The Chinese Examination System; Getting Things Together In the Song Dynasty

by bria4123 on April 12, 2012


He’s learning American pop idioms well.

But during Imperial times, he might have been sweating over the examinations. While Europeans were building the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, China’s great Song Dynasty (960-1279) unified its intellectual landscape with the examination system. Let’s see how its thought differed from Europe’s.

The first Song emperors, Tai Zu and Tai Zong, reunified China after the Tang Dynasty disintegrated. But they didn’t have the stable aristocratic class of the Tang dynasty to help them run things. They needed to create a large cohort of competent officials, so the Song Dynasty expanded the imperial examination system, and made it into one of China’s greatest institutions.


A young man who passed the exams could look forward to a privileged life as an official. Families with girls were always on the lookout for someone who passed the exams. Higher level officials didn’t have to pay taxes on their own land, and they were exempt from torture if they got tangled in a legal case. But the road to the good life was hard.


Kids enrolled in examination schools for several years, memorized Confucian literary classics and learned the subtleties of composing poetry. When they were ready for the exam, they went to a hall. Sometimes their bodies were searched from head to toe for secret aids before they could enter.

Inside, the chief examiner sat behind a curtain. As candidates’ names were called, they sat on mats on the floor, and guards supervised them. Students couldn’t talk to each other, or bring food or beverages. If they were thirsty, they had to drink from the water for their ink stones.

One man called Li Gou wrote that a boy may be praised in his town for his smarts, but he’s in prison in the examination hall, wide-eyed and speechless. But if he made it through the stress, he would be a leader during one of China’s most glorious periods.

In the next post, we’ll look more closely at the society that students were about to enter, and how people in the Song dynasty considered their world to be unified.


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