Living in the Chinese Cosmos | Asia for Educators

The Confucian Classics & the Civil Service Examinations

Although the civil service examination system as such is perhaps more aptly categorized under “government” than “religion,” it is discussed in this unit to highlight the central role that the examination system played in the dissemination of the Confucian worldview throughout traditional Chinese society.


Imperial China was famous for its civil service examination system, which had its beginnings in the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE) but was fully developed during the Qing dynasty. The system continued to play a major role, not only in education and government, but also in society itself, throughout Qing times.

The civil service examination system was squarely based upon the Confucian classics and upon recognized commentaries on those classics. The examination system was the basic support for the ongoing study of the Confucian classics during late-imperial times and could be said to have been the impetus behind the school curriculum that was followed all over China, even at the level of the village school for young boys. (In imperial times educational opportunities were far more restricted for girls and women than were for boys. Some girls did get an education, but this was a minority.)

The Confucian tradition was institutionally upheld by the imperial state in a very direct way. The opening lessons in the curriculum that gave these children basic literacy were the Confucian classics and other approved texts. For a young boy, simply going to school meant beginning the early part of the very curriculum which, if he succeeded at every level, would propel him into the examination system. What this curriculum meant, among other things, was absolute mastery of key Confucian texts. 


The vast majority of boys did not participate in the examinations; in fact, a relatively large percentage of boys ended schooling no later than after the first five or six years. Some scholars estimate that as a result, as much as 40 percent of Chinese males at that time were literate. In comparison only around 10 percent of Chinese women were literate (“literate” in the fundamental sense of being able to read basic documents and not in the more advanced sense of being able to read the classical texts themselves). Having achieved this level of education, the vast majority of boys simply left school and went about their lives. This was true of boys from merchant as well as farming families. Only those from wealthier families or showing exceptional promise and having wealthy sponsors who were impressed by their potential could continue their studies and compete in the examination system. 


The civil service examinations were conducted at every level of the Chinese administrative hierarchy. The lowest level of the Chinese imperial administration was the county seat, and in the county seat one took the preliminary examination, which, if passed, qualified one to take the examination at the second level, which was at the prefectoral (district) seat. The third-level examinations were given in the provincial capitol, and the fourth and highest level of examinations were given in the imperial palace itself. In addition to his many other functions, the emperor was in fact the “grand tutor” of China. Theoretically, he was to proctor the palace exams, although in practice he sent someone to represent him in that capacity.

Those who passed the imperial palace examinations at the highest level (jinshi) became the most important people in China’s educated class immediately upon achieving that goal, and went on to become important members of the Chinese bureaucracy. Those who only passed at the provincial-level (juren) became part of an important provincial elite and held enormous power at that level. Many of these provincial degree-holders could be called to government service, though this was not automatic. Those who only passed at the prefectoral level (xiucai) had the most common imperial degree in China. The holders of this degree took positions of leadership in their villages and towns and also became school teachers, maintaining the very educational system in which they themselves had achieved success. 


The civil service examination system was an important vehicle of social mobility in imperial China. Even a youth from the poorest family could theoretically join the ranks of the educated elite by succeeding in the examination system. This assurance of success in the examinations dependent only on one’s ability rather than one’s social position helped circulate the key ideas of Confucianism -- concerning proper behavior, rituals, relationships, etc. -- through all levels of Chinese society. The hope of social mobility through success in this system was the motivation for going to school in the first place, whether one was the son of a scholar or a farmer. But even for the farmer’s son who did not do well enough to take the exams even at the lowest level, going to school had the major payoff of working literacy, and this literacy was acquired through mastery of the same basic texts that others who went on to pass the examinations at the highest level also studied. This curricular uniformity had an extremely powerful effect on Chinese society, and the major impetus for this uniformity was the meritocracy promoted by the civil service examination system.