The photograph above depicts a series of stone tablets in Shawan Ancient Village (沙湾古镇) erected during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The 9-foot monuments were placed in the town square to commemorate the high marks of local citizens who participated in the Imperial Examination. With its first debut during the Sui Dynasty around 605, the Chinese Imperial Exam became the primary means by which administrative officials were elected to serve in the state bureaucracy. For those who may have lacked an interest in politics, the exam was also a way to improve one’s status in society— no matter how poor of a background a man came from, his level of intellect as demonstrated by his performance on the examination could win him respect and honor within his local community or even the nation at large. The Imperial Examination witnessed various alterations throughout each dynastic period but remained the primary means for social mobility until its termination in 1905.
By the time of the Ming Dynasty, the tests generally lasted between 24 and 72 hours. Test-takers sat in isolated examination rooms where they re-wrote entire ancient texts and poems from memory. The content of the test initially included the “Six Arts”– arts, music, arithmetic, writing, and knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies in both public and private life— before expanding to include the “5 Studies”— military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography, and the Confucian classics. The examination content did not vary across regions and thus served to reinforce a nationwide consensus on Chinese cultural values and promoted a harmonious, unified empire.
On average, no more than 5% of test takers scored well enough to receive titles of merit. Some men spent their entire lives in preparation only to return home time and again without a trace of recognition. The Chinese Imperial Exam is credited by historians as being the first standardized testing system in the world based solely on merit. The exam has also contributed to China’s consistent emphasis on education, which remains strikingly evident in the unparalleled respect granted to teachers in Chinese society today.