Charts & Graphs

How to Qualify for an Imperial Chinese Civil-Service Exam

A step-by-step guide.

From the medieval Song dynasty until the late Qing reforms of 1905, aspiring imperial Chinese bureaucrats had to pass a series of increasingly challenging tests to be considered for an esteemed government position. The first major hurdle was the yuan-shih, an annual examination to determine which students in each province would be allowed to advance to the next stage of the qualifying process.

  • Figure at podium with upraised arms in front of four figures

    1 The provincial director of studies arrives several days before the exam and delivers a public lecture on the Confucian classics.

  • Large figure with microscope examining four smaller figures

    2 The morning of the exam, candidates assemble in front of the examination hall and are inspected for forbidden materials, such as cheat sheets and bribe money.

  • Four small figures bowing before large figure holding papers

    3 Candidates enter the hall in groups of twenty and bow before the prefect. Guarantors verify each candidate’s identity, and papers are handed out.

  • ID card next to four numbered figures

    4 Candidates find their assigned seats and write their names on removable labels torn from their exam booklets. To ensure fair grading, candidates and their answer sheets are now identified only by seat number.

  • Figure writing at desk with clock above

    5 The exam begins. Candidates have two hours to answer the first question, on the topic of the Confucian classics.

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    6 Candidates are given a second question on the Confucian classics and are asked to compose a poem on a given theme.

  • Figure writing while bent over desk with clock above

    7 Around one or two pm, clerks announce that it is time to prepare clean copies.

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    8 Around three or four pm, clerks announce that it is time to start submitting.

  • Four figures next to a cannon

    9 When a candidate is ready to submit, he hands in his paper, receives an exit pass made of bamboo, and waits by the gates. Once fifty candidates have assembled, the group is permitted to leave, accompanied by three cannon shots.

  • Figure with head down holds paper with stamp

    10 The last departure takes place around five pm. Candidates who have not finished receive incomplete stamps on their papers.

  • 11 Two days later, results are announced by seat number. Students who earn high enough scores begin the second session, and the process repeats for the third and fourth sessions.

  • Four figures looking at writing on a wall

    12 After a ceremonial procession, the prefect posts examination results in the great hall of the temple of Confucius within the school compound.

  • Figure at podium with upraised arms next to four smaller figures with upraised arms

    13 Successful candidates meet with the director to express gratitude, and congratulatory announcements are sent to inform their families that they have been admitted to the district school to continue their studies.