Home > 6. Ars Poetica: creating & surviving poetry, C. The Thinker As Hero, F. Politics & the Velvet Revolution > Beautiful Bureaucracies: The Chinese Imperial Examination

Beautiful Bureaucracies: The Chinese Imperial Examination

Perhaps nothing is more difficult for Westerners to understand about traditional Chinese society than the figure of the scholar-poet and the imperial examination that produced him. And yet nothing is of more interest and importance to us than the traditional Chinese bureaucracy and its examination system.

The Chinese bureaucracy was the voice of the Chinese people, set in balance against the decrees of the Emperor and his court. Any Chinese boy could aspire to service in the government, and the most talented of these administrators could and did rise to the very highest government posts. The mechanism that made this possible was the triennial metropolitan examination.

The origins of the examination system can be traced back to the establishment of the Chinese empire itself in 220 B.C. The First Emperor imposed profound changes on ancient Chinese society, eliminating the feudal system of Chinese states that preceded him, establishing a central state composed of provinces, and decreeing that the small-character set alone could be used in writing. These reforms paved the way for the emergence of the scholar-poet.

Social revolution on the scale imposed by the First Emperor can take centuries to play itself out, and this was the case with China. The important families that had governed China before the Empire were suppressed, but did not disappear; their power–and interest in an orderly, prosperous China–were too great.

And during the Han Dynasty, which replaced the First Emperor’s Chin Dynasty (which died with him), life was prosperous. The greatest of the Han Emperors, Wu-ti (r. 141-87 B.C.), expanded the boundaries of the empire far into the west. Until his reign, government officials had been appointed on the basis of personal recommendations and family connections; Wu began the transition to the examination system by requiring that all candidates for government posts pass a test in the Confucian Classics. Recommendations were still far more important than test scores, but the transition had begun. The Han Empire was followed by the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 A.D.), and during these years a new requirement was used to evaluate administrator candidates: their qualifications had to be assessed by a government official. Finally, during the Sui Dynasty (589-618 A.D.), the imperial examination system emerged–a system that lasted in one form or another until the collapse of the last dynasty, the Qing, in 1911.

Wang Anshi

As conceived, the system allowed any Chinese male who passed the imperial  examination to serve in the government. During certain periods, members of the merchant class were excluded from serving (this class being regarded as the least worthy in society) and the majority of administrative officials (or the mandinarate as they were known collectively) were not selected by examination until the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). The greatest practical impediment to taking the examination was the signficant cost of the education required–as a rule, only members of the aristocracy and monied elite could afford to prepare a son for the test. But at the same time, a boy of clear intellectual promise could hope to attract the interest of a local family of means, which would sponsor his education. In at least one case, the son of a relatively minor family (Wang Anshi–he placed 4th in the imperial examinations of 1042) rose to lead the entire government and institute major political reforms.

Before we look at the examination itself, we should bear in mind that the examination system consisted of a set of tests, rising from the provincial level to the imperial (metropolitan) examination conducted in the capital itself.

What did the Imperial Examination consist of? The short answer is: During the first centuries of its implementation, the examination was mainly a test of the candidate’s poetic skills. The reader tempted to think of this as silly or dangerous should bear in mind the difficulty of mastering the Chinese characters: today, it can take up to three years of daily study to master the reading of the characters–and of course, the quality of one’s calligraphy was considered in the grading of examinations. In fact, to gain the kind of mastery that produced China’s great poets, the effort took a lifetime.

This concentration on poetry did not last, however. During the Qing Dynasty, the emphasis moved away from poetry to the scientific disciplines as technology, affected by contact with western society, evolved rapidly.

What improvements did the examination produce in Chinese society? Perhaps most importantly, it enshrined the Chinese character set selected by the First Emperor as the hallmark of Chinese culture. It produced a class of educated and cultured bureaucrats who gave the administration of government a continuity, openess, and fairness that only a system opened to the broadest possible pool of talent could produce. And the mandinarate without question was the major producer and supporter of Chinese art and poetry through the centuries. China’s three greatest poets–Du Fu, Li Bai, and Wang Wei, were all products of the examination system (though not all of them took it).

It is also worth noting two political benefits of the examination: a) it gave ordinary people an important role in China’s government, easing resentments among the population as a whole; b) it gave the aristocracy, displaced by the First Emperor, a practical means of exercising their talents in government.

Of course, no testing system is totally objective, whatever kind of intelligence it tests for. The resources and career of a person who passes an examination and receives a government post will depend on his or her mastery of the complete spectrum of intellectual and emotional skills. But an individual who does pass an examination that strives for objectivity can at a minimum fall back on the learning and intellect responsible for their success, something that the examination has ranked against those who did not pass.

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Images: Top: Page from the 1894 Chinese Examination; Middle: After Wang Wei’s Snow Over Rivers and Mountains (Artist: Wang Shi-Min); All images: WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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