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Ancient Imperial Exams with Modern Relevance
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The ancient imperial exams, on which the Chinese bureaucracy was built, continues to inspire modern talent.

The soaring popularity of the nation's civil service exam is a clear indication.

Last November's civil servant exam reportedly attracted 365,000 participants, a 47 percentincrease over the year before, with Beijing alone having 56,000 participants.

For each out of the 10,282 positions at State and provincial levels, there was an average of 35 competitors and for some positions the competitors amounted to even 2,000, local media reported.

But "today's exam-takers may not be able to imagine how important the system was for both ancient Chinese rulers and their subjects," pointed out Wang Yi, director of Jiading-based Lu Yanshao Art Museum.

In ancient times, the exams were virtually the only path to a privileged life for common people and that made the national keju competition extremely fierce.

It was common in ancient China for intellectuals to fall victim to the examination system after years of preparation.

Cheating became a big problem despite tough measures to prevent it. And passing the exams became the ultimate goal of schooling.

Most candidates tended to repeat the same topics, studying only for the exams' sake, rather than thoroughly understanding all the material.

Memorizing just enough to pass the exams, they could not put their knowledge to practical use.

Humiliated by a series of bitter defeats in the declining late Qing Court, China, then plagued by rampant political corruption and troubled by frequent foreign invasions, was forced to re-examine its education system, which was suffocating under the imperial exam system.

The keju system finally came to an end in 1906.

And that may partly explain why "in our past evaluation of the Chinese imperial examination system, there existed lopsided viewpoints," said Liu Haifeng, a renowned researcher of the imperial examination system.

"Many people talked of extreme cases such as ancient scholars going mad due to failure or unexpected success or the corruption during the examination process as the general situation, denying the role the system had in selecting talent," he said.

Obviously, such evaluation is a misunderstanding of the imperial examination system, he claimed.

"My point is, the imperial examination system is not an evil system but a good system. Today, we should treat the 'imperial examination system' as a neutral phrase," Liu said, adding that the methodology employed since 1994 by the Chinese Government to manage the public service sector has its roots in the nation's ancient imperial examination system.

Far-reaching influence

"The examination systems employed in most countries are copied from the British system. And the origin of the Britain's examination system actually came from China," stated Dr Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), forerunner of the Chinese democratic revolution, in his Five-Power Constitution.

Under this arrangement, Sun assigned a separate body to supervise the exam process, called the Examination Yuan, along with four other bodies, which were responsible for legislative, executive, judicial and supervisory powers.

Early in 1621, a book titled "Anatomy of Melancholy" published in Britain created panic among the aristocracy. Author Robert Burton challenged the privilege enjoyed by the aristocracy, suggesting the introduction of China's imperial examination system.

Two centuries later, in 1855, the civil official examination system was officially established in Britain.

"It is widely acknowledged by Western scholars today that China's imperial examination system exerted direct influence on the modern civil service examination system in the West," said Li Shiyu, a guest-visitor to the exhibition and researcher with the Institute of History under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily February 23, 2006)

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