Ancient Chinese Examination System Made Relevant

This article first appeared in the Singapore Straits Times on 16 March 1996.

There are few countries that can surpass China in its long tradition of according the highest respect and honour to scholars. The epitome of this tradition is the awe and reverence in which China’s premier sage and scholar, Confucius (551-479 BC), is held by successive generations of Chinese everywhere. His teachings permeate every aspect of Chinese life, 2,500 years after they were first enunciated.

In its long recorded history that spans over 5,000 years, China had traditionally placed scholars at the top of the social hierarchy. This was followed by farmers and labourers, with the merchants occupying the bottom rung. In Imperial China, the most worthwhile calling was to be a civil servant, which was dominated by men of letters steeped in the Confucian tradition. On the other hand, the merchant class was despised as money-making was equated with exploitation and therefore anathema to the Confucian value system.

While Chinese history is replete with instances of military adventurers and other “lesser breeds” mounting the dragon throne through military successes, it was inevitably the scholar-bureaucrat who was called upon to administer the affairs of state and to formulate policies in the emperor’s name for compliance throughout the extensive empire. They were recruited primarily from amongst the literati – men with a classical education who became the custodians of the Confucian value system. It requires its adherents to have moral rectitude and integrity. In a society where every facet of community life came under the state purview, civil servants enjoyed more powers and prestige than corresponding positions in the armed forces and the private sector.

The story is often told of Liu Bang, Founder of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), who once boasted that, as he had conquered China on horseback, he could rule the country without the help of Confucian scholars. He was promptly cautioned that this would mean disaster; and that, to govern China effectively, the services of Confucian scholars were indispensable. This sentiment is echoed in the Doctrine of the Mean, one of the Confucian classics: “When men of right calibre are available, government flourishes; and when they are not, it declines.”

As early as the Zhou Dynasty (1026-221 BC) rudimentary methods already existed for selecting talents for the state bureaucracy. However, recruitment based solely on competitive written examination was first introduced during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) and became well established during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD). According to historian Northcote Parkinson, author of the famous book called Parkinson’s Law and one-time Professor of History at the University of Malaya in Singapore, the Chinese examination system was once so extensively copied by the other nations, including the West, that few people realised its Chinese origin. It predated the beginning of the European competitive written examination system by more than 1200 years. France was the first to study the Chinese system and introduce it in 1791. Germany followed in 1800, Britain in 1855 and United States in 1883. It was adopted in Korea, Thailand and Vietnam even earlier.

The principal advantage of the Chinese system was that it enabled the selection of civil servants on merit, rather than on the nepotic or corrupt basis that is usually a tempting alternative. Prof Parkinson contended that, whatever the faults of the competitive written examination, it certainly produced better results than any other method that had been attempted since. The competitive examination system had gripped the imagination and excitement of the Chinese people since its inception.

Many parents would make great sacrifices in order to ensure that their children have a good education which would prepare them adequately for the Civil Service. Such a practice would, of course, not appear strange to today’s East Asian parents, many of whom are firm believers in the Confucianist emphasis on education. What better testimony to this than the flourishing tuition industry, one of the most dynamic throughout East Asia?

The passing of competitive examinations was crucial to success in officialdom. It was not uncommon for candidates to spend years, sometimes even decades, in order to pass these examinations. Those in dire financial circumstances were supported by their families, or even by the entire village. A succesful scholar would bring great honour to his family and village.

The traditional Chinese regard for scholarship percolates beyond China, and has spread to the homes of the Overseas Chinese and to other East Asian countries. In Singapore, Chinese Singaporeans’ benefactions to education abound. Among those who will always be remembered for their munificence include Tan Kah Kee, Tan Lark Sye, Aw Boon Haw, Lee Kong Chian and Runme Shaw. The latter two were also founders of the Lee and Shaw Foundations, which still actively support education in Singapore today.

As in many other East Asian countries, the Singapore Government and people are imbued with the Confucian respect for education. A large amount of public funds have been expended on improving the education system. Schemes are developed to encourage continual educational improvement, such as the ability to withdraw the Government CPF funds for the purpose of further education.

While Singapore’s civil service is a legacy of colonial rule, the Confucian heritage has played an important role in making it among the finest in the world. Today, it attracts a good proportion of Singapore’s top talent pool into its fold. Much that is hailed, and at the same time controversial, about the Singapore scholarship system, has antecedents in the Chinese imperial Examination system. For instance, Singapore’s elite civilian Government service, the Administrative service, is today selected primarily from among Scholars. Administrative officers, some 200-strong, occupy key positions at Ministry headquarters such as permanent Secretary, deputy Secretary, divisional Directors and deputy Directors. A scholar fresh from University could begin his career as an Assistant or Deputy Director, whose views would be considered by his Permanent Secretary and Minister. By his late thirties or early forties, the most able administrative officers would have made it to permanent secretary. A few have even been picked for political office and elevated to ministerial positions.

On the positive side, such an accelerated track enables the Government to motivate and retain the best and most ambitious of the annual crop, thus assuring political leaders the continual availability of top quality advice and implementation. The counter argument has, however, always been the unfairness and elitism of selecting so many of the nation’s top civil servants largely on the basis of academic results early in life.

Whichever side one falls on this debate, one cannot help but see the striking similarity between Singapore’s system of scholar-administrators and the Chinese imperial Examination system. The latter was clearly also a system where the top office-holders in government were selected on the basis of examination performance. Another common thread was social mobility.  Just as top positions in the Singapore Civil Service are open to all eligible candidates regardless of their social background, religion or race, top candidates in Imperial China also came from all regions and walks of life. Just as many of Singapore’s prominent civil servants are sons of clerks, shopkeepers and taxi drivers, many of the emperor’s leading advisers had similarly modest antecedents.

What are the special features of the Chinese examination system?  The Chinese competitive examination system had undergone changes in each dynasty. The system described below is that of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

  • First, the would-be scholar must pass a County Examination and earn the title of Xiu Cai (Cultured Talent), probably comparable to a Bachelor’s degree.
  • The next hurdle would be to get through the Provincial Examination.  The successful candidates would then become a Ju Ren (Exalted Man), corresponding to a Master’s degree.
  • The Metropolitan Examination was conducted in the Chinese capital, Beijing, triennially. It was spread over three days of three sessions each.  The candidates must be knowledgeable in Confucian classics and the works of the other sages such as Mencius.  They would write a total of fifteen essays of classical themes including the art of government and current political problems. In addition, they would also compose a poem of eight couplets.
  • The examination would be held in a gigantic examination complex, with a tiny cell allocated to each candidate. He would write, eat and sleep in it until the ordeal was over.
  • Those successful (about three per cent of the candidates) would be conferred the title of Jin Shi (Finished Scholar), equivalent to a Doctorate degree.
  • The final lap was for all Finished Scholars to be invited to sit a Palace Examination, to be conducted with aplomb and ceremony in the august presence of the Son of Heaven. They would compose an essay in a single session, on a political or administrative subject to be personally selected by the Emperor.
  • The examination scripts of the top ten candidates would be submitted to the Emperor, who had the ultimate prerogative to either confirm or alter the examiners’ recommended rankings.

There had been isolated instances where the emperor did revise the rankings, sometimes for whimsical reasons. The Emperor would personally announce the names of the top three candidates. They would be conferred the most coveted titles of Zhuangyuan (Premier Scholar), Bangyan (Second Scholar) and Tanhua (Third Scholar) respectively. They would be groomed for the highest civil offices in the land. All the other Finished Scholars would be offered a variety of lesser appointments in the various provinces.

Two Southern Chinese provinces, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, had the distinction of having produced the highest number of Zhuangyuans than any other province. Among the Zhuangyuans who had become household names in China are:

  • Guo Zhiyi (a renowned Tang Dynasty general who combined brains with brawn)
  • Wang Wei ( a celebrated Tang Dynasty poet)
  • Liu Gongquan (a leading Tang Dynasty calligrapher)
  • Wen Tian-xiang (the revered Song Dynasty Prime Minister and patriot)
  • Shen Kun (a high-ranking official of the Ming Dynasty who hailed from Xiuning County in Anhui province)
  • Vung Tunghe (a Qing Dynasty high official and personal tutor to two emperors)
  • Liu Chunlin (the last Qing Zhuangyuan who died a pauper but was highly venerated)

The Chinese Competitive examination system was abolished in 1905. What brought about its demise?

By the late 19th Century the Qing Dynasty was already on the verge of collapse because of rampant corruption and incompetence. It had refused to introduce political, educational and other reforms that were badly needed to make China strong again. This led to aggressive foreign military interventions and the imposition of unequal treaties on China by the victorious powers. They also carved China into their respective spheres of influence with extra-territorial privileges.

The Qing Government then began to introduce the necessary reforms in a desperate attempt to prevent the disintegration of China. Scholars were sent abroad to study in western and Japanese universities. Upon their return, some were given important positions at Court in preference to Confucian scholars. Chinese universities, with syllabi based upon the western model, were established in large cities to cater to the emerging needs of China. Consequently, the importance and prestige of the Imperial Examination system declined as it had become outmoded, leading to its abolition.

How would one appraise the contributions of the Chinese examination system? In its more than 1,300 years of history, it had, on the whole, served China well, despite its many shortcomings. It enabled the nation to recruit the best talents into government administration, more than any other alternative systems could perhaps have achieved. However, because of its inability to adapt to the changing needs of China in the 20th Century, an era of industrial and technological revolution, it had outlived its usefulness and had to be replaced.

What implications does the demise of the Chinese examination system have on Singapore’s system of scholar-administrators? In one word, the answer is probably “relevance”. The imperial system declined because it continued to adhere rigidly to a syllabus of classical texts, when the world clearly required administrators who knew more than that. Similarly, Singapore’s system of scholar-administrators will continue to work well (charges of elitism and unfairness notwithstanding) as long as there continues to be a high correlation between academic performance and success in administration. The Government’s present system of awarding scholarships for a variety of academic disciplines and broadening their exposure through further scholarships in public and business administration at Masters level, is an excellent means of ensuring that Singapore has scholar-administrators who are exposed to the latest ideas in the governance of complex institutions and whole countries. It is unlikely that Singapore’s scholar-administrator system would follow the demise of the Chinese imperial system. As Singapore moves into the information age, the ability to grasp and analyse information would become all the more critical. These skills are the precinct of the scholar. Like it or not, many of these skills do become apparent by the time students are in their late teens.

There is, however, such a thing as a late developer. The challenge for the system would thus be one of fine tuning, of finding ways to identify those who might not have excelled at a crucial examination at 18 or 21, but who can nevertheless make a vital contribution to Singapore’s governance.

Lam Pin Foo

6 thoughts on “Ancient Chinese Examination System Made Relevant

  1. After reading this article, I feel that Ancient China and Singapore have many similarities. One of them is the examination formats and rankings. In ancient China, they use written examinations. Although now there are already no more farmers, Singapore still put scholars at a high ranking, so that they have the chance to become a civil servant. Singapore also use the bachelor, master and doctorate degree. All of these are used in Ancient China and Singapore. However, I feel that Liu Bang was too arrogant. He said that he could rule the country without any help of Confucian scholars.What he said was wrong, because if there was no scholars to help him, there will be too much things for him to handle and if he cannot attend to all in time, the whole country will collapse. As Singapore is using the same examination format as Ancient China, we should learn more about them. I feel that this information text is very useful. I hope that there will be more texts like this in the future.
    01 Aug 2014 06:48PM

  2. After I have read this article, I found out that many other countries are actually using the system that was discovered in China. For instance, countries like France and Germany have adapted After recalling what I had just read, I thought of how Liu Bang had boasted about how he could rule China without Confusion scholars. Liu Bang was promptly cautioned that this would mean disaster and to govern China effectively, Confucian scholars were indispensable. Another thing I had found out was that as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1026-221 BC) such methods already existed for selecting talents for the state bureaucracy. I have always thought that such examination systems were only discovered during the later dynasties, for example, the Tang Dynasty(618-906 AD). Well, this article has really helped me gained a lot of knowledge about Ancient China, especially about it’s examination systems and about it. I hope I can come across another article like this about other countries like Ancient Rome or Ancient India.

  3. After reading this article, I was shocked that the examination in China and Singapore actually have similarities. Many countries have actually used the system that was used in China, for example, France, Germany and United States. In this article, there are a few things I agree and disagree. For instance, one of the things that I agree is that the children’s parents are able to see the importance of education and are willing to make sacrifices. Even the child’s village is willing to help the child prepare for the examination. If the child pass the examination, it will bring honour and glory to the child.
    One of the other things that I disagree is that Liu Bang who is the founder of the Han Dynasty actually boasted that he could rule China without any scholars. Well, like the passage said, it meant disaster. In my opinion, the scholars are knowledgeable and may even help the king to rule the country but Liu Bang thought otherwise.
    Reading this article has helped me gain more information on Ancient China like about scholarship and the Dynasties. It also helps me understand more about the examinations in Ancient China.

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