Skip to content

China’s Imperial Exam Hell (Overview & History)

    China’s imperial examinations shaped the lives of millions for over a millennium.

    Studying and taking them was like a mental ultra-marathon. Some described them as ‘hell’.

    detail from studying by wang fu
    Detail from Studying (Ming dynasty) by Wang Fu, hanging scroll, ink on paper, 119.8 x 40.1 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    What were China’s imperial examinations?

    China’s imperial examinations were one of several ways to select men for civil service positions in China’s empire (hence imperial).

    Early proto-versions of them existed in the 2nd century BC. But they began in a more complete form in 587 AD and ran for around 1,300 years until 1904 AD.

    They were an almost continuous presence in Chinese society, taking place every one to three years, depending on the specific exam level and dynasty. The only exceptions were pauses during wars, transitions between dynasties, etc.

    The exact curriculum and testing methods changed in some important ways over the centuries. However, the intense difficulty and competition involved remained constant.

    People prayed at temples dedicated to the patron of exams, a serpent named Wenchang.

    A successful candidate could bring honour to his family and gain a start in a career as an official in the civil service. 

    After all, up until the late nineteenth century, the civil service was still the most reliable (and prestigious) route to wealth in China.

    A [successful candidate] rides high in a carriage drawn by four horses, flag-bearers walk ahead, and a mounted escort behind. People gather on both sides to watch. Men and women rush forwards and prostrate themselves…

    Ouyang Xiu (11th century scholar-official and successful candidate)

    Some only passed in their later years and died shortly after taking office. But most did not pass at all, and instead fell into related jobs as teachers, secretaries of officials, merchants, etc.

    Mounted Official (1296) by Zhao Mengfu
    Mounted Official (1296 AD) by Zhao Mengfu, handscroll, ink and colour on paper, 30 x 52 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    Were the imperial examinations open to everyone?

    In theory, the Chinese imperial examination was – through most of its history – open to most men.  Types of men that were not allowed to enter it included: 

    • Men with criminal records
    • Daoist and Buddhist priests
    • Men with bad reputations (including being associated with an illicit trade, such as gambling)
    • Most (but not all) merchants

    In practice, the resources this intense education required meant that it was often – but not always – the sons of relatively families that became candidates.

    Types of imperial degrees

    The Sui dynasty established six different types of degree:

    • Understanding the Law (明法)
    • Understanding Calligraphy (明书)
    • Understanding Mathematics (明算)
    • Cultivated Talent (秀才)
    • Understanding the Classics (明经)
    • Presented Scholar (or Advanced Scholar) (进士)

    All except one of these degrees continued throughout all of the Sui and Tang dynasties. 

    The exception was the Cultivated Talent degree, which was so difficult and had so few graduates that it was discontinued much earlier. 

    The Presented Scholar degree, like the Cultivated Talent one, was based on a broad range of subjects. It also tested poetic abilities. Over time, it came to be the most prestigious degree.

    During the Song dynasty’s 1070s reforms, all degrees except the Presented Scholar degree were abolished.

    What did the imperial exams test for?

    The short answer is: 

    • Knowledge of the Thirteen Classics (see below)
    • Writing and literary ability
    • Critical thinking (within approved boundaries)

    Each of these points changed in important ways over time. 

    For example, what were considered the Confucian classics changed during the late Song dynasty (960 – 1379 AD).

    And critical thinking depended on the orthodoxy at the given time, as well as what specific examiner marked an exam.

    So, the longer answer requires looking at each period of Chinese history and what the exams were like during each one…

    Preparation for the exams

    Preparation often began at three years old with the learning of an ancient 25-character primer:

    上大人孔乙己化三千七十士爾小生八九子佳作仁可知禮也
    Let’s present our work to father. Confucius taught three thousand. Seventy were able gentlemen. You young scholars, eight or nine. Strive to attain benevolence, you will attain correctness. 

    The ‘Dear Father’ Primer

    Students then moved onto the One-Thousand Character Classic (ca. 6th century AD). Soon, those that could keep up were memorising 200 characters a day.

    By the time they were 15 years old, they were deeply familiar with over 430,000 characters of classical Chinese text.

    They were also capable of writing complicated formal essays and composing classical poetry.

    The curriculum of the imperial exams

    Lofty Scholar among Mountains and Streams
    Lofty Scholar among Mountains and Streams (Yuan dynasty) by Wang Meng, hanging scroll, ink on paper, 113.7 x 65.3 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    The Thirteen Classics

    The Thirteen Classics (十三经 [Shísān Jīng]) is a list of thirteen canonical Chinese texts. (‘经’ can be translated as ‘canon’ or ‘classic’).

    (They add up to thirteen words if the Three Ritual Classics are counted as three separate works).

    The Five Classics

    The Thirteen Classics includes all of the Five Classics (五经 [Wǔjīng]), which is a list of ancient texts used as a curriculum for the Imperial Academy from 124 BC onwards:

    • Book of Odes (or Book of Poetry) (诗经 [Shī Jīng]): A compilation of more than 300 poems of various genres
    • Book of History (书经 [Shū Jīng]): A book of political philosophy that is said to have been compiled by Confucius
    • Book of Rites (礼记 [Lǐ Jì]): A instructional book on ritual and etiquette
    • Classic of Changes (sometimes translated as I Ching or Yi Ching) (易经 [Yì Jīng]): A book of divination and cosmological treatise written during the Western Zhou (1027 – 771 BC)
    • Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋 [Chūn Qiū]): Records of the state of Lu (where Confucius was from) between 722 – 481 BC

    The Four Books

    The Thirteen Classics list also includes all of the Four Books (四书 [Sì Shū]), which is a list that would become more important during the Song dynasty:

    • The Great Learning (大学 [Dà Xué]): 
    • The Analects (论语 [Lún Yǔ]): The central Confucian text; a record of Confucius’ words
    • The Mencius (孟子 [Mèngzǐ]): A record of the words  and thought of Mencius, the second most important Confucian thinker after Confucius himself
    • The Doctrine of the Mean (中庸 [Zhōng Yōng]): Originally a chapter of the Book of Rites

    Others

    Finally, the Thirteen Classics also includes:

    • The Three Ritual Classics (三礼 [Sān Lǐ])
      • Rites of Zhou (周礼 [Zhōu Lǐ])
      • Ceremonies and Rites (仪礼 [Yí Lǐ])
      • Classic of Filial Piety (孝经 [Xiào Jīng])
    • Erya (尔雅 [Ěr Yǎ])

    And three commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals (from the Five Classics):

    • The Commentary of Zuo (左传 [Zuǒ Chuán])
    • The Commentary of Gongyang  (公羊传 [Gōng Yáng Chuán]):
    • The Commentary of Guliang (谷梁传 [Gǔ Liáng Chuán]):

    Knowing the these works well

    Exam candidates not only had to know these works off by heart (which exact ones depended on the dynasty). 

    They also had to be familiar with commentaries on them (and many other famous texts, too) and able to fluently articulate points about them that would impress examiners.

    The methods on how they did this changed over the centuries, especially early on. But after around 1200, they (the exam methods) became relatively steady for the next 700 years.

    History of the Chinese imperial exams

    Early Chinese civilisation: Origins of the imperial examinations

    Chinese civilisation emerged over 3,500 years ago in the regions around the Yellow River in what is today Northern China.

    The origins of many of the components of the imperial examinations lie in three main developments that occurred with this civilisation:

    One: The development of the Chinese written language

    Poetry written in seal script by Cheng Biao
    Poetry written in seal script by Chang Biao (Song dynasty). Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Palace Museum Open Data)

    The term ‘Chinese language’ can refer to modern Mandarin or a range of different dialects.

    The earliest known sophisticated form of Chinese writingOracle Bone script, dates back to the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600 – ca. 1045 BC). It involved early Chinese characters written on animal bones and tortoise shells.

    It then evolved over the centuries with the emergence of writing tools that shaped Chinese writing methods and appearance.

    Written Chinese enabled the elites of competing Chinese states to communicate between themselves.

    Initially, it was for religious (divination, ceremonial) or practical purposes (registers, tax records, official announcements and communication, etc.). But it eventually began to be used to express other ideas.

    Two: The emergence of Chinese philosophical thought

    China’s ‘classical age’ took place over approximately 1,000 years, between the 800BC – 200 AD. This roughly corresponds with the time of Classical Greece (Socrates, Plato, etc) and the late Roman Republic.

    During this time, Chinese thought began to emerge. It is now known as a period of ‘One Hundred Schools’ – i.e., many (one hundred) schools of thought.

    This includes Legalism, Daoism, Mohism, and many other philosophies. However, the most important one in many ways, including for the later examinations, was Confucianism.

    Many of the classic texts that both Confucianism and the imperial examinations would be linked to were written during this time.

    The Analects was written by Confucius’ followers nearly a century after his death. It influenced later attitudes to education and studying – even if only in ideal and not practice…

    It provides an essentially humanist system of thought. And it argues that only through individuals’ moral development can states’ political situations improve. This made it ideal for civil service preparation.

    子曰:“知及之,仁不能守之,虽得之,必失之 […]
    Confucius said: “The power that can be retained through knowledge but cannot be retained through goodness will certainly be lost in the end […]

    Analects (15.33)

    Three: The formation of a Chinese empire

    China was first unified in the short-lived (approximately 15 years) Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BC). When it was, a process of updating and unifying the written language, civil service, and culture followed.

    These projects advanced further during the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD)

    During this time, special examinations were occasionally used to recruit officials, both in the capital and in regional cities. 

    But overall, officials were mainly recruited via local recommendations and hereditary posts for elite families. This encouraged detailed keeping of genealogies 

    A new kind of Confucian orthodoxy also emerged. When the dynasty collapsed, this orthodoxy faded and competed with Daoism, Buddhism and other schools (including ‘dark studies’) across the fragmented kingdoms and dynasties.

    Until the Sui dynasty…

    The Sui dynasty (589 – 618 AD): The first imperial exams

    The Sui dynasty lasted for just under 30 years and two rulers.

    Yet its impact was profound

    It unified China for the first time in centuries and implemented policies that would last for centuries. This included the Grand Canal (a project which likely contributed the dynasty’s collapse) and, of course, the imperial exams.

    The Sui rulers wanted to introduce a more meritocratic system of recruitment. So initially, they replaced some hereditary posts with a system of recommendations (with quotas of three men per administrative region) and interviews.

    This turned into an examination system – the first imperial exam took place in 604 AD. This featured a written exam on a classic text. 

    Just a few years before this, in 601, the scholar Lu Deming (c. 556 – 630) published his Annotations on the Canonical texts (经典释文), which was both a dictionary and commentary on the Thirteen Classics.

    The Tang dynasty (618 – 907): Limited but evolving examinations

    Detail from Discussion Between Confucius and Bu Shang by Ouyang Xun
    Detail from Discussion Between Confucius and Bu Shang (Tang dynasty) by Ouyang Xun, ink on paper, running script, 25.2 x 16.5cm. The Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    Tang dynasty exams were initially only open to a narrow and northern aristocratic elite. Only 6% to 16% of officials reached office through this route. 

    This meant a matter of only dozens of candidates going into office each year – in an empire with a population of about between 50 – 80 million people.

    Examinations were held annually, but only in the dynasty’s capital of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi Province). And candidates needed to provide references from five officials in order to take part in them.

    Candidates and examiners would meet many times before exams. The former would provide the latter with samples of their work, too.

    The idea was for examiners both make a direct assessment of candidates’ characters as well as form a mentor-student relationship.

    However, during the dynasty, migration to the south grew, as did its influence and population. Two main factors drove this:

    This increased the pressure for a more merit-based examination system…

    Evolving Tang exam methods

    Tang examinations did develop over the dynasties’ nearly three centuries.

    Early on, four criteria were emphasised for candidates: 

    • Physique
    • Speech
    • Literary composition abilities (essays on the Five Classics, current affairs and poetry composition)
    • Calligraphy

    As the number of candidates grew, it no longer became practical for examiners to review all of these criteria, so the last two became more important.

    Poetry and calligraphy played crucial roles in the exams. The Tang dynasty remembered today as having probably the greatest poetry and finest calligraphy in Chinese history

    Tang exam curriculum

    The early Tang dynasty emperor Taizong (598 – 649 AD) realised early on that unity was needed in the education of officials. He helped establish the importance of the Five Classics.

    Unlike later dynasties, there was no official commentary on the classics. This was obviously dangerous for rulers as it risked unfavourable interpretations of current events emerging…

    In 638, Taizong had Yan Shigu (581 – 645 AD) set up a committee to devise an official commentary. This project was completed in the 653, in the Correct Meaning of the Five Classics (五经正义).

    Increasing demand, marriage and graduation ceremonies

    Exams were not the primary route to office in the Tang dynasty. But demand for them increased as people noticed the prestige and success they brought.

    They became so important that between ½ and ⅔ of candidates were guaranteed a pre-agreed marriage with an elite family’s daughter upon success. Marriage celebrations were even incorporated into the graduation ceremonies.

    These ceremonies also featured successful candidates being given special robes and praising examiners with poetry (and sometimes tears…). They also inscribed their names on a pagoda at Chang’an’s Mercy Temple.

    The Five Dynasties period (607 – 960)

    Details from The Night Revels of Han Xizai
    Details from The Night Revels of Han Xizai (ca. 970) by Gu Hongzhong, handscroll, ink and colour on silk, whole piece is 28.7 x 335.5 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Five Dynasties period (also known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period) was a time of short-lived and competing dynasties.

    Despite this, Chinese culture and education remained intact. Landscape painting even markedly developed into the form that would reach its peak in the early Song dynasty.

    No imperial examinations took place, but the ongoing drive towards more meritocratic selection for office progressed.

    Of particular importance was the loss of prestige in genealogies and the decline of the culture of Tang aristocratic patronage.

    The Song dynasty (960 – 1279)

    Auspicious Cranes by Huizong Emperor
    Auspicious Cranes (1112 AD) by Huizong Emperor, section of a handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 51 x 138.2 cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The Song dynasty is remembered today for how it restructured Chinese society and rule (the term ‘Chinese Renaissance’ is often used). This includes education.

    Many officials and military men were still chosen based on recommendations. However, the dynasties increasing emphasis on civil over military rule made the examinations useful for selecting new talent.

    There were now eighteen classes of official (as opposed to eight during the Tang). And the number of exam candidates increased from dozens (in the Tang) to the hundreds each year.

    The Song empire’s landmass was smaller than the Tang one had been. But its population was larger (about 100 million at its height) and its economy and bureaucracy were more sophisticated.

    So too, was the examination system. During the Tang, there had only been one exam. But During the Song, there were two:

    • An initial Prefectural Examination (or Preliminary Examination) (解试). Those who passed became ‘presented men’ (or ‘graduates’) (举人)
    • Departmental Examination (省试) held in the capital (Bianliang – today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province). Those who passed this received a presented-scholar degree.

    Degrees for the elderly, the young, and the exceptional

    The figure of an elderly exam graduate still attempting to pass the imperial exams was well-known throughout Chinese history.

    During the Song dynasty, a Special Facilitated Degree (特奏名进士) was awarded to many of these gentlemen.

    Promising young boys were awarded a Youth Course (童子科) degree. And other Special Decreeexaminations were created to help further asses and promote (or justify promoting) candidates who showed particular promise.

    The Three Sus: A family example of examinations

    Letter to the Filial Guo Tingping by Su Shi
    Letter to the Filial Guo Tingping (1071 AD) by Su Dongpo, ink on paper, running script. 26.5 x 30.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source:  National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    Sun Xun (1009 – 1066 AD), was a scholarly silk merchant that wanted to become an official. 

    After failing the imperial exam three times he burned his practice essays and didn’t think re-applying for a decade.

    In 1056, when he was about 47 years old, he wrote to the official Ouyang Xiu (1007 – 1072 AD). In his communications, he sent samples of his writings. 

    Ouyang came from a poor background and become an official after passing the imperial exam on his third attempt, aged 27. He went on to become one of the highest-ranking officials and most respected writers in the empire.

    There is not a man in the entire empire, sir, who does not know of your writing.

    – Su Xun, letter to Ouyang Xiu

    Through Ouyang’s recommendation, Su Xun was given a special exam that enabled him to become an official. 

    At the same time, Su’s two sons took the imperial exams. His youngest, Su Zhe (1039 – 1112 AD) passed and became an official. He was ranked one of the highest candidates in the empire. 

    And Su Zhe’s elder brother, Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD) was ranked the highest exam candidate in the empire for his year. He was then given a Special Decree examination for further assessment.

    The elder brother Su’s examination essays had been on:

    • Famous historical figures (20 essays)
    • Governance of the people (6 essays)
    • Staffing bureaucracies (6 essays)
    • Principles of government (5 essays)
    • On Maintaining Perfect Balance (3 essays)
    • Military preparation (3 essays)
    • Military strategy and border relations (3 essays)
    • High-ranking ministerial positions (2 essays)
    • Trade and finance (2 essays)

    Ouyang, who was also an examiner, had read Su Shi’s essays and remarked that the young candidate would ‘surely lead the literary world one day.’

    He was correct.

    The Southern Song (1126 – 1279AD) and Jin (1115 – 1234 AD) dynasties

    166 years into the Song dynasty, the Jurchen-ruled Jin dynasty invaded and took control of northern China.

    (The Jurchens were from the north east of today’s China, they would later name themselves the Manchu and establish China’s final imperial empire, the Qing dynasty)

    The Song emperor Huizong (r. 1100 – 1125 AD) abdicated shortly before he was kidnapped and taken to the North of China, where he died a decade later. The new Song emperor and government relocated to Hangzhou.

    The Southern Song, as it later became known, continued on as normal with exams. In fact, they expanded the number of candidates and official positions despite now having a smaller population.

    Meanwhile, the Jin dynasty continued the exams, too. This enabled figures like Yelü Chucai (1190 – 1244 AD), an ethnic Khitan, to emerge later on and assist the Mongols in running a Chinese bureaucracy.

    The Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368)

    Detail from Kublai Khan Hunting
    Detail from Kublai Khan Hunting (1280 AD), hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 182.9 x 104.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Alamy)

    The Mongols took over Northern China in 1234 and southern China in 1279. Their propaganda proclaimed that they had done a positive thing by unifying China.

    But – to the annoyance of many Chinese – the Mongols cancelled the exams for about thirty-five years. They preferred recruitment through recommendation.

    They also generally preferred recruiting northern men over southern men, who they saw as more uncooperative. After all, the northern Chinese had already adapted rule by none-Chinese since 1115 AD.

    The venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254 – 1324 AD) even distinguished Manzi (Southern China) and Cathay(North China) in his writings.

    The great (southern) Chinese official Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322 AD) helped persuade the Mongols to reinstate the imperial exams in 1315.

    The Mongols ensured that Han Chinese candidates made up only half of the candidates. The other half were Mongol and other non-Han Chinese ethnicities.

    Of the Han Chinese half, a quota was given of half being from Northern China and half from Southern China.

    This was despite the fact that the south’s population of Han Chinese was larger (there had been approximately a 60/40 split between them a century before).

    The Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644)

    The imperial exams resumed a couple of years after the founding of the Ming dynasty.

    Though this was a Chinese-ruled dynasty, a distinction was still made between the northern and southern Chinese.

    This caused problems for many candidates and officials…

    The Hongwu Emperor (real name Zhu Yuanzhang) (1328 – 1398 AD) was the Chinese ruler that replaced the Mongols. 

    In many ways, he no less fierce than they had been. And he kept many features of Mongol rule.

    For example, he wanted to maintain the status quo of relative numbers of northern and southern Chinese in power. But in the first Ming dynasty national-level imperial exam, in 1371, southern Chinese won ¾ of all degrees. 

    So, Hongwu suspended the exams for nearly the next decade and a half.

    When they resumed, in 1385, the same ratio continued to appear. Eventually, in 1397, a year before his death, Zhu ordered a checking of exam papers after the top fifty-two successful candidates were all southern.

    The recount changed nothing. So, Hongwu had two of the examiners executed.

    (Their deaths can perhaps be added to the tally of around 40,000 officials he had had killed in his recently ended fifteen-year purge). 

    Northern candidates were given every advantage by the government for centuries after, including assistance with school placements and quotas. By 1435, the quotas for successful candidates were set:

    • 55% northern candidates
    • 35% southern candidates
    • 10% candidates from the Huai River Valley (a region between north and south)

    The importance of Zhu Xi’s commentaries

    Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200 AD) was a Southern Song scholar-official who left behind a large body of philosophical writings and commentaries on the classics. He particularly emphasised the primacy of the Four Books.

    Towards the end of his life, Zhu Xi’s teachings had been heavily criticised by his powerful political rivals. He was demoted and a petition for his execution was even circulated.

    But eight years after his death, his reputation and writings were revived. He soon became the third or perhaps second most influential figure in Confucian thinking (after or alongside Mencius).

    (Confucius was still, of course, number one…)

    Zhu Xi’s edited commentary on the Four Books continued to gain influence throughout the Yuan and Ming. Tens of Millions of students repeatedly read, memorised, and thought over his words.

    Books must be read to the point of intimate familiarity. A so-called book is just a book. But our tenth reading of it is different from our first reading. And our hundredth reading is different from our tenth reading. 

    From Conversations with Master Zhu

    In 1404, the Yongle Emperor (1360 – 1324 AD) commissioned an official version of Zhu Xi’s edited Four Books and accompanying commentaries. It was published in 1407, and so for the following centuries became enshrined in the Chinese curriculum.

    The eight-legged essay

    The eight-legged essay is a type of academic essay that followed a strict form:

    1. Splitting open the topic (破题 [pò tí]): Two sentences of no strict form. The meaning of the subject at hand is outlined
    2. Undertaking the topic承题 [chéng tí]: Four or five sentences of no strict form. The writer’s understanding of the topic at hand is more precisely defined
    3. Starting to talk 起讲 [qǐ jiǎng]: Regular writing, no fixed length. Discussion begins. 
    4. Initial leg起股 [qǐ gǔ]: Four or five, or eight or nine, paired sentences of the same length. Arguments are made. 
    5. Middle leg中股 [zhōng gǔ]: Paired lines, no fixed length. Topic at hand discussed further and in-depth
    6. Hind leg后股 [hòu gǔ]: Paired lines, no fixed length. Elaborating on arguments made so far.
    7. Final leg 束股 [shù gǔ]: Two or three, or three or four, paired lines. Concluding arguments. 
    8. Conclusion大结 [dà jié]: Free form, no fixed length. Conclusion of entire topic and points made.

    It had its roots in earlier forms of essay from the Song dynasty. But it wasn’t until 1487 that it became an official part of the imperial exams.

    The Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911)

    During the Qing dynasty, the imperial exam system reached its most sophisticated – and final – form.

    Millions of boys across the empire (now at its largest ever size and population) went to various schools to master the knowledge and skilled required. 

    Manchu candidates

    Portrait of Uksiltu by Anonymous
    Portrait of Uksiltu (1760 AD) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, Dimensions (?). Collection of Dame Dora Wong, OSJ. (Image source: Wikipedia commons)

    The Qing dynasty was founded by the Manchus (descendants of the Jurchen, who had ruled the Jin empire across northern China). 

    This distinct ethnic group, from today’s north east China, had established a basic examination system of their own before taking over China. 

    After taking over China, they initially alternated between banning Manchus from taking the imperial exam to encouraging it.

    They created generous quotas, rules, and even special exams for Manchu candidates. One of the latter was the ‘translation examination’ where candidates translated between Manchu and classic Chinese texts (which many had likely already memorised). 

    One of the only additional challenges they faced which Han Chinese students didn’t was the archery test. They were tested from standing and horseback positions.

    As time went on, this initially token requirement became a more formidable and strategies to avoid it (e.g., bad eyesight) became increasingly predictable. In 1775, of 125 Manchu bannermen who were to take the metropolitan examinations, 73 claimed to be nearsighted – but at least 20 of these were shown to be shamming.

    The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China, Mark C. Elliot (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 204 – 5

    Examinations held by rebels during the Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864)

    Hong Xiuquan (1814 – 1864 AD) failed the imperial examinations three times as a young man. Not long after, he was turned down for baptism by a western missionary, too.

    But Hong didn’t give up on life. He went on to found a cult (based on the fact that he, Hong, was the younger brother of Jesus) and rebellion which almost overthrew the Qing dynasty.

    So, he nearly had the last laugh…The story of his rebellion should be saved for another day.

    But what is noteworthy is that during the midst of it, special Taiping examinations were held. They swapped Confucian texts for translations of the bible and transcriptions of Hong’s speeches.