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Culture insider: China′s ancient gaokao system

The annual China′s national college entrance exam, or gaokao, is set to take place this weekend, and many parents see it as an opportunity to help their child change his or her destiny.

But how did people in ancient China manage to change their destiny? Basically - they would take the imperial examination, or keju, which began during the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618) and lasted for 1,300 years before it was abolished in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Keju, the earliest "gaokao", played a very important role in selecting qualified personnel to work for the imperial court.

The photo shows a model of an examination hall for the keju exam in ancient China. Photos: IC

This photo shows a test paper for the keju exam in the Qing Dynasty, which was found in Suichuan county in Jiangxi province.

What did it test?

The keju examinations were mainly based on classical literature and philosophy. Poetry was very important in earlier keju exams, and later keju versions focused more on essay writing.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the tests mainly concerned the "Four Books" - Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects and Mencius - and the "Five Classics" - Classic of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Changes, Book of Rites and Spring and Autumn Annals.

All candidates had to write a composition explaining ideas from those books – using a particular form and structure, which was called Eight Part Essay. Two sentences were required at the start of the composition, concerning the main idea of the title, which was called "to clear the topic".

Several sentences were then required to clarify the meaning of the topic, which was called "to continue the topic". The remaining part centered on the topic in the form of parallelism and antithesis. The ideas had to conform to the Four Books and the Five Classics. Liberal ideas were unacceptable.

The exams also focused on more practical matters, such as policy questions concerning taxation and statecraft.

Pocket notebooks used to help someone cheat during the imperial examination in ancient China.

The process of the ancient imperial examination is performed in Langzhong, Sichuan province on September 25, 2013.

How was the examination conducted?

The examination was held once every three years and it consisted of four levels: the county examination, provincial examination, academy examination and palace examination. Candidates had to first pass one level in order to take part in the next level. Each examination would take from one to three days to complete, and candidates were locked in a small cubicle and received cold meals.

Most candidates in ancient China had to go a long way to the capital city for the exam. As transportation in ancient times was not developed, they usually went to the capital on foot, and some took several months to reach their destination.

Most candidates were scholars of very limited financial means who wore simple clothes and carried their books, writing brushes, ink sticks, paper and food with them on their way.

On the exam day, candidates had to first go through a sort of security inspection – like at today′s gaokao, but without electronic machines. They had to let their hair loose so that it could be checked and their trouser legs, shoes and socks, even bottoms were also checked

This photo shows a model of exam rooms for the keju exam in ancient China.

The photo shows a model of an examination hall for the keju exam in ancient China.

How was the exam graded?

Different titles were awarded to people at various levels of the exam - with special titles for those who performed particularly well. People who passed the county level examination were called xiucai (or shengyuan). Those who passed the provincial, academy and palace examinations were called Juren, Gongshi and Jinshi, respectively.

The top three Jinshi were called Zhuangyuan, Bangyan and Tanhua. All the Jinshi would be given a post by the emperor.

It was considered a great honor, for an individual and his family, to be selected for an official government position at any level after passing the imperial examination.

Competition between imperial examination candidates was extremely tough. Sometimes, two to three million people were tested twice a year at the local level - and only about 150,000 would progress to the provincial level examination. About 6,000 would then take the capital level examination.

The most coveted title was Zhuangyuan - so the ancient scholars who were named Zhuangyuan were considered to be genuinely talented intellectuals, and the emperors wanted their daughters to marry a Zhuangyuan.

The process of imperial examination in ancient China is performed in Kaifeng, Henan province on May 13, 2012. The process of imperial examination in ancient China is performed in Kaifeng, Henan province on May 13, 2012.

A man holds up a paper used to help someone cheat during the imperial examination in ancient China.

About cheating

In ancient times, there were many instances of cheating – in different forms. Some high officials and noble lords would bribe chief examiners. In addition, as there were no identity cards and no photos, there were various schemes offering services, such as someone – called a Qiangshou - to sit the exam on behalf of the candidate. 

In the late Tang Dynasty, the most famous Qiangshou, a gifted scholar called Wen Tingjun, helped eight people complete the exam during one imperial examination session.

The most commonly used method of cheating at the time involved copying the "Four Books" and "Five Classics" on thin paper and hiding the paper in writing brushes, under ink stones, in shoes, belts, clothes, candles - and even steamed buns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This photo shows a test paper for the keju exam in the Qing Dynasty, which was found in Suichuan county in Jiangxi province. [Photo by Li Fangyu/Asianewsphoto]

 

What did it test?

The keju examinations were mainly based on classical literature and philosophy. Poetry was very important in earlier keju exams, and later keju versions focused more on essay writing.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the tests mainly concerned the "Four Books" - Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects and Mencius - and the "Five Classics" - Classic of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Changes, Book of Rites and Spring and Autumn Annals.

All candidates had to write a composition explaining ideas from those books – using a particular form and structure, which was called Eight Part Essay. Two sentences were required at the start of the composition, concerning the main idea of the title, which was called "to clear the topic".

Several sentences were then required to clarify the meaning of the topic, which was called "to continue the topic". The remaining part centered on the topic in the form of parallelism and antithesis. The ideas had to conform to the Four Books and the Five Classics. Liberal ideas were unacceptable.

The exams also focused on more practical matters, such as policy questions concerning taxation and statecraft.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2

Pocket notebooks used to help someone cheat during the imperial examination in ancient China. [Photo/IC]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The process of the ancient imperial examination is performed in Langzhong, Sichuan province on September 25, 2013. [Photo/IC]

 

How was the examination conducted?

The examination was held once every three years and it consisted of four levels: the county examination, provincial examination, academy examination and palace examination. Candidates had to first pass one level in order to take part in the next level. Each examination would take from one to three days to complete, and candidates were locked in a small cubicle and received cold meals.

Most candidates in ancient China had to go a long way to the capital city for the exam. As transportation in ancient times was not developed, they usually went to the capital on foot, and some took several months to reach their destination.

Most candidates were scholars of very limited financial means who wore simple clothes and carried their books, writing brushes, ink sticks, paper and food with them on their way.

On the exam day, candidates had to first go through a sort of security inspection – like at today′s gaokao, but without electronic machines. They had to let their hair loose so that it could be checked and their trouser legs, shoes and socks, even bottoms were also checked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This photo shows a model of exam rooms for the keju exam in ancient China. [Photo/IC]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This photo shows a model of exam rooms for the keju exam in ancient China. [Photo/IC]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The photo shows a model of an examination hall for the keju exam in ancient China. [Photo/IC]

 

How was the exam graded?

Different titles were awarded to people at various levels of the exam - with special titles for those who performed particularly well. People who passed the county level examination were called xiucai (or shengyuan). Those who passed the provincial, academy and palace examinations were called Juren, Gongshi and Jinshi, respectively.

The top three Jinshi were called Zhuangyuan, Bangyan and Tanhua. All the Jinshi would be given a post by the emperor.

It was considered a great honor, for an individual and his family, to be selected for an official government position at any level after passing the imperial examination.

Competition between imperial examination candidates was extremely tough. Sometimes, two to three million people were tested twice a year at the local level - and only about 150,000 would progress to the provincial level examination. About 6,000 would then take the capital level examination.

The most coveted title was Zhuangyuan - so the ancient scholars who were named Zhuangyuan were considered to be genuinely talented intellectuals, and the emperors wanted their daughters to marry a Zhuangyuan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The process of imperial examination in ancient China is performed in Kaifeng, Henan province on May 13, 2012. [Photo/IC]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The process of imperial examination in ancient China is performed in Kaifeng, Henan province on May 13, 2012. [Photo/IC]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A man holds up a paper used to help someone cheat during the imperial examination in ancient China. [Photo/IC]

 

About cheating

In ancient times, there were many instances of cheating – in different forms. Some high officials and noble lords would bribe chief examiners. In addition, as there were no identity cards and no photos, there were various schemes offering services, such as someone – called a Qiangshou - to sit the exam on behalf of the candidate. 

In the late Tang Dynasty, the most famous Qiangshou, a gifted scholar called Wen Tingjun, helped eight people complete the exam during one imperial examination session.

The most commonly used method of cheating at the time involved copying the "Four Books" and "Five Classics" on thin paper and hiding the paper in writing brushes, under ink stones, in shoes, belts, clothes, candles - and even steamed buns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

shows cultural confidence

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Socks hung out in Hangzhou′s new ′art zone′

Chinese girls crowned the ′Little Disney Princess′

Magnificent Maleficent

Milestones of Angelina Jolie

Exhibition showcases tea and wine culture

Angelina Jolie promotes ′Maleficient′ in Shanghai

Huading Film Awards held in US for first time

Magnificent Maleficent

Fan Bingbing, first Chinese actress in Barbie Hall of Fame

Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards

A feast of stones

Treats fit for a dragon

Mountain paradise


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