How Were Government Officials Chosen in Ancient China?

The governance of a country must rely on competent officials. During the Xia, Shang, and Zhou periods of ancient China, the practice of blood-related aristocracy inevitably led to social rigidity and corruption.

When the powers competed for supremacy during the Spring and Autumn Period, virtuous governance was respected, while the blood-related aristocracy faded away gradually. The social prejudice of origin based on nobility was eliminated, and the selection of talent in many patterns became a vital practice of governance. It was a series of initiatives to select the best and the brightest that gave rise to a number of officials and generals from all social sectors, promoting the historical process from division to unification and thus leading to the unified Qin Empire.

Since the Qin and Han dynasties, with the establishment of a unified multi-ethnic country, increasing attention was paid to absorbing elites from all social strata to fill the ranks of officials to ensure good governance. In the early Han Dynasty, the System of Recommendation of official recruitment was introduced, in which senior officials in the imperial court nominated virtuous and upright people who, after passing certain examinations, were incorporated into the ranks of the administration, which not only led to the flow of social strata but also contributed to the overall quality improvement of officials.

In 196 BC, Emperor Gaozu of Han issued an edict, requesting all governors of recommendation to visit people with great reputations and virtue in the countryside and send their deeds, appearance, age, and other information to the central government personally for inspection. If any governor found a talented person but did not recommend, they would be removed from office. During the reign of Emperor Wu of Han, the System of Recommendation was formally established. For those who were recommended, Emperor Wu gave them high regard and asked some questions about governance and classics for examination, which were called “strategic questions (策问ce wen).” The answer to the question raised by the court is called “answers pronounced quickly as arrows go (射策she ce)” or “the discursive test (对策dui ce).” Tung Chung-shu was appointed because he was worthy, excellent, straightforward, and upright, and his answers to the three questions satisfied the emperor. Gongsun Hong (200-121 BC), one of the prime ministers of the Han Dynasty, was appointed in the same way.

From the reign of Emperor Wu of Han, the subjects of the System of Recommendation increased, mainly including filially-incorruptibility (孝廉xiao lian), cultivated talent (秀才xiu cai), experts in the Confucian Classics (明经ming jing), and the worthy, excellent, straightforward, and upright (贤良方正xian liang fang zheng), etc. Tests were divided into two categories: “regular test (常科chang ke)” and “special tests (特科te ke).” The regular test was filially-incorruptibility, in which the local governor recommended those who had the quality of “filial piety or incorruptibility” to take the examination at the central government according to the proportion of the population in the area, and those who passed the examination were granted official positions. The “special tests” were established to select people with excellent moral character and special talents from time to time. During the centuries of implementation, the System of Recommendation highlighted the value of selecting officials by virtue, ability, and literacy.

After the reign of Emperor Wu, Confucianism was revered, and most people were appointed because of their knowledge of the Confucian classics. The importance of Confucianism led relevant tests to become a key element of the System of Recommendation. However, the examination under this system was not dominant in the Western Han Dynasty, and it was only a reference to distinguish talents and appoint officials, which differed greatly from the examination-driven Imperial Examination System in later times. Nevertheless, based on the recommendation, the examination became a new trend in the development of the System of Recommendation, and one of the fundamental purposes was to correct the abuse of the recommendation. Therefore, the pattern in which the recommendation plays a leading role while examination remains its supplement has been implemented throughout the Han Dynasty. From the Wei Dynasty, the selection of filial-incorruptibility focused not only on character, but also on the knowledge of classics, and the criteria for the selection of officials shifted to the examination gradually.

In the mid-and late-Han period, land annexation was serious, and a trinity of bureaucrats, merchants, and landlords gradually formed as the prominent families and the gentry class (门阀士族men fa shi zu). The Eastern Han regime was established with the support of these classes, who enjoyed various political, economic, and cultural privileges. They held both central and local powers, annexed land, and ran the estates, becoming independent political and military powers. From the late Eastern Han Dynasty, these eminent families misused the System of Recommendation and recommended people with an undeserved reputation. So, Cao Cao(155-220), under this background, put forward the idea of “appointing just the ablest ones,” advocating that all nominees with talents would be recommended. From 210, he gave orders of “seeking talents” or “seeking exceptionally gifted people,” which catered to the urgent desire of small and medium landowners and intellectuals to participate in politics. After Cao Cao, Cao Pi (187-226) established the Wei Kingdom. To ease the conflicts with the distinguished families, he established the Nine-Rank System of State Offices (九品中正制jiu pin zhong zheng zhi) to select officials with equal emphasis on family background, moral conduct, and talent.

The Nine-Rank System of State Offices enriched and improved the System of Recommendation, contributing to the progress in the official selection system. This is because the recommendation system evaluated clans and townships as the most important basis for the government to select officials. Although the Nine-Rank System inherited the tradition of township evaluation, it brought the power of official selection back to the government through the rectifier (中正zhong zheng), which to a certain extent inhibited the exclusive power of the prominent families and the gentry class. Under this system, wise and knowledgeable officials were selected as the rectifier in each prefecture and province, and they were classified into nine grades of quality based on their family background, morality, and talent, as a basis for the Ministry of Officials to appoint officials. However, the positive effect was rather limited because most of the rectifiers were from distinguished families, who, in fact, held the key to official selection.

Prior to the Imperial Examination System, the Nine-Rank System of State Offices was implemented during the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern dynasties. The System of Recommendation was used at the same time but took a back seat. Those who were admitted to the government through the recommendation system had to be evaluated by the rectifiers, which was an explicit restriction on the status, promotion, and position of the official. Since then, the system has remained centered on the recommendation with some changes. In addition to the traditional annual tests and special tests, many special subjects were added from time to time. The examination candidates were changed from two kinds, including civil officials and Confucian scholars to Confucian scholars only. From the personnel structure, about half of the officials were from the lower classes, and most of the descendants of high-ranking officials no longer went through the recommendation but through the rectifiers. However, during the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589), the Nine-Rank System witnessed the decline of prominent families and the gentry class. These people from distinguished families were only willing to become officials with a leisurely position and generous salary(qing guan), while those of lateral lines (庶族shu zu) who were determined to be diligent and honesty could only obtain offices with heavy duties and meager salary (浊官zhuo guan). However, many open-minded rulers in the late Northern and Southern dynasties, such as the famous minister of the Northern Dynasty Su Chuo (498-546), the Southern Liang Emperor Xiao Yan (464-549), etc., discarded the bias towards the family background and gradually shifted the focus of selecting officials to the candidate’s knowledge of Confucian classics, paving the way for the establishment of the Imperial Examination System and the rise of the political system of cultural elites.

Professor Liu Haifeng, a contemporary scholar who studies the ancient Imperial Examination System, quotes the Japanese historian Katsuro Hara’s comment, “The Imperial Examination System has been conducted in China for more than a thousand years and has been improved in successive dynasties, which is by no means something to be laughed at. The Imperial Examination System is the pinnacle of Chinese civilization, far ahead of the European and American civilizations in terms of the extensive selection of talents through public examinations.”

In 589, Yang Jian, also respected as Emperor Wen of Sui, unified China, ending the wars and division lasting more than 300 years. He then issued an edict to stop military operations and revitalize culture and education. For the first in history, the Imperial Examination System was thus established. According to historical records, the Imperial Examination System was founded in 605 with the “Presented Scholars” (进士科jin shi ke)being set up.

The Tang government perfected the Imperial Examination System continuously. To expand the number of students for the examinations, Emperor Taizong encouraged school education and built the Directorate of Education (国子监guo zi jian) as the highest school in the country, which was divided into six sections, including School for the Sons of the Officials ranked three or higher (国子学guo zi xue), School for Sons of the Officials ranked five or higher (太学tai xue), the School for the Sons of the Officials ranked seven or higher (四门学si men xue), the Law School (律学lü xue), the Calligraphy School (书学shu xue), and the Arithmetics School (算学suan xue) while encouraging local governments and individuals to open schools. There were two types of examinations: regular ones (常科chang ke) and irregular ones (制科zhi ke). The regular examinations were held every year, and there were more than 50 kinds of subjects in total, such as cultivated talent, experts in the Confucian classics, the presented scholars (进士jin shi), experts in law (明法ming fa), in writing (明书ming shu), in arithmetic (明算ming suan), etc. Among them, the two subjects of classicist and presented scholars were the main ones. Those who participated in the schools could apply for the examination directly, while others should first apply to the local prefecture and county. When they were qualified, they were sent by the prefecture and county to the capital city to take the examination. And those who passed the examination would be the candidates for the official posts. The contents of the examinations highlighted Confucian classics and current issues, with the Classics section focusing on Confucian classics and the presented scholars on treatises of current issues and poetry. Those who passed the examination were only qualified for the position, but they still needed to be tested by the officials of the Ministry of Officials. The test consisted of an assessment of the figure (身shen) of the candidate, his speech (言yan), his calligraphy (书shu), and intelligence (判pan), and only those who passed the test could be appointed.

Originating from the Han Dynasty, the special examination, as the highest standard examination in the Tang Dynasty, was named at the emperors’ pleasure, and the procedures were more complicated than the regular one. Candidates for the examination were also selected from all over the country, and they could be ordinary people, those who had already passed mingjing(明经) or jinshi(进士), or were even serving officials. After a pre-test, the emperor himself would give the test questions, and then the court would issue a special letter to select talents according to the key points of national work in a certain period. Based on the actual needs of the selection of officials, the emperors determined the content, which was mainly about current affairs policy, and the date of the examination at any time. Those who succeeded in the examination could be promoted if they were serving officials, and those who were not in office would be appointed as officials by the Ministry of Officials. Sometimes, the examination was held in the imperial palace, and the emperor would be present, so those who passed the examination were called the Emperor’s Elite Students (天子门生tian zi men sheng).

There were some special Imperial Examinations like the examination for exceptionally gifted children (童子举tong zi ju), which was developed from the same section of the System of Recommendation. The examination aimed to find prodigies. For example, the literary scholar Yan Shu (991-1055) in the Song Dynasty passed the examination at 14 and later became prime minister.

The Military Examination System (武举wu ju) was designed to screen for talented individuals in the military. It was first implemented by Wu Zetian(624-705), the only empress of China, in 702. The Ministry of Defense administered the military examinations, including shooting on horseback, shooting while marching, shooting stationary targets, riding and handling polearms, and performing exercises like carrying heavy objects and wrestling. The examination also required the candidate’s appearance, and only those with majestic bodies had a chance to take the exam. Later in the Song Dynasty, military strategies were included, for example, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. By the Ming Dynasty, military strategy was placed over military skills in the examination, and if the written test on strategy failed, one could not take the military examination. The rulers of the Qing Dynasty came from a nomadic background and were good at riding and shooting, so they paid more attention to the military examination than the previous dynasties. In the Qing Dynasty, military officers were mainly elected from ranks, followed by martial arts examination. However, the number of those who came from the military examination was increasing, and they occupied a considerable proportion of the army, making the civil practice of martial arts flourish for a while.

After inheriting the Imperial Examination of the Tang and Five Dynasties, the Song Dynasty saw a number of changes in the examination.

First, the examination subjects were almost fixed. In general, the Imperial Examinations of the Song Dynasty were mainly based on regular tests, while the special tests were insignificant.

Second, the content of the examination was gradually established. To highlight and consolidate the ideological status of Confucianism and to create and select talented people for the imperial court, the Song imperial examinations were mainly based on Confucian classics, while poetry and literature were sidelined.

Third, the examination form was stricter. In the Song Dynasty, the examinees who were the disciples of the examiners were excluded from the examination. To prevent the officials from playing favorites, the system of blinding (hu ming) was officially adopted to seal or cut off the candidates’ names, places of origin, and initial grades at the top of the examination papers.

Fourth, the style of examination gradually changed. The literary style of the Song Dynasty, characterized by plain and elegant language, was formed, further establishing the literary style of the Song and later generations. Fifth, the examination period was clarified. The Palace Examination System (dian shi) was formalized, thus forming the three-tier examination system consisting of the prefectural examination (zhou shi), the metropolitan examination (sheng shi), and the palace examination (殿试dian shi). It was clearly proposed that the examination was held once every three years, and the one who came first in the highest imperial examination was the No. One Scholar (状元zhuang yuan).

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the examinations were divided into four levels: first, the examination for exceptionally gifted children (tong shi), which consists of three parts, namely the county examination (县考xian kao), the prefectural examination (府考fu kao) and the commission examination (院考yuan kao), and those who pass the commission examination were called cultivated talent (秀才xiu cai); second, prefectural examinations of lower grade (乡试xiang shi), were held every three years and administered by the provinces, and those who passed were called provincial recommenders (举人ju ren); third, the metropolitan examination (hui shi), also held once every three years, was held by the Ministry of Rites at the Examination Compound (贡院gong yuan), and those who passed were called gong shi (the nominees who passed the national-level Imperial Examinations); the fourth is the palace examination (also known as 廷试ting shi). All levels of the examination were limited in number, and candidates must take the examinations from the lowest level upwards. After the metropolitan examination, the quota of passed scholars was fixed at 300. And the emperor in person presided the palace examination in the Hall of the Utmost Harmony (太和殿tai he dian) in the Imperial City, and only one exam was held for one day, with an entry in the early morning and retreat at sunset.

The palace examiners first evaluated the scripts for gradation in turn and then divided them into third-rank scholars (三甲san jia) according to their qualities. Next, the scripts of the ten best results were handed over to the emperor, who made the final decision. The first rank was given to three graduates who were awarded metropolitan scholars with honors (进士及第jin shi ji di), namely the No. 1 Scholar, the Runner-up Scholar (bang yan), and the Third Scholar (tan hua). About 20 scholars of the second rank obtained the grade of regular metropolitan scholars (进士jin shi), and the No. 1 of them was usually called list leader (传胪chuan lu). Those of the third rank obtained associate metropolitan scholars (同进士tong jin shi). After the Palace Examination, the emperor himself filled the final list with the names of the first three scholars in red and decided the order of the first seven scholars of the second rank. These names would be written on the golden sheet made of gold silk, and this was called Attaining Top Marks in the Imperial Examination (金榜题名jin bang ti ming).

In the Ming Dynasty, the system of policy-observer scholars (进士观政jin shi guan zheng) and bachelors (庶吉士shu ji shi) were introduced in the Imperial Examinations as a pre-service training system for senior officials in the imperial court, and the bachelors’ system served the same purpose as the system of policy-observer scholars for training mid-level officials and the system for training junior officials. Later, only the presented scholars could enter the Hanlin Academy to get practical training, and after that, they had chances to work in the Grand Secretariat. In the Qing Dynasty, the bachelor’s system was stricter. Three days after the released results of the palace examination, the new scholars took part in a court examination (朝考chao kao) in the Hall of the Preservation of Harmony (保和殿bao he dian). Then they were ranked according to their results in a reexamination (复试fu shi), the palace examination, and the court examinations and appointed to offices like Hanlin bachelor. This ceremony was called Appointment by the Emperor to the Imperial Academy (点翰林dian han lin), becoming the highlight moment in the imperial examination era.

In terms of the content and format, the examination trended towards formalization. During the Chenghua Period of the Ming Dynasty(1465-1487), the examination took on a more fixed form, that is, the Eight-Legged Essay (八股文ba gu wen), promoted by several ministers of classics. In 1646, the Qing government continued the Eight-Legged Essay for the Imperial Examinations. The topics of the Eight-Legged Essays all quoted the original texts in the Four Books and the Five Classics, and candidates must answer the questions by applying the interpretation of Neo-Confucian masters, such as Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi, and Chu Hsi as their ideological guidelines. The structure of the genre was fixed, and it consisted of eight parts, namely, opening (破题po ti), amplification (承题cheng ti), preliminary exposition (起讲qi jiang), merging into the discussion (入题ru ti), initial argument (起股qi gu), central argument (中股zhong gu), latter argument (后股hou gu) and final argument (束股shu gu). The length of the essay was required 500 to 700 words, and it was required to follow the specified format, naturally making the dull and rigid essays detested by educated people.

This type of examination was kept until the end of the Qing Dynasty, which stifled the learners’ creativity, further fettering innovative thought and culture. From the Hundred Days’ Reform (戊戌变法wu xu bian fa) to the New Policies of the late Qing Dynasty, the Imperial Examination was the first to be reformed. In 1904, the Qing government held the last Imperial Examination before it was abolished the next year. The abolition of the Imperial Examination System freed intellectuals from the shackles of rigid examinations, both from the system and especially from the cultural content. They were able to open their eyes to the outside world and learn advanced modern science and technology to keep up with the historical trend. However, the main system of electing officials had since been interrupted, and those cultural elites cultivated by the education system could not all be incorporated into officialdom. So, some progressive intellectuals chose to take the revolutionary path.

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