Chinese Imperial Civil Service Exam System

The gapou (jiapu) 家譜 lists the government rankings of various individuals, therefore I thought it would be a good idea to give a brief introduction about the civil service exam system.

In imperial China the emperor needed a large number of officials to help govern the vast country. Starting in the Ceoi (Sui) 隋 [581-618] and Tong (Tang) 唐 [618-907] dynasties, emperors used civil service exams to appoint people to government positions based on their own merit, rather than on family and political connections.

Becoming a government official was a highly sought after job because it give a person and his entire family a lot of prestige, honor, privilege and wealth. A government official earned enough money from his salary, tax collections and sometimes graft to support his entire family for years to come. Anyone could take the exams, so in theory even the poorest peasant could become a high ranking official by passing the exams. During the Ming Dynasty almost 50% of the zeon si (jin shi) 進士 degree holders came from families who did not have government connections. However, even though the exams were open to everyone, usually only wealthy families had the time, money and resources necessary to devote years studying for the Confucian classics based exams.

There was no age limits and a person could take the exam as many times as they wanted. There are many stories of men in their 70s who were still trying to pass the exams. The only real requirement for taking the exams was that you had to be a man.

Civil service exam system during the Ming (Ming) 明 Dynasty[1368 - 1644]

Level 1: District Level

First you had to pass the zau jyun si (zhou xian shi) 州縣試 or fu zau si (fu zhou shi) 府州試 [district level exam]. There was no degree at this level. The people who passed, achieved the status of tung sang (tong sheng) 童生. If you passed the district level exam, you were allowed to take the prefectural level exam. About 2% of the population had this status. These people were still considered commoners.

Level 2a: Prefectural Level

People who pass the tung si (tong shi) 童試 or jyun si (yuan shi) 院試 [prefectural level exam] were awarded the sang jyun (sheng yuan) 生員 degree. The exam was held two times every three years at the capital of the local prefecture. About .2% of the population had this degree. The most outstanding sang jyun (sheng yuan) 生員 degree holders where given the gung sang (gong sheng) 貢生 degree. These people were considered lower gentry.

Level 2b

The government also allowed people to buy a gaam sang (jian sheng) 監生 degree. Wealthy people who were too lazy to study or who failed the prefectural level exam bought these degrees to improve their social status. A person with this degree was also allowed to take the provincial level exam. These people were considered lower gentry.

Level 3: Provincial Level

People who passed the hoeng si (xiang shi) 鄉試 [provincial level exam] were awarded the geoi jan (ju ren) 舉人 degree. The exam was held at the provincial capital every three years. About .0065% of the population had this degree. These people where considered upper gentry.

Level 4: Metropolitan Level

People who passed the wui si (hui shi) 會試 [metropolitan level exam] were awarded the gung sang (gong sheng) 貢士 degree. Soon after passing the metropolitan test, the candidate would take the din si (dian shi) 殿試 [Palace Examination] and be conferred the zeon si (jin shi) 進士 degree. The exam was given at Beijing once every three years. About .0009% of the population had this degree. These people were considered highest gentry.

Passing the exams gave you the right to hold office, but it did not guarantee a position. Usually only those with the higher degrees would get appointments. People who either had a classical Confucian education but failed the exams or received the sang jyun (sheng yuan) 生員 degree became members of the local elite. They served as intermediaries between the appointed government officials and the local peasants.

The exam system was abolished in 1905. The rulers realized that in order for the country to survive in the 20th century, they had to abandon the Confucian-classics-based education system, and adopt a Western-type, science-and-technology-based system.