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 Imperial Examination as the Main Form of Education

Little Dormitory of Examination Room
Little Dormitory of Examination Room
The system of the Imperial Examination, or Keju in Chinese, became the method by which talented people were recognized and selected for future positions in civil service. It began to be put into practice in the Sui Dynasty and lasted more than 1,300 years until the last examination during the Qing Dynasty. Thus it enjoyed a long and dominant position in the history of ancient Chinese education.

The imperial examinations comprised two parts namely an arts exam and the wushu exam. The arts examination includeds composition, study of books, laws, calligraphy, paintings and so on, while the wushu examination was used for selecting military officials but was not subject to the same degree of importance as the arts examination.

In the ancient society, class consciousness was strong and many people from lower classes would had have little chance to reach high office, not mention having any position in the official court. But once the 'keju' evaluation system was introduced, children from poor families had opportunities to attend the government exams, and this enabled them to bring honor to their families. Also, was a special exam for smart little children - 'tongziju', which was similar in many ways to today's special classes for gifted children. Thus regardless of parentage, or age, nearly all males were eligible to realize their self-development.

Despite the significant effect of promoting Confucian culture and education, it also influenced education systems in many other countries like Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and similarities can be found in the personnel selection methods employed in France, America and Britain. Today's education system is surely its successor.

 Origin of Imperial Examination in Sui Dynasty

Mansion of Zhuang Yuan, the highest-ranking student in examinations
Mansion of Zhuang Yuan, 
the highest-ranking student in examinations
It was during the Sui Dynasty that the many separate states were unified into a whole. To enforce the centralization of power, the emperor realized the need for a strong, well educated civil service, one that employed the best talents in the land. To bring this into effect the most influential system was initiated and substituted for what had gone before - jiupinzhongzheng. Although it was immature at the outset, it inter-wove closely the three essentials for state officials, those of learning, examination and administration. This system proved to be fairer and more far-reaching than any that had preceded it.

 Radication in the Tang Dyansty

The Tang Dynasty adopted the personnel selection system and gradually refined it. The main subjects of the examinations were writing and study of classical books, which were the most popular, as well as mathematics, law, calligraphy, etc. Most of prime ministers during that feudal period were titled 'jinshi', were good at writing.

The candidates almost always came from two sources. These were students of official schools and also intelligent people undergoing the exams in their local county, who were entitled 'juren' when they achieved the necessary qualifications to take the central government examinations held each spring.

The form and content of the exams varied from one another. The one testing knowledge of the classical books followed the method of filling in blanks. Usually one page of a book was chosen and several lines would be omitted. The candidates were required to fill the missing lines. Alternatively, they might be required to explain some of the lines in the book. Therefore the need to be able to recite the work was important. While the tests for 'jinshi' were not so easy - they required a talent for literature. Thus there was a saying that 'one only becomes 'jinshi' in his fifties, although he knew the books well in his thirties.'

Candidates who passed the highest imperial examination held by the Board of Rites would have a promising future as court officials. The dragon had always been regarded as the symbol of mighty power and especially that of the rights exercised by the emperor, consequently the success of examination candidates was proudly called 'stepping into the dragon's door'. The most successful scholar was then granted the title of 'zhuang yuan', the second 'bang yan', and the third 'tan hua'. When the results were declared, there would be much celebrating among these joyous people. They collected money for famous gardens, have feasts, and would leave their signatures under the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. How delighted they were! However there would be a final hurdle to cross - a test of another department 'the Board of Civil Office'. The erudite scholar Liu Zongyuan was given an official position directly after passing the exam because of his extensive knowledge while another scholar, Han Yu, unfortunately failed and had to be contented with the position of an assistant to a high official.

Writing Brush, Ink Stick and Ink Slab
Writing Brush, Ink Stick and Ink Slab
Inclusion in the list of successful candidates not only relied on the exam result but sometimes also upon the recommendation and instruction of a notable person with authority. The highly reputed poet Bai Juyi (772 - 846) had benefited a lot in this way, with the precondition of his dazzling endowment. When as a teenager he visited the senior poet Gu Kuang, he was not given too much attention but when the old poet saw that the boy's name meant in Chinese 'living free and easy'. He said to the modest and keen young lad, 'Hey boy, living in the competitive capital Chang'an (now Xi'an) is never an easy thing.' Then he began to casually read Bai Juyi's verse. However, after reading the first sentence of the poem, Gu Kuang became surprised and eager to read more, saying hopefully, 'You can write so brilliant a verse, that living in Chang'an will never be a difficulty for you.' This submitted poem was "A Farewell Poem to the Old Meadow", which continues to win universal praise today.

During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian, she asked questions of candidates herself in the imperial hall. This was the initialization of the interview. She also created the form of Wushu examination in subjects such as the use of fire arms.