Sample from Chapter 10. History of Education and Literacy in China

The Civil Service Examination System

The exam system had a long history, with occasional disruptions. As early as the late Zhou dynasty (1100­256 BC) the tradition of the scholar-statesman was established.

Table 10-1. Civil Service Examination in the Qing Period

Level of Exam Degree Success Rate
Local shengyuan varied regionally; 1 to 10 out of 10
Provincial juren 1 in 100 shengyuan ('licentiates')
Metropolitan gonghi 1 in 30 juren ('selected men')
Palace jinshi most gongshi; 1 in 3,000 licentiates

... The exam system contained the seeds of corruption, and corruption did occur, in spite of elaborate preventive measures. In one scheme in the mid-19th century, code words allowed examiners to identify favored candidates, whose poor papers could be then replaced with promising ones. The offending examiners were caught and beheaded, and the cheating candidates lost all the qualifications previously gained. Some candidates armed themselves with miniature copies of the Confucian classics. One candidate even wore an undershirt covered with some 500,000 Hanzi the Confucian Five Classics and Four Books with commentaries (fig. 10-1b).

Preparation for the exams was protracted and arduous. It is said to have begun with pre-natal conditioning: A pregnant woman wishing for a gifted son would sit erect; would avoid clashing colors and strange food; and would hear poetry and the classics read aloud. Boys age 3 began learning characters at home, and began the study of the classics at school at age 8. By age 15, boys learned and memorized the Confucian classics, in preparation for the exams. They also practised writing poems and eight-legged essays, and calligraphy. From ancient times, many poems were composed on the theme, "If you study while young, you will get ahead." Here is one written by a Song emperor (Miyazaki 1963: 17).

To enrich your family, no need to buy good land: /Books hold a thousand measures of grain. /For an easy life, no need to build a mansion: /In books are found houses of gold.... /A boy who wants to become a somebody /Devotes himself to the classics, faces the window, and reads.

Competition at the exams was fierce, and became more so with the passage of time. In the Tang dynasty, the average candidate for higher level exams was in his mid-20's, but in the Song dynasty he was in his mid-30's. Many candidates tried repeatedly, some eventually succeeding at the exams in their 50's. There is a story about the old age of a successful candidate. In the Song dynasty, at a palace exam the emperor noticed among the new jinshi a white-haired old man, who turned out to be 73 years old and single. The emperor in sympathy gave him a beautiful palace lady as wife. Some of the wits of the day quickly made fun of him, "The groom telling the bride his age: Fifty years ago, twenty three."

What were the rewards for successful candidates? To become an official was the most lucrative as well as honorable thing to do in imperial China. The lowest degree holders, shengyuan, became gentry and literati, who wore distinct attire and enjoyed exemption from labor service and corporal punishment. Some holders of the highest degree jinshi obtained official positions, and some continued to study in the Hanlin Academy. A few years of officeholding enabled a scholar to make enough money from salary, perquisites, and perhaps graft, to repay the costs incurred in obtaining the position, and still to retain a surplus to invest in land and in his children's education.

The exams were in theory open to people from all socio-economic backgrounds except the "degraded classes," and some candidates were indeed from families with no record of civil-service status. But only a small minority, sons of elite families, could afford the time and money to study for the exams. And some men were allowed to inherit or purchase official posts, bypassing the exams.

Women were barred by law from taking the exams, with the following exceptions. During the mid-7th and early 8th centuries the female ruler and emperor Wu Zetian allowed women to obtain highest degrees, jinshi, at the civil service exam if they were successful at poetry exams. During the brief reign (1853­1864) of the Taiping ("Heavenly Kingdom," a rebel band based in Nanjing), exams were based on Chinese translations of the Bible, and women were allowed to sit for their own exams and to hold offices in the bureaucracy. (The leader of this band, Hong Xiuquan, failed the lowest-level exam four times. No wonder he became a rebel!)

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