The Chinese essay exams for civil service selections were known as the Imperial examinations, which were instituted by Imperial Chinese to determine who among the population would be allowed to enter the state’s bureaucracy. The Imperial Examination System in China lasted from the founding during the Sui Dynasty in 605 to its demise near the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1905. These examinations lasted approximately 1300 years (Elman, 2002).
From the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) until the implementation of the Imperial Examination System, the majority of appointments were based on recommendations of prominent aristocrats and local officials who would recommend individuals who were predominantly of aristocratic rank. The emperor of Han, Emperor Wu, started the initial form of the imperial examinations, in which local officials would select various candidates to participate in an examination of the Confucians classics, from which he would select officials to serve by his side.
Later in the Three Kingdoms period, the imperial officials became responsible for assessing the quality of the talents recommended by the local elites. This system continued until Emperor Yang of Sui established a new category of recommended candidates for mandarinate in 605 CE (Ichisada,1976). This began an examination system, which was explicitly instituted for a category of local talents. This is generally accepted as the beginning of the Imperial Examination System.
Theoretically, any male adult in China, regardless of his wealth or social status, could become a high-ranking government official by passing the Imperial Examination, although under some dynasties members of the merchant class were excluded. In reality, since the process of studying for the examination tended to be time-consuming and costly (if tutors were hired), most of the candidates came from the numerically small but relatively wealthy land-owners.
However, there are vast numbers of examples in Chinese history in which individuals moved from a low social status to political prominence through success on the Imperial Examination. In the late Imperial China, the examination system and associated methods of recruitment to the central bureaucracy were major mechanisms by which the central government captured and held the loyalty of local-level elites. Their loyalty, in turn, ensured the integration of the Chinese state, and countered tendencies toward regional autonomy and the breakup of the centralized system.
The examination system distributed its prizes according to provincial and prefectural quotas, which meant that imperial officials were recruited from the whole country, in numbers roughly proportional to each province’s population. Elite individuals all over China, even in the disadvantaged peripheral regions, had a chance at succeeding in the examinations and achieving the rewards of holding office. The examination system also served to maintain cultural unity and consensus on basic values.
The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elites and ambitious would-be members of those elites across the whole of China were taught with the same values. Even though only a small fraction (about 5 percent) of those who attempted the examinations passed and received titles. Those who failed to pass—most of the candidates at any single examination—did not lose wealth or local social standing; as dedicated believers in Confucian orthodoxy, they served, without the benefit of state appointments, as teachers and managers of local projects, such as irrigation works, schools, or charitable foundations.
The examination takers were tested on their proficiency in the “Six Arts”. The “Six Arts” included scholastic arts (music, arithmetic, writing, and knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies in both public and private life) and militaristic which consisted of archery and horsemanship. The curriculum was then expanded to cover the “Five Studies” to include military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography and the Confucian classics. In this form, the examinations were institutionalized during the sixth century CE, under the Sui Dynasty.
These examinations are regarded by most historians as the first standardized tests based on merit (Man-Cheong, 2004). By 1370, the examinations lasted between 24 and 72 hours, and were conducted in spare, isolated examination rooms. The small rooms featured two boards which could be placed together to form a bed or placed on different levels to serve as a desk and chair. In order to obtain objectivity in evaluation, candidates were identified by number rather than name, and examination answers were recopied by a third person before being evaluated to prevent the candidate’s handwriting from being recognized.
The candidate who scored number one on the exams could be colloquially described as the one who “seized the head of Ao” (the legendary giant turtle whose legs hold the sky), or who “stood alone on the head of Ao”. The Imperial examination system was abolished with the foundation of the Yuan Dynasty, but was revived in 1315 by Emperor Renzong of Yuan. It thrived under both the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Taiping regime was the first in Chinese history to admit women as candidates in the examination system, although they abandoned the system later..
With the fall of the Qing in 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the newly risen Republic of China, developed similar procedures for the new political system through an institution called the Examination Yuan, one of the five branches of government, although this was quickly suspended due to the turmoil in China between the two world wars, such as the warlord period and the Japanese invasion. The Kuomintang administration revived the Examination Yuan in 1947 after the defeat of Japan.
This system continues in Taiwan along with the regime itself after loss of the mainland to the Communist Party of China. The Chinese Imperial examination system had extensive influence throughout East Asia. It was modeled by the Goryeo Dynasty and Joseon Dynasty in Korea until its annexation by Japan (Yang Guo-yi, 2005). The Chinese Imperial examination system had important influences on the Northcote-Treveyan Report and hence on the reform of the Civil Service in British India and later in the United Kingdom.
With the Chinese interest in assessing individual differences for thousands of years, the development of early psychological measurement to the arrival of modern psychometric techniques in the early 20th century followed. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970’s, the need for psychological measurement has been increasingly recognized particularly because of the need in the fields of clinical and educational practice. As a result, there are now many university courses for training testing professionals throughout the world.
Psychological testing is now used in education, mental health, and increasingly in personnel selection. The expanding market economy means that the effective process for selection of managers in business and industry are essential. As in many other scientific fields, progress in psychometric testing and psychological measure of individual differences will make an improvement to continued rapid economic progress in the 21st century.