Chinese imperial examinations were a civil service examination system in Imperial China to select candidates for the state bureaucracy. The exams were based on knowledge of the classics and literary style, not technical expertise, and successful candidates were generalists who shared a common language and culture. This common culture helped to unify the empire and the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule, while leaving clear problems resulting from a systemic lack of technical and practical expertise.

The tests had a lengthy historical background in Chinese thought, including evaluating the potential of possible people to fill positions through various contests, competitions, or interviews.

The examination system was the major mechanism by which the central government captured and held the loyalty of local-level elites.

The operations of the examination system were part of the imperial record keeping system. The examinations consisted of tests administered at the district, provincial, and metropolitan levels.

Much of the development of the imperial bureaucracy in the Confucian form in which it was known in later times had much of its origin in the Han dynasty rule of Han Wudi.

In the Han Dynasty, candidates for offices recommended by the prefect of prefecture were examined by the minister of ceremony and then presented to the emperor. Some candidates for clerical positions would be given a test determine whether they could memorize nine thousand Chinese characters. The imperial examinations during the Han dynasty did not offer a formal entry into government posts. Recruitment and appointment in the Han dynasty was primarily through recommendations by aristocrats and local officials. Recommended individuals were also primarily aristocrats. In theory, recommendations were based on a combination of reputation and ability but it’s not certain how well this worked in practice. Oral examinations on policy issues were sometimes conducted personally by the emperor himself during Western Han times.

In 165 BC Emperor Wen of Han introduced recruitment to the civil service through examinations, however these did not heavily emphasize Confucian material. Previously, potential officials never sat for any sort of academic examinations.

Emperor Wu of Han’s early reign saw the creation of a series of posts for academicians in 136 BC. Ardently promoted by Dong Zhongshu, the Taixue and Imperial examination came into existence by recommendation of Gongsun Hong, chancellor under Wu. Officials would select candidates to take part in an examination of the Confucian classics, from which Emperor Wu would select officials to serve by his side. Gongsun intended for the Taixue’s graduates to become imperial officials but they usually only started off as clerks and attendants, and mastery of only one canonical text was required upon its founding, changing to all five in the Eastern Han. Starting with only 50 students, Emperor Zhao expanded it to 100, Emperor Xuan to 200, and Emperor Yuan to 1000.

While the examinations expanded under the Han, the number of graduates who went on to hold office were few. The examinations did not offer a formal route to commissioned office and the primary path to office remained through recommendations. Though connections and recommendations remained more meaningful than the exam, the initiation of the examination system by Emperor Wu had a cultural significance, as the state determined the most important examination material were Confucian. During the Han dynasty, these examinations were primarily used for the purpose of classifying candidates who had been specifically recommended. Even during the Tang dynasty the quantity of placements into government service through the examination system only averaged about nine persons per year, with the known maximum being less than 25 in any given year.

Edited by staff

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