The imperial examinations (科舉, kējǔ) in dynastic China determined positions in the civil service, which had promoted upward mobility among the people for centuries. It also made a gap between intellectuals educated in classical Confucianism and ordinary people. However, in some dynasties imperial examinations were abolished and official posts were simply sold, which increased corruption and reduced morale.
In order to ensure objectivity in evaluation, candidates were identified by number rather than name, and examination papers were rewritten by a third person prior to being evaluated, in order to mask the applicant's handwriting. The examination system was abandoned for a time in the Yuan Empire and the Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping, and completely after the fall of the Qing Empire, although similar institutions and procedures, such as the Examination Yuan in the Republic of China (on Taiwan) continue to exist.
Exam candidates gather around the wall where the results had been posted. (c. 1540)
In late imperial China the status of local-level elites was ratified by contact with the central government, which maintained a monopoly on society's most prestigious titles. The examination system and associated methods of recruitment to the central bureaucracy were major mechanisms by which the central government captured and held the loyalty of local-level elites. Their loyalty, in turn, ensured the integration of the Chinese state and countered tendencies toward regional autonomy and the breakup of the centralized system. The examination system distributed its prizes according to provincial and prefectural quotas, which meant that imperial officials were recruited from the whole country, in numbers roughly proportional to a province's population. Elites all over China, even in the disadvantaged peripheral regions, had a chance at succeeding in the examinations and achieving the rewards of holding office.
The examination system also served to maintain cultural unity and consensus on basic values. The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elite and ambitious would-be elite all across China were being indoctrinated with the same values. Even though only a small fraction (about 5 percent) of those who attempted the examinations passed them and received titles, the study, self-indoctrination, and hope of eventual success on a subsequent examination served to sustain the interest of those who took them. Those who failed to pass (most of the candidates at any single examination) did not lose wealth or local social standing; as dedicated believers in Confucian orthodoxy, they served, without the benefit of state appointments, as teachers, patrons of the arts, and managers of local projects, such as irrigation works, schools, or charitable foundations.
Examination hall with 7500 cells, Guangdong
In late traditional China, then, education was valued in part because of its possible payoff in the examination system. The overall result of the examination system and its associated study was cultural uniformity - identification of the educated with national rather than regional goals and values. This self-conscious national identity underlies the nationalism so important in China's politics in the 20th century.
The degree types are as follows in the Qing:
- shēngyuán (生員) pseudo-bachelor degree, administered at the local level each year
- jǔrén (舉人) pseudo-masters degree, administered at the provincial level every three years
- jěnshě (進士) pseudo-doctoral degree, administered in the capital every three years
The degree types are labeled as "pseudo-xxx" degrees not to denegrate their content, but to point out that while they may roughly correspond to Western conceptions of bachelor, master and doctoral degrees, one should not let the parallels go too far, as they had different content, different methods of instruction and very different social functions.