SCHOLAR-OFFICIALS & THE EXAMINATION SYSTEM

Scholar by a Waterfall
Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), late 12th–early 13th century
Ma Yuan (Chinese, active ca. 1190–1225)
Album leaf: ink and color on silk;
Signed: “Servitor, Ma Yuan”
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“[T]his album leaf [shows] a gentleman in a gardenlike setting, the jagged rhythms of the pine tree and garden contrast with the quiet mood of the scholar, who gazes pensively into the bubbling rapids of the cascade. ...”

Learn more about this painting at the Metropolitan Museum website.

Scholar-Officials of the Song

The Song period saw the full flowering of one of the most distinctive features of Chinese civilization — the scholar-official class certified through highly competitive civil service examinations.

Most scholars came from the landholding class, but they acquired prestige from their learning and political clout by serving in office. In a society in which most people were illiterate, scholar-officials stood out by virtue of their reading and writing skills. Their Confucian education encouraged them to aspire for government service, but also to speak up when they thought others were pursuing the wrong course, making them courageous critics of power.

 

Memorials by Song-dynasty Officials

Memorial on the Crop Loans Measure, By Wang Anshi
Remonstrance Against the New Laws, By Cheng Hao

 

The Examination System

Since the Sui Dynasty (581-617), it had been possible to become a government official by passing a series of written examinations. It was only in the Song, however, that the examination system came to be considered the normal ladder to success.

From the point of view of the early Song emperors, the purpose of the civil service examinations was to draw men with literary educations into the government to counter the dominance of military men. So long as the system identified men who would make good officials, it did not matter much if some talented people were missed.

More about Scholar-Officials and the Civil Service Examinations

Scholar-Officials of China [The Metropolitan Museum of Art] A brief overview of the Chinese scholar elite. With eight related works of art from the Museum’s collection.

The Confucian Classics and the Civil Service Examinations [Asia for Educators] An in-depth overview of the civil service examination system and its relationship to Confucianism. Part of a larger unit about religion in late-imperial China.

 
 

From the point of view of those taking the examinations, however, fairness was crucial. They wanted to be assured that everyone was given an equal chance and the examiners did not favor those they knew. To increase their confidence in the objectivity of the examiners, the Song government decided to replace candidates’ names with numbers and had clerks recopy each exam so that the handwriting could not be recognized.

Scholars in and out of the government regularly debated what should be asked on the examinations, but everyone agreed that one element should be command of Confucian texts. Candidates were usually asked to discuss policy issues, but the examinations tested general education more than knowledge of government laws and regulations.

Candidates even had to write poetry in specified forms.

To prepare for the examinations, men would memorize the Confucian classics in order to be able to recognize even the most obscure passages.

In Song times exam success came to carry such prestige that the number of men entering each competition grew steadily, from fewer than 30,000 early in the dynasty, to about 400,000 by the dynasty’s end. Because the number of available posts did not change, a candidate’s chances of passing plummeted, reaching as low as one in 333 in some prefectures.

Men often took the examinations several times, and were on average a little over 30 when they succeeded. The great majority of those who devoted years to preparing for the exams, however, never became officials.

 

For Further Reading

• “Tu Yen,” in A Compilation of Anecdotes of Sung Personalities, translated by Chu Djang and Jane C. Djang (St. John’s University Press, 1989), 265-73.

 

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