New College of the Humanities

China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China

China invented the civil service examinations, at least 1,000 years ago, by which men who had memorised the classics were admitted to government administration by correctly answering written questions. In theory any Chinese, except for brothel keepers and one or two other outcasts, could sit the examinations, which were a stupefying ordeal during which some went mad and others died, and since the papers were numbered to preserve anonymity, social background theoretically played no part in success.

For a millennium, until 1904, the Chinese Emperor recruited his top aides by this means, and he examined the topmost candidates himself.

Western specialists have studied the effects of these examinations on Chinese society and politics. They play an equally important part in Chinese poems, operas and stories, and an eighteenth century novel, The Scholars, available in English, shows the dynamic effects of examination success on a poor provicial.

Ichisada Miyazaki's study, first published in 1963, and here entertainingly translated by Conrad Schirokauer, is a wonderful combination of erudition and wit, by a leading Japanese historian who concentrates on the civil service and military examinations of the last 250 years.

Miyazaki demonstrates that despite its abuses, the ideal of an examination system open to all and fairly marked was a democratic one, not observed in Britain and the United States until the late nineteenth century. In China, from the tenth century it limited the ability of the aristocracy and the military to dominate political life. But he observes, too, that the examinations strengthened imperial autocracy (the Emperor now commanded professionals utterly loyal to him rather than to high-ranking families or powerful army units), and that preparation for them was so arduous and long that very few of the poor could afford to take them.

This is a concise and entertaining study of one of the cornerstones of the traditional Chinese state.

China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China

Yale University Press, 1981; 144pp.

  • Jonathan Mirsky is a specialist writer on China for The Observer.
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