A unique experiment

Chinese history

This is an article taken from our China in Focus magazine (2002) written by Justin Crozier.

Justin Crozier examines how China's Imperial examination system and its modern remnant - the Eight Legged Essay and the Gao Kao - are unique attempts in world history to aim for a government of wisdom.

In "On a Chinese Screen", notes from his encounters during a journey on the Yangzi in 1920, Somerset Maugham relays his conversation with a great Confucian philosopher. The Chinese philosopher, who has studied in Berlin and Oxford, concludes that all wisdom is to be found within the Confucian canon. In a bitter mood, he denounces the modernity that is sweeping China, and extols the Confucian system of old: “Do you know that we tried an experiment which is unique in the history of the world? We sought to rule this great country not by force, but by wisdom. And for centuries we succeeded.” The philosopher is surely correct to draw attention to the uniqueness of the Chinese experiment.

China's “Four Great Inventions”, gunpowder, paper, the compass and the printing press, are often trumpeted as the hallmarks of its civilisation. But these fruits of Chinese ingenuity are in many ways peripheral to the historical development of Chinese civilisation, and to Chinese society today. Gunpowder may have been discovered in China; but it was chiefly used for fireworks; the value of the compass was squandered by the insularity of the Ming government and its failure to capitalise on Zheng He's explorations. Paper and the printing press were remarkable developments, but were really just perfections of technology already in use in various parts of the world from a very early age; papyrus or vellum, or the scriptoria of monasteries.

The most truly unique aspect of Chinese culture - and the one with the most powerful legacy - is the Confucian examination system with which the Son of Heaven's empire was staffed with civil servants over the best part of two millennia. The Imperial examinations represented a remarkable attempt to create an aristocracy of learning, which in itself represent a remarkable advance over the warrior and hereditary aristocracies that dominated in the rest of the world. The Chinese examination system, archaic, laborious and daunting as it may have been, was nevertheless, was a glorious attempt at intellectual meritocracy.

The Imperial Examination

The origins of the exam system lie in the Han period, but the early scholarly examinations were consolidated during the Sui period, and began to be truly effective under the Tang Dynasty. Between the Tang period and the late Qing, the civil service examinations dropped out of use for short periods and underwent occasional reform. But the content remained remarkably constant. The core texts consisted of the Four Books and the Five Classics, works attributed to Confucius and certain of his disciples, along with a number of approved commentaries.

Until the Guanxu Reforms of 1898, the notorious eight-legged essay, a rigid traditional format, was the mainstay of the exam papers. Rote learning of the Confucian classics was fundamental to success in the exams, and the scholar who obtained the highest degree, the jinshi, would have his memory trained to a tremendous degree. Texts of a total of over 400,000 characters had to be thoroughly memorised if a candidate was to have any hope of progressing to a civil service position, and even at the district level, the pass rate was only 1 or 2%.

Joining the Imperial Civil Service

To obtain a civil service post, a candidate had to pass through several stages, starting with preliminary local exams, and progressing, if successful, through to district, provincial and palace examinations. Exams were held every three years. The district degree was the shengyuan, which entailed exemption from both corporal punishment and the corvee labour dues, the right to wear a scholar's robes, and a small state salary. Essentially, a successful candidate became a member of the gentry.

To obtain a civil service position, a scholar generally required the juren provincial degree, which would take would take years of study, and even a candidate could not reasonably expect to do so before he was thirty. Many candidates who were eventually successful did not achieve office until they had reached a venerable age. The jinshi degrees were prospects for only a very few exceptional scholars. For the very highest ministerial posts, the best examination essays were selected by the Emperor himself.

A Meritocratic Aristocracy

Aristocracy-by-examination had far-reaching consequences. A high degree of national stability was ensured despite changes of emperor and dynasty because the civil service, fuelled by the exam system, could continue independently of the imperial regime. Even China's foreign conquerors, the Mongols and the Manchu, realised the benefits of the examination system. Despite denigrating Han Chinese scholars as the “Stinking Ninth” in their social ranking, the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty retained the system. The Manchu tribesmen who captured Beijing in 1644 to found the Qing Dynasty restored the civil service examinations only two years later, and although they excluded Han Chinese from the highest echelons of the Civil Service, they clearly recognised the adhesive value of the exams in binding the Han intelligentsia to the Qing regime.

Most importantly, the civil examinations provided a conduit for the aspirations of able men from almost any social stratum. While there are a few famous literary instances of women dressing up as men to take the exams, in practice, women were entirely excluded from the system. But amongst men, the exams were generally open to all, with the exception of a few classes such as actors and slaves.

Undoubtedly, success in the examinations was easier for the well-off. In the late Qing period in particular, corruption was widespread; examiners could be bribed, and early stages of the exam process could be skipped for a fee. Tutors, books and brushes all cost money, so poor candidates were at a disadvantage even during periods when bribery was frowned upon. Despite this, many poor scholars did succeed in their ambitions. During the Qing period, over a third of jinshi degree holders came from families with little or no educational background. Nor was the system biased towards the inhabitants of the capital. Degrees were awarded to scholars from throughout China; indeed the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang boasted the greatest number of jinshi graduates.

The Weight of Confucius

While the system could be remarkably meritocratic, it was often attacked for its stultifying emphasis on rote learning. In the Song period, Ye Shi argued that:

“A healthy society cannot come about when people study not for the purpose of gaining wisdom and knowledge but for the purpose of becoming government officials”.

In this vein, the Imperial exams have been criticised for stultifying China's intellectual growth. By concentrating intellectual activity on the Confucian Classics, the system limited the possibilities for progress. As Western universities began to move away from their own classical tradition to embrace economics, engineering and natural science, China's scholarly efforts languished in the ancient literary past. It is unsurprising that the ingenuity that produced the “Four Great Inventions” could not flourish in such a backward-looking intellectual environment.

While the examinations allowed humble scholars to aspire to ministerial power, they could also prove a powerful source of frustration and bitterness. A rigid examination system does provide an opportunity for intelligent individuals to better themselves; however, the inflexibility inherent to a system used across such a vast nation meant that many talented individuals failed to meet the exacting examination system, and will be left unfulfilled and angry.

From Examination to Rebellion

The second bloodiest war in human history, the Taiping Rebellion, which claimed some 20 million lives, had its roots in the frustrations of the civil service exams. Hong Houxiu, or Hong Xiuquan as he became, failed the shengyuan examinations on four separate occasions. Nursing a grievance against the Confucian state system, Hong's frustration found an outlet when he read a Christian tract condemning the examinations. Prompted by visions and dreams, he went on to found the Taiping Tianguo, “The Kingdom of Heavenly Peace” and to launch a savage crusade against the Qing “demon devils.” It is surely significant that Hong's first followers were, like him, village schoolmasters whose civil service ambitions had been dashed by their failure in the second round of state examinations.

The Imperial examinations were not the sole factor in the Taiping Rebellion; resentment of Qing rule and the humiliation China suffered in the First Opium War clearly loomed large in Hung Xiuquan's thought, while his mystic inspiration remains inexplicable. Nevertheless, the tantalising frustration that the examination system caused in many aspiring intellectuals was certainly an integral part of Hong's motivation, and a root cause of the tragic ambition that led to slaughter then unprecedented in history.

The Flourishing of Great Literature

Fortunately, frustration with the examination system could take other forms. Many of China's greatest literary and artistic achievements arose from intellectual energies that their creators had intended to channel into the service of the state through earning Imperial degrees. Failure in the examinations is a recurrent theme running through the Chinese literary canon. The massive amount of scholarly energy required for the exams was often channelled into poetry and prose when aspiring scholar-officials failed to obtain their degrees. The Tang period poet Du Fu is a good example; failure in the Imperial examinations in 736 divorced him from the scholarly traditions of his family, and propelled him on an itinerant career as a poet. Similarly, the great Chinese novelist, Cao Xueqin, wrote “The Dream of the Red Chamber” after his hopes of a civil service career ended in failure. Cao's male characters live lives punctuated by the triennial menace of the examinations.

Perhaps no literary figure was more affected by his experiences in the Imperial examination system than Pu Songling, the Qing period author of the collection of tales known as Liao Zhai. Pu spent around 40 years in his attempts to obtain the juren provincial degree which would allow him to enter a civil service position. He bitterly characterised “seven transformations” that affect unsuccessful candidates as they realise that their efforts have been in vain. The same sentiment is channelled into the Liao Zhai, where many of the protagonists are struggling scholars. Pu's frustration is made plain in his works as his scholar-heroes have to seek supernatural aid from spirits and demons to achieve the coveted juren degree.


While many artistic figures were perhaps hampered by their own creativity in tackling the relentless rote learning required by the exam system, others succumbed to the temptation to cheat, and suffered the consequences of being caught. The renowned Ming period painter, Tang Ying, resurrected his career through his painting after his hopes of an official position were shattered when he was caught cheating in the exam hall. Before winning influential friends and patrons through his talent, Tang was reduced to poverty as a consequence of his dishonesty.

The sheer volume of knowledge required to succeed in the Imperial examinations elevated cheating to something of an art form in China. Miniature books were devised to be concealed in the palm of a hand; shirts had important passages from the Confucian Classics sewn, in miniscule lettering, to their insides; fans were constructed with pass-notes on their obverse. Other duplicities included hiring veteran scholars to sit the exams in one's stead, and the simple expedient of copying a neighbour in the exam hall. At certain times, bribery of examiners was commonplace.

As every Chinese teacher can attest these cheating methods, refined over centuries - are alive and well today.

One lasting legacy of an inflexible and daunting examination system is that Chinese students have become experts at subverting such systems. But the most important legacy of the imperial examination system is surely the massive academic effort channelled into the National University Entrance Examinations in China each year.

Gao Kao - The National University Entrance Exam

The current university entrance system is far from perfect; but for thousands of diligent students, it offers a ladder from provincial village schools to the nation's best universities. Residents of metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai may benefit from built-in bias designed to maintain the prestige of these cities, but urban universities nevertheless admit legions of rural success stories, often the children of illiterate parents, who have benefited from the meritocratic reach of the PRC's university entrance exams.

In a society where 'guanxi' and naked wealth can buy all sorts of dispensations, the University Entrance Examinations can daunt even the most well connected and well-heeled parents. The upsurge in the number of rich parents choosing to educate their parents abroad is in no small part due to the realisation that Xiao Huangdi ('little emperor'- or spoilt child) of limited academic ability will not make it to prestigious universities in the Motherland. This is a testament to the rigour of the new system.

Since the Imperial examinations were abolished in 1905, the emphasis in China has swung sharply away from the Confucian classics, and from literature and philosophy in general. After 1949, education was slanted heavily towards science as China strove to catch up with the rest of the world. The Cultural Revolution, with its condemnation of the “Four Olds”, saw efforts to stamp out Confucian thought completely. Now, it is generally acknowledged that the educational pendulum swung too far away from literature, and efforts are being made to allow students a choice of exam curriculum, enabling specialisation in literature and the arts once more.

Qinghua posters 1976
Teachers and students making big character posters at Qinghua University Beijing during the Cultural Revolution in China 1976.

Today's university entrance system is an imperfect heir to its imperfect father, the Imperial civil service examinations. But it does represent a continuing meritocratic trend in Chinese society with a history unparalleled elsewhere. The university system has improved greatly on its forebear, most notably through extending the opportunity of advancement by examination to female candidates. Clearly, the National University Entrance Examinations still emphasise rote-learning far too much, but this is increasingly recognised, as is the level of stress that it places on students. Both areas may be improved in the future.

But in providing a system that allows the children of illiterate peasants to study in the nation's greatest universities and to then progress into civil service positions, China is continuing the experiment that Maugham's philosopher described. China's meritocratic examination system should be a source of pride to its people, and an inspiration to the rest of the world.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2002, reprinted from SACU's China in Focus magazine Issue 12, 2002