Examination Systems, China

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Civil examinations in late imperial China (14001900) intersected with politics, society, economy, and Chinese intellectual life. Both local elites and the imperial court influenced the dynastic government to reexamine and adjust the classical curriculum and to entertain new ways to improve the system for selecting officials. As a result, civil examinations represented a test of educational merit that served to tie the dynasty and literati culture together bureaucratically.

Civil examinations were not an obstacle to modern state building. Classical examinations were an effective cultural, social, political, and educational construction that met the needs of the dynastic bureaucracy while simultaneously supporting late imperial social structure. Gentry and merchant status groups were defined in part by examination degree credentials. Although civil examinations themselves were not an avenue for widespread social mobility, nevertheless a social by-product was the limited circulation of elites in the government from gentry, military, and merchant backgrounds.

In addition, the large pool of examination failures created a source of literary talent that flowed easily into ancillary roles as novelists, playwrights, pettifoggers, ritual specialists, and lineage agents. The unforeseen consequences when the civil examinations were summarily eliminated by modern reformers in 1905 reveals that late imperial civil examinations represented a partnership between the dynasty in power and its gentry-merchant elites. Imperial interests and literati values were equally served. They fell together in the twentieth-century Chinese revolution.

Late imperial examinations broke with medieval (6501250) poetic and literary traditions and successfully made "Learning of the Way" (Neo-Confucianism) the state orthodoxy. The intersections between elite social life, popular culture, religion, and the mantic arts reveal the full cultural scope and magnitude of the examination in 1,300 counties, 140 prefectures, and 17 provinces. These testing sites elicited the voluntary participation of millions of menwomen were excludedand attracted the attention of elites and commoners.

Its demise brought with it consequences that the last rulers of imperial China and reformist gentry underestimated. The Manchu Qing dynasty was complicit in its own dismantling after the forces of delegitimation and decanonization were unleashed by reformist Chinese gentry, who prevailed in late-nineteenth-century education circles and convinced the imperial court to eliminate the entire examination institution in 1904.

Reform of education and the elimination of examinations in China after 1905 was tied to newly defined national goals of Western-style change that superseded conservative imperial goals of maintaining dynastic power, granting gentry prestige, and affirming classical orthodoxy. Since the Song-Yuan-Ming transition (12501450), the struggle between insiders and outsiders to unite the empire had resulted in over four hundred years of so-called barbarian rule over the Han Chinese. With the Republican Revolution of 1911, that historical narrative ended.

Power, Politics, and Examinations

Classical philosophy and imperial politics became partners during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, when Song dynasty (9601279) classical interpretations were made the orthodox guidelines for the imperial examination system. Ming (13681644) and Qing (16441911) appropriations of that orthodoxy affected how literati learning would be interpreted and used in later dynasties as a political ideology.

The late imperial civil system elaborated the Song-Yuan civil examination model under the impact of commercialization and demographic growth, which allowed the process to expand to all 1,300 counties. In addition, the upsurge in candidates meant that officialdom became the prerogative of a very slim minority. As the door to a fixed number of official appointments, civil examinations also conferred social and cultural status on families seeking to become or maintain their status as local elites.

Competitive tensions also explain the policelike rigor of the civil service examinations that Han Chinese insiders and Manchu warrior outsiders both supported. Political forces and cultural fears forced Han Chinese and their non-Han rulers to agree publicly how imperial and bureaucratic authority was conveyed through the accredited cultural institutions of the civil examinations. Political legitimation transmitted through education succeeded because enhanced social status and legal privileges were an important by-product of the examination competition.

Quotas based on the ratio between successful and failed candidates further demonstrated that the state saw access to the civil service as a means to regulate the power of elites. Government control of selection quotas was most keenly felt at the initial, licensing stages of the examination competition. By 1400, for example, there were about 30,000 classical literate licentiates out of an approximate population of 65 million, a ratio of almost one licentiate per 2,200 persons. In 1600 there were perhaps 500,000 licentiates in a total population of some 150 million, or a ratio of one licentiate per 300 persons.

Because of economic advantages in South China (especially the Yangzi Delta but also Fujian and Guangdong), candidates from the south performed the best on the civil examinations. To keep the south's domination of the examinations within acceptable bounds, Ming education officials settled in 1425 on an official ratio of 60 to 40 for allocations of the highest degrees to candidates from the south versus the north, which was slightly modified to 55 to 10 to 35 a year later by adding a central region.

The examination hall became a contested site, where the political interests of the dynasty, the social interests of its elites, and the cultural ideals of classical learning were compromised. Examination halls were supervised by literati officials, who were in charge of the military and police apparatus to control the thousands of men brought together to be tested at a single place. Forms of resistance to imperial prerogative emerged among examiners, and widespread dissatisfaction and corruption among the candidates at times triumphed over the high-minded goals of some of the examiners.

Literacy and Social Dimensions

The monopolization of cultural resources by literati and merchant elites depended on their linguistic mastery of nonvernacular classical texts. Imperial examinations thus created a written linguistic barrier between those who were allowed into the empire's examinations compounds and classical illiterates who were kept out. Because there were no public schools, the partnership between the court and the bureaucracy was monopolized by gentry-merchant literati who organized into lineages and clans to provide superior classical educations.

Language and classical literacy played a central role in culturally defining high and low social status in late imperial Chinese society. The selection process permitted some circulation of elites in and out of the total pool, but the educational curriculum and its formidable linguistic requirements eliminated the lower classes from the selection process. In addition, an unstated gender ideology forbade all women from entry into the examination compounds.

Literati regularly turned to religion in their efforts to understand and rationalize their emotional responses to the competitive examinations. Examination dreams and popular lore spawned a remarkable literature about the temples candidates visited, the dreams that they or members of their family had, and the magical events in their early lives that were premonitions of later success. Popular notions of fate influenced the examination marketplace and were encoded as cultural glosses with unconscious ties to a common culture and religion.

Anxiety produced by examinations was a historical phenomenon, experienced personally and deeply by boys and men. Fathers and mothers, sisters and extended relatives, shared in the experience and offered comfort, solace, and encouragement, but the direct, personal experience of examination success or failure belonged to the millions of male examination candidates who competed with each other against difficult odds.

The civil service competition created a dynastic curriculum that consolidated gentry, military, and merchant families into a culturally defined status group of degree holders that shared a common classical language, memorization of a shared canon of classics, and a literary style of writing known as the "eight-legged essay." Internalization of elite literary culture was in part defined by the civil examination curriculum, but that curriculum also showed the impact of literati opinion on imperial interests.

In addition to helping define literary culture, the examination curriculum also influenced the literatus's public and private definition of his moral character and social conscience. A view of government, society, and the individual's role as a servant of the dynasty was continually reinforced in the memorization process leading up to the examinations themselves. For the literatus, it was important that the dynasty conformed to classical ideals and upheld the classical orthodoxy that literati themselves had formulated.

The bureaucracy made a financial commitment to staffing and operating the empirewide examination regime. Ironically, the chief consequence was that examiners could not take the time to read each individual essay carefully. Final rankings, even for the eight-legged essay, were haphazard. We should guard against overinterpreting the classical standards of weary examiners as a consistent or coherent attempt to impose orthodoxy.

An interpretive community, canonical standards, and institutional control of formal knowledge were key features of the civil examination system. The continuities and changes in linguistic structures and syllogistic chains of moral argument in the examination system reveal an explicit logic for the formulation of questions and answers and an implicit logic for building semantic and thematic categories of learning. These enabled examiners and students to mark and divide their cognitive world according to the moral attitudes, social dispositions, and political compulsions of their day.

Fields of Learning

Literati fields of learning, such as natural studies and history, were also represented in late imperial examinations. Such inclusion showed the influence of the court, which for political reasons widened or limited the scope of policy questions on examinations, and of the assigned examiners, whose classical knowledge echoed the intellectual trends of their time. In the eighteenth century new guidelines were also applied to the civil examination curriculum. As a result, the Song rejection of medieval belles lettres in civil examinations was revoked.

In the late eighteenth century the examination curriculum started to conform with philological currents popular among literati. The scope and content of the policy questions increasingly reflected the academic inroads of newer classical scholarship among examiners. Beginning in the 1740s, high officials debated new initiatives that challenged the classical curriculum in place. They restored earlier aspects of the civil examinations that had been eliminated in the Yuan and Ming dynasties, such as classical poetry.

In the mid-eighteenth century, because of the increasing numbers of candidates, Qing officials emphasized "ancient learning" to make the examinations more difficult by requiring all the Five Classics. In addition, the formalistic requirements of poetry gave examiners an additional tool, along with the eight-legged essay grid, to grade papers more efficiently. Later rulers failed to recognize that an important aspect of the civil examinations was the periodic questioning of the system from within that gave it credibility from without.

Delegitimation and Decanonization

After 1860 radical reforms were initiated to meet the challenges of the Taiping Rebellion (18501864) and Western imperialism. The Taipings instituted their own Christian-based civil examinations. In the last years of the Qing dynasty, the civil examinations lost their cultural luster and became the object of ridicule by literati officials as an unnatural educational regime that should be discarded. During the transition to the Republic of China, new political, institutional, and cultural forms emerged that challenged the creedal system of the late empire.

The emperor, his bureaucracy, and literati cultural forms quickly became symbols of backwardness. Traditional forms of knowledge were uncritically labeled as superstition, while modern science was championed by new intellectuals as the path to knowledge, enlightenment, and national power. Most representative of the changes was the dismantling of the civil examination regime that had lasted from 1370 to 1905.

By dismantling imperial institutions such as the civil examination system so rapidly, Chinese reformers and early republican revolutionaries underestimated the public reach of historical institutions that had taken two dynasties and five hundred years to build. When they delegitimated the institutions all within the space of two decades starting in 1890, Han Chinese literati helped bring down both the Manchu dynasty and the imperial system of governance. Its fall concluded a millennium of elite belief in literati values and five hundred years of an empirewide imperial orthodoxy.

See also Chinese Thought ; Confucianism ; Education: Asia, Traditional and Modern ; Education: China .


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Benjamin A. Elman