2 minute read

China Examination Systems

Power, Politics, And Examinations

Classical philosophy and imperial politics became partners during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, when Song dynasty (960–1279) classical interpretations were made the orthodox guidelines for the imperial examination system. Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) 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.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideChina Examination Systems - Power, Politics, And Examinations, Literacy And Social Dimensions, Fields Of Learning, Delegitimation And Decanonization