Chinese examination system, civil service recruitment method and educational system employed from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) until it was abolished by the Ch'ing dowager empress Tz'u Hsi in 1905 under pressure from leading Chinese intellectuals. The concept of a state ruled by men of ability and virtue was an outgrowth of Confucian philosophy. The examination system was an attempt to recruit men on the basis of merit rather than on the basis of family or political connection. Because success in the examination system was the basis of social status and because education was the key to success in the system, education was highly regarded in traditional China. If a person passed the provincial examination, his entire family was raised in status to that of scholar gentry, thereby receiving prestige and privilege. The texts studied for the examination were the Confucian classics. In the T'ang dynasty (618–906) the examination system was reorganized and more efficiently administered. Because some scholars criticized the emphasis on memorization without practical application and the narrow scope of the examinations, the system underwent further change in the Sung dynasty (960–1279). Wang An-shih reformed the examination, stressing the understanding of underlying ideas and the ability to apply classical insights to contemporary problems. In the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) the commentaries of the Sung Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi were adopted as the orthodox interpretation of the classics. Although only a small percentage of students could achieve office, students spent 20 to 30 years memorizing the orthodox commentaries in preparation for a series of up to eight examinations for the highest degree. By the 19th cent. the examination system was regarded as outdated and inadequate training for officials who faced the task of modernizing China. After it was abolished, mass education along with a Western type curriculum was promoted.
See W. Franke, The Reform and Abolition of the Traditional Chinese Examination System (1960); J. M. S. Meskill, The Chinese Civil Service (1963); E. A. Kracke, Jr., Civil Service in Early Sung China, 960–1067 (1968); I. C. Y. Hsu, The Rise of Modern China (1970); I. Miyazaki, China's Examination Hell (tr. 1981).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.