view of the palace exams, you are about to attempt to answer my questions. I am the Son of Heaven and I am commissioned to rule the kingdom. Day and night I rack my brains so that citizens can live in peace. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to ask you Juren questions and I wish to hear your carefully considered views on the following: […] On this excellent opportunity, express yourself freely and openly and have no fear of anyone. If you have reservations, if you are anxious, if you do not write down completely what you think, or if you try to evade your responsibility through clumsy, insincere flattery, you do not do my will. "

Palace exam: The emperor personally accepts an examination paper

Correspondingly submissive, the candidates' answers had to begin like this:

Your devoted servant answers your question; Your devoted servant heard. Your Majesty devotes himself to state affairs without fail, and I am all the happier and more grateful that, despite your workload, you take the time to obtain the opinion of even an inexperienced person like your servant on the right and wrong past and present work of the government. "

As far as a page contained the name of the emperor, this had to be repeated in the first two character fields specially left for this purpose. Words relating to the emperor, his relatives, his properties or possessions were to be written slightly higher than the line of the script; Mention of the candidate's own ancestors is even higher. Conversely, things related to the candidate himself had to be pushed down a bit. In total, the answer had to contain at least 1000 characters and was not accepted if this limit was not reached.

The elaborate had to close with the words:

I, your devoted servant, a superficial student who came running up, dared to state my own point of view, not knowing where I was, and I am so ashamed to have insulted Your Majesty that I do not know where to hide . I submit my answer with awe. "


In view of the extreme severity of the exams and the high failure rates, numerous candidates tried to achieve their goals through unfair means such as deception , the use of illicit aids, cheating or bribery . The court established strict security precautions against this early on. Violations of the relevant regulations were punished equally severely by the candidate, the supervisory staff and the examiners. In the worst case, minor violations could of course lead to exclusion from the examination or to a ban on further appointments. In the qualification examination, for example, there was a sophisticated system of penalty points:

During the examination itself there was a form with three empty fields at each candidate's place, which were stamped with a corresponding seal in the event of violations of the examination regulations . With three seal impressions, the candidate was excluded from the examination. But even just one seal usually brought the person concerned considerable negative points when correcting the work, which were difficult to compensate for by the rest of the work. Violations of the regulations included: Leaving the place more than once, exchanging papers, dropping papers, speaking, looking around, changing seat, violating the instructions of the supervisory staff, violating "regulations", sums (e.g. to check the meter for poems to be written), submission of incomplete papers. There were further significant point deductions if the characters did not correspond to the prescribed "square style", according to which they had to perfectly fill an imaginary square.

More serious offenses such as bribery or favoritism usually resulted in the auditor losing his official post. Both examiners and candidates could also be punished with banishment or even death . In 1858, for example, a scandal shook the Qing dynasty when a certain Lo Hung-I bribed the examiners to let an examination work pass that was recognizable to anyone against mandatory formal requirements. The affair ended with several death sentences.

Take precautions against unauthorized aids

At all exam levels, the exam days or sessions began with the most embarrassing body searches of the candidates and the search of the things they had brought with them. For the university entrance exams, in addition to their clothing, the candidates were only allowed to take with them ink , brush , rubbing stone , water glass and something to eat. In the provincial exams, which lasted several days, bedding, curtains for the open examination cells, chamber pots and lamps were allowed. Under no circumstances could any paper be carried in any way with characters. Money was also strictly prohibited as it could potentially be used for bribery purposes. So-called "chimney jackets" - robes whose stripe pattern consisted of the microscopically reduced characters of the classics - enjoyed great popularity among the test subjects.

If the inspectors found something prohibited, the inspector concerned received a bonus while the candidate was excluded from the examination. At the provincial examinations, the candidates and their luggage were searched at the same time by four soldiers, who received a bonus of three silver ounces for finding unauthorized objects and therefore allegedly did not even hesitate to cut yeast dumplings they had brought with them and examine the bean paste they contained. To be on the safe side, the search at the second gate was repeated by other soldiers, and any negligence on the part of the first squad that had now been discovered had draconian consequences for them. The time-consuming examinations took up the entire first of the three exam days of each session, so that the actual tasks could not begin until the morning of the second day. Despite all the effort, so many entire books are said to have been smuggled in unnoticed at times that a bookstore could have equipped them with them.

For the university entrance exams, candidates were given official, lined examination forms. They were allowed to bring their own papers to the provincial exams. At the beginning, however, this was provided with official seals , without which the work in question was later not accepted.

Take precautions against assistance from third parties

At all levels, the exams took place under the strictest of rules on a hermetically sealed area. The gate was locked and sealed. Any communication between the examinees and the examiner with the outside world was prevented.

One problem was that copying is: If two work resembled too much the auditors either a copying of candidates suspected of one another or the use of prohibited Solution collections and rated both working with insufficient. The examination papers were given “ time stamps ” at certain intervals . Anyone who wrote down a disproportionately high proportion of the solution after this point in time was automatically suspected of being copied. During the provincial examination, the candidates were also constantly monitored from watchtowers spread across the entire site.

Candidates who were represented in the exams by other, more experienced people threatened a great danger. At the beginning of the university entrance exams, the candidates were therefore called by name, had to step forward individually and have their identity confirmed by a guarantor they had brought with them. Insofar as these were successfully manipulated, the violation could at best be discovered through indiscretions or written comparisons, but was then punished all the more severely.

Take precautions against favoring the correction

Numerous protective measures served to prevent the examiners from favoring individual candidates during the correction. At the level of the university entrance exams, they had to evaluate the work in the most stringent test lasting several days. The works were also not marked with the names of the candidates, but only with their number.

Red copy of a thesis, Qing Dynasty

The prevention of preferential treatment in provincial exams was particularly careful: the court only announced the identity of the examiner it had sent at the last moment; the examiners were not even allowed to be visited by the inspectors who came into contact with the examinees; they lived together with them, but separated by a stream in the walled testing area. On the other hand, the examiners were not shown the originals written in black ink so that they could not recognize individual candidates by their writing. Rather, all the work was initially copied by scribes who had to use vermilion ink for this. Then both versions were presented again to control readers who had to uncover any discrepancies and note them in yellow ink. While the originals were retained by the inspectors, only the vermilion copies were presented to the examiners. First of all, the inspectors made a precaution, who added their comments in blue and initially gave the work the predicates “no merit”, “mediocre” and “recommended”. Only the latter group was then presented to the main examiners, who made the final assessment in black letters. Finally, the corrected copies were compared with the originals again.

Despite all these precautions, there were still a number of ways in which examiners could identify and favor certain candidates. For example, the candidate could identify himself through a certain character in a certain previously agreed line and position of the examination paper. Corruption was the order of the day everywhere and was also often a topic of conversation.

External circumstances

Apart from the controls, the exam time for the candidates was very tough and full of hardships. According to a well-known saying, you need the willpower of a dragon horse, the physique of a mule, the insensitivity of a woodworm and the stamina of a camel to survive the exams.

The candidates for the university entrance exams had it comparatively comfortably. The tests that lasted several days under the strictest supervision and the numerous harassment associated with it required a lot of energy from them. As early as four in the morning they were taken out of bed by gunfire so that they could take the exam punctually at seven. At least the exams took place in the closed halls of the district or prefecture administration. Candidates were also allowed to go home at the end of each exam day.

Exam cells in Nanking

However, the provincial exams were notorious: for each session, the examinees had to stay in their extremely narrow, open exam cells for three days and two nights. These consisted of just three boards that served as a seat, table and shelf. The candidates were also exposed to wind and weather in the middle of late autumn, as well as all kinds of vermin. At night they could not even stretch out due to lack of space, only crouch in the fetal position. They also always had to fear for the integrity of their documents and especially of the laboriously produced fair copies. They were constantly watched from watchtowers. The tone of the soldiers entrusted with their supervision was harsh, as they belonged to the dregs of society and knew only too well that the successful candidates would one day look down on them.

The poet Pu Songling speaks of the candidate's "seven phases of change" in connection with the provincial exam, which he himself never passed despite multiple attempts: When he enters the exam grounds heavily packed, he moves like a beggar . He feels like a prisoner during the body searches and humiliation by the guards . During his stay in the cramped test cell for several days, however, he led the life of a bee larva . When leaving the test area after completing the work, he feels like a bird that has escaped the cage . While waiting anxiously for the results, the candidate ultimately resembles a monkey on a leash . After learning of his failure, on the other hand, he lies motionless like a poisoned fly . The last thing that usually follows is a fit of anger, in which the candidate slaps all of his possessions like a pigeon its eggs.

In contrast, the participants of the palace exams were downright spoiled. They were allowed to do their work in close proximity to the emperor in the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City . Here they were served by imperial lackeys and eunuchs and entertained with food and tea. They didn't even have to carry their own things. For the answers to the exam, they were provided with specially prepared, attractively designed solution booklets.

Exam success


A key requirement for success in the imperial exams was strong reproductive skills. The candidate had to be able to remember a certain canon of recognized knowledge completely and in detail and, if necessary, either reproduce it verbatim or have it ready as a basis for essays or discussions. However, the intellectual penetration of an object or the development of one's own solutions or concepts were less required. The creativity required for the creation of essays or poems was also limited in view of the strict formal requirements. Last but not least, a certain physical constitution and resilience were essential.

Also widespread was the Buddhist- influenced notion that success in the exams was in some way related to the candidate's moral attitude or his past life. Legion are, for example, the stories about exam candidates who were haunted and driven to ruin in the exam cell by the spirit of a woman they dishonored, or about examiners who were shaken by a judge of hell during the correction. Strikingly, most of the reports of this kind relate to the provincial exam, while the frequency of the capital and palace exams, which can be produced under more comfortable conditions, is falling.

Announcement of results

Exam candidates when announcing the examination results

The announcement of the results took place in a solemn and ceremonial form: For the university entrance exams, the names of the successful candidates were written down in the form of several concentric circles, the best being at the top of the outermost circle and the subsequent ones following counterclockwise. The sheets were posted publicly.

The qualifying exam crashed Moreover gun salutes , the Confucius Temple of the prefecture capital were musicians on. The newly minted Shengyuan received their blue, black-rimmed licentiate robes as well as the "sparrow hats". The latter were completed by ornaments made of gold foil and red paper, the so-called "gold flowers", which were presented to each individual licentiate in a small private audience by the provincial director of studies.

The ceremony of the announcement of the results of the palace exams was particularly impressive, of course, where it was performed by the emperor himself in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City .

Repetition opportunities

Incidentally, the numerous unsuccessful candidates did not have to despair: each exam could be repeated as often as desired. This also explains the astonishingly high number of older candidates. Five or more attempts at an exam at the same level were not uncommon. The father of senior Qing official Zeng Guofan only passed the qualification exam on the seventeenth attempt - and received licentiate status together with his famous son. When a certain Zhang Qian from Jiangsu passed the palace exam in 1894, he said he had spent 35 years preparing for exams and 160 days in exam halls.

Importance of exam success

Passing the imperial exams was always a central goal in life for the young men of the educated classes. After all, it was they who made it possible to achieve the rank of civil servant and thus to rise to the upper class of society. Accordingly, passing exams was one of the most common congratulations and blessings in China. It was symbolized on greeting cards, ink pictures and paintings etc. by a multitude of characters, including carp, bell, halberd and glowworm, but also the classic official attributes of fan, belt, hat, umbrella and mirror.

Numerous novels and stories tell of the protagonist's efforts to acquire the Jinshi degree or even to emerge gloriously first (Zhuangyuan) from the palace examination. Quite a few potential fathers-in-law tied their consent to marriage with their daughters. The Chinese examination system is discussed in detail in Wu Jingzi's novel The unofficial history of the forest of scholars ( 儒林外史 , Rúlín wàishǐ ) from 1750.

Hong Xiuquan - self-proclaimed Taiping Emperor

Unsuccessful candidates

As mentioned, only about every hundredth licentiate obtained the law and every three thousandth licentiate the Jinshi degree. Despite the generous possibility of repetition, there were always countless candidates who, despite various efforts, could not acquire a degree entitling to entry into civil service. To make matters worse, from the late Qing period onwards, not even enough civil servant positions were available for all degree holders.

Some of the unsuccessful candidates resigned themselves and led a secluded private scholarly life or turned to philosophy and art. Nonetheless, the situation in the Chinese academic class led to considerable dissatisfaction, which, given the good education of the unsuccessful candidates, posed great danger for the state: It was not for nothing that the ringleaders of the rebellions and uprisings that repeatedly shook the empire were strongly recruited from these circles. The best- known example is Hong Xiuquan , the leader of the Taiping Uprising, which shook China and the dynasty to the core in the 1850s .

Lu Xun describes the fate of an unsuccessful scholar who, despite multiple efforts, did not even pass the licentiate exam and thereby sink into the proletariat, is described by Lu Xun in his story Kong Yiji from 1919.

Graduation ceremonies

The exams of each level ended in a multi-level solemn ceremony:

Celebrations and banquets

In all exams, it was customary for the examiners to invite the successful candidates to a feast at the end, at which they in return expressed their thanks and respect to them and the emperor. At the provincial exams, the feast was called the "wild cry" banquet (Lùmíngyàn 鹿鸣 宴). This established a special kind of teacher-student relationship between the candidates and their examiners, regardless of the fact that they had actually been taught by completely different men. At the palace exam, the three best candidates were also honored with a special banquet in the capital city's prefecture. The other Jinshi also spent several days with an endless series of further dinners, parades and honors of all kinds.

Notification of home districts

Eventually, the exam administration agency notified the home districts of the successful candidates. The district administrations, in turn, sent messengers to the families to announce the joyful news in flowery words, which soon spread like wildfire. Friends and relatives brought congratulations and gifts; the licentiates reciprocated with cash payments to the teachers and the guarantors as well as with feasts for friends and relatives.

If a province produced a jinshi placed at the top of the palace exam, it was a major event with a political dimension. They were treated like high dignitaries of the empire. For the purpose of erecting a triumphal arch in front of their own house in their home country, they also received a special donation of 30 silver ounces from the court, the Zhuangyuan - the top graduate - even received 80 silver ounces.

Publication of examination papers

The corrected examination papers and any copies were burned after completing the exams out of awe of the written word. However, the candidate could have it handed over to him for a small fee. Sometimes the candidates also published their work. This was particularly the case with answers to the questions of the capital and palace exams that had been formulated by the emperor himself. The published work was also popular with future exam candidates as a preparation aid.

Religious duties

After passing the qualification exam, the newly qualified licentiates paid their respects to the master after their return home in the Confucius Temple of the district capital and swore an oath on his teaching. After the palace exams, however, the Jinshi made a sacrifice in Beijing's Confucius Temple and bowed to the statues of the master and his most important followers. Heavy stone steles were also erected there, which were supposed to pass on the names of the successful graduates of the palace exams to posterity for all times and which can still be seen today.

Special case: the military exams

As a mirror image of the civilian examination system presented above, there was also a military one. The names of the individual exams and the titles to be acquired were simply preceded by the wǔ (武 military).

Shooting test at the military exam

Naturally, it was less the intellectual brilliance of the candidates that was tested than their physical strength and dexterity: for example, they had to shoot bow and arrow at cardboard displays or similar targets on horseback or on foot, with bows of arrows with a "strength" of 80, 100 or with mere muscle strength To bend 120 Kätti (= 48–72 kg) into a circle, to prove their skill in virtuoso handling of the halberd or to lift stones in the weight classes of 200, 250 and 300 Kätti (120–180 kg) 35 cm high. In addition, the memorization of passages from the military classics Sunzi , Wuzi and Sima Fa was required - although in view of the lesser importance of intellectual abilities for military officials, the examiners usually turned a blind eye.

The military exams and their graduates were far less respected by the government and the people than their civilian counterparts. One reason for this may be that the professional success of officers depended to a much lesser extent on "skills" that can be proven and tested in exams, but rather on their war experience gained in the field and the trust and respect that the troops showed them. And so the most successful military leaders in Chinese history were mostly not Wu Jinshi , but soldiers who had served themselves from the bottom up. Military academics, however, were mostly ridiculed by soldiers and civilians alike and were relegated to quiet posts.


  • Ichisada Miyazaki: China's Examination Hell. The Civil Service Examinations of the imperial China. Weatherhill, Tokyo / New York NY 1976, ISBN 0-8348-0104-3 .
  • John King Fairbank : History of Modern China. 1800–1985 (= dtv 4497). Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 1989, ISBN 3-423-04497-7 , pp. 35-40.
  • Irma Peters: Afterword. In: Wu Jingzi : The Way to the White Clouds. Kiepenheuer, Leipzig et al. 1989, ISBN 3-378-00298-0 , p. 801ff.
  • Denis Twitchett : The birth of the Chinese meritocracy. Bureaucrats and examinations in Tʿang China (= China Society Occasional Papers 18, ZDB -ID 1449205-2 ). China Society, London 1976.
  • John W. Chaffee: Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China. A Social History of Examinations. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1985, ISBN 0-521-30207-2 .

Web links

Commons : Imperial examination  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. It is "an enemy and a hindrance for the school system". (Douglas R. Reynolds: China, 1898–1912. The Xinzheng Revolution and Japan (= Harvard East Asian Monographs. Vol. 160). Harvard University - Council on East Asian Studies, Cambridge MA et al. 1993, ISBN 0-674-11660- 7 , p. 113).
  2. Cf. Chuang, Yatzu: Modernization and Expansion of the State Education System in Taiwan in the Period from 1885 to 1987. Dissertation, Götting 2011, p. 21.
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on December 23, 2006 .