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The Examination System

The two great distinctions of the people were into the literary class and the plebeian. Admission into the literary class is open to every individual of the empire, however poor or unknown; and from this class alone are selected all government officials, from the lowest clerk up to the greatest mandarin. Candidates for admission are subjected to a strict and generally an impartial examination. After having passed this first examination, they underwent a second and more searching one before they could become eligible for office; and a third was necessary for those who aimed at the highest posts. The candidates for office were, or, according to law, ought to be, men who had graduated at the great literary examinations. The members of the board of ceremonies, however, were not at all unwilling, for a consideration, to submit to the notice of his majesty for office the names of men whose literary rank had been bought rather than attained by study.

The candidates for these literary honors were always very numerous, and an intense interest is shown at the periods of examination, both by the individuals themselves and their relatives. A great many were of course rejected, but these return again and again to their studies, and make repeated attempts to pass the ordeal. Once accepted, they were almost sure to succeed in time to some government employment.

The mandarinate was democratic in its origin, being regularly recruited from the masses of the people by a series of most rigid examinations. These examinations were attested to be generally fair and impartial, although the sons of the very highest officials were sometimes given a preference. Beginning with the district town examination, the candidate for governmental honors must pass through a series of rigid tests in his department, circuit, and province, until, if successful in all, he finally reached the Peking or imperial examination. This was held under the immediate supervision of the emperor, who, according to the doctrine of Confucius, was primarily a teacher. Thus the emperor's first official act was usually the giving of a set lesson in formal ethics to his ministers.

The subjects in which candidates were examined were the Chinese classics, style, and calligraphy. The ancient Five Classics and the four books recording the doctrines of Confucianism, especially the treatise of Mencius, had to be memorized, and in addition to this, the vast scholastic critical apparatus that had accumulated for centuries must be mastered by the candidate for final graduation. The examination in style was chiefly a test in the use of unusual word signs, a fine style consisting in the ability to employ word signs which the ordinary man did not understand. The prime purpose of education in this field was therefore to fill the mind of the student with the largest possible number of word images. In order that the number of candidates may be thinned out, the requirements were continually increased in severity.

Three sets of subjects were assigned, each requiring two days and a night, and none was permitted to leave his small apartment until the expiration of that time. The essays must not have over seven thousand characters, and no erasure or correction is permitted. On the first day the subjects were selected from the Four Books; on the next, from the older classics; on the last, miscellaneous questions were assigned. These are some of the subjects: "Choo-tsze, in commenting on the Shoo-King, made use of four authors, who sometimes say too much, at other times too little; sometimes their explanations are forced, at other times too ornamental. What have you to observe on them?" "Chinshow had great abilities for historic writing. In his Three Kingdoms he has depreciated Choo-ko-lang, and made very light of E. and E., two other celebrated characters. What is it that he says of them?"

In late imperial China the status of local-level elites was ratified by contact with the central government, which maintained a monopoly on society's most prestigious titles. The examination system and associated methods of recruitment to the central bureaucracy were major mechanisms by which the central government captured and held the loyalty of local-level elites. Their loyalty, in turn, ensured the integration of the Chinese state and countered tendencies toward regional autonomy and the breakup of the centralized system. The examination system distributed its prizes according to provincial and prefectural quotas, which meant that imperial officials were recruited from the whole country, in numbers roughly proportional to a province's population. Elites all over China, even in the disadvantaged peripheral regions, had a chance at succeeding in the examinations and achieving the rewards of officeholding.

The examination system also served to maintain cultural unity and consensus on basic values. The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elite and ambitious would-be elite all across China were being indoctrinated with the same values. Even though only a small fraction (about 5 percent) of those who attempted the examinations passed them and received titles, the study, self-indoctrination, and hope of eventual success on a subsequent examination served to sustain the interest of those who took them. Those who failed to pass (most of the candidates at any single examination) did not lose wealth or local social standing; as dedicated believers in Confucian orthodoxy, they served, without the benefit of state appointments, as teachers, patrons of the arts, and managers of local projects, such as irrigation works, schools, or charitable foundations.

In late traditional China, then, education was valued in part because of its possible payoff in the examination system. The overall result of the examination system and its associated study was cultural uniformity -- identification of the educated with national rather than regional goals and values. This self-conscious national identity underlay the nationalism so important in China's politics in the twentieth century.

The benumbing, stupefying effect of this education is apparent in the helplessness of vast numbers of mandarins when they are confronted with anything like the problems of modern science. The ultraconservatism of the mandarins in general is also explained by the artificial nature of their training. Any reform along Western lines would render worthless the knowledge that gives prestige to the members of the present official class.

In theory there was no road to office but the thorny path of competition. A government that made this the rule was pure. One that set it aside even partially was branded as corrupt. Such, in popular estimation, came to be the character of the Tatsing, or "Great Pure," Manchu dynasty, because in the later part of the 19th Century it declined from the standard of earlier reigns, in every season of distress from war or famine replenishing its exchequer by the sale of honors or office. Yet so cautiously was this done that not one in ten of the mandarins owed his elevation to direct purchase. The imperial examination system was abolished in 1905 and educational reforms were instituted. Many students went abroad for advanced studies in such practical fields as science, engineering, medicine, law, economics, education and military science. Upon returning from Japan, Europe and the United States, they dedicated their lives to the mission of transforming China into a modern nation. Through their writings, lectures and work, they exercised a powerful influence on the next generation of intellectuals.

Guided by the ideals of freedom and equality, scientific inquiry, and pragmatic innovation in confronting challenges, the new wave of intellectuals sought reform of the nation's institutions more profound than had been accomplished through the Self-strengthening Movement of the late Ching period or efforts made in the early Republican period.

Under the leadership of its chancellor, Tsai Yuan-pei, Peking University became China's most prestigious center for forward-looking scholarly research and reform advocacy, and a source of inspiration to educators nationwide. Among its most influential reform-minded scholars was Hu Shih, professor of philosophy. In particular, Hu played a seminal role in promoting vernacular literature in place of the classical Chinese writing style that had long been the mark of an educated person.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:40:09 ZULU