Imperial examinations were a civil service examination system in Imperial China to select candidates for the state bureaucracy.

Starting with the Song dynasty, the system was regularized and developed into a roughly three-tiered ladder from local to provincial to court exams. The content was narrowed and fixed on texts of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy.

During the Song dynasty the emperors expanded both examinations and the government school system, in part to counter the influence of military aristocrats, increasing the number of those who passed the exams to more than four to five times that of the Tang. Thus the system played a key role in the selection of the scholar-officials, who formed the elite members of society.

In the Song dynasty (960–1279) more than a hundred higher level examinations were held. Officials selected through the exams became dominant in the bureaucracy. The number of jinshi degrees also increased.

Theoretically, the examinations were open to adult (at least in terms of literacy) Chinese males, with some restrictions. This included even individuals from the occupied northern territories.

Many individuals moved from a low social status to political prominence through success in imperial examination. Examples include Wang Anshi, who proposed reforms to make the exams more practical, and Zhu Xi, whose interpretations of the Four Classics became the orthodox Neo-Confucianism which dominated later dynasties. Two other prominent successful entries into politics through the examination system were Su Shi and his brother Su Zhe: both of whom became political opponents of Wang Anshi. Indeed, one of the major objectives of the examination system was to promote diversity of viewpoints and to avoid over-filling of offices with individuals of particular political or partisan alignment, as might occur with alternative, more biased methods, which could allow for active recruitment.

Yet the process of studying for the examination tended to be time-consuming and costly, requiring time to spare and tutors. Most of the candidates came from the numerically small but relatively wealthy land-owning scholar-official class.

Since 937, by the decision of the Taizu Emperor of Song, the palace examination was supervised by the emperor himself. In 992, the practice of anonymous submission of papers during the palace examination was introduced; it was spread to the departmental examinations in 1007, and to the prefectural level in 1032.

The practice of recopying the papers in order not to allow biases by revealing the candidate by his calligraphy was introduced at the capital and departmental level in 1105, and in the prefectures in 1037.

Statistics indicate that the Song imperial government degree-awards eventually more than doubled the highest annual averages of those awarded during the Tang dynasty, with 200 or more per year on average being common, and at times reaching a per annum figure of almost 240.

Various reforms or attempts to reform the examination system were made during the Song dynasty, including by Fan Zhongyan and those by Wang Anshi. Fan’s memorial to the throne actually initiated a process which lead to major educational reform through the establishment of a comprehensive public school system.

Edited by staff


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