“If you fail an examination, it means you have not yet master the subject. With diligent study and understanding, you will succeed in passing the exams.”

Lailah Gifty Akita, Pearls of Wisdom: Great mind


Are you tired of memorising contents which you are going to be tested on? Are you tired of squeezing notes you had taken down into your brain? Are you sick and tired of exams which has prime impact to determine your future? If your answer is “yes” to all questions (ALL MY ANSWERS IS YES), THEN! Have you wondered the origin of exam, why it still plays an important role in our society now? Examination system had already existed longer than we can imagine. It began in Sui () dynasty (581-618CE) and was fully developed during Qing () dynasty (1644-1911). After researching, our group changed our perspectives towards “Exams”, instead, we accept why it should continue to exist in society today (Can’t really say love it, but more neutral? Maybe?). Our group believes why exam is still main criteria to assess our performance and determine our future. A fair system where one can prove his ability through his work. Result will reflect how much efforts you had put in for exam. Most importantly, it serves as the most acceptable reason why one is employed for a higher position in some areas.

Levels of examination system (Confucius Exam)

System of Imperial Examination, or Keju (科举) in Chinese, became method which talented people were recognized and selected for future positions in civil service. Once examination ('keju') evaluation system was introduced, children from poor families had opportunities to attend government exams, which enable them to bring honor to their families. (Previously, only the riches can work for the governments). With Imperial Examination System, everyone had equal opportunity to be recognised and serve country.

Imperial Examination was conducted at every level of Chinese administrative hierarchy. In total, there are three different levels of examinations. First level is named xiang shi (乡试), which means candidates will take exams in their local town. It is held once every three year, having three rounds of exam in a year, and every round lasted for three days. Candidates who passed the exam are called ju ren (举人). Top student is addressed as jie yuan (解元) while 2nd place to 10th place are titled ya yuan (亚元).  These 10 candidates from each town will be qualified for second level of examination known as hui shi (会试). Huishi was held the year after xiangshi at provincial. The process was same as xiang shi. It has three rounds and each lasted for 3 days consecutively (I will faint if I am one of the candidates in that time). Those who passed the exam this time will be addressed as gong shi (贡士) while the top is named as hui yuan (会元). All the gong shi will be qualified for the third level of examination known as dian shi (殿试). Dian shi will be held on the same year as hui shi, the last level of exam, held at court. The question will be set by the emperor. Only one question for the exam, testing on solutions for certain problems the country has faced. All candidates are given one day to answer. Candidates who passed will be categorized into three groups (san jia, 三甲), first group only has three persons, who are the top three. First place named zhuang yuan (状元), second as bang yan (榜眼) and third named tan hua (探花). Second group have many people, they were all known as jin shi chu sheng (进士出生). And third group will be addressed as tong jin shi chu sheng (同进士出生). Those who make it to the last level of the exam, are going to take up different positions in government, having power and responsibility to ensure stability and prosper of the country.


Significance of Confucius Exam


We realised it actually took candidate four years to complete exam (not considering those who fail). We all know that four years is not short, but why are people willing to devote their time for this examination? The major reason is examination is seen as the only way to prosperity for the people in the ancient time (especially poor) to gain power and fame. Through enhancement of examination system, it helped attain allegiance of previously under-represented regions, alleviating frustrations of literati, and encouraging education in various locales. Even people in remote corners of the empire would focus on their studies to pass imperial exams, and thus developed nucleus of elite bureaucrats useful from the perspective of control by central government. Equality within empire was emphasized.  

Another reason why imperial examination is crucial in ancient society as it shaped China’s intellectual, cultural, and political life. It is responsible for a dynasty paradigm shift from military aristocracy to gentry’ class of scholar-bureaucrats. What they believe was if county is over-reliance on military aristocracy, it could mean war is the only solution to disputes between countries. However if country shift to gentry class of scholar-bureaucrats, it could means people are more likely to solve disputes in peaceful manner to obtain social stability.

In 681, written test on knowledge of Confucian classics was introduced. Candidates were required to memorize these works and fill in the blanks. This ensures everyone studied the same content for imperial examinations. Since exams were based on knowledge of the classics and literary style, successful candidates were generalists who shared common language and culture, even those who failed. This helped to unify the empire and the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule.

However, critics argues that exam only focused on knowledge but not practical experience that deals with real life problems. They purely learnt knowledge but lacking of skills and experience for application. Also Critics charged that system stifled creativity and created officials who dared not defy authority. However, it is never a doubt that imperial examination serves as classical education system which was essential and suitable for selection of elites to serve imperial state at its highest echelons, even though it based on non-technical moral and political theories. Moreover, it is certain that classical examinations were effective cultural, social, political, and educational construction that met the needs of dynastic bureaucracy while simultaneously supporting late imperial social structure.

Education was key to success and highly regarded in traditional China. Even till today, examination systems which was similar to imperial examination still exist. It remained to have great impact to society. Our modern examination in Singapore, (different country has different form of examinations) making sure each of us went through education system, and ensuring that everyone went for different level of examination like PSLE, O’ LEVEL, A’ LEVEL, are like different level of examinations in ancient times: the district, provincial, and metropolitan levels. It remained significance to shape society and formed common identity among country. Through exams, we learn to succeed. We are able to engage our strengths and weaknesses.  It recap knowledge we learnt, and form foundation for higher level of skills and abilities.