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A Window on China's Past: Imperial Examination System

A special exhibition featuring the Chinese imperial examination system, which is on display at the Shenzhen Museum until May 29, provides a special opportunity for city residents to learn more about Chinese culture.

Sponsored by the Shanghai Jiading Museum, the exhibition showcases more than 300 artifacts, pictures and models relating to the imperial examination system.

The exhibition includes six parts: evolution of the system, education and the system, imperial examination procedures, historical personages, international influence, and selected calligraphic works by champion scholars.

One of the most valuable relics on display is the answer sheet by Zhao Bingzhong, who won the Champion Scholar title at a palace examination in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Zhao's answer sheet is the only one of its kind extant today.

The Chinese imperial examination system was a method to evaluate ability and select officials in dynastic China on the basis of merit rather than social position or political connections. The origin of the system can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220).

At the exhibition, visitors can see a mural painting from a tomb dating back to the Han Dynasty, that was found in Inner Mongolia, depicting the promotion of official candidates.

In 581, when Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) unified China, he abolished the nine-level official promotional system to withdraw the right of official selection to the royal court.

When Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty succeeded in 605, he established the first literary subjects for civil service examinations to select officials, thus initiating the reformulation of the civil service examinations into an imperial examination system.

In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), this system was preserved and gradually systemized. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the number of exam subjects were greatly expanded and a series of methods was also adopted to make examinations more impartial, such as sealing examinees' names on paper, blocking the examination site during the exam, and separate evaluation of each answer sheet by three different examiners.

Imperial examinations consisted of province- and state-level exams, which were held every three years nationwide.

In 973, in the reign of the first emperor of the Song Dynasty Zhao Kuangyin, the palace examination system was introduced, in which the final round of state-level examinations was overseen by the emperor in person.

The winners at a palace exam were determined according to their scores and classified into three levels.

The top three candidates in the first level were respectively known as Zhuangyuan (champion scholar), Bangyan (runner-up) and Tanhua (third place).

Imperial examinations in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) focused mainly on the Confucian classics annotated by the famous scholar of Zhu Xi (1130-1200) of the Song Dynasty. This remained the same in the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

In the Ming Dynasty, the royal court confined examination subjects to the four Confucian classics and their commentaries, and adopted a mandatory answer format known as the eight-part essay.

The Qing Dynasty followed the imperial examination system of the Ming Dynasty on the whole, and developed it into a standardized and strict system.

But, with further historical development, the decline of the system was unavoidable because it placed overwhelming emphasis on the Confucian literary canon, and didn't include any scientific and technological subjects.

In 1905, during the reign of Emperor Guangxu in the late Qing Dynasty, the imperial examination system was finally terminated under public pressure.

In feudal Chinese society, imperial examinations were almost the only opportunities for intellectuals to realize their political ambitions.

In the 1,300 years of imperial examination history, more than 100,000 state-level scholars and more than one million provincial scholars were appointed.

From the Tang Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese imperial examinations attracted many foreign candidates, who not only passed related exams but also were granted official titles and positions.

Japanese candidate Abe Nakamaro came to China in 717 during the Tang Dynasty. After passing the imperial examination, he was appointed an official and he worked and stayed in the country for the rest of his life.

His monument still can be found today in the Xiangqing Park in Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi Province.

The Chinese imperial examination system exerted a profound and far-reaching influence on traditional East Asian and modern Western civil service examination systems.

Japan and South Korea imported the Chinese system and renovated it to fit their particular needs.

Vietnam held its own imperial examinations to select officials for more than 1,000 years.

In the 16th century, European missionaries began to export the Chinese imperial examination system to the Western world.

Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the modern Chinese democratic revolution, affirmed the modern civil examination system in France, Britain and the United States was borrowed from China.

Sun once spoke highly of the system as "the oldest yet best one among all systems all over the world for selecting talented candidates."

According to Yang Jun, curator of the Shanghai Jiading Museum, the museum has been endeavoring to collect artifacts and documents connected to the imperial examination system since the early 1990's.

At the end of 2005, the Shanghai Jiading Museum would change its name to the Chinese Imperial Examinations Museum and become the country's only museum specializing in the imperial examination system, Yang said.

(Shenzhen Daily May 24, 2005)

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