Founded in the Sui Dynasty in 605, the Chinese government used the imperial examination as a merit based system to appoint its officials. The imperial examination was also called the keju. Prior to the examination, imperial leadership appointed civil servants based on connections or family status; the test provided a means for any person in China with ability to attain a government post. However, considerable time and money had to be invested for a person to prepare for the exams, so even though testing was open to a person from any class, mostly wealthy, land owning people could afford the time and money to study for the test. Women would not be afforded the opportunity to take the test until the mid-nineteenth century, during the Qing Dynasty.
Testing took place every three years; it took between 24 to 72 hours to complete the test and examinees would be locked into rooms with only the test, a bed and a desk in order to ensure no cheating took place. Test takers were questioned on Confucian Classics, military strategy, geography, taxation, civil law and agriculture. Exams had varying levels of prestige starting at the county level, then the provincial level, the national level and finally the palatial level. As the test takers climbed the imperial examination ladder, a more thorough knowledge of subjects became necessary. The rate of passage on the exams was very low and some historians have cited 2% as the passing rate.
An entire industry revolved around how to pass the test and some unscrupulous merchants sold small crib sheets, booklets and fans that concealed test answers. One booklet found in Qingdao is 2.5 inches wide and 2 inches tall, and can easily fit into a matchbox. Merchants created shirts that had test answers sewn one the inside of the garment as well. Some test takers presented bribes to graders in order to pass tests.
In order to combat some of the unscrupulous behavior taking place, officials hired copyists to clone test takers answers to another piece of paper in order to prevent graders from providing more lax grading to individuals they knew and liked. In addition, test takers were assigned numbers so their names would not be known by graders.
Eight legged essay was a component of the imperial examination during the Ming and Qing dynasty; it consisted of eight parts, allowed only 700 characters and was invented by Wang Anshi. The Eight legged essay required test takers to allow only a certain amount of sentences in each part. Knowledge of Confucius’ Four Books and Five Classics were often the subject of the essays.
Many families purchased charms to be a source of good luck for aspiring officials to prepare for the test. Kuixing was known as the God of Examinations; he was an unattractive man with short horns and a brush in his hand. The name Kuixing literally translates to that of Chief Star. Commonly, he is shown standing on a large sea turtle.
As mentioned before, the odds of passing the test were statistically low and many failed the test for years, still attempting to pass it in the elderly age. Occasionally, aspiring officials committed suicide because they felt they had brought shame to their families for their lack of success.
After the Boxer Rebellion in 1905, the imperial examination system ended during the end of the Qing Dynasty. It had lasted for 1300 years in Chinese culture and left an indelible imprint on the importance of testing to achieve success in the Middle Kingdom. During its use, the exam created the ruling elite in China and served as a way of unifying the country’s educational system.