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The two wives test and the biggest exam in history

THIS WEEK, A RECORD number of people applied to join the Chinese government. Some 2.12 million individuals registered to take the guokao, the civil service exam. That’s 400,000 more candidates than last year. Good luck to them – and the teachers having to grade all those papers.

Government exams are a huge thing in China. If you include local level civil service exams, an estimated nine million people will try to join the authorities this year. It’s extraordinarily competitive.

But at least candidates don’t have to deal with angry princess sisters, winds and flood, as China’s first examination candidate had to. The origins of the ancient Chinese exam system can be traced back to ancient mythology.


More than 4,000 years ago, during the reign of Emperor Yao, a great flood forced many of the people of China to move to mountain tops. The floods failed to drain away, and misery continued for many years.

The Emperor had no confidence in his sons to solve the problem, so he asked the Four Mountains (personified as deities) to take over. They declined, but recommended a humble man named Shun.

Emperor Yao leaves his royal carriage to speak to a humble farmworker named Shun. Picture painted by Kusumi Morikage in the 1600s, Cleveland Museum of Art

Emperor Yao devised a series of tests for Shun to make sure that he was capable. He made Shun marry both of his daughters at once, to see if he could maintain peace in a difficult situation.

And then he sent Shun out to stormiest, most weather-beaten parts of the kingdom to see if was physically strong.

Shun passed the tests. The ancient documents don’t provide detail about how he managed to maintain the peace between his two sister-princess wives.

He eventually became Emperor—and then instituted exams every three years to make sure government staff were people of merit. The connection between exams and attainment in China had begun, and would never fade.


While historicity and mythology often mix with each other, it’s clear from ancient records from the Zhou era, which began in 1046 BC, that some form of examination system was in use by then.

In 140 BC, the works of Confucius were made required reading for people undergoing civil service entrance exams (and he would remain on the syllabus for the next two millennia).


But these early tests were conducted at local levels. The first appearance of the more formal, organized, imperial examination system was in the Sui dynasty: Emperor Yang (隋煬帝) introduced it in AD 605 to recruit state officials.

This system was more fully developed by leaders in the following Tang and Song dynasties and that’s when it became the major means for the selection of officials throughout China.

Palace examination at Kaifeng in the Song dynasty: public domain picture, dating back to the 17th or 18 centuries

The exams were mainly divided into three levels: provincial, metropolitan and imperial. The top one, the imperial examination, was presided over by the incumbent emperor in person. 

By that time, Chinese education had developed into a complete teaching-learning system which included government-run and private schools. The focus on the development of education in the Song dynasty led to the dramatic rise in importance of the Shuyuan (書院) or academy of learning. Under this system, education was no longer the preserve of the upper classes.


The imperial examination was a highly competitive endeavour and passing it required hard work. Tens of thousands of candidates entered it every year but only a few passed with honors. Crowds of hopefuls would gather to see if their names were listed on a scroll posted outside the examination hall.

The main subjects on the curriculum were the classics of Confucius, as had been established centuries ago. The outstanding candidates took a series of examinations and were awarded the honorary title of Jinshi (進士). The top three candidates in imperial examination were conferred as Zhuangyan (狀元), Bangyan (榜眼) and Tanhua (探花) respectively.

Those candidates who scored outstanding results in the highest-level tests, the imperial examinations, were appointed as central government officials.

Many brilliant officials, including Fan Zhongyan (范仲淹), a prominent statesman and literary figure, and Wang Anshi (王安石), an economist and poet who served as chancellor, moved to political prominence during the Song Dynasty through success in the imperial examination.


Like the best educational systems everywhere, the Chinese examinations have had many foreign students. Over the centuries, numerous scholars from East Asian nations travelled to China to learn about the famous Confucian classics.

The “expats” also had the opportunity to serve as officials after scoring good results in the imperial examination system. For example, Japanese scholar Abe Nakamaro (阿倍仲麻呂) passed the imperial examination and was appointed as a high-ranking official during the Tang dynasty. 

Some took the system home with them. In Korea, an imperial examination system was embraced for the selection of the most talented candidates in the ancient Goryeo dynasty (高麗王朝) which ruled the country in the period leading to the late 1890s.

Teacher and pupils preparing for exams in Korea. Image is Seodang (서당:書堂), by Danwon, and is about 200 years old: public domain

In Japan, during the Heian period (平安時代) from 794 to 1192, the country also adopted a similar examination system, and maintained it for some 200 years.

China’s imperial examination system also influenced the establishment of civil service examination systems implemented in India and in England in the 1800s.


In the Ming dynasty, the imperial court introduced a mandatory answer format, known as the eight-legged essay (八股文), and confined examination subjects to the Confucian classics, without additional scientific and technological subjects. The term “eight legs” (literally “eight bones”) referred to an essay composed in a standardized structure with eight elements in a specific order.

It came to be the only way to answer examination questions, thereby leading to the stultifying of the quality of education. In the late Qing era, national development became stifled, and the imperial examination system was abolished in 1905. 


But over the preceding 1,300 years, the examination system had produced hundreds of Zhuangyuan (top level graduates), 110,000 graduates with Jinshi degrees, and millions of graduates with Juren degrees. It led to the stability and provided one of the major pathways for social mobility in Chinese society.

Today, it has been replaced by the guokao. China has an exemplary system of examinations for the selection and promotion of civil servants. It not only plays a great role in selecting the most capable people to work in government, but also creates a positive link between the community and governance of the country.

And of course, civil service examinations can be found around the world these days.

But probably none of them require candidates to marry two princesses at once.

FOR MORE STORIES about Chinese history and culture, click here.

Image at the top by Akshay Chauhan/ Unsplash


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