The World’s First Exams

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The Mandarin civil service was one of the constants of Imperial China, dating back to at least the Zhou Dynasty (1027 – 256 B.C.). Initially, its officials were hired exclusively based on recommendations and family connections, but soon exams were instituted to assess the viability of these candidates for different ranks and offices. By the Sui (A.D. 589 – 618) and Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), the world’s first formal, open exam system was in place. While it did not achieve the meritocracy to which it supposedly aspired, this would have always been difficult for a ground-breaking initiative. Its impact may only have been limited to a small section of the Chinese population, primarily the officials and the urbanites, but it led to significant social changes for these groups and laid the groundwork for the wide-ranging systems to come.

Since their inception, the exams placed a great emphasis on ancient Confucian philosophy and politics, which focuses on personal ethics, self-cultivation, rituals and tradition. The educations of men destined for civil and bureaucratic service were almost entirely focused on Confucius’s (550 – 479 B.C.) teachings. Thus, a symbiotic relationship existed between Confucianism and the civil service: the bureaucrats’ guiding principles were drawn from his philosophy, and their omnipresence in Imperial China ensured that the philosopher and his thinking remained in high esteem.

The very first exams for entry to the civil service were instituted in 136 B.C., by Emperor Wu of Han. He established a state university for the exclusive study of the Confucian Classics, which formed the core of all examinations until the civil service’s eventual abolition in 1905 (although which texts were considered Classics did change over time). By A.D. 1, 100 students a year were entering the civil service this way – out of around 30,000 students at the imperial academy at any one time.

Prospective examinees were only eligible if they were noble, and required recommendations from both provincial officials and their schoolmasters – if they were fortunate enough to go to school. Even then, passing the exam was not a formal route to office; those who scored highly often fared no better than the worst performers, and connections and recommendations remained of primary importance. These exams were not an avenue for brilliant minds to get into the civil service, instead merely testing those predetermined to have a post.

The short-lived Sui Dynasty in the late 6th Century, the first to unify China in almost three centuries, made the first modifications to this system. Three different tiers of exams were created: those for classicists; cultivated talents; and the jinshi exam for the ‘presented scholar’. This system was inherited and continued by the Tang (618 – 907), with additional, separate literary, legal and mathematical exams that qualified candidates for specific posts.

The jinshi degree was the most prestigious of these degrees, serving first as a fast track, and later as a prerequisite, for high office. Throughout the whole Tang Dynasty fewer than 50 a year were awarded. Empress Wu (690 – 705, de facto 665 – 705) promoted the importance of this degree in attaining top jobs. As a woman and usurper of the throne from the imperial Li family, she was hated by the Li and their traditional allies in the great families from the northwest. These powerful families also made up much of the upper bureaucracy. Therefore, she widened the pool of eligible candidates to include lower gentry and commoners. She also increased the importance of the top-level jinshi degree to fill the high ranks of the civil service with men loyal to her, increased the number of jinshi graduates per year and graduated more men from the east and northeast, as opposed to the northwest, the home of the Li family and its allies.

While it may seem that accession to the civil service was more meritocratic, in fact the exams themselves institutionalised the importance of connections. The examination process was a lengthy one, often lasting several months, with candidates expected to present samples of their literary work to the examiners and converse and socialise with them. The aim was to deliberately personalise, rather than anonymise, the exams, thereby ensuring that future officials were wise rather than simply well-taught and well-read.

This left the system open to favouritism, bias and abuse. Candidates would also present their writing samples to powerful ‘patrons’ in the imperial capital, Chang’an, where the examinations took place, hoping to secure their favour. Patrons would lobby for their desired candidates vociferously. In some years, the complete list of successful candidates was drawn up before the formal examination had even taken place.

Noble families were obsessed by the prestige of these degrees. The so-called great families had distinguished themselves from the other wealthy, landed gentry through their history of imperial service, and so to maintain their social status they had to achieve senior bureaucratic posts. Under the Tang, the best way to do this was through the examination system. All the best schools and connections were in Chang’an, and so the great families abandoned their provincial landholdings to their less prestigious relatives that had not achieved office and relocated to the capital. This was an option not available to many of the local gentry that had little power or recognition in the capital.

Overall, this may lead one to believe the examination system was not meritocratic, and indeed it was not (by modern standards) due to these systemic issues. However, the ethical principle that appointments should be on the basis of talent had triumphed, even if the competition for such appointments still only existed amongst a narrow elite. The bureaucratic aristocracy had exchanged family names for family positions, gained through exams, as the currency of status.

Truer meritocracies did exist within Tang China, on the frontiers where competence was necessary. The regional military governors in the northeast, in constant competition with one another, needed to have the best men in their senior posts, else they would be defeated. Thus, they effectively professionalised their armies.

Equally, in the economically booming south, a new frontier with little central government presence, the Salt and Iron Commission, which controlled the monopolies, was able to professionalise its institution, hiring based on specialised financial, not classical and bureaucratic, expertise. Successful merchants came mainly from lower-class backgrounds due to the social stigma, and they were often hired for their skill with money. Thus, talented men of humble backgrounds could achieve real power. This unpretentious attitude was partially responsible for the Commission eclipsing the civil service in efficiency: it became the main source of revenue for the whole imperial administration, and eventually the shadow government of the region.

The improved efficiency of these institutions over the civil service might suggest the exam system was actually a failure, or at least relatively less successful. While this is hard to dispute, at that time the cultural idea of preferring ability over recommendations and family names was one that has its foundation in the civil service exams, and so even institutions separate from, and more successful than, the administration were indebted to the exams.

For the privileged few that did participate in the examination system, their experiences in the capital created important relationships. The Chang’an schools, the Academies of the Sons of the State and of the Four Gates, were so superior to those in the provinces that any serious candidate would attend them for years prior to taking examinations. Future officials spent this time meeting patrons who could initially assist them, but the centralisation of exams in Chang’an meant the most prominent officials became acquaintances when they were peers studying for their degrees, and some formed friendships and alliances that would last them their whole political careers.

Much of this fraternisation occurred in the pleasure districts of the capital, most notably the Northern Hamlet, a short distance from the imperial academies. Wealthy young men, with freedom from their families or any responsibilities, spent time and money indulging the hedonism to be found there, supporting a vibrant underground economy. The courtesans were entertainers as much as they were prostitutes, and their success was determined as much by their skill in hosting, music and poetry composition as by their beauty. The constant banquets and feasts in the pleasure quarter were at their most loose and enjoyable here, and so the young men attending forged more personal bonds than they would in more formal settings.

The final key relationship that would emerge from their time in the capital for candidates was that of marriage. A man who passed their examination, most particularly with a jinshi degree, became a coveted husband and son-in-law. Many patrons offered their help to prospective protégés on the condition that, should they pass the exam, they would marry their daughter. Over half of all successful candidates were confirming a betrothal when they passed their exam, and many men saw an elite marriage as at least as important a benefit of a degree as their future civil service post. 

It was not only Chinese nobles that came to the capital to seek a degree. Many nobles and princes of foreign nations that had tribute relations with China, including Japan and the Korean states, were sent to Chang’an to learn literature and government. In 640, princes from Japan, Tibet and the Korean states were all studying at the imperial academy at once.

Japan particularly, at that time a fledgling state, made great use of this education. They first established contact with China in 630 and sent a number of students to study Confucian philosophy and Chinese government as if they were taking the jinshi. By 646, a series of sweeping changes, known as the Taika Reforms, were implemented in Japan, centralising government under the control of the Emperor, creating a census and changing the tax system all on the model of the Tang government. The examination system was not solely responsible for this adoption of Chinese ideas, but it was the mechanism through which they were transmitted.

The Tang examination system was one of the world’s very first – it was pioneering, and, though imperfect, its impacts were important and commendable. Its value was not limited to administration: the exams fostered, and formed a part of, a vibrant urban culture; and reformed ideas of status in society more generally. Furthermore, the education system for these exams helped spread Confucian ideas to the nascent states of East Asia. While the meritocracy was not complete, the Confucian idea of the ‘ethic of merit’ took hold due to the exams, and this cultural background lay the groundwork for the more extensive, more successful examination system of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), such that by the early Song, anonymous exams were taken by hundreds of thousands, and ranks awarded for that alone.

“If through ability a servant becomes useful and serves as a minister to the prince, is he necessarily the son of a famous old family? As for somebody with no ability, even if he is the son of a famous old family, what does it matter now?”

Liu Kai, Song bureaucrat, 996

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Fairbank, J. & Reischaeur, E., 1989. China: Tradition and Transformation. Allen & Unwin.

Lewis, M.E., 2012. China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.